Polishing the Heart

PolishedStoneThe stone pictured above was given to me by a friend who collected it on an Oregon beach. It’s been polished smooth by rubbing up against other stones over countless cycles of the moon; all rough edges taken away.

It reminds me of “The Friction of Being Visible” by Mark Nepo (The Book of Awakening), which I include below in its entirety.


“Living through enough, we all come to this understanding, though it is difficult to accept: No matter what path we choose to honor, there will always be conflict to negotiate. If we choose to avoid all conflict with others, we will eventually breed a poisonous conflict within ourselves. Likewise, when we manage to attend our inner lives, who we are will – sooner or later – create some discord with those who would rather have us be something else.

In effect, the cost of being who you are is that you can’t possibly meet everyone’s expectations, and so, there will, inevitably, be external conflict to deal with: the friction of being visible. Still, the cost of not being who you are is that while you are busy pleasing everyone around you, a precious part of you is dying inside, in this case, there will be internal conflict to deal with: the friction of being invisible.

As for me, it’s taken me thirty of my forty-nine years to realize that not being who I am is more deadly, and it has taken the last nineteen years to try to make a practice of this. What this means, in a daily way, is that I have to be conscientious about being truthful and resist the urge to accommodate my truth away. It means that being who I really am is not forbidden or muted just because others are uncomfortable or don’t want to hear it.

The great examples are legendary: Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Sir Thomas More, Rosa Parks. But we don’t have to be great to begin. We simply have to start by saying what we really want for dinner or which movie we really want to see. ”

No matter what we do, some will applaud us, some will be indifferent, and some may condemn us. So choose your deepest fulfillment and let how people respond be the filter for who you draw closer and who you move away from. As Mark Nepo points out, hiding our selves “will eventually breed a poisonous conflict within ourselves”.

For those we let be closer to us, there’s another way of avoiding the potential friction of intimacy which I’ve done that seems equally harmful: Instead of hiding myself, I’ve stridently declared myself with an implied threat against anyone who dares to challenge me. Instead of hiding myself behind an inner wall, I build an outer wall intended to keep them out.

Hiding or being strident, both are ways to avoid the vulnerability that is present with any true intimacy. Being intimate with another human being will change you in ways that you cannot control, and that’s scary. Deciding who to be in relationship with is choosing who we will be changed by. Our suffering comes from trying to escape or control how we are changed, but these attempts are futile from the start; they will change us despite any resistance.

Rubbing against another is not just about conflict, but also about inspiration to other ways of being in the world. Our way is not the only way, and real intimacy shows us that in so many ways. The decision is never to be changed by someone or not, the decision is only to be “In” or “Out” of the relationship.

This friction may be experienced as unpleasant, but it’s good medicine in the long run. It challenges us to go beyond our limitations, challenges how we live life and will eventually bring a maturing that is not possible alone. Instead of pushing friction away, we can turn toward it, knowing it is the seed that will grow into our maturity. If we are open to being changed by another, we can become like the stone pictured above, polished smooth, but with our core substance remaining.

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Uncertainty’s Mad Lover

They say nature abhors a vacuum.

Therefore, create a sweet warm home in your life for not knowing; let it be a permanent and honored guest. Have a relaxing tea with your confusion. Take a warm luxurious bath with your questions, pouring them over your skin until they soak into your bones.

Inspiration is uncertainty’s mad lover, the two intertwined for eternity. Banish uncertainty and she will vanish like steam into the air. Chase after her anxiously and she will be forever hidden. It’s the unhurried peacefulness of pausing in wonder, the quiet empty hall of curiosity, into which she can pour herself.

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Leading with the body

Like many people, I grew up with the idea that the mind is the source of intelligence and the body is at best a loyal servant. This was expressed in ideas like “Mind over Matter”, and “The spirit is strong, but the flesh is weak”.

Despite this teaching, I have often found that my mind is confused by something that my body sees clearly. This can come in terms of what to eat, who to trust, or which life path is the better choice. While my mind thrashes over the arguments, my body quietly tunes in and finds the answer, seemingly from collecting the intelligence from my body’s own cells and their connections to the surroundings.

