Category: Mindfulness

Minding the empathy gap

[video link]

Another fantastic animation by the RSA folks, this one featuring Roman Krznaric who explains the importance of empathy and how it can lead to social revolutions. Of particular interest is the last section where he talks about how our lack of action on climate change is due to an absence of empathy across space for climate victims and across time for future generations. He proposes an “empathy museum” where people can experience what life is like for others. Among the various strategies to garner empathy and create social revolutions, media, of course, also play an important role. So when people ask me what is the good side of media, I always say how they generate empathy.

PS If you haven’t already, be sure to also check out Jeremy Rifkin’s RSAnimate, “The Empathic Civilization.”

The conspiracy of noble silence

“The Buddha was famous for remaining silent when he was asked any of fourteen questions, questions like “Are the self and the world eternal? Are the self and the world not eternal? Do the self and the world have an end? Do the self and the world not have an end?” Although much has been written about the deep meaning of his noble silence, one of the more plausible interpretations (which actually occurs in a Buddhist text) is that the Buddha remained silent because he knew whatever he said, he would be misunderstood. If he said that the world was eternal, people might get discouraged and not practice because they would conclude that they could never get out of samsara. If he said that the world would end, people might not practice because they felt they could just wait around for samsara to end naturally.”

Donald S. Lopez, Jr., “From The Academy”
Click on the link to read more by professor Lopez (not relation to me).

There’s an old saying, one that was the motto for the infamous Barrington Hall co-op in Berkeley: “Those who know don’t tell, those who tell don’t know.” This is can be applied to so many facets of our lives. If you are a writer and someone asks you, what are you writing?, often to speak of the work is to invoke the energy of it, which is deflating when you sit down to actually write out your ideas. If you speak them, why do you need to write them? This of course is only relevant if you are engaged in the traditional practice of individual authorship. For many other kinds of creative work (especially the kind that many of us are engaged in), sharing is a conditon for evolution.

But more to the point of this particular dharma lesson, there is the issue of labeling, as Lopez’s longer piece discusses (linked above). To be a “true” Buddhist, you don’t label what you do, because the practice of Buddhism is beyond dualism (saying “this” is “that,” and so on). Dualism is not wrong–we need to survive and function in the world and discernment is absolutely necessary. But attaching dualism to reality as opposed to understanding that this style of thinking is just a cognitive tool to organize perception, we start to believe the labels are reality as opposed to the phenomena that emerged the labeling. Likewise, naming something thingifies it, a prerequisite for its commodification.

More importantly, as described in the above anecdote, the Buddha believed such questions only create more suffering. Do we really need to know how the universe was created? Is it necessary to think through this idea in order to live a full and happy life? He wanted to simplify our approach to the world so that we do not get caught up in such large unsolvable, unknowable problems.

Which brings me to my most important point: conspiracy.
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Image from Wooster Collective

“There is a kind of attentiveness that can be cultivated and deeply relished, and a whole secret life of the street that it brings to light. It gives to the human-made world almost the same kind of delight that the lover of the natural world (and I am also one of those) might take in lizard eggs, bird colonies, feathers, droppings, rocks, and lichens. It does not oppose the wild and the made worlds but conjoins them, finds their overlap and resonance, sees the wild in the made, pays to the rust stains on an old corrugated iron wall the same receptivity it gives to dewdrops delicately strung in a spider’s web. It includes but goes beyond spotting and classifying.”

From Susan Murphy’s “The secret life of the street,” Winter 2006


Some sage advice for dealing with technological overwhelm.

Distractions | Tricycle Magazine:

In the age of cell phones and the Internet, many of us have become smitten with the distractions of choice—texting, instant messaging, twittering, listening to iPods, checking email, reading the news online. These distractions can be fun, and, when seen as multitasking, even necessary. The problem is that some distractions are more detrimental to our focus and happiness than others. Most distractions fall into one of two categories: those that draw us in multiple directions at once, resulting in confusion and an inability to complete a thought or action, and those that provide mental relaxation, offering small “breaks” that support intense focus and effort. Clearly, we want less of the former and more of the latter.

Try this:

Clarify the next steps?Write down the items on your mental to-do list—projects, aspirations, or even the groceries. Next to each item, list the next step that is needed to complete it. Often we get distracted by our overwhelming lists of priorities, when what we need is to break them down into doable actions.

Appreciate impermanence?I saw a cartoon a couple years ago in The New Yorker in which two people were finishing their dinners at a Chinese restaurant and had just opened their fortune cookies. One fortune read, “Someday you will die.” If you let this fact sink in—that life is short and we all die—it can act as a powerful motivating force to help maintain focus and priorities.??Savor borrowed time?Imagine, for a moment, that you have died and now have a chance to return to this life. Now what? What would you do differently? This is a way of acknowledging how short and how precious our lives are.

