December 31, 2015 § 29 Comments
“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” ~ Basho
“It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters in the end.” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin
“Do not conform to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” ~ Romans 12:2
Greetings, fellow questers! I’m thrilled to be writing to you today, on the eve of 2016, because it means we have survived another year, and find ourselves poised on the cusp of a fresh opportunity to thrive.
The year in global news has not been pretty, to put it lightly. In fact, it has been chilling. Senseless violence (which is perhaps a redundant term) seems to be spreading across the globe.
We argue about the causes & debate the solutions, while political pundits & other power hungry puppeteers exploit our fears to further self-serving agendas.
But we must not lose heart: the more dark the world, the more important our light.
Of course, “darkness” & “light” are placeholder terms, representing far more complex, elusive ideas. In this context, I’m using the metaphor of darkness as a stand-in for violence, cruelty, abuse; and “light” as a stand-in for what affirms life, is constructive & lifts us up.
They are insufficient metaphors, but they’ll do for now. All words are but placeholders, signifying ideas whose scope language can not contain, but only nod towards—yet we must not confuse the finger pointing at the moon with the moon itself.
The metaphor of darkness & light is a useful one in this context.
For darkness itself is not a presence, but an absence of light (reminding us that cruelty only thrives where empathy & awareness are not cultivated). It also extends to our own inner essence: like a fire we can either ignore it while it dims to an ember, or tend it, feed it tinder & blow on the flame. Even the most neglected fire, when fed, can again rise to its former glory & beyond.
And all it takes is a single struck match to illuminate a dark room.
And so it becomes more important than ever, in this climate of fear & anxiety that dominates the world at this time, to tend the inner fire.
Only by turning inward can we increase the strength of our own luminosity (awareness, personal power, realization of our potential), which we can then turn outward to better light the world.
Yet where there is pain, there is the urge to numb, and society is right there with a bevy of opportunities to do so: from social media to comfort “fast” food. Smart phones may increase communication, but they also literally put a world of distraction at our fingertips, and so isolation—from our inner selves, from other people—is also increased.
The turning toward distraction, interrupted by soundbites of traumatizing world & local news, becomes a self-feeding cycle of despair. And the further we feel from ourselves, the more we seek solace in escape.
We must interrupt this cycle in whatever way makes the most sense to us, in context of our lives. The eve of the new year is the perfect time to reflect on what form this might take for us.
I have more to say on these subjects & I look forward to exploring them in future posts— offering up my own struck match in the forthcoming months of 2016. But for now I’ll just wish you an illuminating new year….And leave you with the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Happy 2016, fellow travelers! Here’s to feeding the inner fire; to lighting up the night!
October 18, 2015 § 9 Comments
Loving ourselves is a daily practice.
We often think of self-love as a state of being — either we have it or we don’t. But I have learned through much struggle over the years that self-love is actually a verb, an action. It is a choice we make anew each day to take care of ourselves, to believe in ourselves & to treat ourselves with dignity, kindness & respect. When we see the dignity in ourselves it is easier to see & honor it in others.
In my life I have loved—and at times been obsessed with—perfection. Like so many who appreciate & feel moved by beauty & art, I become easily attached to symmetry & consistency.
In the Platonic tradition there is a realm of ideal forms. This mental plane is a source of great inspiration & imagination, a place of pure potential. Yet when fantasy meets reality, we often feel disconcerted by the discrepancy.
We judge our lives, ourselves as ugly.
We as humans are conceptual architects. We are constantly constructing our relationship to reality—and thereby reality itself—with the story we tell ourselves. We build frameworks & points of reference. But we must watch not to build prisons.
I find my negative judgments & consequential emotional pain most often centers around where the real meets the ideal & falls short. But I am beginning to suspect that, rather than conflicting opposites, one is the spirit of the other.
The ideal is the grandest possible vision of a thing, but how it shows itself in physical reality is what makes it interesting. It becomes the wabi-sabi ideal, a beautiful expression of organic process, the real in its most thrilling sense: alive.
We must learn to love the real because we are real. And when we are kind to ourselves we are kinder to others.
Aneta Ivonova, “Hannover.”
February 25, 2015 § 12 Comments
“Waiting to arrive—we’ve been here all along.” ~ Barry Spacks
At a fourth of July yard party, several years ago, a friend of a friend asked to speak with me; a soft-spoken gentleman whose penetrating blue eyes looked at once both illuminated & haunted.
