Saturday, December 14, 2013

Politics & Family – Cognitive Dissonance, The Stockholm Syndrome, and the Challenge to Cultural Evolution

If we're ever going to resolve to face the problems of our increasingly divided planet, we'll have to get busy right away. The biggest problem we face isn't just with wealth inequity and the "one percent" we rarely see, it's with the twenty-seven percent of our fellow citizens we know quite wellIn fact, some may be friends or family members we must constantly interact with, and it's a real challenge to confront deep pathological divisions with those we ought to love the most.

It's pretty clear that the obstacles preventing cultural equanimity and responsible stewardship of our country and our planet are generated by multinational corporations, whose financial power is based on perpetuating destructively anachronistic systems of resource management and social division. That's quite a mouthful, isn't it? Toppling the entrenched power structure would be a lot to bite off all at once, and couldn't be done quickly without making a real mess, so what's the most expedient way to go about it?

Saying that it starts with you and me may sound silly, since we probably all started changing a long time ago. The real problem we have is in convincing all those beautiful people that don't agree with us. People who for some crazy reason seem to think fascism and environmental destruction are good ideas. Let's start with some awareness about what we're up against, namely certain difficulties that are part of human nature.

Cognitive Dissonance is the official name given to that sad tendency of people to join in efforts and opinions that are actually harmful to their own circumstances, usually to allow them to dissociate from uncomfortable truths. It's kind of a volatile [and dependable] character glitch, and as such is often exploited. Patriotism, religion, racism, xenophobia, financial and sexual insecurities are all activators of Cognitive Dissonance. So you see Washington think-tanks and Wall Street corporate advertisers using them aggressively, and very effectively.

"Ignoring one's...self-interest may seem a suicidal move to you and me, but viewed in a different way it is...a sacrifice to a holier cause."

Thomas Frank, What's Wrong With Kansas?

At it's worst, in terms of the political divisions in our country, Cognitive Dissonance can engender "The Stockholm Syndrome" – the pathological identification of a victim with their tormentors. A 2007 FBI Hostage Barricade Database study indicated that in 73% of abduction and kidnap cases the victims did not develop Stockholm Syndrome, which leaves a very substantial 27% subject to the irrational, self-destructive tendency to side with their exploiters. Not coincidentally, that's quite close to the number of people who identify themselves as Republicans. If you don't, you are part of the substantial 73% majority. (See: FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 7/2007, Vol.76, #7)

But what can we do we do to change those minds? You know that when you try to convince someone they're wrong about something obvious, their Cognitive Dissonance kicks in, their warped defenses arise, and there's little chance of moving them an inch. In fact, they feel even more strongly that they are right, and though you may be sincerely trying to help, they become even more convinced that your intentions are subversive and threatening. Unfortunately, a lot of human beings operate from that fearful dynamic, that "partisan pathology." It's a destructive mental illness we haven't quite figured how to cure yet, but the original designers of Fox News, and generations of Republican operatives to follow, have perfected how to manipulate it through ever more media outlets.

So we've got to take a careful, even therapeutic approach – a healing approach; and as healing is a spiritual activity, when we talk about "cultural evolution" we're really talking about our mutual spiritual evolution, which is the source of all the solutions to our deepest challenges. That's where it does start – with just you and me. In short, we use Love, and Time – Compassion, Honesty, Forgiveness...all that good stuff.

Even though a friend or family member has identified with destructive, irrational influences, we do still share mostly common ground with them. Kindly, calmly maintain sane boundaries – stand your ground – but never engage in the energy of confrontation. Let them be right if they need to be, and often in that quiet moment of irrational "victory," the folly of their delusion resonates uncomfortably and gives them a chance to realize the power of your point – that the fault really comes from a manipulative third party that they don't have nearly as much in common with as they have with you. But it all takes time – we can't rush it.

Practice restraint and let things go; but be reliable – Show up for family commitments, remember special occasions, be available to help – expecting nothing in return. Sincerely be there for them (without ever being patronizing), as though it were for a person you were helping recover from a painful injury. Make your arguments subtly, by personally demonstrating that your point of view reflects good character in every other facet of your life, aside from your politics or philosophy.

Caring, consistent, and compassionate action will support any point you want to make much more effectively than a documented factoid or a raised voice. If you can be an example of reason and sanity, then the 99% of what you have in common will solidify in their experience. When we're not trying to win, the calm understanding and honest, fact-based considerations we occupy carry the profound power of a more truthful engagement in life, on every level. The real insanity becomes much more obvious, in comparison to the sanity grounded in spiritual principles.

Ultimately we are dealing with the pathology of trauma and dissociation which is such a profound part of every persons personal karma, which cannot be changed from outside the troubled soul, but only from within – through that person's awareness. Only by applying your own awareness of these complex issues with compassionate identification (life is hard for everyone), soon you may be surprised to find that generosity of spirit can enter the heart and mind of the very person who was at one time so vehemently set against you. With that we might "occupy" the Red States, the less fortunate, the middle class, the upper middle class, the Independents, the "moderate" Re-publicans (are there any left out there?) We might even occupy "The Right" and the 1%... After all – we are all the same thing: the large 73% majority of heart-based "Radical Left-Wingers." 
In the meantime, VOTE like all Life depends upon it!