Poverty (un)consciousness

Blog Action Day 2008 Poverty from Blog Action Day on Vimeo.

In my other life I’m a part-time DIY philosopher. So what follows is a short piece I wrote for Reality Sandwich (based on an earlier one I did for Blog Action Day– see video above) that deals with how think about poverty.

Reality Sandwich | Poverty (Un)Consciousness:

Sufficiency is a spiritual issue. Like the ideology of the capitalist system, are we always aspiring to a better, utopian future rather than being grateful for what we have? This is a core issues for well-being. I once participated in a “prosperity group,” which was a weekly gathering of friends (mostly folks from my yoga class) who wanted to read a “channeled” book, Creating Money, and to do the exercises together (it’s a great book, BTW). I realized rather quickly that most people in the group would never transcend their state of “poverty,” because they were spiritually impoverished. That is, they believed that their lives lacked sufficiency in that moment, and would always be trapped on the treadmill of negative thinking about their present state of being. I don’t mean this in “The Secret” kind of way in which positive thinking is your answer to wealth, but in the sense that we are constantly projecting into the world like a waking dream the innermost challenges at the core of our being. We constantly seek healing, and sometimes we externalize from our inner depths that which cannot be articulated by the egocentric mind.

Altar of the thinking mind

Modern culture would have us worship before the altar of the thinking mind, with its endless capacity to produce ideas, fantasies, and formulas. We are taught that the thinking mind is the possessor of all wisdom, and we dedicate much of our lives to the pursuit of knowledge and information. Seeing the world and ourselves through the filter of all the information we have accumulated, we can become imprisoned by the very ideas and images we have so ardently pursued. Often we think that we know ourselves, when what we know is only what we think about ourselves. When we think we know the world around us, our static images bar us from seeing the mystery held within each changing moment.

What is an image if not just a description of the world that is bound to the past?

–Christina Feldman and Jack Kornfield

Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart

(via Tricycle)

Green psychology

I’m still here/out there. Been off the grid in the woods and on the beach. Thought I’d share this nice little piece by Ethan Nichtern about the psychology of consumption. I’m feeling a little strained about the need to “keep up” with the Internet, so I thought this would be a nice interlude as I sort out my relationship with the Web.

Reality Sandwich | The Psychology of Ecology:

To date, the Green movement seems to be very much focused on the external world of objects and resources. Going green is all about external stuff: how to get more eco (and more fashionable) stuff, or else how to use the stuff we already have more effectively and less carelessly. For some folks, going green means arranging your lifestyle so you simply have way less stuff. All of these investigations are crucial. Collecting information about how to make compassionate choices in the context of a huge planet and an interwoven economy is an absolutely eye-opening practice, no matter which specific issue is closest to your heart.

Memes as flames


Image source

Those of you who have read my book know that I’m not a big fan of how we generally think about memes, because the assumption is that ideas are things that can be passed from person to person without disruption, but in practice communication is much messier. The strange thing about the meme concept is that it seems to be a self-generating reality that acts very much like a meme– on the surface it appears recursive. Yet what I have noticed is that depending on your view, memes have different meanings. Some look at them as evil, ideological code, others as benevolent marketing tools, others as a kind evolutionary mechanism.

I’ve been searching for a way to work with the concept of the meme without adhering to its literal definition. As usual, the breakthrough tends to come from outside the memesphere, in this case from a Buddhist writer who talks about thoughts being like flames. Read on:

Each of us has a switching mechanism in our mind that allows us to move from one state of mind to another in an instant… In fact, the surprising thing is not that we have the ability to switch our mind state, but that we have the ability to maintain a mind state, to continue a thought for more than an instant. Thoughts are constantly falling away, yet somehow we are able to maintain coherent ideas. Moreover we have the facility to remember, which is a miraculous phenomenon if each and every moment the world is completely new. What is it that is remembering and what is there to remember? The image that the Buddhists use to work with this paradox is the idea of a flame being passed from candle to candle. We cannot say the flame is the same from one candle to the next, yet each is dependent upon the one just before it. Not only does this account for the potential transmission of thought but also for memory, because each flame has a quality of the original flame as far back as one wishes to travel.

David A. Cooper, Silence, Simplicity and Solitude

Quotable: beginner’s media mind(fulness )


I read the following and wondered if the “big mind” that Suzuki speaks of could also be applied to media:

That everything is included within your mind is the essence of mind. To experience this is to have religious feeling. Even though waves arise, the essence of your mind is pure; it is just like clear water with a few waves. Actually water always has waves. Waves are the practice of the water. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves is a delusion. Water and waves are one. Big mind and small mind are one. When you understand your mind in this way, you have some security in your feeling. As your mind does not expect anything from outside, it is always filled. A mind with waves in it is not a disturbed mind, but actually an amplified one. Whatever you experience is an expression of big mind.

