Sunday, January 1, 2017

Outside In - Chapter 1

*This originally appeared as a repeating column in the online 'zine Central Standard Time

Outside In



Day 1


The Morning


When I opened my eyes the sun was already high in the sky. The light filtered through the canopy of leaves and I could feel the warmth on my cheeks. The air was thick with the smell of wet leaves and pine needles. Usually when I go backpacking I wake up with the first cracks of sunlight but yesterday had been a long day of driving and hiking. I guess I needed the sleep. I had left all my technology at home including my watch. I've never been great at telling time from the position of the sun. Probably 10 am.


It was spring and not very cold so I slept outside next to the camp fire that was still smoldering from the night before. Slowly I nursed it back to health and set a pot of water on top to boil for coffee and oatmeal. Solitary backpacking trips like this are always a bit of a spiritual experience for me, whatever that means. I can see the wisdom of the "vision quest." Really it is just being alone with your thoughts as you walk in the woods. Very meditative. I also always feel like it forces me to experience things as they come. I have left myself no choice.


When the water started boiling I reached into my backpack and located a packet of oatmeal, maple and brown sugar, and some 'coffee bags' that I had made by packing grounds in a piece of filter and tying it with thread. I put water in my blue camping mug and put the bag in to steep. In my bowl I emptied the contents of the oatmeal packet and put in some water. The smell of coffee and the oatmeal reached my nose and filled me with a feeling much like being covered with a comfy blanket.  


I leaned back against a tree and closed my eyes.  


On these trips I never set a schedule for myself. That is really hard for me. Back in Chicago I am self employed so I have gotten very good at making a schedule for myself but as a result I always feel nervous at first being idle. Getting miles out in the woods you are forced to live at a different pace.


I took a sip of my coffee. Hot. Earthy. Almost chocolatey. I put a spoonful of the oatmeal in my mouth. It was sweet and thick and I could feel the warmth slide down my throat. After I finished both I started to pack my backpack. Everything has its place. It's the only way it fits into the pack. I doused the embers with the remaining water. It was a very small fire so it didn't take much to render it dormant.  


I sat on a fallen tree and looked at my map. Last night I had slept in a valley near a river that ran through the area. I decided that today's hike would be up to the crest of the mountain. It was a smaller rolling mountain so no climbing necessary but it meant an uphill walk all day with a 40 lb pack on my back. Just yesterday I had hike down the other side of this mountain. For a moment my mind wandered to thinking about how Sisyphus must have felt. The difference is that I was doing it by choice not as a punishment imposed by the gods which might make it even more absurd. The classic philosophical definition of the absurd is the place where the objective world and our perception of it meet. A backpacking trip was truly absurd and all about experiencing.  


Once I had my backpack packed, I hoisted it on my back. "Lift with the knees." I fastened and tightened the waist belt and headed out down the trail. For now the trail followed along a small stream. It was spring and so the forest was coming to life but still with evidence of the carnage from the previous autumn and winter. This area is so alive in the spring. Almost a temperate rain forest.  


Just then a light rain started to fall. 





As raindrops hit the bare skin on my arms I could feel each drop like a little spike of cold. The feeling shot up my spine. I got goosebumps. I could almost imagine the jolt of electricity running through my nervous system. Because of some nerve damage I had years ago the sensation was slightly different in my right arm. On my left arm the raindrops felt cold and wet but drops felt almost like boiling water on my right. Each drop made we wince. My mind wandered to the thought of the difference in sensation due to damaged wiring and to the mechanical part of our perception of the world.


The rain began to fall a little harder. Hiking always generates body heat and the rain felt good, for now. I always find the sound of rain in the forest very soothing. The pitter-patter of thousands of droplets as they hit the leaves. The smell of rain always relaxes me too. Very smooth and calming.


As I hiked along I could feel the grade of the trail gradually increase and my quadriceps started to burn. The only problem with rain is it makes the backpack a little heavier.


My mind wandered back to the difference in perception between my arms. The human body as biological robot. So much of our perception of the world is based on our senses. I remember reading a book by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio where he talks about our perception and associations with experiences being formed over our lifetime and each new experience being based on previous experience. Each of us has a different life experience thus each of us perceives the world differently. Robert Anton Wilson calls it "reality tunnels". Over a lifetime we build our tunnel. Philosophers like Camus call it the absurd. Subjective reality. Wilson talks about how it is surprising that our "reality tunnels" ever intersect with our life experiences all being unique and yet somehow they do.