"Spiritual power moulds physical and material conditions, but spiritual power is never in a hurry.

White Eagle, The Quiet Mind

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Nicest Way to Do the Holidays: Smile and Change the World

"None of the means employed to acquire religious merit...has a sixteenth part of the value of loving-kindness. Loving-kindness, which is freedom of the heart, absorbs them all; it glows, it shines, it blazes forth."

The Buddha, Itivuttaka Sutta

That's quite a precise break-down of the power of being nice, don't you think? I wonder how he knew? I tried it out myself at one time and I never looked back, so I'll pass it along to you as something of a challenge: The challenge to show as much sincere kindness as you possibly can to everybody you meet. It's kind of a tall, but not impossible order, and can help quite a lot at this time of year – what with all the demands on your holiday cheer.

Of course The Buddha knew the difference between being spiritual and being religious – that it's a little like comparing apples to Christmas ornaments. Going to church defines you as being a type of "believer," while showing loving-kindness to everyone you meet makes you more of a "practitioner"– after all, in the world we live in you're really less what you look like and think you are, and much more what you actually do and how you behave.

Take this little holiday challenge and try it yourself, from now through the new year, and watch what happens. You'll suddenly find yourself a part of a slightly invisible conspiracy of kindness. Of identification and compassion. Friends you never knew you had will show up everywhere, and then disappear just as beautifully and mysteriously – leaving you with only the one requirement, to continue the chain of kindness.

First you'll be amazed, then you'll wonder, then you'll experiment more intentionally, then you'll probably never go back. It's that remarkably powerful, and will change your world that much. You can't help but be grateful for the really wonderful way people treat you when you show them unconditional loving-kindness. Then you'll find you're happy all the time, because gratitude always precedes happiness.

How does it work so well (sixteen times better...)? Simply because being kind to others takes the focus off of who your (very important) ego thinks you are, and places it on someone else's well-being – which as it turns out is really yours too. It will become easier and easier to show unconditional Love all the time, because Love is all unconditional already – it only becomes conditional when self-importance makes demands of it.

We all want Love and companionship. Compañero. We're all the same person, really. "No we're not!" your ego says, "I'm not at all like Donald Trump!" (God bless 'im) Well, I'm sure that's true, and you may have a bit of a point after all, namely, should everyone get the same lovingly kind treatment, no matter how big of a jerk they are? Well, dammit, ideally yes they should (now that's "tough love"). But if that level of unconditionality is impossible, then let's look for a rule of thumb to go by:

"Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked."

Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, 1.33

So three out of four ain't bad. Just don't pay no mind to the nay-sayers of the world. Better yet, see if you can find some Love in your heart for them, because that's how we will all evolve together. We're all becoming more and more able to share in the medium of Love that actually lives just beneath, swims all around, and courses right through us. It's the solution staring us in the face all the time– that reflected look of a stranger waiting for kindness. Gratitude and compassion are the doors to realizing it in every moment, and when we're kind to everyone we meet, all the time, we open up to this force of evolution that's flooding our plane of existence. We're opening the gates to it for ourselves – and for each other.

"Heaven arms with Compassion those whom it would not see destroyed"

The Tao te Ch'ing, 67

And for you competitive types who may see kindness as something of a disadvantage, kindness is actually a winning strategy. There's lots of people out there who've known it all along, you know, usually the people who are enjoying life, and almost always smiling. Compassion doesn't prevent them from being successful – it enables them to find spiritual realization, which is the real definition of success. To remove the obstacles to Love, and to  expand and grow and flow with Life.  Ho ho ho!

Take my holiday challenge, won't you? Turn your frown upside down and look into the nicest mirror you've ever seen...You might never look back.

Happy Holidays!

Read about concepts like these and much more in: How to Get to Heaven (Without Really Dying), Wisdom From a Near-Death Survivor  from Llewellyn Worldwide available direct on this page, or online. The first book: How to Survive Life (and Death), A Guide To Happiness In This World and Beyond is available the same ways – but ask for it at your local bookstore!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Why is Love So Hard to Find When It's Everywhere? Realizing the Obstacles We Create

The idea that Love is everywhere is enough of a challenge since everywhere you look there are terrible examples of "man's inhumanity to man."  But all that sadness really serves to demonstrate where Love isn't, so we are talking about the same thing, really.  It's not that Love isn't everywhere, it's that we are actively creating obstacles to it – in our big, collective unconsciousness ways, and then on a personal scale, in each of our own little heads. 

Why does it happen? Why do we tend to separate ourselves from that one beautiful thing we really want more than anything else? The answer is that we actually train ourselves to do it, a lot of the time completely unconsciously. It's a kind of mental self-sabotage that has a lot to do with our easiest to overlook, biggest challenge – the way we think.