The activity of big mind is to amplify itself through various experiences. In one sense our experiences coming one by one are always fresh and new, but in another sense they are nothing but a continuous or repeated unfolding of the one big mind.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Is mediated reality discovered or Invented?

Image source
Is Mathematics Discovered or Invented?:

“The abstract realm in which a mathematician works is by dint of prolonged intimacy more concrete to him than the chair he happens to sit on,” says Ulf Persson of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, a self-described Platonist.

The philosophical debate concerning whether or not mathematics is discovered or invented is bit like wanking, but for most people wanking is fun, so why not? The Daily Galaxy highlights some recent thoughts on the discussion, and I suppose what interests me is that it bleeds into media, the Platonic debate in particular. It is my view that Platonism set into motion a strain of Western thought that has kept debates about media inside a feedback loop, which is to be stuck in this idea that imitation, and the arts in particular, are false versions of reality (Baudrillard‘s Simulations of the Simulacra and The Matrix current examples). Anything reflected in the mirror is a result of wizardry. In my view Arts, and media in particular, intensify reality.

I think Plato’s intentions were well placed, he simply reminded us to distrust the senses. Where he goes wrong is in assuming that everything around you is hiding a more perfect reality. A mindful approach would engage the perceptual reality as alive but subject to delusion as a result of how we filter and process it with our judgments (i.e. ignorance). The key difference is to discern, but not to judge. Part of the reason is the phenomena of “dependent arising,” which means that as soon as I decide something is “this,” than it sets into motion a whole set of “thats.” For example, if I say something is good, it automatically creates a class of bad. So when Plato denounces poets as ruinous imitators it’s because they deceive the sense from the One True Reality which no human could ever touch. I think an open source reality is more preferable.

Ah, what suffering!

Quotable: Warhol the Zen master


One of my favorite books is The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again). This might sound unbelievable, but I actually think Warhol was an enlightened master who simply spoke in the language of his time: mass media. What makes his contribution so important is that he went against the grain of a 2000 year legacy that distrusts images. While it is necessary to be skeptical of visual illusions as a kind of perceptive magic, at the same time the reaction to it can be just as bad. The striving for some unattainable Utopia also causes incredible suffering. Is it possible to interact with media in a way that is both skeptical but also incorporates a willingness to take responsibility for our own happiness here and now instead of blaming society?

The solution may be to mindfully engage the illusion, and I think that is what Warhol was cryptically alluding to.

Some of the best quotes from his book are:

“The camera turns [people] on and off.” (p. 80)

“Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there. I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in the movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen to you in life that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television— you don’t feel anything.” (p.91)

“At the end of my time, when I die, I don’t want to leave any leftovers. And I don’t want to be a leftover. I was watching TV this week and I saw a lady go into a ray machine and disappear. That was wonderful, because matter is energy and she just disappeared. That could be a really American invention, the best American Invention— to be able to disappear. I mean, that way they couldn’t say you died, they couldn’t say you were murdered, they couldn’t say you committed suicide over somebody.” (P.113)

“Space is all one space and thought is all one thought, but my mind divides its spaces into spaces into spaces and thought into thoughts. Like a large condominium. Occasionally I think of about one Space and the one Thought, but usually I don’t. Usually I think about my condominium.” (p.143)

“Before media there used to be a physical limit of how much space one person could take up by themselves. People, I think, are the only things that know how to take up more space than the space they’re actually in, because with media you can sit back and still let yourself fill up space on records, in the movies, most exclusively on the telephone and the least exclusively on television.” (p.146)

“You should have contact with your closest friends through the most intimate of and exclusive of all media— the telephone.” (p.147)

“I always bring everything back to chemicals, because I really think everything starts and finishes with chemicals.” (p.?)

PS Another fave is POPism: The Warhol Sixties. It’s a great chronicle of life and experimentation at the cusp of the social revolution.

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Mindfulness and the caveman brain


I’m fairly certain that the mindfulness technique that derives from Buddhist meditation practice is designed to deal with what our society cannot: the inability of our caveman brain to moderate itself in the midst of so much abundant materialism and prosperity. As cognitive anthropologists have noted, we have dispositions that are easily manipulatable. For example, our brains are wired for sweets, but not necessarily processed sugar. It’s easy for advertising to play on this hardwiring, so that’s why it’s so crucial to have a mindfulness immune system. The following article shores up my feelings on the subject:

How Advertising Manipulates Our “Caveman” Brains (& How to Resist) | The Daily Galaxy: News from Planet Earth & Beyond:

Fortunately, there are ways to go about PROOFING YOUR BRAIN.

1. Change your mindset to “postmore” by challenging culture’s ingrained assumption that “more” of everything is automatically better.