The rain started to slow down to a very light drizzle. The rain was just enough to cool things down a bit and add a humidity to the air. The air became very still and a slight fog started to form. As I ascended the trail I noticed the change in the underbrush. Down in the valley there were ferns and moss on everything. As I headed up the mountain I saw it change to deciduous bushes. I wasn't sure of the variety but the change was noticeable.  


I tried to take my mind off the fact that my pack felt increasing heavy as I walked uphill by focusing on my breath. I had been walking for about 2 hours or so and was starting to get a little tired and hungry. I decided it was time to take a break. I took off my pack and leaned it up against a tree. I opened the side pocket and fished around inside it for a granola bar. When I found one I grabbed my water bottle and sat down on a rock on the trail's edge.   


I began listen. As I listened, more and more sounds met my ears. It was like the forest was waiting for this moment to play me its symphony. In reality that symphony is always going. I had just stopped to listen.



Symphony of Sound


As I sat there the first thing that caught my ear was the sharp, distinct song of a cardinal. I looked around for him but the tree cover where I sat was very thick. His song was so bright, so stark. I decided to close my eyes and let my ears drink it in.  


That's when it happened. The cardinal call was so prominent, like a melody of the forest song, but then another series of birth calls, more like chirps and squeaks, sneaked their way into my ear's eye. Seemingly much less organized than the single line of the cardinal. At first I tried to identify the bird. I had heard it before. But it occurred to me that the instrument of the player was not important at this moment. The symphony continued.


I focused on my breath. The funny thing about actively attempting to enter a meditative state is that trying not to try is a paradox of sorts. I remember a meditation teacher telling me once that you need to give your mind something to do. Have it pay attention to your breathing. Sama vritti. Equal length breath. 1-2-3-4-5-6...6-5-4-3-2-1


As the cardinal song soared above the chirps of the multitude, I began to notice a slight thumping sound. At first it was a foreign sound to me and my mind tried to classify. Maybe it was drops hitting the leaves from the rain that had slowed. There was a moment of my mind starting to lose the fragile focus I had just started to find. Breathe. 1-2-3-4-5-6...6-5-4-3-2-1.


A wash of sound whispered steadily underneath the cardinal song, the cacophony of chirping, the thumping of dripping water hitting leaves. Wind. Wind in the leaves. Thousands of leaves all whispering as the air of a light breeze brushed them. Ancient trees responded with very quiet creaks and groans as the wind pushed their branches gently to and fro. 1-2-3-4-5-6...6-5-4-3-2-1.


I sat there in a moment of stillness. I felt a thought come over me. If these sounds are always there, why don't I notice them? Layer upon layer. The mind is a powerful thing. We filter out so much surrounding experience. We have to or we'd never be able to have a conversation or complete a task. At that moment though, I saw the importance of slowing down, giving my mind a break, and letting experience flow. It all starts with breath.


Almost as though a conductor had cued a change something happened in the canopy of trees that disturbed the steady wash of sound. All at once the cardinal stopped. The cacophony of birds got quiet. Only the thumping and the wash of wind on leaves remained.


I sat there for a moment longer. Breathing. 1-2-3-4-5-6...6-5-4-3-2-1. Slowly I began to open my eyes. How long had I been there? It didn't matter. This was exactly why I left my watch at home. The temptation to scrutinize fractional divisions of eternity.  


I noticed that the sun was past high noon and I did want to make it to the crest of the rolling mountain before nightfall so I had a safe place to camp for the night. It gets very dark deep in the woods.  


I put my water bottle and the wrapper from my granola bar back in my pack. I hoisted it on my back. Lift with the legs.” The time I had taken to experience the symphony of sound all around me had rejuvenated me for the next leg of my hike.  


I headed up the trail.  





The trail meandered slowly up the rolling mountain. I could feel the air getting less humid as I ascended the trail. This was welcome because the humid air in the valley was thick. The spotty clouds had broken and the sun shone brightly in the sky. My brief rest had energized me for the last leg of my hike but also put me in the mood to ponder.  


