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Archive for November, 2009

We’re creatures of habit.  We form little routines to solve our ‘problems’ and we tweek the routines until we get something that works for us.  Take the ‘problem’ of commuting to work.  I used to live in the suburbs, and the most convenient way to work was to drive.  So I tried different driving routes until I found the right combination of factors… shortest route with the least traffic, but somewhat scenic, a less expensive place to park and I would walk by a great coffee stand on the way to the office.  So, I’d found the optimal routine, given my limited approach to commuting to work, for my preferences.  But, is this the absolute best way for me to commute to work?  I may never know, because I’ve arrived at a comfortable solution.  In statistics they say I’ve reached a ‘local maxima’.

If you have a limited number of solutions to a problem, you can plot them in a graph which may appear like the graph below.  A series of bell shaped curves, or what I think looks more like little turtle shells.  The highest point in each shell is called the local maxima, meaning the best solution in that vicinity.  If we are able to plot all of the possible solutions, then it is easy enough to look for the highest point in the highest shell (curve), and that is the ‘best’ solution.  This approach is called a ‘brute force’ search for a solution.  However, there are many problems that have billions of possible solutions.  Some, in fact, have an un-computable number of possible solutions, so you can’t possibly consider all of the solutions.  So, you won’t know if the good solution you have come up with is the best of all possible solutions, or just a local maxima.

In computers, they have an entire field of study called ‘search algorithms’.  This doesn’t mean searching the internet with something like Google.  A search algorithm is a computer program or technique that employs various equations to search through the ‘problem space’, the possible solutions, looking for ways to arrive at better and better solutions (now, Google likely does employ search algorithms in its internet search function).  But many of these algorithms get hung up when they reach a local maxima.

There is one search algorithm I’m particularly fond of, which is known as a ‘genetic algorithm’.  This computer program simulates the way genetics works with DNA to arrive at the optimal characteristics for survival, only it substitutes the characteristics for the solution of your problem instead.

One of the features of genetics is mutation, where a gene pairing is changed randomly, causing an unpredictable result.  Usually, this mutation is counter productive…  say it produces two heads!  But sometimes, the mutation gives the species a new trait that makes them much more successful than before, say a fish with a lung capable of breathing air on land.  Mutation, either in physical genetics, or applied to other ‘problems’ through computer algorithms allows the search to break out of local maxima and possibly find higher maxima; coming out of your shell, so to speak.

So, applied to our world of routines, it means that occasionally, we should break our routines, try something completely different (as Monty Python says).  In commuting, perhaps I should try taking the train instead of driving.  Though the commute may be longer, I would be able to do a couple of hours of work on the train, and be able to leave the office that much earlier, giving me more free time at home.  Or, better yet, maybe I can tele-commute, which would save much more time, save on expenses, reduce my carbon emmissions and help the planet.  But, I’ll never encounter these better solutions, if I stick to my routines.  I’ve got to come out of my little shell once in a while and try something completely different!

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Giving

On the occasion of ‘Black Friday’, I’ve been thinking a lot about giving.  People give for a lot of different reasons.  Some give because it’s fun to do.  Some give to impress other people and get their names on buildings.  Some give because there is a need and they just happen to be there at that moment.

Commercially influenced giving has put me off for a long time.  Carefully orchestrated seasons for giving, which are slowly creeping their way all around the calendar.  This sort of commercial hype can lead to giving out of obligation, or with the expectation of getting something in return.  If someone you love tends to give you expensive gifts, then you may feel that you need to give them something of equal or greater value; like an arms race, it sparks a gift race!  I saw a commercial the other night encouraging us to give someone a Lexus.  I think I would hate to receive such a gift, because how could I top that?  This sort of giving, I believe, causes more pain and frustration than it does warm feelings of generosity and love.

I enjoy giving personal things that I have made specially for the recipient (if I have the time).  But then, that sort of gift leaves us with little treasures that we feel we need to display and/or store for the rest of our lives.  Better yet are gifts that are consumable;  a night on the town, a weekend in the country.  Once enjoyed, we store only the warm memory.

Thanksgiving always reminds me of the best gift that you can give.  And that is the gift of food.  If you’ve never gone hungry, count yourself lucky; there are many people, whole families in fact, who go hungry every day.  One easy way is to donate canned food (or any food that doesn’t need to be refrigerated) to a local food bank (contact the local food bank near you for details).  If you want to be more involved, I’ve volunteered for organizations that provide meals to shut-ins during the holidays.  Volunteers deliver the meals, then sit and chat while the recipient enjoys their meal and your company.  I’m sure there is one in your area.

And sometimes, if I stop in for take-out food, I’ll order two or three additional meals, and hand them out to people in need, on my way home.  Mostly, for the selfish joy I get from seeing a face light up at the prospect of a warm meal.  Give yourself the gift of giving!

