Saturday, December 31, 2011

The extremes of uncertainty

I was doing research on country-specific risks this past week and was met with what seems to be more and more commonplace. It used to be that we didn’t know if GDP would raise by 2% or 2.5% - now the question is if there is going to be inflation or deflation – that’s a lot more uncertainty being brought into the equation! I’m seeing this more and more in almost all facets of life. More uncertainty in global economics, global politics, food production (is there enough wheat this year?), entertainment (who is next years star? In the 80s, the answer was always Michael Jackson), etc.

Uncertainty itself isn’t really what stands out to me, as that’s been evident for a while. However, the (un?)conscious reactions of people to this increased uncertainty has been interesting. There’s one group that chooses to believe the world is getting worse, another that refuses to believe there is anything happening outside of business as usual, and a third group that is in ‘wait and see’ mode. Now of course there’s many more groups out there (including the folks who’ve seen this coming for many years and are working on long-term solutions based on inner clarity), but these seem to be major categories I see.

Between the first two groups, you’re getting bigger and bigger shifts in behavior over time. In the former group (the folks that think the world is degrading), you’re seeing increasing levels of choices made for the ‘greater good’ along with an increasing disdain for those who don’t see what they do. On the flip side, there’s people who are stepping up their business-as-usual habits as they look to show that nothing is amiss (think Palin’s reality show). At some point, this uneasy coexistence is going to break down. In the meantime, the question is which path are each one of us treading and how can we become more clear about our choices in an unbiased way?

Also, happy new year :)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

What is growth?

Money and Life

Earlier today, I had the chance to sit down with Katie Teague, who is making a movie on growth.  It is the fuel of finance, thus the economy, and thus the developed world.  A world of constant, infinite, compounded growth.  Without which the majority of our citizens would literally die, as jobs dried up and people couldn’t afford basic necessities… but is this really true?

What’s true in the macro is also true in the micro.  As we all grow in our lives and careers, it's normal to expect a raise every year.  Why?  Because it's a signal of growth.  Growing is good - not growing is downright unamerican.  You didn’t get a raise?  You’re not growing?  Well then you must be no good.

But why only 1 way to measure growth?  If I get a 5% raise next year but eat less healthy food, spend less time with close ones, and do more self-serving work, did I really grow?  Just because the number is easy to measure, is that all that matters?

Other ways to grow beyond financial-
- Grow in generosity (give more of yourself every year)
- Grow in compassion (connect more deeply with others every year)
- Grow in physical health (deeper care for 'lifestyle habits' every year)
- Grow in mental health (deeper understanding of the world every year)
- Grow in balance (continual movement towards deeper harmony within and without)
- Grow in fun

All of these ideas are tougher to measure, but you know it when you have it and when you don’t.  Conversely, financial growth is actually destructive in the long-run.  In the macro, we outstrip the biological capacity to match our insatiable needs, we increase inequity leading to crime/disease/uneducated society, we build a transactional (rather than trust) mindset into the culture.  In the micro, as our financial capabilities grow, so do our waistlines, our debt averages, and our brotherhood with fellow man.

So what to do?  Even if I’m right, that just means we’re doomed because we’re part of a system that demands infinite growth…right?  Well, no.  Anything can be changed, but some things are harder than others.  What we’re talking about is a long project, and a systemic deconstructing of many implicitly held beliefs.  There are people that are doing this now.  But it’s not easy to deny gratifying easily attainable sensual pleasures. 

Here we have another reason to practice turning the lens within.  Over time, it may become easier to not react to such desires and really begin to act in a way that brings balance within and without.  If that starts to happen in many people at once, you have the start of a movement away from constant, insatiable, cancerous financial growth.  And then!  Who know what will emerge?  They say the future is already here, just not evenly distributed yet :)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Thanksgiving Gratitude

In my personal journal I was writing about what I’m most grateful for, thought I’d share (not ordered).