Change is the only constant. That adage kept rolling through my head as I made my way up the trail. It is an age old cliché and one that almost made me crack a smile at the cheese level but those five short words have so much meaning. Spending time in nature always brings that thought to the surface. As a snapshot, nature is a noun. It is a generic smattering of trees, mountains, rivers, lakes, clouds, and an occasional animal. Experiencing nature is to see it as a verb. A constant act of doing. My brief time listening and noticing reminded me of that. For a time the observer and the observed were one.


I started to think about how this applies to life in general. In city life there is constant bustle and it is easy to see the change all around us. Maybe it is because of the head down approach to urban living, or maybe it can be seen as ego getting in the way, or maybe it is the comfort we get from sameness, but we don't notice that change. In fact, we get frustrated by it. We take the exact train everyday and if it is late it is tantamount to the world crumbling around us. We go to our favorite restaurant and order the same thing. We even follow the exact same route if we are walking or driving somewhere. There is comfort in sameness.  


In change there is an uncomfortable feeling. A feeling of flux, of not knowing. Change takes more energy. There is also an exhilaration. Like jumping out of a plane with only your experience as a parachute.  


I had been so lost in thought that I did not notice that I had almost reached the top of the rolling mountain. There was a trail the followed the crest. From my vantage point just off the top I could also see that there was a small man-made shelter at the place where the trail I was on met the trail along the crest. The foliage had definitely changed as I hiked up the mountain. In the valley it was mostly deciduous trees. Up here it was mostly pine trees. The pine scent was refreshing.


I reached the top and came up to the shelter. It was modest but sturdy. Brick shithouse sturdy.  It was a short building, maybe just over 6 feet at it's highest. It was made of mortared together river rock and flag stone for three walls and a chain link fence for the fourth; to keep the bears out. The roof was wood shakes. It had a small chimney and fire pit and two wooden bunk beds.


It was definitely minimal but it would save me having to pitch my tent. The temperature had started to drop as the sun sat low in the sky. I knew sleeping outside would be cold. This would be perfect.


I opened the chain link door and walked in. I could see as I walked up that it was not occupied. If someone came along I'd gladly share with them.


I leaned my pack against the wall and went out for a short walk to find some fire wood.    





I didn't have to walk far from the shelter before I came upon a fallen branch. Pine makes good tinder for starting a fire but luckily this was a branch from a harder wood tree. Maybe an oak. Burns longer. It was too big to carry so I stepped hard on it. There was a sharp snapping sound as the branch broke. It was very dry and must have fallen some time ago so it would burn well. I grabbed the piece I had broken off and stood on it as I pulled up snapping it in two. I picked up those two pieces as well as a big handful of pine twigs and headed back to the shelter. It was getting near dusk and I wanted to get to fire started before dark.


When I got back to the shelter I dropped the sticks on the floor and dug around in my backpack for some fire starter sticks I had bought at the camping store. Basically sawdust and paraffin. I knew they were kind of cheating but a quick and easy way to start a fire. I also grabbed the small waterproof box that contained the wooden matches. I put the starter stick in the fire pit and arranged the sticks in a loose lean to on top. One strike of the match and... fire. The sharp crackling sound cut through that still air that was now almost complete devoid of sunlight.  


I fished around in my backpack again a found a flask. Whiskey. A nightcap. I knew I needed to cook dinner but right now I just needed to relax and enjoy the fire. There was a chill in the air and the soreness in my muscles from my hike today was starting to burn. I leaned my backpack against the bunk which was maybe 5 feet from the fire pit and sat down with my back against the pack. I let out an audible sigh, unscrewed the cap from the flask, took a swig of whiskey, and felt the burn down my throat ending in a warm feeling in my stomach. Smooth” I thought in a slightly sarcastic way.


I could feel my body get heavier from fatigue and whiskey. Time seemed to slow down. I could hear the chorus off cricket and the crackling of the fire. I could feel the cool night air interspersed with wafts of warm air from the fire. My mind wandered to the Flow theory of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He theorized that there is a finite amount of information our brain can process, so when we are occupied with a task we lose our ability to monitor time. This moment was the opposite of that. My head was clear and I was just watching the licks of flame in the fire. It felt like time had stopped.  