When we train a dog, it's taken for granted that the most effective way to achieve success is through the classic Pavlovian model of conditioning, or Behavioristic approach of rewarding good behavior. Now, so that you don't get offended by my comparing you to a dog, I'll pick on myself. Let's pretend that I'm a dog:

A dog is (I am) hungry pretty much all the time. A tasty morsel to munch on always makes for a welcome repast – and I'm afraid I can personally reward myself that way all too easily. Especially with potato chips, and even when I haven't done anything to deserve it. The dog thinks he's going to eat when the bell rings, and then he eats when he can. With a human like me, on the other hand, when the bell rings, he may begin making elaborate, completely unnecessary justifications for eating the wrong thing at the wrong time. I mean I may do that. Woof.

My dog self, or I'll say my natural self, relates me to the world in a pretty simple, direct way; but my artificial self – my human ego – is almost always seeking some level of nonsensical self-enhancement, or unnecessary self-protection. Most of the time my ego is reacting in ways that were conditioned into me as a child, before I really had the awareness to realize that later on in life, those childhood self-preservation instincts may start working against me instead of for me.

 For example, I was raised in a very unsettled and insecure world, where adults sometimes behaved in inappropriate ways. As a result, I felt unprotected. I assumed a profound unfairness was at work in the world (because it was, in my world) – but that experience constructed obstacles to my ability to see the Love there. Obstacles my ego continues to habitually impose on my life, often with no reason whatsoever, if I let it – just out of habit.

It's my human ego that's being fed, rewarded by the comfort of habitual thought, and the feeling of being right – not my authentic, natural (spiritual) self. I end up reacting to the world subconsciously based on old,  warped childhood instincts. I respond to what I can see as "unfair" situations by automatically thinking that I need to enforce a sense of rightness, a proper sense of fairness in an unfair world, again and again. And, since our world tends to become what we think it is, my "unfair" world continually requires more of my ego reactions – my desire to control things I can't control. 

"As you think, so you are."  "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he."                 
            The Buddha and Proverbs, 23:7 

So when that "bell" rings – a challenge, an affront, a desire – my ego begins to salivate. I can be sent into my irrational behavior over and over, until it's really the only thing I'm really good at. My human ego has built a perfect, very personal obstacle to Love again. So I'll go on and on, missing the point, missing the Love that's alive in everything. Or missing the opportunity to bring Love in where it's most needed.

In Hindu spiritual traditions, these obstacles are called samskaras, from sam meaning "intense," and kara from the root "to do." They're automatic thoughts. Thoughts that think themselves – automatically grounded in the psychic constructions of our earlier life experiences. Whatever we tend to resent, to brood about, whatever kicks up a compellingly dramatic reaction – fearful feelings of victimization or entitlement – those set off samskaras; unnecessary automatic thoughts that can, and will, define our lives. Thoughts that create our personalities, whether we like them or not.

I, for one, would rather be more like a faithful, loving dog than a willful, love-starved human...but how? The great teacher, Eknath Easwaran, compared samskaras to furrows, eroded out of our consciousness by habitual thoughts we let run like little streams. Resentments and desires that cut furrows deeper and deeper into our psychic ground. We have to re-route those streams, and the best way to do that is to start by becoming aware. By noticing how your thinking is following that same pattern that results in an uncomfortable feeling, even when we think we're right. That's the thinking that separates us from the Love that's alive in every body, and in every situation – if we can get out of our own way and allow it to arise.

There is fresh ground in each of our conciousnesses (and so in our collective culture) that we can divert those old streams of thinking towards. Thoughts of acceptance, tolerance, and Love that can gently erode and irrigate happier results in our own lives, and in everybody else's. As always, meditation is how we come to recognize those particular tributaries, and so put our natural, spiritual selves at the helm, heading downstream with the flow of Love.

" a deeper level of consciousness, we can learn to go against these conditioned ways of thinking and actually change ourselves from the inside out."
Eknath Easwaran, Essence of the Upanishads

Sunday, November 17, 2013

How to Survive Life (and Death)...It's all Miraculous

You can now pre-order the new book, "How to Survive Life (and Death): A Guide to Happiness in This Life and Beyond," from Amazon, although it won't be released by Conari Press until April, 2014.  

It's not another Near Death Experience book, though I had to go through three very different such experiences to get to the place where I could write it for you (so that hopefully, you won't have to do the same). Along with recounting the moments themselves, I describe what I learned from each, and how those lessons transformed my experience of Life from that of a typical participant, to being thoroughly submerged in joy and magic. 

These lessons, from someone who's peeked behind the curtain, can help you navigate all the moments of your life – especially the hard parts (including my three foolproof "Tips for Happiness"). I hope you'll check it out, and that it can help you with everything you're going through, or are going to go through.

I've got good news for everyone who plans on dying, or knows someone who will; as well as anyone who wants to get more out of this life.


Monday, October 14, 2013

The Paradox of Surrender–When "Losers" Are Winners

The concept of surrender, as we usually think of it, never sounds too agree-able. In fact, It sounds like something to be assiduously avoided. So the suggestion that surrender is really a strategy for gaining a very high order of success seems counterintuitive, to say the least. It sounds as though it may be a justification for under achievers and capitulators. A losers cop-out. But that isn't surrender in the same sense as I'm suggesting.  

