Meditate with Max!

A Veil of Perception

I’ve been meditating regularly for the past several months, spurred on by an intensely quieting trek in the woods and a major life transition. It has been bringing to my mind all sorts of thoughts on reality, perception, and consciousness. It has also allowed me the mental clarity to focus hard on things like art and music, despite not having any sort of schedule or deadlines or external impetus. It’s a wonderful practice which I think can improve any life.

I should probably preface this by saying that I don’t really know anything about the subject, just a few things I’ve read and noticed. There are so many ways of describing meditation, but I’ve been noticing most recently changes in perception. Buddhist philosophy talks about about maya, the fact that our interaction with reality is an illusion. It’s easy to read these words, but harder to internalize them. Regular practice of meditation starts to give a sense of the truth in the idea.

At first, our perception of the world around us seems pretty accurate. Especially if you have good eye sight, things are probably pretty clear, depth is well understood by the brain, colors are intact and go well together. It’s pretty hard to know what things actually are, but it seems clear that they at least are something. But here’s the thing about perception: everything goes through our brains. And all of our brains are different. Who knows where some peoples’ brains have been. Even barring major malfunctions, they are filled with memories, fears, desires and intentions. Everything we see is tinted by everything we have seen, and everything we can imagine seeing. At the same time, the impermanence of these things becomes clear. We will only be here for a short while, memories of us only slightly longer.

This might seem like not such a big deal, but I think actually feeling the truth behind it is really important. Perhaps impermanence and the lack of uniform reality could lead one down a path of apathy and disconnectedness. Instead, I believe that in combination with a focus on compassion, it is freeing to know that nothing lasts forever, that fear and discomfort will evaporate as quickly as they arrived, if you let them. There is a certain levity and joy in this state of mind, one that allows full expression and easy improvisation. There is little danger in trying new things, in reaching out, and in putting yourself out there.

A gray, rainy day in Seattle can be miserable if that is how you perceive it, but it can also be delicious and refreshing. Either way, it certainly will not last forever, and how we interact with it is up to us.

Important Words

I’ve noticed a shift recently in the words I’ve been thinking about the most, and the words to which I attach positive meaning. I’ve never really considered before what specific words define my life, but it seems like maybe a good way to examine transitions and values. Here are some words that have previously been important to me, but which are now receding:

  • Efficiency
  • Productivity
  • Achievement
  • Success
  • Money
  • Winning
  • Multitasking
  • Speed
  • Perfection
  • Sarcasm
  • Cleverness

They tend to be business- and achievement-oriented, but relatively cold and impersonal. I think this is a fair reflection of the pressure society puts on us to “make something of our life,” get promotions, and accrue wealth. You know, capitalism. In the past several months, however, my words have become much more touchy-feely, much more directed at emotional health and growth. A lot of these words still feel far away, but I do feel like I’m at least moving toward them:

  • Love
  • Compassion
  • Synchronicity
  • Play
  • Abundance
  • Flourishing
  • Authenticity
  • Gratitude
  • Joy
  • Improvisation
  • Intuition
  • Connection
  • Communication
  • Community
  • Creativity
  • Mindfulness
  • Intention

Coming up with these word lists was a fun exercise in stepping back and examining where my life is, and where I want it to go. I found it a lot harder to come up with words that used to be important but aren’t any more, because, well, I haven’t been thinking about them much. And writing them down makes me realize how much of a relief it is to let them go.

I think it’s important to note that some of the receding words like “productivity” and “efficiency” aren’t necessarily bad things, but they are also not goals in and of themselves. They say nothing of the value of the thing created. I doubt anybody has ever laid on their death bed, smiling and reflecting back on how wonderfully efficient his life had been.

What are your words?

Swirling Colors

Easy Decisions

A friend just sent me this article, and it’s really great. Definitely worth a read, even if you aren’t a freshman in college anymore and didn’t go to Stanford. It’s never too late to be who you’re meant to be.

I especially relate to the section on “going with the flow,” the idea that we often choose a path because the decision is easy, even if the path is not. At a number of points in my life, I have chosen to do a specific thing (graduate school, traveling abroad, working in construction and then consulting) not because it meant my life would be the most comfortable, but because the choices were. It’s easy to go to graduate school immediately after college, and it eliminates a lot of hard decisions like where to live and what to do with your time and what to do about money. Deciding to travel was easy, too. I had friends who had gone to Europe to work on farms, and all I had to do was apply for an internship and buy some plane tickets. Not that it wasn’t an incredibly valuable experience; it was life changing. But it was an easy decision.

