Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Grief and Grace




Bone dry, they say

the summer takes its toll

then summer turns the wheel across seasons

and 'climate' is a term used


Bone dry, they say

calculators come out

it's a crisis, 

bring your 'fixing' energy


My body spasms, as i let out a gasp

this is what heartbreak feels like

the tears fall out

drops from the sky


What is it that we have not allowed ourselves to feel?

what is not ok?

if we only knew, the piercing unlocks the clouds

let it rain


Given my orientation towards both ecology and inner life, the poem Clouds in Each Paper by Thich Nhat Hanh really speaks to me.  What it evoked in me was the connecting of the somatic life with ecocide.  In the way of animism, there is no schism.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Our friend Tashi


 'No pain, no pain!'


Tashi la has always had a jovial sense of humor in the time I've known him.  In this case, he was describing his teacher's disagreement with the modern cultural approach of 'no pain, no gain.'  After years as a devoted practicing Catholic, and decades as a monk, he came across his teacher, Kyabje Tashi Norbu, who was a lineage holder in the Jonang Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhist) tradition.  


Tashi la described the decades he spent meditating in his previous tradition as one of a wandering - he would go to his teacher after weeks of silent meditation, and ask 'what is the right way to practice?' and the enthusiastic response would come back - 'that's it!' meanwhile he is thinking 'WHAT'S IT?! 


The Jonang approach was quite different, in a variety of ways.  It was named about 1000 years ago as a rediscovery of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, a monastic following the lineage of  Maitreya, Nagarjuna, Asanga, and Vasubandhu, and originally, the Buddha.  The first monastery was in Jomonang, Central Tibet, and so 'Jonang.'  A couple of notable points about it below.  


First is the core of the teaching that stands out - the concept of 'shentong' - or 'other emptiness' - which interestingly aligns quite strongly with my experiences of the teachings of Master Hua's conception of Chan.  Shentong names that while 'ultimate reality' cannot be described or understood on 'this side of the mind,' that does not imply nothingness - and in fact nothingness can be quite a pitfall in understanding as it can lead to design patterns of nihilism.  That's part of why the lineage translates to the 'Great Middle Way' - great because of it's width, that all are included as Buddha(s); middle way, as in, beyond the story of essentialism or nihilism (or '1 and 0' or 'light and dark' etc).  Many other unique aspects (most specifically the full 6-branch Vajra Yoga teachings), but my understanding is still quite early :)


Second is the design characteristics of the tradition.  For a variety of reasons, it's a tradition that is run quite differently than most others.  It is decentralized - no titular leader, no central monastery.  It is run with minimal financial orientation.  It is not deeply concerned with preserving its teachings - instead more of a sense of 'leave no trace' and 'nature knows what to do.'  The monastics themselves are also not positioned as teachers, but rather as 'dharma friends,' as Tashi la refers to himself as well.  Not much on elaborate rites or ceremonies, more of a focus on what is essential in sharing.


These aspects are somewhat linked - about 500 years ago, this tradition was persecuted by the central Tibetan administration  (specifically the 5th Dalai Lama), naming it as heretical.  While that has now been recanted by the current Dalai Lama, for a long time the Jonang lived as persona-non-grata in Tibet - including things like shuttering monasteries, forced conversions, and book burning. In 1959, while other lineages fled the country, the (small) Jonang community did not.  So only recently was Jonang received as the 5th living tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.


It was this tradition that Tashi la came in touch with over 20 years ago, and due to that (along with introduction by dear dharma friend Ari), my own connection to this lineage and teacher that has supported my path immensely.  


Around that time, Tashi Norbu asked Tashi la (whose monastic name is Tashi Nyima) to move to Dallas, TX - with no resources or contacts.  Incredulous, Tashi la went, with love in his heart.  It was unclear to him how it made sense to engage there, of all places.  And yet, once there, came one after the other unique circumstances that led to the growth of a community of practitioners.  Coming together online and in-person, this group looks to embody dharma through sandwich drives for the homeless, supporting prisoners against the death penalty, animal welfare efforts, and much more, along with the inner work.  As Tashi la described - 'the higher the view, the finer the conduct.'