To start, let's look at surrender in a different context than as a defeat and painful submission: When everything is going really well, when you're on top of everything, you're not fighting life. You're not having to work at it too hard, not trying to force life to go your way. Why would you? It's already going just fine just the way it is. You're riding on top of the flow of Life, so to speak. You are also completely and happily surrendered. 

We don't usually think of it in this way, because the human ego insistently attaches negative comparisons to what turn out to be positive experiences. For example we're more likely to think "he failed to be promoted at his job," than "he wasn't saddled with that high-pressure job, so he was available for something better when it came along." We may be jumping to a negative conclusion, when he was really lucky to have missed out on that promotion. But when things are going well, we're not attaching any negativity to our ride. We're lucky to be completely surrendered to Life, and much less likely to botch up a good thing. 

Surrender in this sense isn't a capitulation to a lesser outcome, or a submission to injustice. It's a positive action that you can take. By surrendering to the direction your intuitive intelligence is sending you in, by being true to yourself, you can do the right thing without fear. You can stand up to the bully, or the unconscious exploiter with the knowledge that the power of the Universe is supporting you. You're not giving into evil. Just the opposite, in fact. You are naturally elevated above it.

That amazing metaphoric adventure of Hindu mythology, The Bhagavad Gita, explains this distinction in its typically engaging way. The great warrior Arjuna doesn't want to go to war against the armies of his blind, ambitious uncle – against his own cousins, his own family. Capitulation seems almost to be a preferable option. But his chariot driver, who happens to be Krishna (God), tells him that he must surrender to his purpose in life. To be a great warrior, and to oppose injustice and oppression, especially if it comes from parts of himself. Arjuna only need do his best, the greater forces of the Universe will determine the outcome. Of course, good prevails. Surrender is a strategy for winning– for joining your self to the winning side.

This is the answer, the surrender to the metaphysical impulse to transcend the sense of fearful separation from the magical wonder of the world. The answer to finding your true path. Have no fear as to the outcome, just do what your heart tells you is true. Don't force anything, but release into the power and flow of Life. You have to give it up to get it.

The teacher Yeshua suggests over and over that we be like infants. And what form have we ever known that is  more in a state of surrender than our infancy was? Without the separation from the divine that an adult ego insists upon, we are carried through life securely and magically, through no effort on our own part other than simply being. You don't want to act like a baby, but you don't want to act like what's typically thought of as being "grown-up." Serious, controlled. The "master" of your own fate. Surrender to your playful, childlike side; to your curiosity, and humble willingness.

And while you're at it, surrender having to know it all. Surrender having to be right. Take the action and surrender to your hearts calling to oppose evil and injustice. Surrender to your natural birthright – to enjoy the beauty and abundance of this remarkable world, of this miraculous life.

Stay in the source. Surrender to the simple connection that carries you to your greatest potential. Exile your ego. Take that action––the direction of intuitive intelligence, and when it comes to figuring everything out, just give it up!

Read about concepts like these and much more in: How to Get to Heaven (Without Really Dying), Wisdom From a Near-Death Survivor  from Llewellyn Worldwide available direct on this page, or online. The first book: How to Survive Life (and Death), A Guide To Happiness In This World and Beyond is available the same ways – but ask for it at your local bookstore!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Involvement and the Three Levels of Living: A View From the Rock

In the time that I've been sitting on this rock, nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. Here's a bit of grumping that finds some grace in the moment:

1) I am a bit disappointed in President Obama. He has proven to be as disappointing as all presidents can be especially those under the threat of death, as all presidents have been since the brutally demonstrative demise of JFK. The "One Percent" just keeps accelerating their consolidation of the Earth's resources in the effort to create a fully controllable commercial mall of the world, a fully manageable permanent consumer underclass, and a fully maintainable and secure bubble of luxury that they can live in without conscience or consciousness entering– a world of endless entitlement. Oh, and I'm not always at peace with the purpose of my daily job...and my lower back hurts quite often. It's not easy being green...

2) Yet, better than ever, I understand the qualities of humanity that connect it to a pure, even divine source better than I ever have – despite the fact that we are heading willy-nilly towards a global catastrophe unimaginable in the history of mankind since the myths of The Great Flood or the destruction of Atlantis. Or perhaps as the inevitable re-enactment of each. I know there are millions of like-minded individuals out there, so many in fact that it's nearly like a single unified mind is realizing the severity of these greed-induced dramas unfolding. I am definitely not alone.

3) And then, wrapped within this whole experience is the intuitive knowledge of our profound oneness; the Love that enfolds and enlivens every moment of this particular being; the witness who bears out our greater reality – our unchanging heart of experience. The witness who watches all the expansion and destruction with an understanding wink and a nod to the unfathomable powers at play in this and every other Life we live here, or will ever live.