He said he was a clairvoyant, and sometimes this happened—someone on “the other side” tried to get a message through him. This time it was me. Would I like to hear the message?
I LIVE for these moments! Happily, I accepted & we strolled to the far side of the lawn, away from the buzz of party conversation, to a quiet patch of grass. We sat down & he told me that a woman was speaking to him from the other side, my grandmother.
He described an image projected in black & white against a cinema screen, a classic Hollywood beauty in black lace.
He did not know me, but he was describing my grandmother, Margo, exactly—a film actress from the 1930s who was, indeed, fond of black lace.
He chuckled, saying it was funny and odd to have a spirit so insistent on getting his attention, when the message wasn’t an urgent warning of physical danger. He told me:
“She wants you to know that you don’t have to do something to be someone.”
He continued: “She says right now you think you need to do things to be someone, like they did. She says you’re hard on yourself, wanting to be more like your family, but you’re already doing what you’re supposed to be doing. You already are someone.”
What he said struck me. I got chills.
My grandfather, Eddie Albert, was a respected & successful actor, inventor, war-hero & noted humanitarian. He made a difference. Margo, too, was an actress, beloved acting teacher & cultural activist; creator of Plaza de la Rasa, a non-profit inner city arts center. These guys did stuff.
Next to their accomplishments, my blog & small book of poetry seemed a measly offering. I was constantly feeling behind, rushing to catch up; my life felt like sand in an hourglass, the whisper of its grains, a perpetual white noise.
“She says you’re a healer, but not with your hands. You heal by connecting with people, by being yourself, by giving them your energy and attention. By being. She wants you to embrace who you are and be happy with yourself. Feel peace.”
It was a powerful thing to be told by a total stranger. Whether or not you believe that he was receiving messages from my dead grandmother (which, personally, I do) it’s undeniably synchronistic that someone who knew nothing about me should feel compelled to single me out of a party and tell me exactly what I most needed to hear, sacrificing his own time with his friends, wanting nothing in return.
Since then, my personal sense of peace has deepened radically, taking root.
Those simple words restored a significant piece of my fragmented personal power. I share them with you today because I think this message applies to us all.
Our power lies in our presence, our authenticity. Not mere physical presence but intentional emotional, psychological, energetic self-inhabiting. To be fully grounded & embodied—not distracted or mentally fragmented—is the best gift we can give ourselves and each human with whom we interface, from the grocery store clerk to our best friend.
I think we can all heal through human connection, being ourselves, giving others sincere energy and attention. By being.
Living as most of us do in a capitalist, consumer-based society, we are focused on output, productivity, as a measure of personal worth. What have you done? the World seems to ask. Who are you? By which it means, what have you produced?
Now, as an artist I think creation is important; I personally do intend to leave as many thoughtful offerings as possible behind when I die, but the fixation on production can become pathological. As the Western world is famous for doing, it sets the focus on action over being.
Action is important—I’m not talking about “The Secret”-based brand of so-called human potential, where vision boards & belief trump action & hard work. I’m moving a level deeper, more primal, than the basic fact that action is eventually essential. I’m saying, underneath that truth is another truth: the truth that we are nothing without presence.
Without our essence, our awareness, we are meat & bones; zombies inhabiting the Earth, sleepwalking through life, cogs in the machine of industry, role-players, people-pleasers. Without truly inhabiting ourselves, we are lost.
And so the more I integrated focus on inhabiting my body—of being actually having meaning—the better my life got. The better I felt, and (sweet cosmic irony!) my productivity became much more inspired. Because my personal power had been restored.
This came about because I no longer felt reliant on external achievement to reflect my value. I had ceased to hang my sense of purpose & self-worth on creating something (for instance a book) that I then would desperately proffer to a faceless slew of middlemen & women, hoping—just hoping!—they might see something where I had struggled & toiled for years to create an artistic offering of value.
And then, if—wonder of wonders!—a single eye sparkled amid that slew of faceless agents at that certain-something in my writing, then still, more external acceptance awaited, a hall of doors! Would a publisher see what the agent saw? And then—miraculous fortune!—should a publisher deign to invest thousands in my Offering, would “the public” care? Would they even know?
Modern society’s emphasis on personal value based on external, acceptance-based factors, such as status & productivity, would make emotional beggars of us all.
We must reclaim ourselves.