2. Grow your gratitude. Our poor, starved, frozen ancestors would cry tears of joy if they suddenly landed in our culture of abundance. Fostering our appreciation of this bounty can also block the consumerist “cool” pressure to deride so many of our fine, workable possessions as “so last year”.

3. Be enough. We’re constantly told that we aren’t rich enough, glam enough, cool enough, networked enough, etc. This has a powerful insidious effect on our primitive, socially competitive brain circuits. It’s like a toxic substance that turns rational brains into needy toddlers wanting “more, more, more!

Near enemies

The Buddhist magazine Tricycle has a daily dharma post you can subsribe to. In this one, Jack Kornfield discusses near enemies. I find this a very useful concept for thinking about media, because they deliver nerve stimulation that we often mistake for pleasure. Yes, it’s fun to be entertained– I do it all the time. But we also must be mindful of the fact that what ever enters our brains stays there.

The Daily Dharma
November 19, 2007

Near Enemies

The near enemies are qualities that arise in the mind and masquerade
as genuine spiritual realization, when in fact they are only an
imitation, serving to separate us from true feeling rather than
connecting us to it . . .

The near enemy of loving-kindness is attachment…. At first, attachment
may feel like love, but as it grows it becomes more clearly the
opposite, characterized by clinging, controlling and fear.

The near enemy of compassion is pity, and this also separates us. Pity
feels sorry for “that poor person over here,” as if he were somehow
different from us . . .

The near enemy of sympathetic joy (the joy in the happiness of others)
is comparison, which looks to see if we have more of, the same as, or
less than another . . .

The near enemy of equanimity is indifference. True equanimity is
balance in the midst of experience, whereas indifference is withdrawal
and not caring, based on fear….

If we do not recognize and understand the near enemies, they will
deaden our spiritual practice. The compartments they make cannot
shield us for long from the pain and unpredictability of life, but
they will surely stifle the joy and open connectedness of true

–Jack Kornfield, in A Path with Heart
from Everyday Mind, edited by Jean Smith

Flatland revisited

In my book I’m making the argument that media forms condition how we think, and the conditioning is so profound that it can prevent us from understanding other perceptual realms. For example the world of print literacy has led us to form a world that is characterized by certain ways of being that are different than oral cultures. Print and the alphabet are primarily from the left-brain and the oral/aural reality is right-brain and acoustic. I make the argument that it is easier for the the spherical thinking of the right-brain to integrate the left, than the other way around. As I was thinking about this I remembered that little book from high school, Flatland (available free at Project Gutenberg). I did a quick search and found these clips on YouTube. Yeah, I know they are a little cheesy but they make some good points about the difference of seeing via too specific a paradigm.

From noise to silence

When I was running amok in LA as a punk rock teenager, the feeling at the time was to respond to the general condition of our society as a kind if mirror. Through our dress we would expose the hypocrisy of our repressed tendencies by adorning bondage and military clothes, and ornamented with scornful iconography. Our sonic response was of noise: pure, unadulterated feedback, distortion and wickedly fast rhythms that mimicked the ever-increasing speed of the technological world. Sadly, punk mirrored one other dysfunctional by-product of the world we rebelled against: substance abuse. I have long felt that punk—in its southern California incarnation at least—had become a surrogate family for the various broken homes many from that tribe had come from. By 1980, divorce was common and the psychoanalytical hangover of alternative therapies and cults had not cured the abuse manifested in drugs, alcohol and sex so openly celebrated in the wake of the ’60s counterculture. Unfortunately the family of punk had succumbed to social demons, and was never able to transcend its nihilistic tendencies.

Having been nurtured by such an in-your-face cultural rebellion, I find it strangely odd that I’ve come to realize that in our current mental, spiritual and media environment, the most radical act of our age would be one of silence. That is, unplugging and sitting quietly in reflection without various gadgetry wired to our minds. This should not be mistaken as a neo-Luddite call to disengage from technology. I feel that is impractical and counterproductive. However, it is possible to balance our addiction to media, entertainment and information with walks through the desert and contemplative meditation. Rather than create a false dichotomy between nature and technology, it’s better to mindfully >engage the process, and utilize it as a kind of fulcrum that enables us understand how our minds work. As we externalize our brains, as I think our current trend in networked computing is doing on many levels (not replacing our minds, but rather enhancing and mirroring them), let’s use this datafog as an object of meditation.

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Becoming a Buddha


Click on the link below for a video by Robert Thurman (yes, Uma’s dad) on becoming a Buddha. I did, and it’s fun!

TED | Talks | Bob Thurman: Becoming Buddha — on the Web (video):

In our hyperlinked world, we can know anything, anytime. And this mass enlightenment, says Buddhist scholar Bob Thurman, is our first step toward becoming Buddha. When we can know everything, we can see how everything is interconnected — and we can begin to feel compassion for every living being.