- Access to water (clean, hot/cold, on demand)

- Quiet space for regular work, meditation, reflection

- Access to healthy, natural food

- Access to clean air and regular sunlight

- Being connected to truly values-aligned individuals that I can learn from and serve in small ways

- Ability to do physical exercise

- Access to information to understand others, the world, the universe

- Inkling that it is possible for happiness to be had without any of the aforementioned points

Taken together, the list above makes me feel ridiculously rich :)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Buddha’s words (as sung by SN Goenka)



These are the words of Gautama the Buddha upon enlightenment, as sung/chanted by SN Goenka.  The language is Pali, which was colloquial at the time.  Beautiful.

Anicca vata sankhara, uppadavaya-dhammino
Impermanence is the nature of all conditioned phenomenon.
They arise and pass away, again and again, with great rapidity.

Uppajjitva nirujjhanti, (2x)
tesam vupasamo sukho.
When past sensations arise and are met with awareness/equanimity,
their cessation brings true happiness.

Aneka-jati samsaram
sandhavissam anibbisam,
Through countless births in the cycle of existence
I have run, in vain

Gahakarakam gavesanto
dukkha-jati-punappunam.
seeking the builder of this house;
and again and again I faced the discomfort of new birth.

Gahakaraka! Dithosi,
puna geham na kahasi.
Oh housebuilder! Now you are seen.
You shall not build a house again for me.

Sabba te phasuka bhagga,
gahakutam visankhitam.
All your beams are broken,
the ridgepole is shattered.

Visankhara-gatam cittam,
tanhanam khayamajjhaga.
The mind has become freed from conditioning;
the end of craving has been reached.

Sabbe sankhara anicca'ti.
yada pannaya passati,
Impermanent are all compounded things.
When one perceives this with insight,

Atha nibbindati dukkhe.
esa maggo visuddhiya.
then one turns away from suffering;
this is the path of purification.

Sabbesu cakkavajesu
yakkha deva ca brahmano,
May the holy entities
of all the universes

Yam amhehi katam punnam,
sabba sampatti sadhikam.
rejoice in this wholesome meditation process performed by us,
which is productive of all happiness.

Sabbe tam anumoditva,
samagga sasane rata,
May they all,
unitedly devoted to the teaching,

pamada rahita hontu
arakkhasu visesato.
be without negligence,
especially in giving protection.

Punna bhagamidam c'annam,
samam dadama karitam.
We share with all equally the merit
of this meditation and other wholesome deeds.

Anumodantu tam sabbe,
medini thatu sakkhike.
May they all accept with joy our sharing,
and may the earth stand witness to it!

Bhavatu sabbe mangalam x3
May all beings be happy

Sunday, October 30, 2011

If you could change places with anyone…

Personal experience of how, over time, I’ve answered the question ‘if you could trade places with anyone, who would it be?’

Initially, the answer was a celebrity of some sort, sports, music, actor, etc.  Then, it was someone rich/powerful, like a businessman (Gates) or politician (President).  More recently it was a highly ‘cultivated’ person, like a spiritual or religious leader (my favorite was Rev. Heng Sure).  Now, I wouldn’t want to trade places with anyone at all – but most interesting to me about that answer is the ‘why’.

My initial answer was due to the sense that attention or popularity was a source of happiness, so those that had tons of it were certainly worthy of switching places with. 

Then, my feeling was that happiness and leading a worthy life actually comes from changing the world for the better – and of course the more leveraged one was (having money or power), the more one could do this. 

Next came the belief that a worthy life is actually one that is free from mental imbalance (which by consequence would change the world for the better anyways), and so certainly it would be desirable to switch places with a very balanced person. 

Now, my feeling is that its not that mental balance is desirable, but that the process of moving towards awareness and equanimity is beautiful.  Reason being that my process is uniquely my own, tailor made to help me understand my own blockages.  To be free from that process doesn’t free the blockages – I actually need every experience that comes my way.  Every moment the process continues is a beautiful moment :)

On semi-related point, I read a wonderful quote by Jack Kornfield recently – “There are many writings on spiritual paths, and not one of them speaks the truth, for the truth cannot be spoken anyways.  Such writings are spiritual garbage in many ways.  However, eggshells and grapefruit rinds do indicate that somewhere near by there has been nourishment” :)

Happy day!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Latest Vipassana Meditation Experience

I recently returned from another intensive 10 day meditation experience.  Although I’ve written about this experience a few times before, the impact it has on me continues to deepen. 