My mind then wandered to the great book by Alan Lightman called Einsteins Dreams. In the book each chapter provides a short vignette with one perspective on time. One particular chapter came to mind. The world with no time. Only images. I took another sip from the flask, put on the cap, and closed my eyes. Time had stood still and only the warmth of the fire, the sounds of the crickets, the smell of the burning wood, and the lingering taste of whiskey on my tongue remained.


I leaned deeper into my backpack and drifted off to sleep.  














Tuesday, May 10, 2016


I can claim no actual original ideas here. Concepts of critical thinking go back to Ancient Greece, body and mind as a whole to Charles Darwin, applied specifically to education by visionaries like John Dewey and Maria Montessori, studied by modern neuroscientists like Sian Bielock and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and written about by educational philosophers like Sir Ken Robinson to name a few. We have thousands of years of evidence supporting the concept that experiential learning and critical thinking give us a deeper understanding of a topic.  I think our current school system and society at large run in stark opposition to this idea. Here are some of my musings as an educator, parent, and life long learner.   

The other day I was driving home and a story came on the radio about how scientists have discovered that peacocks can communicate with infrasonic sound, frequencies below the human hearing range, produced by their tails. The story talked about how this may be true of many species. What this means is that our perception of reality is limited by how we experience it. What this also means is the "truth" we get from our senses might not be the whole truth. When I started to think a bit more about this I found a common thread in many innovations. They all were driven by trying to experience things from a different angle. We would have never known that the peacock was communicating like that if we hadn't have moved outside of our own paradigm. This has been a common thread throughout human history. From the use of the first tool, to the advent of heliocentrism, the printing press, combustion engine, flight, the frisbee, the computer, the smart phone; innovation has always been driven by creativity.  

I think our definition of creativity is kind of amorphous. We look at creativity as some kind of voodoo. We also look at it as something this is relegated to a select few that we call "artists" and we think they are kind of eccentric. The truth is we all use creativity every day. In the aesthetic sense it is making choices like how to comb your hair or dress yourself. How you plant your garden or decorate the room involve creativity. How you choose to season your food counts too. Unfortunately these all fall into the category of aesthetic decisions. I say unfortunately because I feel this is a very limited definition of a much broader concept. By defining it this way we limit it to things our senses experience. It also limits our idea of the types of jobs that require creativity. If we instead think about creativity, or at least an element if it, as a willingness and ability to look at things from a different perspective and make choices therein I think our field of how we experience the world is greatly expanded.

I tend to ascribe to the belief that our current model of education actually stifles this kind of alternate perspective thinking. This is not a new phenomenon either. Our current model of education was developed in a time when training a workforce with similar skill sets was important to driving the economy. I believe this is no longer true. I was very fortunate to have grown up in a school founded by John Dewey. Learning by doing, critical thinking, collaborative learning, and experiential learning were hallmarks of his educational philosophy. I thought this was just the way school was. When I got to college I met a lot of VERY smart people that didn't know how to think critically. They could spit out the "right" answer but lacked the ability to read and discuss text. I have a distinct memory of sitting in Freshman English and the professor posed a question about book that was not stated explicitly in the text. Crickets. I actually sat there in shock that everyone got a deer in the headlights look in their eyes when they were asked to think critically. Then it occurred to me. It is a skill that needs to be taught like any other.

By this point you are probably noticing that I am using creativity, critical thinking, and experiential learning interchangeably and maybe even questioning the coherence of this essay. While they are certainly not the same thing I do think that on a base level they all get to a willingness and ability to to look at things from different perspectives. I think the arts are ideal for teaching kids this way of thinking. I also think it can be applied across all subjects.       

In our current climate of excessive testing, removing the arts and humanities in favor of a math and science oriented curriculum, abstract desk learning, and quantitative assessment of students it is no wonder this skill isn't learned. Not only is there no time to teach it but I would argue that thinking critically and creatively is actually taught as a bad thing in favor of a black and white or right and wrong world. We are teaching that being wrong is one of the worst things.  As a result we are afraid to look at things in different ways. Learning by doing is about taking chances. Creative thinking isn't just limited to the arts and humanities. Innovation has always been driven by out of the box thinking. My fear is that, by teaching kids there is one right and one wrong answer, we are inadvertently stifling their drive to innovate.  