Over the last many years, Tashi has supported animal welfare and plant-based communities with retreat after retreat, and his Puerto Rican background has him uniquely able to share dharma teachings in Spanish as well.  His sharing of Buddhist scripture (sutras) have been some of the most powerful and clear explanations, supporting personal application, that I've ever come across.  


One example - why 'no pain, no pain'?!  I was listening to a 'phowa retreat.'  Phowa is the Tibetan practice of engaging with the death process in an active manner such that the experience is another moment to practice an aspiration of liberation for the benefit of others.  The traditional way this is taught is a sort of extreme calculus - maintaining awareness through the death process as one's senses are bombarded, such that there is enough awareness and equanimity to act with wisdom and skillfulness for what seeds sprout next.  That is why the Dalai Lama has a daily 'death meditation' practice for multiple hours!


The Jonang teaching doesn't refute this.  But it does name some meaningful perspectives.  One of the core aspects of being a human is the innate belief in striving as a necessary prerequisite for 'attainment' of anything of value - it is easier to believe that good stuff comes to those who work HARD.  no pain, no gain!  but - that is just a view.  and under certain contexts (eg grounded in virtue/ethics, etc), other views may be skillful - such as the view that hard work is also an illusion, there is no ultimate self to work hard with, and entrusting one's path forward to a definitive aspiration of service for others is as meaningful as the more intensive work.  No pain, no pain :)


Like this, so many shifts in context.  Earlier this year, Tashi la had some emergent medical conditions arise, and for a while it did not look promising for survival.  Here's a fantastic interview he did on this subject - it's not often you get to hear a Buddhist teacher describe a personal experience of the early stages of the dying process.  Through it all, a willingness to engage for the benefit of others - thanks to this process, I have since included the Medicine Buddha prayer as part of my own ongoing practice.  In fact, a more broad death and dying practice overall, with a connection of the nervous system as a tool to be with life.


Over the years, I've tried to see how to share Tashi la's spirit with more folks, so here's another one of my humble attempts :)  He reminds me all the time, the value of leaving no trace, along with the practical import of not overly broadcasting teachings given uniqueness of every practitioner such that not all messages have meaning for all people.  I'll end as he does - may all be free from suffering and the causes of suffering; may all embrace happiness and the causes of happiness; may all abide in peace, free from self-grasping; may all attain the union of wisdom and compassion, Om Ah Hum So'Ha :)

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

A ‘hack’ for the human context window

 















‘Can it help me with due diligence?’  That was the question I heard recently as I was connecting with a friend on the topic of emerging AI.  It’s a topic I’ve been following for some time, but only recently would such a question start to seem viable. 

 

The reason we are here is due to computers being able to bring so much data together, in a manner that so much mimics neural architecture, that its responses to our inquiries can start to seem human.  My friend wanted to push that further – in venture capital, when you’re looking to invest in a company, the pathway towards the decision is called ‘due diligence’ – the process of developing a view on the opportunity based on relevant context.  That includes many topics – company leadership, financials, the industry and market, competitive advantages, and well beyond.  But what if we can just put those data points in a pot and POOF – out comes good investment decisions?

 

At this point, that concept is science fiction – but there is an interesting pathway ahead, connected to what is called the ‘context window’ in AI terms.  The context window is the amount of information the computer can take in at once prior as part of any response.  Think of the difference between a preschool age child and an adult, in terms of the amount of context that can be held at one time.  In the case of the computer, this context window has been increasing rapidly.  Last year it maxed out at the rough equivalent of 5 pages of text.  As of last week that number is about 300 pages – enough to fit an entire book in, ask the computer for an in-depth summary, and get it immediately – in fact, possible to ‘interview the book.’ 