SN Goenka is the teacher of this course, in fact he was the root of many of today’s western spiritual folks including Sharon Salzberg.  As a bit of background, he is basically attempting to teach exactly what the Buddha taught, and he is quite qualified.  Reason for this is that he learned for ~15 years in Burma, which is apparently the only country to actually preserve Buddha’s teachings entirely.  About 100,000 folks take this type of course per year, but as mentioned before, this is more ‘meditation bootcamp’ than ‘spa and yoga’. 

To be clear, this is what the Buddha taught, this is not Buddhism (and I am not Buddhist).  Buddha taught a way to transform oneself through personal experience of the nature of reality at the root level – something performable by anyone in any system of belief.  To literally ‘see things as they are’ – no imagery or mantras, just experience of the moment as it is.

There’s just so many ups and downs over the course of 10+ days that it’s really tough to encapsulate that experience for me at this point.  For me, the unique aspect of this is that there is personally experienced wisdom everytime – not something I read from another, not even something I reason out in my mind, but truth experienced.  Something about that leading to stronger sticking ability in day to day life, although of course it’s a long path. 

Little by little, I’m seeing the importance of the subtle - ones intentions, small actions, and small reactions.  They certainly add up, and by the time small becomes big, its really hard to stem the tide.  So grateful for the chance to develop in this path and to work seriously on it, at least for a short time.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Biggest epiphanies of my life

After a beautiful meeting earlier this week with Allan Savory and Bill McKibben, I was on the train home with my colleague and reflecting on the ‘how did we get here’ question. How did just about everything we believed in change so thoroughly in the matter of a few short years?

There were 7 ‘paradigm shifts’ that we noted that I thought I’d share. Nothing new to the folks who already live in this space, but definitely a shift from the ‘mainstream.’ Each of the shifts is a journey rather than a destination, and consequently, we use the tools we’ve come across to date to simply continue to walk the path :)

1 – Self-orientation towards other-orientation: Simple idea that harmony and happiness comes from moving away from focus on provincial self. Serve others, no strings attached, and happiness follows.

2 – Transaction towards trust: Thinking less market-oriented. Learning that giving and receiving are sacred acts that are two sides of the same coin, like a hug. Approaching more of life with that trust instead of the ‘mental scoreboard.’

3 – Isolation towards community: Community in the deeper sense of ‘noble friends’ – individuals who are cultivating the same values that you are cultivating. Surrounding oneself with these types of folks seems to have strengthened all the other shifts.

4 – Scarcity towards abundance: Understanding that what is most important in life (love, air, water, food, heat) is abundant and learning to operate from that space internally. Minimalism is a paradoxical component as consumerism is less attractive compared to abundance.

5 – Efficiency towards resiliency: Doing things ‘better, faster, cheaper’ reduces ability to handle volatility at every level in the system (from individual mind to global systems). In increasingly uncertain world, efficiency is disastrous.

6 – Reductionism towards holism: Dictionary defines reductionism as “theory that every complex phenomenon can be explained by its component parts.” This ignores subtle interconnections across time and space. Thinking in systems respects these inter-connections and acknowledges the limits of intellectual understanding.

7 – Conquering nature towards mimicking nature: Shifting from man as receiver of natures bounty to man existing in delicate balance with all other players. That means out of balance equals death for all. Consequently, mimicking nature leads toward balance and thriving for the whole.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Top Risk to Human Extinction

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I’m going to cut to the chase. Over the next 100 years, I see about 4 categories of events (that we have direct line of sight to) that can end human life on earth. I have left out many broad categories (artificial intelligence, meteors, sterilization, volcanic activity, etc.) as we have no line of sight as to how those events may happen before 2100.  I’ve outlined them below but don’t think that attacking them directly will lead to any success without deeply understanding the root cause.