Sir Ken Robinson points out in his book Out of Our Minds that there is no way we can anticipate the kinds of concrete skills children will need when they get out of school. The world and technology are moving too fast. What I think we can do is cultivate the concepts of critical thinking, creativity, and willingness to look at things from a different perspective. Learning to learn.  

Remember our friend the peacock. His view of reality is based on his experience.  As humans we have the ability to think abstractly outside our paradigm. That requires that we see our experience as just that. A paradigm. One that can be altered.

Originally published in The Chicago Progessive.  Archives can be viewed at 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015


"Only a madman is absolutely sure"  Robert Anton Wilson 

Recently I took the time to read through all my previous posts. I have a running theme of balance and am trying my best to have a, albeit broad, thesis. I thought it important to go back and see how many loose ends I didn't tie up.  To my pleasant surprise and dismay I've done a pretty good job, save one huge point. In my opening post I said the three types of balance I was going to discuss were physical, mental, and spiritual. I spent a few posts on aspects of physical and mental balance and even digressed into other pontifications on balance all while skillfully avoiding the topic of spiritual balance. Part of the reason is there are several discreet definitions to the word spiritual.  The other reason is it is a very personal subject and has different meaning for each person.  I did quite a bit of research on the topic and seem to have distilled it, in least in my own mind, to two distinct types.  More than that I distilled down to two verbs, being and doing.  

The first definition of spiritual that I encountered was defining it as "from spirit".  The Divine, ghosts, the Great Juju.  I'm intentionally staying away from references to any specific religions because I don't want to make this about a specific set of dogma. The important thing is these spirits are a personified outside being and require some kind of communing with be it through prayer, worship, tithe, services, rituals, etc.  These are all acts of doing.  I think that the "being" part of spirituality can also be experienced in a religious context but it is something that is achieved.  I also think we need to be careful of thinking of spiritual and religious as synonymous thus limiting the definition of spiritual.

The second definition I came upon was spiritual as a state unto itself.  An act of being.  The problem I kept finding with this concept is that an act of "being spiritual" requires the opposite, being "not spiritual."  It makes spiritual some kind of mushy other worldly thing and again implies a location.  That idea almost seems to contradict itself.  Trying to just be.  I started to think of the idea of reality as a multiverse of intersecting subjective experiences and thought that maybe an idea of spirituality is just being in touch with our own experience and how it intersects with what Robert Anton Wilson calls other "reality tunnels."              

So how does the idea of balance fit with this?  It seems to me that whatever definition of spiritual you choose to use the balance occurs between our outer self and our inner experiences.  We have an outward experience and integrate it into our inward understanding of reality.  I think an imbalance comes when we rely too much on our internal understanding such that we become inflexible.  Leon Festinger calls this cognitive dissonance in his landmark work When Prophecy Fails.  We try to find some way to get experiences to fit with our understanding even if that means dismissing or discrediting them.  I think an imbalance can happen the opposite way too resulting in a lack of conviction and drive.  Apathy.  Our understanding of the world is ever changing and influenced by previous experience whether we like it or not.  The key I think is being aware of that fact and being flexible to evolve.   

Over the years I have come across the name Trigant Burrow a bunch of times.  He was a psychologist in the early part of the 20th century and is important in the field of group therapy and the a early thinker in the field of neurodynamics I think.  I decided it was time to read some of his stuff.  I quickly found out that his work was way above my pay grade.  I'm just a musician.  I'm probably way over simplifying or even misinterpreting his work.  If so I apologize in advance.  That said there was one big take away even in my limited understanding; his concept of cotention.  Another one of the concepts he talks about are what he calls preconscious.  He wrote a book called Preconscious Foundations in Human Experience.  Again above my pay grade but interestingly many activities like music, art, poetry, as well as "mystical experiences" are manifestations of preconscious processes.  In the book he argues that basically preconscious processes are those that we are born with.  In his theory, over the course of human evolution, we have developed a higher order consciousness in order to adapt to our environment.  This has actually served to suppress the preconscious mind.  

Two concepts that Burrow introduced then are "cotension" and "ditension".  Basically "ditension" emphasizes the division of the observer and the observed (self and other) and is brought on by higher order thought. "Cotension" refers to the way the preconscious mind experiences. Unity, connectedness, completeness, continuity with everything. 