Please don’t misunderstand. To say that merely by existing we are helping the world, on its own is the height of myopic, grotesque self-absorption & delusion. Clearly, action is both ethically & personally essential. But focusing entirely on action without first grounding in being, diminishes the return of said action.
Being must proceed doing, or we become fragmented, anxious, lost—in short, modern humans.
And I’m still totally working on several books with the intention of proffering it brazenly to a faceless slew of agents, who hold the keys to the world of publishing, who hold the moneybags & the printing presses….I’m just not waiting until all of that happens to feel that I am someone. That I’ve “arrived.” Sometimes I have to remind myself of this, but as a touchstone it works wonders. I am here. I am inhabiting my body with awareness. This matters.
When I interface with other humans, I do my best to look deeply into their eyes & see the soul behind their defenses. I try to be a good listener. I try to listen, too, within myself for what wants to be said, what seems, indeed, to need saying—my intuition on what wants to come through our exchange. Like a living radio antenna, I try to tune to the highest potential truth of the moment. Of course, I do it with varying degrees of success—but when I do it right, it works! There is a guiding flow to every moment, waiting to carry us through on its back like a wave.
Oriol Angrill Jordà, “Stellarscapes.”
If we truly lay aside our personal agendas & abstract mental focuses (as best we can) and tune into the wide open space between our molecules, the immense breathing room inside us—the breath flowing through us!—the dancing essence of aliveness in our fingertips & toes, chest, legs, arms, belly…first of all, it feels good. It’s like coming home. Second of all, we become more present & embodied, which in turn has a grounding affect on others—supporting their own self-reclamation—as well as opening us up to increased inspiration & intuition in the moment.
Focusing on being before doing fosters this embodiment. And embodiment is a very achievable goal, because all of the power to realize it lies within us, dependent on no one else.
When present within ourselves and the moment, we are more easily able feel the other, empathetically. We tune in; they feel seen, it becomes a more beautiful world, a more joyful exchange. We are living tuning forks, made of flesh, bone & a mysterious, sentient aliveness; our purpose, I believe, lies in increasing world harmony, one moment, one exchange, at a time. Let us start where we are. Here.
First, it helps to see that we have clearly already arrived.
January 1, 2015 § 15 Comments
“The journey itself is home.” ~ Basho
“The only journey is the one within.” ~ Rilke
January 1st 2015
As we move from one year to the next, we can not help but reflect upon where we’ve been & where we are going. Who we have been & who we wish to become.
The Uranus/Pluto square which began in 2012 comes to a close in 2015.
“Lives have been turned upside down,” notes astrologist Sarah Varcos, “perspectives forever shifted, circumstances reshaped beyond recognition. We have lost the things, people and places we thought we could never live without and discovered new ways of being we thought were never possible.
“Some people have been touched more deeply than others. Some in resoundingly positive ways. Others have faced what has looked and felt like devastation.
“In very basic terms Uranus is sudden, unavoidable change and Pluto is destructive and/or creative power. When these two work together shocks and surprises are guaranteed, as is rebirth from the rubble of destruction and the possibility of a new life if we rise to the challenge and steel ourselves to ride the waves and see where we finally come to rest..”
Pluto—named after the Greek god of the underworld—associated with intense growth at any cost, barreled through our lives, ripping up all false truths and shallow roots, often painfully.
“Nothing and no one has been protected from the destructively creative grace conjured by the cosmos these past few years,” notes Varcos. “The challenge for so many has been to let go and trust, to embrace the changes brought about no matter how devastating they may have felt at the time. To look into the darkness, of self, of other, of life and to recognize that within it lays the deepest wisdom, the most enduring truths.”
On a collective level, the conversation surrounding rankism & the struggle of the marginalized has deepened & broadened, rising in visibility. (“Spectors of Oppression: Human Dignity & The Meaning of Difference.) In the spirit of Pluto, it has been intense, uncomfortable & necessary.
“This past year has been about acknowledging and owning the personal and collective shadow in order to recognize that it is not some dreadful realm to be feared, rejected and denied but simply another part of ourselves to be embraced, accepted and, in doing so, brought into the wholeness of all that we are.”
This year we are asked to live the truths we’ve discovered over the past few years of struggle, not just when we feel motivated, but as a constant ongoing statement of who we are.
For me, these past few years have entailed tremendous personal loss as well as profound self-discovery & growth. I’ve found my ability to survive (and even thrive amid) these times has depended greatly on my perspective of each trial as an initiation into deepened levels of awareness. Transformation is an essential touchstone of my journey. (Self Renewal & The Art of Transformation.)