 

Humans primary system of context is through the logical brain, which can hold much less context (less than a page), but we augment this by connecting to lots of data – books, conversations, numbers, etc.  We take it in with the attempt to integrate, within our limited context window, in the most efficient manner possible.  And that system is pretty solid.  In terms of making investment decisions, it is still more capable than the 300 pages for AI to work with.  However, we can expect to see the context window number for computers to increase exponentially in coming years – moving from 1 book to 10 books to 100 books number of context, and beyond.  It’s important to name that this level of context wouldn’t be as an external ‘reference’ (which is already possible to near infinite levels) – our equivalent of consulting an encyclopedia – but rather as integrated, equivalent to referencing our own life story.  It seems our context window supremacy is going to be short-lived.

 

There is another system of context in humans – the nervous system.  It’s been articulated and studied in a variety of contexts and domains, but seldom in a manner that places it in any way level with logic – generally having it seen as untrustworthy at best and malicious at worst. 

 

But increasingly, that view is changing.  Folks like Antonio Damasio in neuroscience, Peter Levine/Gabor Mate/Staci Haines in psychology, and lots more.  There is a shift afoot – we are not thinking machines; we are feelers who think. And it makes sense – the feeling of what happens carries orders of magnitude more information than the thoughts.  Here we have a context window that can be much, much larger than what a computer can take in.  This can be leveraged, but is also fraught.

 

There’s a reason many of us have been told in our lives that we can’t trust our emotions when making decisions – that logic and rationality are the gold standard towards sound decision-making.  There are many contexts where our nervous systems can be hi-jacked!  Additionally, we have built an entire culture disconnecting and dulling ourselves with regards to our bodies, feelings, and sensations.  The pathway of re-membering, from what I’ve seen, is non-linear – but really benefits from ethical grounding, a general sense of other-orientation, and an orientation towards self-inquiry/agency.  With those ‘preliminaries’, here is a teacher of the Kagyu Tibetan lineage describing the process of ‘befriending our beautiful monsters.’ 

 

There is a world in psychology called Somatic Experiencing, which is an articulation of how one can connect with feelings and sensations as a pathway to even bypass thinking and narratives entirely, on a path of psychological healing.  The reason for this is multi-fold, but it includes the understanding that leveraging that larger context window can be an upstream way to shift personal narrative, without even necessarily engaging the narrative.

 

For the last several years, I have taken these insights, combined with practices connected to eastern Dharma, towards leadership and service, with friends in the spaces I work in.  Specifically, towards relationships, conflict, decision-making – places where the limited context window of the thinking mind becomes more evident.  And I’ve found clarity emerge, again and again.  Self-driven, based on curiosity towards discovery, and over time, a greater sense of fluidity with the embodied self.  Instead of decisions being made, pathways forward emerge.  Rather than conflict being something to be avoided or beside the mission, it shifts towards being an opportunity for a dance of self-discovery.  The body has more space.

 

And along with these types of high leverage uses of the nervous system, comes due diligence!  I’ve also seen, again and again, more easeful capital allocation decisions when engaged with in a somatically informed manner.  Leaders who feel aligned with their path forward, such that the second guessing simply dissolves – regardless of what comes later.   It is possibly inevitable for AI to grow its context window massively in coming years, but the tremendous context possible to be derived from the feeling of what happens remains a meaningful offering germane to those humans among us who cultivate the sense.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Sensemaking: Debate, dialogue, inquiry

Today’s world, on a good day, often defaults to debate and argument as the primary modes of learning in relationship.  As someone who has found immense value in the practice of inquiry, particularly influenced by Tibetan Buddhist traditions (yogacara and tantra in particular), I'm writing today to name how much I have benefitted from forms of relating that are less seen in our culture. These are forms of engagement that I learned later in life, yet they've profoundly impacted my life. This is an example of the many aspects of life that are simply 'water' for us fish, and we swim without the pause of exploring other paths, as they are not shared.


Debate: The Battle of Ideas

What It Is

Debate seems like a gold standard in the modern West—a battle of ideas. Multiple individuals or parties come together to present their strongest arguments in favor of their ideas while attempting to undercut the opposing side.

Value

Debate offers a multi-faceted understanding of an issue and provides audiences with the opportunity to form their own opinions. It steers clear of character attacks and focuses on the strength of ideas.