So how does this fit with my idea of spiritual balance or even a definition of spiritual.  In my mind part of what we are attempting with any spiritual experience be it prayer, meditation, even a hike in the woods is to get back to that preconscious mind.  I also see that preconscious mind as flexible.  Babies are born mentally flexible.  Maybe then spiritual balance has to do with a balance of the cotentive and ditentive mind?  Perhaps.  Or maybe it is just acknowledging that a connectedness exists.

Last week there was a total eclipse of the super moon.  The event was outstandingly beautiful and beyond words.  The thing that really struck me though was pictures and posts about it dominated social media.  Many of my neighbors were out watching it.  It was the #1 topic of conversation the next morning.  It felt like, even for a fleeting moment, we were acknowledging a connection with each other and with the whole of experience.  Preconscious.  Cotentive.  To me that is spiritual.             

Saturday, July 4, 2015


An Egoist Argument for Being Kind

We live in a time where instant gratification is paramount. It rules almost every part of our lives whether it be travel, food, data transfer, phone calls, the weather. We want everything fast. Like NOW fast. The problem with thinking like this is it can also be pretty selfish. Being first is often accompanied by a total disregard for everyone else. In the immortal words of Ricky Bobby, "If you're not first, you're last." This seems to be the motto of many modern day Americans. In that spirit I am going to lay out an argument for being kind for completely selfish reasons.  

When I started formulating this argument in my head I kept coming back to several pieces I had read years ago about a philosophical concept called egoism. There are several kinds of egoism and the differentiation of type mostly deals with the variety of motivations for being selfish. One type of Egoism is called Ethical Egoism. Ethical Egoism has always intrigued me. It deals specifically with the idea that we do what we believe is morally "right" in the interest of making ourselves feel good. Basically doing things that we believe to be good gives us warm fuzzies. Additionally it states that actions whose consequences will benefit the doer can be classified as ethical.  

A topic that is so brilliantly explored in many films by the Coen Brothers is the relativity of morality. Each person has a moral code but they are flexible, they evolve, and they ultimately benefit the practitioner. I also think that our ability to evolve morally is an important part of what makes us human.

I am by no means a neuroscientist but we know that we are basically big chemistry sets. All the time the feelings and emotions we have are caused by or cause a release of chemicals in the brain. Feelings of happiness and well being have a specific set of chemicals associated with them. Remember the warm fuzzies we get from being kind to someone?  Chemicals. Also the flexibility of morals allows our brain to release the same chemicals for a variety of reasons. In the crudest sense we are drug addicts looking for a fix.  

So basically here is my contention. We can be kind because we are selfish jerks. We can be kind to make the world a better place because we don't want to live in a world full of a**holes. We can be kind for the chemical high. Whatever you see as the motivation... be kind.   

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


I challenge myself every year to relate everything back to a word or concept. Last year it was clarity. This year it is balance. I don't do new year's resolutions but have found it much more interesting to think of a word or concept and relate ideas back to it. To that end I've been pondering the concept of ontological guilt or anxiety as it relates to balance. It's been a while since I've studied Existentialism but basically ontological guilty is a concept where our ability to choose (free will) brings with it guilt or regret or anxiety. Did I make the right choice?  What if?  Anyone who has experienced buyer's remorse understands this concept on a more concrete level. There are also other sources of said guilt such as Interpersonal guilt which comes from our awareness of our subjectivity and inability to truly understand another person or our guilt about our relationship with nature.

Obviously this is a HUGE concept to talk about here but let's see what I can tackle in roughly 500 words.

To this point I have defined balance as an active state. I introduced a concept I coined the "fluid normal." I talked about empathy as a function of being in the present. I also talked about fear and anxiety being caused by too much willful will and not trusting yourself to the water of fluidity.  I also talked about "yes, and" and life as a grand improvisation. The common thread to all of these is uncertainty which is the very definition of ontological guilt and anxiety. It is part of the function of the human mind to find order in chaos. This is mostly based on patterns. The mind learns what probably will happen. I think this almost happens to the point where we forget that the universe, at least in my opinion, is chaotic. The anomalies are sources of cognitive dissonance and a reminder that we do actually have free will and that we don't have all the answers.