Learning to know myself, accept who I am & act as much as possible in accordance with my own authenticity has been essential (Authenticity & The False Self.)
This focus on self-reclaimation lead me to make contact with the singing center of my own being, which I came to recognize as Soul, the inner Wisdom Keeper. (Soul-Retrival.)
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people will not feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone
and as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.”
Happy New Year.
On on, brave travelers!
November 9, 2014 § 4 Comments
“You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Flow is an optimal state of consciousness where we both feel & perform our best. We all know & love the experience of being “in the zone.” As we examined in PART I, flow is a neurochemically measurable phenomenon, which can be broken down into four distinct stages (see Part 1).
But what creates this state & can we induce it?
Studies have identified multiple triggers for flow.
1. Intensely focused attention.
Producing flow requires long periods of uninterrupted concentration. Flow demands singular tasks & (except in cases where group flow is the goal) solitude. Multi-tasking is out. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the pioneering “Flow,” says: “It is impossible to enjoy a tennis game, a book, or a conversation unless attention is fully concentrated on the activity.”
2. Clear goals.
Knowing what you’re doing & why you’re doing it. For example, a basketball player knows the rules of the game. The artist has some kind of vision, or idea of what she wants to express, before setting out on the journey of creation.
When goals are clear, the mind doesn’t waste energy wondering what it has to do next, allowing focus to stay pinned to the present moment.
3. Immediate feedback.
Where clear goals tell us what we are doing, immediate feedback tells us how to do it better. Real time consequences to our choices—whether it’s the rock-climber stumbling, or the drummer missing a beat—provides guidance to refine our attention & technique.
4. Balanced challenge/skills ration.
Csikszentmihalyi famously asserted: “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”
Steven Kotler, author of “The Rise of Superman,” adds: “If the task is too dull, attention disengages & action & awareness can not merge. If the task is too hard, fear starts to spike & we begin looking for ways to extricate ourselves from the situation.”
Ideally, the requirements of the task at hand should be slightly greater than the skills we bring to the table, but not too much greater.
5. High Consequences/Risk
Elevated risk levels—whether physical, social, creative or emotional—drive us home to the moment. As the body readies for fight or flight, it releases performance enhancing endorphins which are key ingredients in the neurochemical cocktail of flow.
The lives of extreme sports athletes, like rock-climbers & snowboarders, literally depend on being “in the zone.” “When pushing the limits of human performance,” Kotler notes, “the choice is stark: flow or die.” Because of this extreme demand for flow, action/adventure sports athletes have become prime test subjects for studies on flow.
However, high consequences don’t need to take the form of physical danger to trigger flow. The risk can also be social, such as public speaking, or creative, such as taking an artistic risk.
6. Rich environment.
An environment with lots of novelty, unpredictability & complexity captures our attention, inducing focus, which in turn stimulates flow.
7. Physical excercise.
In physical exercise, our body produces endorphins that contribute to the neurochemical cocktail we experience as flow. Excercise helps us get out of our heads (the second stage of flow, see part 1) & experience deep embodiment.
Steven Kotler tells the story of struggling with writer’s block for months, then clicking into a flow state while skiing. Afterwards, he went straight to his office, sat down at his chair, and proceeded to write for two weeks, finishing the book.
Mankind is hardwired to identify meaningful correspondences. So much so that we can be subject to false pattern recognition, or apophenia—the impression of a pattern or meaning where there is none, such as seeing faces in the clouds. This tendency serves us well for creativity! Seeing new patterns & connections releases pleasure-enhancing neurochemicals.
Caffeine’s effect on the brain causes increased neuron firing & facilitates dopamine flow.
Psychologists have coined the term “helper’s high” to describe the euphoric feeling—followed by a longer period of calmness—experienced after performing a kind act.
There’s evidence in brain studies of a “compassion-altruism axis.” Studies show high levels of the “bonding” hormone oxytocin in people who are very generous toward others. Kindness triggers the brain’s reward circuitry, releasing “feel-good” chemicals like dopamine & endorphins, which, when combined with a handful of the above triggers, facilitate flow.
There are also noteworthy parallels between the flow state & the mystical experience.
The disappearance of a sense of self & time, the emergence of sudden, deep insight; a feeling of becoming one with the task at hand, of being part of something larger; these are all hallmarks of the satori experience. (See Parallax’s “Beyond Division: Studies in Bliss.”)