 

Chronic risks (take time to develop but are subject to threshold effects)-

‘Climate change’, as broken down in 3 categories that connect in feedback loops to each other

-Ocean degradation/acidification- Mass aquatic extinction due to myriad factors (pollution, gas release, over-fishing, etc.) leading to depletion of fish stocks and unpredictable climate effects

-Desertification- Mass erosion of arable soil from productive land surfaces through to oceans due to extensive land mismanagement

-Rise of greenhouse gases- Rise in atmospheric heat from numerous gases (due to fossil fuel usage, industrial agriculture, deforestation) leading to massive rise in sea levels, and unpredictable/volatile climate effects

 

Acute risks (manifestation to extinction in days)-

-Infectious disease pandemic- Increasingly dense population centers of all forms of human and animal life along with abusive use of antibiotics will continue to raise yearly risk of genesis of exotic disease

-Biotechnological virus- Creating a biological virus is increasingly becoming no different than creating a computer virus in terms of the coding process. The cost of development and ease of creation continues to fall

-Nuclear emissions/detonations- Still a massive threat considering there are thousands upon thousands out there, uranium is available, enrichment process is less of a black box than ever, and accidental/force of nature errors can occur

 

All these major issues have plenty of people working on them, in the form of what people believe are the ‘root causes’ – poverty, nation-state conflict, terrorism, slavery, poor policy, faulty systems, etc. However, I see a few causes lying underneath these supposed ‘root causes’:

 

‘Secondary root causes’

Greed

Pride

Jealousy

Envy

 

‘Primary root causes’

Craving

Aversion

 

Enablers

Pre-frontal cortex

Opposable thumbs :)

 

What I am seeing is

- A lot of people paying zero attention to any of this.

- Some people paying attention to long-term risks (but with a sizable populous discounting it completely)

- Fewer people paying attention to acute risks

- Very few people focusing on ‘secondary root causes’, which is really about teaching people the golden rule and following it deeply

- Even fewer focusing on the ‘primary root causes’, which is really about developing awareness and equanimity to what is happening in the present moment

 

I have been working on a couple of the longer-term issues but perceive it as an excuse to work on the primary causes. Whenever I’m asked ‘what can I do to help’, my response is the same – practice meditation. There is a domino effect that comes from bringing awareness to one’s own craving and aversions. It changes EVERYTHING and the virtuous circle is as unpredictable in its harmonious effects as the vicious cycle is in the negative. 

The key is in understanding that if primary root cause is not addressed, even if acute risks to humanity are averted today, tomorrow will be an even bigger challenge as the underlying issues have only intensified.  As a side-benefit, focusing on bringing awareness to one’s own craving and aversions makes for a happier life anyways!

With that, I will go meditate :)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Trip to India during Business School

I wrote this in January 2007 but thought it was worth sharing.  Reading over it now, the voice it’s written in is striking.  Like a constant chase after experiences.  I feel like a different person than the one who wrote this, makes me wonder how struck I’ll be in 2015 by the non-sense I write about now :)

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40+ friends roll into India, stay in quality hotels in Bombay, Delhi, and Bangalore, party every night, meet with business leaders during the day, and spend remaining time learning about poverty. that's my one sentence overview of what went on over the last couple weeks. 

The experiences are too many to relay in a blog entry, but i thought i would highlight one 24 hour period in Bombay a couple days before the end of 2006. It illustrates the most contrasting series of experiences of my life.

Saturday evening, all of us congregate outside of the hotel to pile into our coach and head to north Bombay to meet a friend for dinner/partying that evening. The guy's name is Akshay Raheja, and he graduated from our school a year back. I knew the guy in passing, but didn't know details, so I asked a friend of mine as we were heading down there. My friend points to a billboard we happen to be crossing by at that very moment. It shows the hottest real estate development going on in town, and the name 'Raheja' is plastered all over it. Turns out this guy helps run a real estate empire.

We arrive at his house around 9pm…I use the term 'house' loosely. We're talking 5 stories, several elevators, so many servants that his servants need servants, and literally right on the beach. We walk in and are bussed up to the roof, which overlooks a view of the full moon, palm trees all over the place, and the serenity of the ocean waves rippling in. The light breeze on my face feels like a soothing touch, and I turn to see my friends sipping champagne and eating hor'deurves. It was a great scene.  about 100 people were there, top shelf food/bar, and butler's who seemed to be incentivized to get us drunk. In fact, my not drinking caused so much anxiety with the butlers that I had to hold a drink in my hand the whole night just to calm them down!