Though in life most of us let the mind take the lead, in dance we have the opportunity to reverse this relationship and let the body lead. I find when I let the thinking (controlling) mind quiet down and get out of the way, my body can directly express my internal feeling state through movement; I become “transparent” – a direct channel from inside to outside. In allowing myself to be a channel, the unimpeded flow of energy through my body seems to clear out any stuck feelings. Afterward, I feel clean and clear.

As I integrate back into Synergy Dance Collective after stepping away to care for a sick friend, Kai and I have been having lots of conversations about what is working and what needs improvement. We are getting more organized and working on a website among other things.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of being a transparent channel for what’s inside to be expressed outwardly; what supports and what interferes with it so we can better serve this experience in the dancers. We channel lots of things: our internal emotions, the feeling in the room, the energy of other people, and we channel the music that is being played.

I’ve noticed that the better the sound system, the easier it is for me to become transparent to the music. The deep bass notes that my body feels as much as hears are a big part of that. I have had conversations with several other dancers who echo the same sentiment.

Synergy Dance Collective has now stepped away from our dependence on the sound system of the Venue (Solstice Center & Nevei Koodesh), and now have a complete sound system we plan on bringing to the dances, including a big subwoofer for the deep bass notes. Those who came to “Dancing with Clouds” got a preview of this with the subwoofer being added to the Nevei Koodesh system. You can see the whole system set up in my living room for testing in the picture below. It sounds fabulous, with clear airy highs, crisp mid-range and a deep resonant bass.

I’m not sure why good sound reproduction makes so much difference in our ability to channel, but I’m guessing that when the sound is lacking, we first imagine the full live sound, and then dance to that imagined sound. Though we are capable of doing it, imagining the live sound is an extra step and a lot of effort. My hope is that the improved sound will enhance everyone’s experience.

Though the sound is important, in order to let the body lead, we must also allow the thinking mind to get out of the way; it can sit on the sidelines and watch from there.

What helps us to let the body lead? One important factor is that the thinking mind loves roles and identities, while the soft animal of the body sees more holistically and doesn’t dissect life into parts. When we enter into social conversations with others, it tends to activate our social roles: “my boss said this”, “my partner did that”, “my class was so restless”, “my kids were so sweet when they…”. Notice how all these examples reinforce a role or sense of identity, pulling us into our stories and away from our embodied state. This is the reason we ask the dancers not to socialize on the dance floor. We are all part of the collective and what we do affects the energy of the space. When we stay in our somatic experience, it supports everyone else to do the same, and when we socialize within the dance space, it undermines that support. Please help us maintain the somatic forest in which the soft animal of the body thrives.

You are invited to join us on the 2nd and 4th Thursdays of each month, 7 – 9pm in the Nevei Koodesh Chapel. NeveiKoodesh

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Trauma is Spiritual Rocket Fuel

The image above is a collision trace used in particle physics. Scientists accelerate subatomic particles to great speeds and smash them together. When the particles collide, they dissociate into components and physicists use that information to get a better understanding of the original particle.

Like the particles in a collision, trauma causes the psyche of a human being to dissociate into components. The dissociation is an automatic survival response and doesn’t require any conscious effort. By looking carefully at these components and reintegrating them, we gain in self-awareness. However, unlike the dissociation process, there is nothing automatic about the reintegration process. Spirituality is like a muscle and requires exercise to become strong. It takes conscious effort to face our fractured self and put the pieces together. The pieces may or may not be put back together in a better way, but they must be put together in a more conscious way.

In this way our traumas, both big and small, can provide us with rocket fuel for self-awareness. Burn this fuel in the engine of our directed conscious awareness and it can help propel us to great heights. Unused, the fuel won’t disappear on its own; storing unburned fuel takes great effort and leaks can create explosions and dangerous fires. We don’t need to seek out extra trauma nor should we seek to traumatize others; most lives have plenty from the natural unfoldment of events. When the time is right, use whatever unburned fuel you possess to become more whole, happy and wise.