So don’t be afraid to take a risk!
And remember: if you’re struggling at the onset of a project, you’re not failing, you’re just in the first stage of flow!
**Watch a fascinating interview with flow expert Steven Kotler here.
**Get your “flow profile” here for tips on your flow type. (Mine was very accurate!)
October 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
“In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self-consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates.” ~Steven Kotler
“When a person invests all her psychic energy into an interaction—whether it is with another person, a boat, a mountain, or a piece of music—she in effect becomes part of a system of action greater than what the individual self had been before. “ ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow is that feeling of being in “the zone,” when every choice you make lands perfectly, gaining momentum & feeding itself. The musician in the groove, the surfer united with the wave. The great conversation in which you lose track of time.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—who first pioneered the concept of “flow” as a study—has observed the commonality between all these states of optimal performance. Steven Kotler, author of “The Rise of Superman,” summarizes flow as a state of “near-perfect decision-making.”
Csikszentmihalyi performed the largest global happiness survey to date. “He talked to everybody that he could possibly imagine,” relays Kotler.
“From Detroit assembly line workers to Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members, elderly Korean women, Navajo sheep herders, expert dancers, expert neurosurgeons. Everybody agreed that when they felt their best and were at their best, they felt flowy. Every decision, every action led perfectly, seamlessly, fluidly to the next. That’s where the term comes from.”
Neurobiolgically, it is possible to pinpoint exactly what is happening during flow states: the prefrontal cortex temporarily deactivates. This is the area responsible for executive functioning or self-monitering. Management of cognitive processes like the judgement of good & bad/better & best, as well a social control—like the ability to regulate urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes. We become less self-critical & more courageous.
The brain—taking up just 2% of our body weight & using 20% of our energy—is required to be extremely energy efficient. When resources are needed for concentration & attention, it performs an efficiency exchange & switches to subconscious processes, which bypass the inner critic & draws on a larger reservoir of knowledge.
During flow the brain releases a cascade of pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing neurochemistry. Large quantities of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide & serotonin flood our system. These chemicals—the most addictive cocktail the brain can produce—have considerable impact on creativity.
“Both norepinephrine and dopamine amp up focus, boosting imaginative possibilities by helping us gather more information,” details Kotler. “They also lower signal-to-noise ratios, increasing pattern recognition or our ability to link ideas together in new ways. Anandamide, meanwhile, increases lateral thinking—meaning it expands the size of the database searched by the pattern recognition system.”
When the brain encounters the overwhelming complexity of a starry sky or a grand canyon, “reality seems to pause, if only for a second,” relates Kotler. “The conscious mind—what’s technically called the ‘explicit system’—can only hold about seven bits of information at once. This is why phone numbers are only seven digits long.
“But the subconscious mind—the ‘implicit system’—has no such limit. Thus, when we encounter overwhelming complexity, we trade conscious processing for subconscious processing.” (“The Rise of Superman.”)
Flow state can be broken down into a four stage cycle.
The first is struggle. Though it feels like the opposite of flow, this is the brainstorming stage, the period of pushing, reaching, training. Overloading the brain with information or taxing the body with new challenges.
“Most people never push this first stage far enough,” notes Kotler, “which is why they constantly miss the doorway to the flow experience.”
Relaxation is the second stage.
“This is when you take your mind off the problem entirely, taking a break, going for a walk or doing something physical,” remarks Kotler. He notes that it’s not the same as watching television or some other distraction that keeps your brain busy. “It’s about relaxing the brain so the conscious mind lets the subconscious mind take over. Many people miss this break and as a result are constantly in overload and burnout, missing flow altogether.”
The third stage is Flow—that blissful, much-sought state of being. This is the experience of optimal performance. Self & time disappear. The inner critic takes a break. Action & awareness become one. Preparation meets relaxation & expresses itself almost magically. Inspiration takes over.
Consolidation concludes the cycle. Learning & memory are amplified, synthesizing the experience of flow & folding it back into your subconscious in preparation for returning to stage one. As the feel-good neurochemicals of flow recede, it can be easy to “go on a down,” Kotler notes, which leads to an emotional reaction—& often self-sabatoge—in an attempt to regain the flow state.
“The key here is not to let this stress block the learning or reverse the results of being in flow, but to move smoothly back to the next phase of struggle and repeat the cycle.”
Part Two Coming Soon!