If this was the crux of the night, I'd have been pretty happy, but then it started getting crazy. A couple hours after our arrival, the personal fireworks show began…and lasted for an hour (this is NOT dec. 31st mind you!)… after this, 2 DJ's came out and had a competition … and then came the belly dancer lol … 

After getting home and 4 hours of sleep at best, I experienced the polar opposite of the material world…

In the morning, about 20 of us eschew the coach and buy a 2nd class train ticket. A 2nd class ticket basically means you're traveling with normal Indian folk, and that in itself was a shock for a lot of us. After the opulence of yesterday, we're now surrounded by individuals who are just trying to scrape by a living. One of the lasting images of the trip for me: watching my friend Young hanging off of the side of the train just like any other 2nd class ticket holder, enjoying the wind whipping by on a hot 90 degree day.

Mere minutes from the previous nights party, we find Dharavi, which is a 'suburb' of Bombay. Dharavi also happens to be the largest slum in Asia, with over 1 million residents (avg yearly income = 300 USD). The slum also has a thriving economy, with 85% of the people holding down jobs (that of course pay VERY little), and a total global export value of $700 million USD. Our tour guide, Krishna, takes us on a walking tour from the early afternoon into the evening.

Throughout the day, we are shown numerous enclaves, where multiple industries seem to be thriving. Plastics, pottery, local foods, oils, and paints were some of the industrial districts we saw. Each had its own flavor, and I noticed each seemed to have its own culture. Sometimes all you had to do was travel 50ft, and the language you'd be listening to was completely different. our tour-guide had mastered EIGHT languages for this job! (his story was an enigma in itself: a guy with a good tech job in Bangalore, comes to Bombay, sees this, and immediately quits to start an NGO to help fight the poverty. What an amazing guy)

It was a day of strong emotions. Intense squalor, unbelievable stench, landfills all over the place, pollution, unmitigated fires, and few education facilities. One specific stretch I remember walking through just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other to avoid stepping in trash. As I'm walking, suddenly I'm faced with the most horrible smell of my life. We're walking through a business that cures animals (basically de-skins them and preserves the skin in salt). This type of business in the modern world is FAR from the city and well-ventilated. Not the case here. As Krishna is telling us about this, I watch them throw the cured skin of one sheep after another onto a 1950's pickup. Each one landing with a THUD and kicking up the salt and stench that permeated the place.

And yet, as we walk by, dozens of children greet us. They scream 'Hi!', 'from what country?!', and look overjoyed just to shake our hands. I'm amazed that they speak English, and their psychological states seem untouched by the life that surrounds them. We saw one group of children playing cricket, the popular European sport, on a landfill. I was even offered a chance to bat!

Later in the afternoon, Krishna takes a left-hand turn off one of the paths we're following and basically disappears. As I get closer, I realize that he has walked into a crevice coming off the main road that basically was just a space between two shanty buildings. The crevice couldn't have been more than 6' high and 2' wide. As I'm bent down walking through this area, I'm amazed and shocked to see that there are PEOPLE that live in here. It is dark, it is small, and I can't help but think 'is this a place for humans or rats???'

As we come out of there, we come to an open area between two buildings. We saw a group of about 50 kids dancing around to techno music playing on old but massive speakers. They saw us, and I started dancing with them. We had a spontaneous rave on our hands! The sight was something I'll never forget. The 4pm sun was glistening through the blue, orange, and red saris that had been hung to dry all over the area, tinting the light as though it was a disco. There were my friends, dancing to 'gasolina' with dozens and dozens of children going crazy along with them. There must have been a hundred 'high-fives' before we moved on…

As we left Dharavi back to the train, my head was spinning. I was so thankful to have the experience of seeing how these people live, yet was heartbroken to know that they were seemingly stuck there. I asked my friend Nick what he thought of the slum. Nick is no newbie to witnessing poverty. He's led 3 tours in Iraq and saw the worst of the worst down there. He tells me, "I thought I'd seen it all, but I've NEVER seen anything like this. I can't believe it."

And I start to realize this is what I feel too. The last 24 hours had been so emotionally draining. I couldn't think, so I just sat there and meditated in my hotel room. We all see the contrasts of life on a day-to-day basis, but the party followed by the Dharavi experience had stunned me into silence…