Deciding to quit my good office job and strike out on my own was a harder decision which opened up all sorts of previously decided variables (location, where to focus my effort, and again, money). But at the same time, it felt right throughout the process. Maybe I had already internalized some of what the author is laying out here, and maybe I’m optimistic enough to think that everything will work out no matter what I do. But it was definitely not the same kind of decision that kept me going on the common path I had already followed to grad school, traveling abroad, and working at an office. It took time and emotional processing and a lot of encouragement to make the decision. Now I am immersed in a world that works much differently than 9-5, one which demands boldness, creativity, and authenticity rather than stability, security, and risk-aversion. I’m still figuring out how to navigate it, and probably will be for the rest of my life. Suggestions are welcome!

Also, I’ve been painting a lot. Check ’em out!

Bold colors, drips

Art and Soul

This fall I decided to work through two new “how-to” books, one on creativity and one on kung fu. I thought this would get me going in two different directions since these two things are so clearly distinct. One is about art, one is about the body. I slowly realized, however, that I was essentially dealing with the same beast: energy, life flow, chi. This is one of those ideas that automatically makes whoever is talking about it sound hippie-dippy, like someone who has never picked up a science book and spends a lot of time waving around sticks, wearing overly-comfortable tie-dyed pajamas. I’m not saying I would never wave sticks around like that (and who doesn’t love comfortable pajamas?), but I do also have more than the average number of degrees in hard sciences (2). I’m pretty sure we have this mental image about energy flow because of the way the media characterizes it, maybe some remnant of a backlash against the 60’s spirit of free-love or something. I’m too young and un-media-savvy to know. But to the point.

Here’s what I’ve been working on. For creativity: The Artist’s Way. The subtitle reads “A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity,” to give you an idea. Once I started this, I found out that it’s actually quite popular among certain groups, and there are meet-ups for people scattered on coffee shop bulletin boards all across the country. And for kung fu: The Shaolin Workout. Subtitled: “28 Days to Transforming Your Body and Soul the Warrior’s Way.” I haven’t met anyone else who has seen this book, but I don’t travel much in martial arts circles.

I’m on week 5 of 12 in The Artist’s Way, and day 17 of 28 in The Shaolin Workout. I’ve been going about half speed in The Artist’s Way, often getting distracted for a few days and finding myself behind schedule. I’ve found that the “days” referred to in The Shaolin Workout are more metaphorical, along the lines of “four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, three in the evening.” This book contains a lifetime of movements to be learned and perfected. Many of the later exercises are near impossible without years (I presume) of focus on flexibility (“standing tall, kick one leg up to graze your toe against your forehead with control while keeping both legs straight” kind of stuff).

Here’s the basic idea behind The Artist’s Way. Creativity is not something we can simply focus hard on to produce. Rather, it is a flow that travels through us from some external force, some god or higher power or what-have-you. We, as artists, have to learn to disconnect our internal censors from this flow and just let it rush through us. Without our censor blocking the flow of creativity, we will be able to fill pages or canvasses or rolls of film. The important thing is that it doesn’t matter if you “believe” in where this energy is coming from. You don’t have to believe in God, per se. But thinking about it in this way will allow you to create art in a non-destructive way, a way that doesn’t require drugs or alcohol or addictions to silence the censor for you.

I’m not sure that I’m necessarily very far along this path right now, but even the short moments of clarity I’ve had with it have been wonderful. It comes with a feeling of openness, expansiveness, connectedness. It allows me to do one of the most necessary and difficult things to do when practicing something new: to fail. To make terrible art and trite writing. I’m starting to understand how important this is, and how I’ll never get any better unless I actually do it and work on it and slowly get better.

It’s good that I’m learning to be OK with failure, because kung fu is HARD. This is not something my body is used to. My hips and hamstrings are tight with a lifetime of sitting in cars and chairs. I cannot graze my toe against my forehead with a straight leg in a controlled way, or in even a wildly uncontrolled way. That’s going to take a lot of practice and stretching. At the end of each workout there is a meditation to focus on for the rest of the day. Things started to come together when I got to the Chinese proverb, “Be not afraid of moving slowly, be afraid only of standing still.” So I’m chipping away at the tightness in my hips, just as I’m chipping away at the censor blocking my creativity.

But here’s the thing. Both of these are actually working on the same thing. Kung fu focuses on releasing chi and letting that energy rush through me. The Artist’s Way focuses on releasing creativity and letting that energy rush through me. The tightness in my hips is constricting my chi, making it harder to stand up straight and tall, making my body a less-than-ideal place for this energy to pass easily. The creative blocks I’ve built up through years of being a perfectionist are making it difficult for me to sit down and paint. After doing the kung fu stretches, my body feels loose and energized, and I feel a sense of exuberance and life. When I actually do sit down and draw, my mind feels free and energized. As my energy flow increases, my head buzzes with openness, expansiveness, connectedness. I feel that I am (or at least am nearer to being) a fully empowered and creative being.