These are illustrations of the three levels at which we experience our beautiful, painful lives on Earth:

1) At the level of the senses and lower intellect, which describe and report directly to us about the delights, disappointments, and discomforts of the material world;
2) at the level of the soul, which is changeless – free of the cause and effect of the sensory life, profoundly aware of the results of that cause and effect, and able to utilize our higher intellect as a ladder to transcend the painful nature of material change; and
3) at the level of the spirit, where there lives the innate and eternal understanding of unity within and without, the acceptance and blissful surrender that only intense human faith can and will engender – if we're willing to explore ourselves that deeply.

In these terms, humanity, as all natural systems, evolves outward into it's most basic, fully realized manifest forms upon forms – replete with remarkable articulations and ever more inspired expressions, until atrophy and destruction set in. Then comes a kind of collapse back into a finer, less willfully formed state of being without being, something Vivekananda called involution – that state we're always aware of at the level of our souls. One day, everyday, it becomes possible to fully merge with the remarkable totality of the whole shebang and experience Heaven, or Nirvana, or whatever you want to call it. That Which Cannot be Named. It's always available if we involve ourselves.

This process happens to rocks, plants, people, markets, nations, species, planets, galaxies and universes, with no regard to scale or importance on the New York Stock Exchange or on the front page of The Times. This is the intense, immense wonder and mystery of it all.

Here comes my conveniently resorting to a natural metaphor, since that's what we, and everything else in our perception, is anyways: Like a small branch cut from a tree, our little cross-section reveals: 1) A rough outer layer, through which all the perilous natural events are weathered.  2) A pulpy soft body through which the fluid nutrients and essential energies necessary to our growth flow; and 3) A firm, pure, nearly colorless center that is the core connection to the underlying energy of all being. 

One is rough; two is growth; three is bliss. Be involved!

The book: How to Survive Life (and Death), A Guide To Happiness In This World and Beyond is now available everywhere, but ask for it it at your local bookstore! 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Friction, Freedom, and the Pearl Diver's Treasure

"The soul is causeless, and from this follow all the great ideas that we have... [The soul] is by it's nature free...that it cannot be acted upon by anything outside."

             Friction is a rather uncomfortable noun and even less comfortable as an effect. Simply put, it's resistance. It happens all on it's own in nature, usually the active part of a slow process that reshapes a feature, or an entire landscape. When you look up the word friction in a thesaurus, it seems to be everything difficult about life: the natural chafing, scraping, and drag; then comes the discord, strife, conflict, contention, argument, rivalry; hostility, animosity, resentment, bitterness, and on and on. It's a lot of human baggage for one little natural process. You'll notice all of these effects are the result of ruffled senses, external discomforts, and hurt feelings. It's the stuff that makes life a grind.

In that natural sense of it, the wear and tear of life will become uncomfortable it's unavoidably true. But a lot of those other synonyms for friction, the ones that describe friction between people and not just surfaces, are really only superficial as well. Psychologically superficial. So much of what means so much to us, of what hurts, only comes about as a result of the way we think about it. It only seems important for a little while – unless we repeat it over and over, and embellish upon it in our minds.

That's the (deeper) surface stuff Buddhists call selfish cravings – those feelings we hold on to in order to experience life's pleasures, or in this case life's anxieties. But like the bits of grass picked up off the river bank and carried along on the surface of the passing water, that stuff is always moving on. The rocks on the river bottom always stay right where they are, with just the shadows of our leaves, our bits of anxiety, passing over them. 

Our day to day lives are twisted and turned by the flow of time; our spirits can be tortured and stretched and tested; but our souls are always solid, steady, and smooth beneath the surface. The changing challenges of life, the spiritual lessons we all know we have to learn are a product of cause and effect, things we've done and places we've put ourselves in that have led us to where we are and what we've needed to pass through right now. That can be the rough stuff. But our souls aren't subject to cause and effect. They're grounded in our greater being, and the little (or big) abrasions of life pass right over them smoothly, with fluid ease.

 That ground where our souls firmly sit is always steady for us as we pass over, particularly if we make the effort to dive beneath the surface and take hold of  it, even for just a moment  and especially when life's a drag. It's a little like diving for pearls, that way. An irritation, a grain of sand can create that treasure to be discovered, if you are conscious of your breath, and your "selfish cravings" long enough.

"Where you stumble and fall, there you find your treasure."
Joseph Campbell

The shortest path between two points is a straight line, from our surface to our bottom – and that's what I recommend here, the straight, short line from your head directly to your heart. Don't give it too much thought, just move directly past all the surface stuff around you and make contact with the smooth solid ground beneath us all. Stop, relinquish the need to recycle that rough stuff, and re-link to the natural grounding and lubrication of your soul's connection. 

Coincidentally, that's what religion really means – re ligio – Latin for re-link.

Yes, the bottom of the river is subject to that long process of friction, of natural transformation. Growth requires destruction.  We are like that too – our spirits, that is. We're always being slowly transformed, our lives being shaped by the flowing story that carries us through this world.

The latest book: How to Get to Heaven (Without Really Dying), Wisdom From a Near-Death Survivor from Llewellyn Worldwide can be ordered direct on this page or online; and the first book: How to Survive Life (and Death), A Guide To Happiness In This World and Beyond is available the same ways – but ask for them it at your local bookstore! 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Unhitching "I Am" From Whatever Comes Next

I am in a prison of my own design...