Blindspots

However, debate has its limitations. It often emphasizes the strength of the speaker over the strength of the idea, assumes objectivity, assumes discreteness (not integration), and focuses on differences rather than common ground.


Dialogue: The Journey to Shared Understanding

What It Is

Dialogue is an exploratory form of engagement best articulated by David Bohm in his conversations with J. Krishnamurti. It involves no set agenda and aims to develop shared meaning.

Value

Dialogue offers a space where there is nothing to 'win' and nobody to 'beat.' It fosters creativity, assumes subjectivity, and has a depolarizing effect.  It holds an intention to integration of viewpoints that cannot be discovered individually.

Blindspots

Despite its merits, dialogue can be influenced by unequal power dynamics and may require skilled facilitation to prevent 'groupthink' or lack of integrative paths.


Inquiry: The Path to Self-Discovery

What It Is

Inquiry is a form of engagement that centers on reflective self-discovery in community. The discussion serves as a 'shared witnessing' of each individual's grappling with their unconscious inner life, including motivations, patterns, trauma, and beyond. It’s a deeply vulnerable space.

Value

Inquiry offers transformative potential by engaging 'upstream' of rationality towards feelings, sensations, and intentions. It takes deep ownership of one's experience, to the point of deconstructing one’s viewpoints.

Blindspots

However, inquiry may remain abstract and not actionable. It requires extraordinary levels of psychological safety and may placate or push away feelings rather than simply experiencing them. Also, without strong ethical foundations, the path forward from deconstruction can be disharmonious.


Practical Challenges and Approaches in Modern Contexts

In today's world, the practical application of these forms of engagement, especially inquiry, faces several challenges. For instance, the rarity of inquiry as a form of public discourse is due to its requirement for deep vulnerability, making it less suitable for public settings. Moreover, the contextual nature of inquiry makes it difficult to discuss meaningfully outside of the specific situations in which it occurs.

To navigate these challenges in manifesting inquiry-based forms of relating, I've found the following strategies helpful:

Designing for Psychological Safety: Before any conversation, creating causes and conditions that support people being able to share things they’ve never consciously thought, much less heard themselves say – lots of seed planting.  In most cases, the lack of safety is the main driver for why inquiry is not possible.

Self-Discovery as the Core: Approaching each conversation with the mindset that the space is there to support me in discovering more about myself. The manifestation of curiosity is a major driver, both internal and external.

Real-Time Awareness: Paying attention to nervous system activation as it happens. Instead of assuming something needs to be addressed in the 'other,' ask oneself, 'What is this situation illuminating about my unconscious patterns?'

Ownership of Experience: Describing and feeling sensations, feelings, and narratives as one’s own, without attributing them to the 'other.' Allowing for possibility that others need to be 0% different than they are now.

Emergence of Possibilities: Allowing for the emergence of actionable steps or insights from this new context. Whether it's something to say, do, or intend, the possibilities are infinite but can include timeliness and action.

I’ve been experimenting with inquiry-based approaches in leadership domains.  I have seen again and again that in these contexts, as there is ownership, there can be a felt sense of heartbreak – the sensation and realization that the world perceived as ‘out there’ was, all this time, self-created in a significant way.  And from the expansiveness of that insight, emergence of steps forward.

I also increasingly find a challenge in talking/sharing about specifics here.  While I have many stories to name, I also find these spaces sacred and honoring them means not being specific.  That being said, I have seen folks in many conflict-type situations 'flip' into expansive love with the gift they've been given in the form of conflict.  Others who struggle with a perceived decision to make, only to have the decision dissolve.  I've seen this in partnerships, in parenting, in workplaces, in broader relationships - relating becomes a container where, with shared agreement, one brings the ashram mindset.  Of course, the real experience is in the moment moreso than the words - if that's of interest from a leadership dimension, reach out, and we can explore.