I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’ve read some books. I also don’t know much about energy flow, chi, etc, aside from what I’ve picked up through kung fu and yoga. But I think this all has something to do with the right side of the brain. I’ve written about the right side of the brain before, and this talk by Jill Bolte Taylor gets at a lot of what I think I’m talking about. It does make sense that martial arts would put you in your right-hemisphere, though. The movement of the body and spatial awareness that creates is exactly the kind of thing that shifts your focus from the analytical to the holistic. If this irrational, emotive hemisphere is also where the creativity to practice visual arts comes from (as it seems to be), then the two are perfect complements. More chi, more energy, more creativity, more flow, whatever that means. More kung fu, and more art. A life of openness, expansiveness, connectedness. Sounds good to me.

Self-Help and Mentoring

About four years ago I was traveling through Italy, biking, farming, and just generally exploring life. I didn’t have a lot of direction other than south, but life felt good. As I started seeing more hamlets and monasteries on the tops of cliffs and mountains, I realized something: I needed a mentor. I felt that my life could go all sorts of wild places, and that it would be valuable to have a wise soul to guide me through the process.

This is actually Greece, but you get the idea. Same trip, at least. The Meteora.

I made a note of this in my journal and promptly forgot about it for several years. I never sought out any person or community that I thought would be able to guide me through my explorations, and nothing materialized on its own. I didn’t think about a mentor in a serious way until a few weeks ago. Instead of renewing my resolve to find a guide, however, I realized that I have already been seeking the advice and lessons from numerous mentors.

“Self-help” has a terrible ring to it. It is full of negative connotation, an admission that one isn’t able or competent enough to deal with the difficulties of life. It doesn’t even make sense – it isn’t self-help if someone else is telling you how to do it. And a lot of it is probably garbage, especially considering the number of shelves dedicated to it at the bookstore. Luckily for me, none of the sources I was using called themselves “self-help”, so I snuck in without realizing where I had gone.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been drawing from a number of sources, gradually improving my life and state of mind. I feel that I’m now reaching a new stage of contentment and freedom in my self, and I am excited to see where things lead from here. The other day I was describing to a friend that the daily vocal training I’m doing was creating all sorts of new openness and range in my voice. I realized that this was in fact true of my whole life.

So what have I been doing? I’m tackling some of the skills I’ve wanted to have for a long time, but never really practiced, and I’m being open to good advice where I find it. Some of the people I’ve drawn the most from are:

Jason Crandell for yoga. I do yoga almost everyday on my own, listening to his podcast. Little things like folding your palms in front of your chest and lifting the skin over your sternum make a huge difference in the practice. When I got these they were free, but it looks like you might have to pay for them now.

Ken Perlman for guitar. I came upon his Fingerstyle Guitar book by chance, and have followed it with his advanced book. I’m playing guitar in ways I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago. Also, what a mustache.

Betty Edwards for drawing and perception. I’ve written about Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain before (here and here), and it has allowed huge leaps in my perception and ability to recreate that on a page.

Steve Pavlina for consciousness and inspiration. This guy might be a wacko, or he might be full of wisdom (or probably somewhere in between), but either way his ideas have inspired me. His blog posts often sound hokey, but they have definitely got me thinking and actively pursuing life.

Timothy Ferriss for fitness, confidence, and life/time management. This is the 4-Hour Workweek and 4-Hour Body guy. Not everything in those books makes sense for every person, but some of his suggestions are spot on, and his workouts are surprisingly effective.

Brett Manning for singing. I just started his speech-level singing course about 5 weeks ago. He’s super cheesy in an L.A./Hollywood way, but like I said, all sorts of new openness and range. Very expensive, unless you can borrow it from a friend.

This week I also started working through Julia Cameron‘s The Artist’s Way. It’s a spiritual approach to nurturing creativity. I’m excited about it – even reading the introduction made me want to sit down and paint all day.

The fear with seeking advice and guidance from strangers is that their thinking will take over your life and you’ll end up joining a cult or something. This is more true of the life-coach type sources than the skill-specific ones. I think the key here is to take it all with a grain of salt and to draw from multiple sources simultaneously. Doing so makes it a lot easier to distinguish the good ideas from the fluff without necessarily buying into an entire lifestyle. The fact that they are mostly free (or available at a library) helps. I definitely don’t have plans to pay for this kind of advice any time soon. Again, specific skills are a bit different.

While I would still be open to having some kind of personal mentor, I feel that I’ve found a workable alternative through these various sources, and I’m sure there are plenty more I haven’t found yet (and I welcome suggestions – especially on writing, painting, and song-writing). I’m continuing to cobble together a kind of personal philosophy, and I expect to be doing so my whole life. It’s exciting and fulfilling. Still, I’d rather not call it “self-help.”