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nineteen things I wish I had known early in life


One day when I was very young, a warm and benevolent voice said these things to me:

  • Wisdom is distilled pain. Everybody experiences loss, betrayal, and trauma. You can turn away from pain through denial or blame, but both keep the suffering inside you. You cannot get rid of your pain, but if you sit with it long enough and it will distill into wisdom.
  • Your demons are created by the pain you are avoiding. Locking up your pain in the dungeon where (you think) it can’t be seen it is the root of addiction. Your demons are there to prevent anyone from entering the dungeon or even knowing it’s there. The more shadow work you do, the more you can see the shadow in others. Befriending the prisoners in another’s dungeon is where angels fear to tread.
  • Life doesn’t care how you think it should be. Expectations are just idealized projections that have no real power. Life is not fair. Life doesn’t owe you anything. Accepting that is liberating.
  • You can’t control what happens to you in life, you can only control how you respond. Navigating life is like being on a sailing ship: you can’t control the wind, weather, or currents, you can only control the sails and rudder of your ship. If the wind blows against you, tack into the wind. If the weather is unpleasant, refer to #1.
  • Be curious about life. Be curious about other people. Be curious about your challenges. Be curious about your suffering. The only way around is through; curiosity is your drill.
  • When you are unable to say no, you cannot give a whole-hearted yes.
  • Choose a career that makes you feel alive. Many will spend 30 to 50% of their waking hours working; spend that time doing something you enjoy. If you choose a career that fills your bank account while it drains your soul, you will be unhappy. Fulfilment is the true wealth.
  • Certainty is the friend of decisiveness, uncertainty is the friend of learning. Steer a path between these two.
  • Never get too good at something you don’t enjoy.
  • If you climb over other people to get to the top, you will be standing on a mountain of people who want to see you fail.
  • The mind can be confused by complex decisions but the body & heart are not; use them to see the way forward. The right choice is the one that brings peace inside.
  • Being right is over-rated. Almost everything we humans think is true will be overturned within a few hundred years. Fall in love with your ideas, but don’t marry them. You will get more benefit from being kind than being right.
  • Waste no time trying to get someone to like you. Some people will like you and some people won’t, and there is nothing you can do to change that. Spend time with people you like who also like you. Dislike acts as a filter, keeping the right people in your life and everyone else out. Be thankful for the way dislike serves you.
  • When meeting someone new, first offer your trust in small ways. Test their integrity to see if they are worthy of more. Vulnerability with the right people is magical. Vulnerability with the wrong people is grist for your wisdom.
  • Don’t chose a partner based only on external factors like looks, social status or wealth. Look at how you feel when you are with them. Choose someone that you can have great conversations with, who makes you laugh; someone who enlivens you heart while bringing peace to your soul.
  • You can’t have great sex when you are stuck in a gender role. Your conditioning say’s that a man should be strong and a woman should be all things to all people (except herself). If you get past the gender expectations, you will see that men and women are more alike than different. We all want to be loved and treated with respect. We all want some combination of intimacy and freedom. Authenticity is the key to intimacy.
  • If you withhold your desires to avoid burdening your partner, you are withholding the gift of your vitality and passion. Share them without expectation of fulfillment; desires are important ingredients in the recipe of life; without them it’s bland.
  • Becoming more conscious is the act of disidentifying with the objects of your perception. You can experience a toothache without being the ache. You can experience anger without being angry. You are not your thoughts, ideas or creations. You are not your personal mythologies. You are not what you can see . . . you are that which sees.
  • You can see your body in a mirror, but you can’t see your consciousness. We can only get reflections of our consciousness from other people. Those reflections are like a fun house mirror, but it’s the best we’ve got. There is no hurry.

Ok, there really was no voice. And if there had been, I probably would not have understood it anyway. Some of these I learned by watching others, most I learned the hard way. If you are inspired by any of these, I invite you to leave some of your own life lessons in the comments below.

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Is there an optimum human population on this planet?

When I was growing up in the 1970’s, people were concerned about overpopulation, what the earth’s “carrying capacity” was, and where we were in relation to that capacity. It seems that the dire predictions of the times did not come true, and the world population has now (May 2016) roughly doubled since 1970.HumanPopulationGraph

Estimates vary, but the current population is around 7.4 billion people, and many scientists think the earth’s carrying capacity is between 9 and 10 billion people. At the current rate of population increase (83M/yr) we will exceed 9 billion in 19 years; But the birthrate is thought to be declining, and taking that into account, it is predicted to happen in 22 years (2038). This is a mere blink of an eye in evolutionary terms and within the lifetime of many who are alive now.