The Modern Context

In the age of social media, workplace dynamics, and even friend/family relationships, the structures and agreements we operate within often limit our psychological safety and, by extension, our capacity for self-discovery. We are in a world where being truly vulnerable can result in out-casting, or create difficulties within our governance systems. However, the power to change these structures starts with our social design choices, at every moment, down to the questions we will ask our next conversation partner and the mindspace with which we hold what is shared. And so we do the work of cultivating spaces where such interaction may be possible.

 

In a world often dominated by attack, argument, and sometimes debate, the transformative potential of dialogue and inquiry is immense in my eyes. While debate serves its purpose in presenting multi-faceted views, it often falls short in fostering true understanding and integration. Dialogue, on the other hand, offers a collaborative space for shared meaning, and inquiry takes this a step further by centering self-discovery as the core of relating. These forms of engagement offer not just alternative ways to interact but also pathways to deeper understanding and self-discovery. If you’re reading this, I assume you’re experimenting in these areas yourself – perhaps some part of this may support your path also. May such practices support a compassionate and wise world!

Friday, September 8, 2023

3 turnings, 4 aspirations, 1 vehicle

 

Haven't written much in the last several years.  I've mostly been listening.  Feeling now more of a movement towards articulation, more for the sake of my own ongoing integration.

Today, I'm sharing my reflections on Buddhism, not as a monastic but as a sincere layperson who has been fortunate to dip my toes into multiple lineages, through teacher and scripture, with a particular focus over these last few years. I offer these thoughts in the hope that they might resonate with others on a similar journey, fully acknowledging that the path is as individual as the person walking it.

Of course I'm also not a monastic - my experience is that of a sincere layperson who is motivated to offer an articulation that may not be available as readily elsewhere for my community.  It is also an articulation borne of exposure to multiple lineages and a curiosity towards integration.  For this particular share, I've de-emphasized the Buddhism-flavored rhetoric as from my lens this is simply a framework for living into/discovering nature that one can experiment with personally.


The 3 Turnings

Depending on who you talk to, Buddha said different things.  In fact, who the Buddha even was is different based on interpretation (ie, not just a singular human born 2500 years ago).  To that end, I've been exposed to different lineages of teachings that I've seen defined as 3 turnings.

The first turning is spoken of as foundational.  It is the turning that outlines what virtue is (and the importance of practicing it), what concentration is, how wisdom can be a practice.  It is the place where foundational concepts such as 'no self', 'discomfort', and 'constant change' are outlined.  Frameworks such as the 4 noble truths, 8 fold path.  And more subtle teachings around deep mental states, the ties that bind us to conventional paradigms.

The second turning is fundamentally spoken of as ''emptiness teachings."  This is where the outlines of the implications of the first turning are named.  Where paradox becomes visible.  The possibility of 'sudden enlightenment' as concepts of time unravel, along with designing for causes and conditions towards a 'gradual enlightenment.'  Articulations of what it means to live deeply into the path, as framed under the idea of the Bodhisattva path.

The third turning builds on the first two.  It's primary concern is an articulation of what lies beyond the 'covered' perception that is ordinary consciousness (clouded by our afflictions).  It also articulates a 'Buddhist unified field theory' of sorts - connecting the mundane experience of consciousness through to primary ground (the 3 natures, 'consciousness-only').  There are also deeper explorations into specific aspects of that mundane experience - in the collective sense (time/space, big bang, broad forms of sentience) and the personal sense (death, sexuality). 

The first turning seems to be focused most strongly in traditions most held in Southeast Asia.  The second turning in East Asia.  And the third turning in Central Asia.  To be clear, this is not to say there isn't intermixing, there is plenty, but more describing the 'center of gravity.'  The idea here is not fundamental disagreement, just nuance and focus - one of my teachers named that Buddha's intention was for the teachings to find themselves in the hands of a practitioner in order - first, then second, then third - as a skillful means.  


One story that helped me understand the reasoning behind this felt like it was worth sharing.  Important to name that it is just a helpful framing, not deeply real.  Imagine a Buddha explaining the nature of a car to enterprising monastic mechanics :)

In the first turning would be comments such as 'what is a car?  a car is an idea in the mind.  and when one looks into the idea, one simply sees parts - one sees engine, tires, seats - and it's only the integration in a particular way that creates the idea of the car.  how many pieces need to be taken away before the idea breaks?  look into that inquiry yourself.'  