Material life is like a vacuum, especially if it comes with lots of attachments. It's easy to get caught up in the common definitions and necessary demands of our lives and completely overlook the truly essential part of it – the part that's always there and never really changes. Our eternal selves need recognition too, you know.

Probably the easiest way to pick out what's part of our eternal self and what isn't, is simply to look at what parts of our lives are always changing and what parts aren't. My hair, and the shape of my face and my body keep changing (dammit). The nature and circumstances of my work life do too, and really always have. My appointments and emergencies come and go; my bills pile up, and then go away (and then come back). In fact, all of the temporary aspects of my life, the externals, have always been continuously changing, even when they haven't appeared to. Trying to control or hang on to these parts of life that change is what sucks you in.

You'll hear Buddhists talking about "attachments," and "selfish cravings," and it can sound a little holier-than-thou, or even kind of cold, like: I am detaching from that, because I don't like it...or like: I am so "spiritual" that I pretend not to want nice things. Sometimes you're perfectly right to wish things to stay the same, like when you say: I am perfectly right to like things just the way they are. While these attachments can lead us away from happiness, the secret to finding a little serene self-realization is right there in the structure of every one of those statements.

It may be obvious that grammar is not my strongest suit, but even my amateur analysis of sentence structure in this case might help open the window up to a wider, more carefree view of Life. Ramana Maharshi, a famous Indian swami, put his finger right on it when he said simply (and I paraphrase): The important part of "I am this or that" is the "I Am" part – it's the "this or that" that is always the problem.

With that helpful foot up from Swami Maharshi I'd like to point out the simple (but very profound) distinction between the start of those statements we make about ourselves – "I am" – and the finish – "this or that" – and what an easy way it is to separate the transitory part that causes a lot of the problems in our lives from the eternal part that's truly essential to our sense of wholeness and happiness. 

"I am hungry; I am an American; I am still waiting to get paid for that job; I am unhappy with my landlord; I am smarter than they are; I am detaching from that; I am very spiritual." What changes and what doesn't in all of those statements? You'll notice the second part, "this or that," is what always changes, or can always change. The first part, "I Am" always stays the same, and just that simply, there's your connection to the eternal.

"What never changes is what is real"    
                   Nisargadatta Maharaj

That "I Am" that never changes is what we all share, the common ground we all spring from and stand upon. It's how we are all the same, the way we can always identify with each other – especially with people who could use a little help, or with difficult people who need understanding. That I Am isn't just the start of our shared human experience, it's the ground of it – a little grammatical door to the actual Source of all this beauty and apparent craziness we all swim in everyday. 

It can not only compassionately connect us to each other, but to all of nature and the universe – all the plants and  animals;  the oceans and the earth – even the stars. It can realistically inform our relationships to one another and to our planet, and help direct a true sense of responsibility for the behaviors we choose and the actions we take. No small trick for such a little bit of grammar, right?

"I am the All. The All came forth from me and the All came into me. Split the wood, and I am there. Turn over the stone, and you will find me."
The Gospel of Thomas, 77 

On a personal level, identifying primarily with "I Am"  can really make our lives a lot easier and more comfortable, especially when you consider what that second half lets us in for. Not only do we usually start separating ourselves from one another when we say "I am this or that," we also open the door to our regrets, fantasies, and sense of self-entitlement: I was our Homecoming Queen; I was the first to use that technique; I am planning on retiring to Bermuda; I am more deserving of that promotion than anyone else.

When we are living in the past (regrets) or in the future (expectations), we're not grounded in the present, where everything actually manifests, including our wholeness and happiness. "I Am" immediately reconnects us to the truthful, important stuff in Life, and appropriately disconnects us from the unnecessary desires, fears, fantasies, conceits, and the like; that emotional quicksand our egos create – our troublesome attachments to the vacuum of the material, so to speak.

Here are a couple things the "I Am" is telling me always, as well as in this very moment: I am a very lucky guy, and, I am going on long enough about this...and that is about to change right now.

 How to Survive Life (and Death), is available from Conari Press, or at all major booksellers (but get it from your local bookshop...)


Sunday, June 30, 2013

Inspiring Commercial Creativity: Blue Bears, Branding, and Intuitive Intelligence

Over all the years now that I've been entering into "The Creative Process" as a means of earning a living, I've had plenty of chances to consider the hows and whys of it all. All my crazy experiences – from drawing portraits of thoroughbreds as a teenager, to providing illustrations and designs for hundreds of media outlets, to creating animations for advertising and network television – have led me to some slightly esoteric, but I believe pretty accurate conclusions that I'd like to share with you, and that I hope will help you understand your own relationship to the creative process.

Out of all the creative solutions I've stumbled across in my day, this one thing has become pretty clear to me:  The most meaningful, powerful, and effective ideas aren't always the result of brain power, or an ability to collaborate effectively. They don't come from rounding up a bunch of options and cutting out everything but the "best." They aren't built from the raw materials of project criteria and market goals – forced, fabricated, fashioned, hashed-out, or in any way massaged or mentally manipulated into "success." Don't get me wrong, a lot of typically (and many regrettably) useful solutions perhaps are. 