Carrying capacity is an interesting concept, and seems to imply that the planet’s sole purpose for existence is to provide resources for humans. I think that there is another concept we would do well to develop: At what human population level could we live sustainably with the planet and it’s other life forms?  What is the Maximum Optimal Human Population (MOHP)? I will make the possibly outrageous assumption that MOHP is greater than zero.

How would we know that we have exceeded the earth’s MOHP and are heading toward the planets carrying capacity? I submit a partial list here based only on my own intuition and observations. It seems that all of these are at least partially true today:

  • Massive natural habitat destruction
  • Massive species extinction due to predation and habitat destruction
  • Dwindling natural resources (fish and animal populations)
  • Dwindling mineral resources (oil, metals, etc.)
  • Human societies waste products fouling the air, land and water

Within human societies as the paradigm of continuous growth falters I would expect to see:

  1. Increased Social Unrest
  2. Some parts of government preparing for further increases in social unrest through the militarization of police and other agencies.
  3. Instability of governments and social institutions
  4. An increase in public and private debt as we try to sustain the unsustainable.
  5. Instability of financial and currency markets
  6. A breakdown in the value systems supporting continuous growth
  7. A lack of opportunities for young people
  8. The young and disaffected search to find meaning outside societal norms with mixed results
  9. An increase in scapegoating especially in politics where each party blames the other and implies that all our problems would be solved if it weren’t for that other evil party and their misguided governance.
  10. Stress and anxiety within businesses, relationships and institutions resulting a quickening of change
  11. Wealthy people working to protect their own interests
  12. People turning inward toward their spiritual interests and their personal lives and friendships while ignoring the world as a whole.
  13. A general malaise within the population and an increase in depression rates.

I’m sure the above is an incomplete list, and I would welcome additional items especially from those with exposure outside of the United States who can give an international perspective. Do you think we have exceeded the MOHP and what do you think a good estimate is of the value?

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What is a conscious relationship?

A dear friend asked that question on facebook a few days ago. She created a private group and invited 80 or so people just to talk about this question. I was reluctant to respond, not because I had nothing to say, but because I had so much to say and it would take a lot of time and energy to say it. But the question still burned it’s way into me, so here I am with my long answer to this important question.ConsciousRelationship

In and around the area in which I live, Boulder Colorado, it seems everyone is trying to be a conscious person and engaging in (or looking for) conscious relationship. It’s become “a thing” in these parts. In that way, it has become a label, or even an attainment; something we all want. I can say that a conscious relationship is a relationship between two conscious people, but that is not very helpful and pushes all of the interesting aspects of the question into the definition of a conscious person.

I would like to start with looking at the nature of the mind, which has both conscious and unconscious elements. The superpower of the unconscious mind is that it can process vast amounts of information automatically. The automatic nature of this processing is both necessary and it’s downfall.

The superpower of the conscious mind is that it has the power of choice. It is limited in the amount of information it can process but that processing is not automatic; we can choose our engagement with that information. The unconscious mind presents the conscious mind with the information that it deems relevant based on it’s automatic processing, as well as presenting any information that the conscious mind asks for. So what are the kinds of information that our minds can be aware of?

I find it useful to categorize this information into two broad streams, each of which is further divided into two streams:

Somatic Stream

Physical: Sensory information

Emotional: Emotions and feelings, including the gut feelings/cellular wisdom that is perhaps transmitted via the parasympathetic and/or enteric nervous system.

Conceptual Stream:

Mental: Thoughts, idea’s and hypotheticals

Mythological: Beliefs and stories.

I would like to define a conscious person as someone who can be aware of and disidentify with any of this information. A conscious person will still have emotions, but when the emotion arises, they experience it without identifying with it. In the same way, a story may arise within the mind, but a conscious person does not identify with that story. The more conscious the people in relationship can be, the more conscious the relationship can be.

Within a conscious relationship, both people are capable of experiencing what arises somatically and conceptually, but since they don’t identify with what arises, they can exercise the conscious mind’s superpower and choose the engagement with what arises. If I saw my relationship partner talking in an intimate way with someone else, it might trigger a fear of abandonment and an associated story that I am not good enough. If I’m a conscious person, I can experience that somatic and conceptual arising without identifying with it, and thus choose my course of action in response to my present moment experience.