I think part of the response this creates is that we all walk around feeling guilty. It also doesn't help that our government and many religions are fraught with rules that are impossible to follow to the letter. In some religions people are even taught that we are all sinners: all guilty. As a consequence even the most pious person feels "guilty" of something. The #1 overused expression in the English language is "I'm sorry." If a word gets used to much it ceases to have meaning. I fear this has happened with apologies. 

The consequence of all this guilt in my opinion is we are never truly living in the present. I find it a funny paradox because "mindfulness" and "being present" have become buzz words.  Kind of a western neo-Buddhist thought. We try to talk of being present, but all the while different aspects of society pile on guilt. The reason why I see this as a paradox is guilt is necessarily feeling regret about what you have done (past) and feeling anxiety about the choices you will make (future). With all this attention to the past and future I think it is impossible to be in the present.

I'll leave you with one final thought about a source of guilt. I think the core of many of these rules and law are to conquer base human traits. While some of this is important for a functioning society others are completely out of our control. Feeling guilty because you covet a piece of cake, or buy something that you think is too fancy, or have lustful thoughts about someone, or drive a little too fast, or spend too much time on social media, or order the 1/2 lb burger instead of the 1/4 lb.  To me these are all attempts to get one up on the universe. That pursuit is a noble one in my opinion but it has unintended consequences. One that immediately pops to mind is it creates a moral high ground. This is fine but this moral high ground is often used to throw stones. To judge. Basically we are giving the individual, ourselves, license to be yet another source of guilt for others in an attempt to absolve ourselves of guilt. I actually have a little chuckle when I think of this because trying to get an advantage on the universe is a futile pursuit because you're it.  You can't get one up on yourself.  

My takeaway from this and my thoughts as it applies to balance? I try to have my feelings about actions be driven by the intention behind the action. To me this is where the juicy stuff is.                     

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Two weeks ago I talked a little about meditation. I didn't post last week because I was on vacation. This week I'm going to share a few techniques I've found useful. I have no expertise or certification in the practice. I have 20 years of personal experience, so take what I say with that in mind. Remember my idea of meditation is really just spending some time alone with your thoughts and noticing; whatever that means to you. I prefer sitting meditation in the fairly traditional sense but I have also found similar benefit in other activities. I used to be a pretty serious cyclist and I have definitely reached a reflective place being on a bike for extended amounts of time. Also, as a musician, there is a certain meditative quality to playing, though in an ensemble setting it is a much more active group meditation. I just got home from a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico and while I am by no means a serious fisherman I can definitely see how an activity like that can be very meditative. 

The first technique that I use is a connection with my breath. This can be as simple as just regulating our breath with a simple count on the inhale and exhale. Basically exhale fully. Inhale and count the time it takes to inhale. Match your exhale. Wash, rinse, repeat. In yoga this is called sama vritti breathing or equal breath. There are a whole variety of breathing exercises and I won't go into them here. What I will say is that whenever I find myself in the process of finding a meditative place or needing to re-center myself I go straight to focusing on breath. 

Connection with breath can also be used in movement activities. In yoga this is called vinyasa. Breath syncronized movement. A connection with breath can be part of any activity. I have runner friends that talk about it. I know I used to do it cycling. It can really be part of any activity.

The next step for me is to let my mind do what it does. Some accounts of meditation call it a quieting of the mind. The problem with trying to quiet the mind is the act of trying is getting in the way. What I do instead is "try" to get out of the way and let my mind go where it may. In this place I just notice. One of the benefits I find of this activity is it allows me to experience thoughts as almost a third person observer. One visual metaphor that I've enjoyed is thinking of thoughts as leaves falling off a tree into a stream. As the thought comes just observe it, then watch it "float" away in the stream. At first I thought this metaphor was a little new age touchy feely but I have really come to enjoy it.

Another interesting technique is to do the opposite and try to focus on sounds in the environment. I find this easiest to do if there aren't any prevailing sounds like a lawn mower or construction noise. An activity I enjoy is to try to direct your hearing to different distances from your body. Start with noticing body sounds, then room sounds, then house sounds, then street sounds, then beyond. You can hear some pretty crazy stuff.  You also notice that there are lots of sounds around us all the time that we filter out.