Usually the most focused, most profoundly effective ideas simply arise from a mysterious, and rather magical (but very reliable) source. Since they are not the result of any willful intellectual process, more often than not they are essentially dreamt up – the product of a kind of personal, immediately shareable vision.
The more you've taken part in this process, the more likely it is that you can identify with the mysterious leap that I'm trying to describe, but then where does that clear, nearly perfect idea come from – that idea you only could have dreamt of finding and never induced through brain power alone? This query should evoke a little mysticism and magic, as I believe it does. In an effort to locate it's source, let's try to put the whole curious process into a greater, even more "scientific" context for a minute, starting at the very beginning:

We are all sitting on a tiny planet in a tiny solar system in a tiny galaxy in the vast, unimaginable infinity of "outer space." Infinite numbers of stars, planets, galaxies, and probably universes too are constantly being created, coming into being, atrophying, and disappearing within a scale of existence that can only be described as timelessly eternal, and more to our point, beyond imagination. Somewhere within that overwhelming picture, we can begin to form a sense of The Creative Force – the essential field of everything becoming.

In Quantum Physics, the principles of non-locality and entanglement describe just such an active, invisible field in which everything is connected – an aquifer of innate intelligence at a sub-atomic level, in the realm of an equally infinite "inner space." That might all seem overly magical and unlikely to boot, except for the fact that the functions of our modern technology very reliably depend on those, and other crazy realities revealed by our most practical form of physics.  

On a more personal physiological level, medical science continuously defines and redefines the character of our brains – our thinking organs – in a sense as an organic collector and conduit of different, extra-ordinarily elaborate capacities, driven by basic instincts, and fed from a vast well of conscious and unconscious intelligence that originates from without, and within.

 On the left side of our brain we have our serial processor, constantly taking inventory, comparing and categorizing, scheduling, ordering, and manipulating; experiencing the demands of time and impending necessity. On the right side, we have our parallel processor, experiencing the holistic moment, the connection of everything to everything; the empathic bridge from the sensory to the eternal.
And beneath it all, on any scale and in every function, the power of creation flows along like a mighty river, animating, enlivening, and energizing everything from the greatest cosmological process to the smallest personal decision. Naturally it isn't a river that we can personally command in any way – it's one we may be briefly swept away by, or, for our purposes, one we may only hope to temporarily channel. And how do we go about that? How do we tap into all of that intuitive, archetypal intelligence? How can we reliably access our own artistic common sense? 

It's no surprise that in the world of commercial creativity, over-thinking a problem usually is the problem, so recognizing the difference between an intuitively inspired solution that arises from that mysterious source, and the willful, intellectual one that we force into existence is critical. Is it that the first thing that comes to mind is the best solution, as it so often appears to be – an instinctive stroke of brilliance? The best evidence in my experience (before collaborative comparisons are made), is that the first inspired thought that simply arises usually is the best solution. The challenge is then either to quickly go with it "as-is," or to protect and preserve it throughout the process of development.

There doesn't seem to be a perfect situation for allowing the intuitive to surface, it comes from a set of inner conditions – not outer ones, and so it travels with you through your life – from job to job, and place to place. The only way to encourage it is to try to recreate the circumstances that have best allowed that creative flow in the past, like placing a radio in the window sill where it can receive the strongest signal. Working in familiar, comfortable surroundings and relationships, at the right time of day, or with your preferred partner, privacy, music, or cup of tea. 
Focused time is absolutely essential – you simply can't be multi-tasking and expect any clear connection to take place. Texting, web-surfing, watching YouTube, making reservations, in short, worrying about anything else simply won't do it. Even our least encumbered mental processes already create plenty of obstacles without adding more. You need clear space – free of mental interference – to clearly receive intuitive inspiration. This is true whether you are formulating the most complex concept, or writing or drawing a single line well.

Probably the most effective means for encouraging and allowing your intuitive connection comes through meditation, which shares two very important goals with creative endeavor, namely: 
1. The observation and discernment of the quality and necessity of our thoughts; and 
2. The opening of the most direct connection possible with that mysterious wellspring of all creation (so you may listen to your client, and then listen to the universe). 
Either meditating as a practice, or folding elements of meditative practice into your creative process will open your channel for receiving specific answers like nothing else. Setting aside the demands of serial (left brain) thinking, and connecting with your (right brain) intuitive source becomes less of an applied second nature, and simply a more natural way to begin the process. Asking the universe for help is a pretty direct way to start things off  – after all, everything has come from that divine source anyway, and so realistically, any source that's responsible for the entire universe shouldn't have much trouble helping with our little songs or sayings, buildings, pictures, or other ephemeral, creative projects.  

Because of the undeniably profound nature of that source, it's actually easy for anyone to recognize a truly inspired idea – the clear, intuitive solution just has a special presence — it sings, in a way that strikes a deeper note. There's a magic to the moment that it comes into being, and everyone that witnesses it can recognize it, and could embrace it immediately, and hold on to it – if they could only keep their mind out of the way. 