Both the somatic stream and conceptual stream can be handled at the conscious or unconscious level. What is most interesting to me is the way in which our conceptual models influence the automatic processing of information within the unconscious mind. For example, if I have a belief that eagles represent an omen in my life, then my unconscious mind will prioritize any sensory information about eagles to present to my conscious mind. In this way our conceptual models filter what information the conscious mind sees.

This is why I think it is not enough to be a conscious person; I think it’s helpful to use our conscious awareness to deconstruct unhelpful beliefs and replacing them with better beliefs. Sure, these new beliefs are not without their own peril, acting as they do to filter information from the conscious mind. All of our conceptual models are merely projections into the underlying non-conceptual reality and thus are not true in the absolute sense. However, the test of our conceptual models is not whether they are true or false, it is whether they are useful. Our unconscious minds operate on our conceptual models, so doing away with conceptual models is not possible if we want to function in anyway in life. When you operate a vehicle, you are utilizing conceptual models built up during your life; models you were not born with. There is too much information to process for our conscious minds to be able to manage all the aspects of operating a vehicle, or do pretty much anything else. As I type these words, my conscious mind doesn’t know which fingers to press to select the letters on the keyboard, yet my fingers (mostly) hit the right key. So we are in the beautiful and dangerous situation of needing to have conceptual models in order to function, while at the same time these conceptual models are by their very nature flawed.

It often happens in life that something happens that shatters our world view, thus doing great damage to the conceptual constructs we have been using to function. It’s no wonder this often creates an existential crisis that makes it difficult to function. The very models we have been using are in shambles, and we need to construct new and better models in order to move forward. These types of crisis are difficult but also represent a great opportunity for the expansion of consciousness.

No conversation about consciousness would be complete without looking at the shadow and how it gets formed. I will use myself as an example of this.

Growing up, there was a deficit in the quantity and quality of love and affection in my life. This led me to a belief that there was something wrong with me, that I did not deserve to be loved. My adult self knows that any lack in my childhood had very little to do with me and a lot to do with my parents and their own issues and stresses, but that doesn’t change the existence of the model within my mind. I’m not looking for any sympathy here; in my admittedly limited experience, 90% or more of the people I know seems to have some variation on the “I’m too this” or “I’m not enough that” theme, though most would not admit to it. And some of  the remaining of people seem to have the narcissistic belief that they deserved to be loved no matter how badly they behave. We are such an interesting species.

My belief that I was flawed in someway and not deserving love was part of my conceptual model. And I wanted to hide that I was so flawed, thinking that my flaws would prevent anyone from loving me. All of that thinking went into my shadow and I could not even let myself be aware of my belief in being flawed.

These type of shadow issues become really important in relationships and often drive people’s behavior. It’s not just the shadow dynamic is operating unconsciously but that it is actively engaged in blocking awareness of itself. If we want to be as conscious as possible in a relationship we need to do some shadow work and understand our own inner dynamic. Your task it not to seek for consciousness, but merely to seek and find all the barriers you have built against it (yes, I am riffing on the famous Helen Schucman quote).

This idea of the shadow has an ironic relationship for those of us who identify as conscious beings having conscious relationships. Once it becomes part of our identity, then there is a temptation to push away or deny anything which might indicate we are not fully conscious, thus driving it into the shadow, not a very conscious way of being.

So am I a conscious or unconscious being? If you are following along here, you might guess that my answer is yes. I have a mind, which has conscious and unconscious elements. I am always a combination of the conscious and unconscious elements. You can only be as intimate with another human being as you are first intimate with yourself. In order to be intimate with yourself, you need to be capable of being aware of the entire somatic stream of information as well as the entire conceptual stream of information, without identifying with those elements. None of us can be fully conscious of all this information all at once, nor it is desirable to try. We need the automatic processing of the unconscious in order to function. The very idea of “conscious person” or “conscious relationship” contains within it a flawed model of how our minds work. However it can still be a useful phrase if we know what we mean by it. For me this is all about our capacity to disidentify with the objects of our awareness.

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