 

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There are many colorful Zen monks found in history, and one of my favorites is Ikkyū.  Ikkyū was born a bit over 500 years ago, probably the illegitimate son of the Emperor and a low ranking nobel woman.  That offered him at least some privilege and he was sent to a monastery and educated well.  Many monks would simply enjoy a comfortable monastic life, but Ikkyū genuinely wanted to learn ‘the truth’, the dharma.  And so, struck out for other monasteries to find teachers who could instruct him. He spent short periods at various monasteries, but found that they had nothing to teach him.  Finally, he did meet an advanced teacher who he studied with for several years.  Upon that teacher’s death, he struck out again and eventually met another advanced teacher who also taught him.

Ikkyū’s own level of enlightenment had grown, and one day, so legend has it, he heard the call of a crow and it sent him into a satori which earned him his enlightenment certificate.  Now, I suspect that enlightenment certificates are about as valuable as the paper they are written on, but, like a college degree today, it does indicate at least some level of achievement by the student.

Though very highly regarded at the monastery, Ikkyū’s teacher promoted another of his students to be the next head of the temple.  Ikkyū didn’t think much of his teacher’s replacement, regarding him as corrupt and not genuinely interested in Zen, and promptly moved out of the monastery, into the brothel across the street. He said something to the effect that it was nice to be around honest people for a change.  A scandal at the time, he saw no problem with his behavior, considering all things holy, including drinking and enjoying sex (let’s all have a round of applause for Ikkyū, thank-you, thank-you very much!).

He became an artist, renown for his sumi-e painting and calligraphy, a musician and composer for the shakuhachi as well a consummate poet.  There is a book of his poems entitled ‘A Crow with no Mouth’ (presumably the crow that prompted his satori).  Eventually, the head of the monastery where he last studied died (the guy he didn’t like much), and they begged him to come back as its head, which he did.  He soon enacted sweeping new policies to get rid of much of the corruption that had long been entrenched in the monastery.

Late in life, in his 80’s I believe, he fell in love with a blind girl in the village (60 years his junior) named Mori, and they made unabashed love in the fields on the outskirts of town.  Many of the poems he wrote of their intimacies can still make one blush today.  I can only imagine how scandalous they were back then.

Ikkyū is a perfect model of what ‘the truth’ is… it’s honest, it’s real, it’s in, and of, all things and in all experiences.  It doesn’t abide disingenuousness or corruption.  It is found in art, in music and in a loving embrace.

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Descartes

A friend of mine reminded me of Descartes today (you know who you are!).  Geeze, I probably owe my undergraduate degree (or at least my GPA) to Descartes.  I was a psychology major, trying my best to take any course somewhat more stimulating than behavioral psychology, developmental psychology, humanistic psychology, abnormal psychology (wait, that one was kind of fun).  I took one class in philosophy, and it was a real revelation.

There were no tests.  Lectures were optional, though, they were very entertaining, and so I attended most of them.  Your entire grade was based on a mid-term outline for your term paper, and your final term paper.  I chose Descartes as my topic.

Descartes was a French philosopher and mathematician (the Cartesian coordinate system is named after him).  He’s famous for the postulate “I think, therefore I am.” That brings up the very fundamental question of “who are you?”  This question has been asked by Jana Yoga scholars for millenia; Shankara, Patanjali, Ramana Maharshi (in recent times).

If the ‘I’ you are talking about is your conscious mind, then yes, Descartes is absolutely correct.  But, I might disagree with traditional interpretations of what he’s describing.  Most scholars interpret that quote to mean ” because I think, it is proof that I am”.  My interpretation is that “thinking gives rise to an individual awareness, an ego, and hence a person manifests.”  If to think, therefore you are, then to not think, therefore you are not!  At least in the limited ego sense.

I can’t honestly recall what my term paper was about.  But I explored this topic at length, with real fervor.  “Who are you?”

I got an A- in the class, it saved my GPA and helped me to graduate.  Philosophy seemed way closer to the mark than psychology… so I think that sealed my fate.

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A good meditation practice consists of meditating daily, twice a day if possible, but at least once a day.  When you meditate, you should practice one of the techniques I’ve outlined, or another that you’ve found helpful to you.  And when you meditate, really work at it, concentrate.  During the rest of the day, you should practice mindfulness.  Pay attention to what you are allowing through your mind, don’t dwell on the past or worry about the future.  Stay in the present moment.  And, in the present moment, focus on positive things.  Don’t allow hate, anger and negativity to dominate your thoughts.

If you do these things diligently, then your consciousness will continually improve and you will live a happy and healthy life.  As mentioned in the last post, there are times when we go on auto-pilot, and don’t put as much effort into our practice, but even a half-hearted meditation keeps us going.  Then, there are times that we fall off the path completely (well, I don’t believe you are ever off the path, because falling off of it IS part of the path).  There are times you may stop meditating entirely, and stop practicing mindfulness.  And one day you wake up and notice you’re in pain.  Life sucks, and you’re not happy at all.

This is where your practice can really pay dividends.  You don’t have to wonder why you’re not happy.  You don’t have to wonder what to do about it.  You know exactly what you have to do.  Start practicing again.  Put on your “beginner’s mind” hat and dig out the instructions for basic meditation exercises and approach meditation as if you’d never done it before.  In re-learning it, you may grasp some concepts or techniques that you missed the first (or the fortieth) time around.

Practice is your best friend that always has your back, and never lets you down, even if you’ve ignored him for a while.