The obstacles to intuitive inspiration in a commercial setting are usually personal and institutional, coming about as a result of company directions, project associations, egos, and personal issues. Quick, direct, intuitive solutions often simply are not part of a business strategy. It's (usually mistakenly) believed that only something more willfully fashioned will do, or some bosses or coworkers may refuse to recognize an intuitive inspiration that isn't their own. The spontaneous appearance of an inspired idea can challenge the egocentric thinking that typically requires (subconsciously or not) some degree of self enhancement, or false sense of control. It can be tricky politics, keeping a great idea alive.

When forces push back against an inspiration, you may need to take up the issue and defend it (though it will usually do that for itself), but you should never fight over it. Easy come, easy go. The creative source is constantly showing it's own way. Entering into a collaborative give-and-take may be the most fluid path to a reasonable (though perhaps less inspired) solution...and fluidity is a good metaphor for the over-arching inspiration empowering the creative process. It's like going downstream, being carried on a secure and powerful current and allowing solutions to simply arise. A dissolving of one's "ego-self" into the intuitive flow is necessary for an inspired idea to take it's proper shape.

On the teamwork side of the equation, when you suddenly see someone else channeling an intuitively inspired solution get out of their way and let 'em go – or better yet, help them bring it into reality as well as you possibly can. That kind of constructive yielding supports the power of the perfect idea. Allowing and encouraging intuitive inspiration will always leads to the best solution you'll ever get, and the highest quality results are often impossible without serious ego deflation taking place by one participant or another.

But it's a problem too that capitulation and compromise of an intuitively inspired idea will often knock a project right off it's foundations. It can destroy a client's (or teammate's) faith in your direction, and energize a painfully unconscious cycle of unnecessary reconceptualization and endless revision. In the clear light of intuitive intelligence, only an original vision will serve as the catalyst for the best solution of the creative problem it addresses. There really is no such thing as "re-visions" when one of these idea vacuums suddenly forms – almost instantly, the path to any solution becomes longer, more complicated and less rewarding. 
One sad sensation I've witnessed repeated over and over through my career has been the sense of loss at someone having had an intuitively creative solution compromised or abandoned. The knowledge that for awhile we had it!  and then egos and personalities prevented it from ever seeing the light of day. But the really great thing about working intuitively in collaborative efforts is that even if an inspiration is compromised, there is plenty more where that came form. In commercial efforts, as well as in all of life, the source of creative inspiration is infinitely abundant, adaptable, and forgiving. If you continue to allow it to arise, it will continue to show the way to a fresh and newly energizing solution.

Realizing that we are not completely in charge of the mostly uncontrollable collision involved in any creative production can help a lot too. It's by the grace of the Creative Gods, so to speak, that we're provided the opportunity to play a part in bringing something special to light as a means of making a living – that alone can provide enough of a purpose for a journeyman artist. We can simply show up, do our best, and leave the results to our Creative Gods (so to speak).

This leads to the bigger picture that recognizing and developing our creative, intuitive channel can give us, as we find the source of our best ideas is (not coincidentally) also the best source of our moral and ethical direction. When we start consciously opening our contact to that creative source, our consciousness expands, and we find ourselves in touch with more and more of that wonderful "common sense," and the ease and direction it can bring into our lives. Commercial projects and activities that were formally fought for – or over – become more difficult to live with, as our mystic creative channel directs us away from commercial ambition and towards serving our deeper needs.
...And deep is where those sweetest creative solutions live, and so they touch a deep and satisfying note within everyone. They unify and energize the entirety of a project, as well as the attitudes of it's participants – and it's at this deeper level that they carry the most commercial effectiveness: at that profound level of branding and brand association. Intrinsically, we all know what serves our real needs in the best, most commonly beneficial way, and so we identify with, and want to (even subconsciously) associate our selves to those inner essential shared values.

Gratitude, generosity of spirit, humility, and joyful participation work so well in every aspect of Life, that naturally they'll help in the largely inconsequential problems that the world of commercial creativity presents; after all, in the end, none of it is of any particular importance whatsoever, except for how we go about it, and whether or not we can bring that shared, intuitive understanding to life through our shared efforts. The need to open yourself up, get out of inspirations way, have a conversation, and follow the flow.

At last, at the risk of seeming overly subjective, I'll resort to an example that's specific to my commercial animation industry, just for the sake of making a point. Here it is: 
Would you rather hang around with Geico Auto Insurance's petulant, EastEnd salamander, or would you prefer spending the day with Charmin Toilet Paper's silent, cozy, big blue bear? Which character and direction suggests a comfortable, intuitively inspired creation, the quality of their product, and a sensation of shared benevolent purpose and meaning? ...and there's your brand. 
I'm not sure what you think, or better yet, feel about it...but it makes me wonder – just where do big blue bears come from, anyways? 

The latest book: How to Get to Heaven (Without Really Dying), Wisdom From a Near-Death Survivor from Llewellyn Worldwide can be ordered direct on this page or online; and the first book: How to Survive Life (and Death), A Guide To Happiness In This World and Beyond is available the same ways – but ask for them it at your local bookstore!