I'll tell a funny story. I get frequent MRIs of my head and spine as part of the aftermath of my brain surgery and monitoring of lesion activity as a result of MS. Anyone who has had an MRI knows they are loud. Really loud.  Also many of the sounds they make are similar to the sounds we've been conditioned since birth to equate with danger. All manner of siren type sounds. The machine even shakes and vibrates. The sounds are also rhythmic which makes it interesting to try to sync breath with them. The techs will "narrate" the MRI basically introducing each scan. I've had so many I just tell them to plow through it and skip the talking. About 3/4 of the way though the 45 minute test they come and inject me with a gadolinium contrast to see if there is any new tumor or lesion activity. In order to do this they have to take you out of the machine for a minute. Now, often people are a little anxious about the whole thing and I can see why but I actually have grown to enjoy them. You are forced to spend 45 minutes alone with your thoughts. So the funny part. The tech comes in and rolls my little bed out of the machine and I am in a pretty deep meditative state and he says "are you actually relaxed in that thing?"  My reply... "yup."   

So I offer to you my thoughts on meditation. It is not a big thing and there is no wrong way. For me the most distracting thought I can have is "am I doing this right?" If there is no wrong way then guess what... you are.       

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” –Steve Jobs

This week I am going a little of script. In previous posts I have talked about different kinds of balance. Being non-judgmental. Allowing fluidity to what you consider your baseline or normal. Pondering a ‘fluid normal’ is a fun mental exercise but at some point it feels a little like the “dancing about architecture” thing. Getting your mind to that place is quite a different story. Here are my practical observations.

Let me preface this with the notion that I have always had a severe allergic reaction to dogma. Dogma is merely a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. As the quote above states this is living someone else’s truth or life. We often think of dogma in the context of religion but it can definitely be applied to secular things too. Anything that has a prevailing paradigm has dogma. It is not necessarily insidious. This definition encompasses many of the things we come into contact with. Rather than get on a soapbox I wanted to just preface my experiences with meditation with the idea that anything can have dogma.

So what is meditation? We often think of mediation as some kind of mystical experience that involves sitting on the floor, twisting up like a pretzel, closing your eyes, and listening to tapes of waves crashing while incense and candle burn. We buy stuff, maybe a special pillow or special meditation clothes. We buy books and tapes. We even go places to take classes in how to do it. I have been practicing meditation on and off for 20 years and while that stuff can help none of it is meditation. I find it actually a little antithetical to what we want from a meditation practice. I’ll elaborate later but this is where the idea of dogma comes in for me. Americans are very good at thinking that there are steps and technique in “doing it right”. If we don’t follow those steps we are “doing it wrong” and “failing”. That is the beauty of what meditation is for me. There is no right or wrong. That creates a severe case of cognitive dissonance in a culture that has been taught from the time we were children that there is right and wrong and that’s it.  

Unfortunately that gets us no closer to understanding what it is. I think, at the core, meditation is just being alone with your thoughts. I think one of the common misconceptions about meditation is that it is about learning to control your mind. In my experience it is quite the contrary. It is about learning to get out of your own way. What the heck does that mean? That is where this dogma idea comes in for me. If the idea of meditating is to get out of our own way, dogma is actually putting steps IN the way. Technique. Levels. Steps. Gear. Stuff.

The number one thing I hear from people considering mediation is that they “don’t know how to do it”. So they take a class. They buy a book or a tape. They seek out a guru (who you jivin’). They grade themselves based on how long they can stay sitting. I remember distinctly being in a conversation where everyone was standing around comparing how long they meditate for. I don’t think people were intending to brag but they were measuring and comparing. We’re good at that. So we do things to “push” ourselves to sit longer. Longer is better, right? I’ll be more relaxed and centered, right? Stress melts away, right? I’m get one up on this life thing, right?

All I can relate here is my own experience. By saying this line of thinking is right or wrong would contradict my central theme. All these thoughts are valid and important. Any ‘steps’ are valid and important. But to me that is what meditation is. It is whatever comes up. Noticing. For me it can be a sitting meditation but I also feel like I get the same benefit out of going for a bike ride or walk, listening to music, taking a shower, gardening, cooking, even mowing the lawn or doing chores. I find when I get out of my own way my mind comes up with some pretty wild stuff, like the ‘bacon’ movie or this post.

So what is meditation? Whatever works for you.

In my own meditation, when I notice I’m trying not to try, I start laughing.