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Practice

A couple of my friends and I have been giving some free mediation classes in NYC recently.  I just assumed that everyone coming to the weekly classes had formed a regular meditation practice, but an informal survey one night showed that our ‘weekly’ class, WAS their meditation practice.  So, I had to come up with a talk on the importance of a regular (meaning daily) meditation practice.

I studied with this teacher named Frederick Lenz, who taught under the name of Rama.  He was a fully enlightened teacher, somewhat controversial in his day, but, what can you say… he glowed, he could do a lot of interesting, non-physical stuff, and he taught a lot of valuable information.  Someone once asked him how often one should practice meditation.  He responded “ideally, you would meditate twice a day for one hour in each session [people newer to meditation might have shorter sessions].  If you can’t meditate twice a day, then you should meditate once, at the start of your day.  If you can’t meditate once a day, then you should try to meditate … oh… once every year.  Just don’t expect the same results.”

You’re going to get out of meditation, what you put into it.  Plain and simple.  But, it is a lot of work, so why do it?  Well, because the discipline will come back to help you when you really need it.

If you are meditating fairly regularly, then you probably don’t need much help, but there are those times that we ‘fall’; times we ‘leave the reservation’ that test us the most.  There are times, in the life of any person who practices meditation, when we become disenchanted with the process, or the outcome, or anything at all having to do with anything.  At that point, we can lose it completely.  This is where a regular practice becomes invaluable.

If you are used to meditating for an hour every morning before work, well, you will likely continue to do that meditation, no matter what.  It’s a bit like an auto-pilot, it steers the plane while you are otherwise occupied.  Your practice compels you to do the right thing.  You might go for months on auto-pilot, but, auto-pilot keeps you flying straight and level, so that is not a bad thing.  In a way, you have taken refuge in the ‘Practice’.

By having a regular practice, even on the days you are really not feeling it, you’ll sit there and do it, because that is what you do.  And in so doing, you are likely to spit out the other side, into the light, and understand, again, why you do it.

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There is an old saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.  I don’t think there is any guarantee that goes along with that by the way!  You could be ‘ready Freddy’, and nothing happens.  But, my experience has been that if you are eager, sufficiently humble, and willing to work hard, then teachers will appear. How?  I don’t know, it’s a mystery!

If you want to learn something… anything… then you need to put that thing forefront in your consciousness.  Get every book you can get on the subject, attend seminars, and subscribe to magazines.  That will put the subject in your consciousness, and connect you with other people who have the same subject in their consciousness.  In so doing, you may come across some small shred of information that leads you to a person willing to teach you what you want to know. You just have to be willing to pay for lessons, or apprentice yourself to them… whatever they may require.

I wanted to learn this instrument called the shakuhachi.  It is an ethnic Japanese flute made out of bamboo (the Chinese have very similar flutes), and it is notoriously hard to play.  So, I researched them and found a local guy in NY who made and sold them.  I offered to buy one and he came to my apartment, played the flute for me, since I couldn’t even get a sound out of it yet, and he told me about a local teacher I could take lessons from if I wished.  I researched the teacher and found that he was the most advanced teacher for this instrument outside of Japan, right here, in my city. Soon, I was learning, what I wanted to learn, from one of the best teachers in the world.

The same methodology has worked for me when wanting to learn about boats and long distance sailing, fencing, martial arts, skydiving, film editing, bicycle mechanics and many many other subjects.

When I became interested in meditation and self-discovery, I met a teacher and I didn’t even know that I was looking for, nor even interested in having, a teacher. But there he was.  Later, I recognized that the meeting was just the culmination of one or more years of conversation that my deeper being, my soul, had been having, unbeknownst to my conscious mind, with this very same teacher.

So many of my ‘big ideas’ weren’t even my own ideas.  They were suggestions the teacher made during my dreams.  He had this ability to visit people in dreams, sometimes thousands of people simultaneously, and carry on a dialog. “Say, if you’re looking for a career change, why don’t you think about going into computers?”. “Say, if you want to be happier, find true love, why don’t you consider learning meditation?”.

I studied with my meditation teacher for 13 years (in the physical).  And one of the more interesting things he taught me is that a teacher doesn’t really teach that much through the explicit instructions that they give… oh sure, that’s important information, but the real teaching is on a much more esoteric level; teaching happens on a vibratory level.  When you spend time with a person who knows what you want to know, their mind vibrates at a certain level, and at that level of vibration is the knowledge that you seek.

When you spend time with a teacher, a part of you is making note of the vibratory energy of their awareness.  If you then try to bring your own vibration up to the level of theirs, you can suddenly absorb much of the knowledge that they have to offer.  In the spiritual texts, they call this “the direct transmission of the dharma.” Really, it is just pattern matching!

So, if you want to learn something.  Find someone who does exactly whatever it is you want to learn, then do whatever you’re willing to do to spend time around them. It’s a bonus if they are willing to give you explicit knowledge and instruction, but what you really need, is to just absorb their level of vibration, their mind-state.  That will transmit to you more knowledge than you can possibly imagine.  So, do whatever you have to do to just hang out with them… and, well, I guess, knowledge does, in fact, rub off!

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