A super meaningful teaching to help guide the understandings of the first turning!  But there's a limit.  Imagine the monk mechanics response - 'oh!  I get it now!  there IS NO CAR!  there's only engine, tires, seats...'  It is partially that sentiment that the 2nd turning teachings are a response to.  Imagine the Buddha now saying 'while there is no car - there is also no tires, seats, engine.   look deeply into it and you may find nothing anywhere to hold onto.'

Again, quite meaningful, cutting essentialism out at the core - no place to cling.  And yet a limit here as well.  Imagine a response as 'thank you!  I see - there is no car, there is no engine, tires, seats... there is nothing!'  and this creates another pitfall.  the clinging to nothing - the path of nihilism.  And so Buddha's response is the third turning - 'whatever is on the other side of what you can perceive, I cannot tell you and you cannot know, and yet, that does not imply nothing.'

The purpose of this story, as I understand it, is simply to outline 1 key reason why each turning was articulated (at a highly simplified level).  the first in order to pierce solidity, the second to address essentialism, and the third to address nihilism- the middle way.

Who cares???  Well, for me, these approaches continue to be foundational, with one reason named in the next framework...


The 4 Aspirations

Being a former consultant, I much appreciate coming across frameworks that are MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) - that's what was articulated in this framing of the 4 aspirations.  It states that all life fits into at least 1 of 4 categories of aspiration (conscious or not):

1-A better life.  more money. more fame. more pleasure. less pain.  less obstacles.  less confusion/dis-ease.  Most all life would fit into this.

2-A better birth.  some say heaven.  or to be born in a 'higher caste,' whatever that means in your society. or to be a God (perhaps a lesser God, but regardless).

3-Personal liberation.  a response to seeing conditions of cyclic existence.  ups and downs forever, and having an intention to get off the ride.

4-Collective liberation.  the intention that supporting all 'life' (to the extent it is perceived as separate) in getting off the ride, at their pace, is worth prioritizing over priors.

One could even frame the blurring between 3 and 4, as the idea of a separate self may get fuzzy as one cultivates - and yet the lineages specify the difference at the level of intention - that the generation of compassion for all beings is specifically what is invited in that 4th aspiration, and of course that has far-reaching effects.

Mahayana is that which keeps the 4th aspiration as primary - that is not a religious comment, as I believe it applies to framework for living, it's simply a precise articulation of meaning.  Mahayana means 'great vehicle,' and what makes it great isn't that the people are chosen or similar, it's the aspiration.  

Buddhism is a framework of understanding life such that no matter which of the 4 speak to you, it'll support your wishes.  It just so happens that getting out of the way such that life unfolds may have certain characteristics...


One Vehicle

My practices over the last few years have brought focus to this key teaching.  It is part of what makes the path so inclusive, although it may also be perceived as daunting.  The idea is 

-that all life is enlightened - whole in wisdom and compassion - but clouded due to patterns of attention

-the patterns of attention are bound to end, wholly and completely, at some point - every sentient being you come across is future Buddha, fully manifesting what may currently be clouded

-there is no other path.  all other paths named (the 4 aspirations, etc) are skillful approaches towards one vehicle, wherein YOU are manifesting collective liberation


Of course the specifics of this can be articulated over eons :)  I recently heard from a teacher that for all the scriptures/sutras out there, only 3% have been translated into English.  We are still at the forefront of discovery of some of the most ancient and comprehensive frameworks of life we have.  


And for me, what I've articulated here is a sort of high-level only, a map of how one may engage with the inner life - of course there are so many directions of inquiry.  In future shares, I hope to articulate more about teachers and lineages, along with my personal grappling's.  The primary lineages these articulations are from are Thai and Burmese (Theravada) traditions, Chinese (Guiyang Chan) tradition, and Tibetan (Jonang Vajrayana) tradition.


May whatever good that comes of this articulation be for the benefit of all.  And may I become more skillful in articulating through the practice!