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Trees and tea houses

Despite the mess that my life represents, I’m bound fairly consistently to a series of daily and weekly rituals. Sundays specifically for me are set aside to pursue some form or another of self-knowledge. Generally I read a self-help book, watch any number of spiritual guru videos on YouTube, or torment my family by reading something arcane and possibly Roman to my daughters and asking their thoughts. Simple, predictable Sunday morning exercises.

I intended today to be such a Sunday, but not all days are as cooperative as they are desired to be. My youngest daughter requested a change of pace to take a drive, and when toddlers make requests they do so tenaciously. There was some parental push-back at first to stay in, but she had all but buckled her car-seat belt by the time my wife and I were convinced to start the engine. What the heck, there was no good reason to deny enjoying some time on the road.

Before leaving the driveway my wife set the local arboretum as a destination and drove us straight there. Once we arrived, it struck me how excellent a decision that turned out to be. First of all, our daughter was tickled. She really enjoys walking through the curated flowers, vegetation, and structures. Secondly was the value of spending a morning focused on self knowledge in a quiet garden. Rather than reading or listening to someone else’s internal journey, this semi-natural and fully beautiful environment offered time to practice 2 valuable things.

1. Appreciation

I’m not an expert on aesthetics, but one thing I love about beauty is that you don’t really need to process it. Yes, it can be considered or questioned, but it is certainly no requirement. This is especially true where one learns to appreciate something for it’s sake alone without comparison. I might not necessarily be able to do this, but I can certainly allow beauty to soak it in. Today at the arboretum I took the time to absorb my surroundings. Now somewhat ironically, I did this by and large through a phone camera lens, but it’s 2019.

Another thing I have learned about appreciation is that, at least for me, noting what I show appreciation for provides an indicator of my values and my state-of-mind. What I notice is what I care about. How I regard it is how I think. When for just a moment I reflect on my appreciation, it allows me to remember what qualities I hold dear. For instance, I became particularly fond of little paths that simply ended nowhere. They didn’t lead back to the main path or stop in a remarkable area. They simply led to where they led, a generally quiet nowhere with a stone bench. This gave me the quality chance to think about how I, in contrast, force my life paths to go somewhere “relevant” or “important”. I rarely give myself the chance to simply take a direction that goes nowhere and, yes, just appreciate it.

2. Play

Work has quotas, games have rules, but play has no limitations. Taking time to be playful allows you to express yourself without the external guidelines we often become so accustomed to we cease to notice them. However, when you take the time to dance like no one is watching you are expressing yourself in a much more raw form. What good is self-knowledge if we never allow ourselves to be ourselves. What’s interesting about play is that there’s a form of play that reveals massive authenticity even though it is inherently dishonest. My daughter partook in this particular type of play this morning while I walked the garden walkways.

She played make-believe. She invited me into her magical country manor. She camped in her private woodland cabin. She “fished” at the edge of a koi pond with a magnificent sea serpent living in it. She mixed water and leaves in a stone cauldron and made, I’m not sure what, but she looked like she was doing actual magic. If you ever find yourself forgetting how to play, then you’ve found your problem. There is no “how” to play, you simply act freely and according to your self satisfying whimsy. There’s no “where” to go and no “thing” to do. If you ever need to be reminded of what play looks like, though, find a toddler.

Lessons Learned

I’ve been neglecting the power of appreciation and play on my journey for self-knowledge, mastery, and understanding. Appreciation offers the chance to observe the subconscious values that command the most respect and attention from me for the easy-to-pay price of being around beauty. Further, the rule, rote, and rigor of ritual are valuable but only inasmuch as they do the spring cleaning necessary for us to just let go and play when we are allowed. You could easily argue that being appreciative and playful is the epitome of self-knowledge. Confident, free, natural, and unabashedly honest. For myself, I feel these adjectives accurately describe how I want to exist as often as possible.

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TEDxAirlie 2

Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear the speakers at the second occurence of TEDxAirlie. There were several great topics by various speakers from all realms of business and social action. Inclusion across race, gender, and physical ability; cognition and empathy; sustainability and agriculture; and entrepreneurship and art. Being an alumni speaker of the event I’m easily proud of each of the speakers, knowing what is required for them in regards to writing, memorization, practice, rehearsal, and delivery. I’m also easily proud because a couple speakers were friends of mine.

While I haven’t had the chance to work with either of these gentlemen yet, I’m familiar with their causes and support them strongly. Cedric Harrison is the Asst. Coordinator of Community College Minority Male Leaders Center and founded Support the Port, a cause driven non-profit focused on lifting the state of the community’s neglected, particularly in the African American districts. Evan Folds has run businesses serving organic and niche gardeners including Progressive Farms, runs agricultural consulting company BeAgriculture, supports local traditional and urban organic farming and is the county Soil and Water Conservation Supervisor. Both of them delivered messages of a future that is inspiring and attainable for our city.

Speaking of our city, I want to take a moment to discuss this guy.

Jason Graham | MOsely WOtta
Jason Graham aka MOsely WOtta

Previous to the program release for the TEDx event, I didn’t know of Jason Graham. Jason, who performs under the name MOsely WOtta was the opening performance for the speakers. Hailing from the city of Bend in Oregon, Jason is an active member of his town’s poetry, slam, hiphop, art, and education communities both as a performer and a leader. His presentation included a vulnerable speech and written poem about the metaphorical building of bridges, or rather, the act of being a bridge and representing two simultaneous and sometimes opposing states.

Jason represented two simultaneous states in another sense as well. For one, coming from Oregon and appearing for a North Carolina event, he created a bridge between two separate communities. Hold on to this thought, it will be minorly important shortly. Secondly, he inhabited the shallow creek that sits between spoken word and public speaking. This is very dear to me as I am a member of my local spoken word and writing groups as well as being a presenter and TEDx speaker. There’s a gap here that needs to be navigated.

TEDxAirlie is a fairly important event with non-arbitrary consequences. Preparing for the event brings the university, businesses, several industries, and otherwise unconnected individuals into cooperation. It allows a platform for local leaders to enter a national stage with their work, message, and insights. Further, it allows us to frame what we respect or care about as a city in regards to technology, entertainment, and design, TED’s acronym. Yesterday the city demonstrated that it respects spoken word. That is huge for local poets.

I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Jason after he was on stage and chat about our respective communities, which didn’t seem too different from one another. Well, except in a certain regard. Here in Wilmington, North Carolina we still subscribe to good-ol’-boy society. There’s a special knock to get into every door, and you are nearly always shown the door by invitation only. No matter how present our poetry sector community leaders are, they are still only obvious and visible to people in the sector. Jason was visible from the outside of his home in Bend, and in being visible he did us a huge favor.

Yesterday several people live streamed, watch partied, and paid tickets to view a spoken word artist open for a major speaking event. We Wilmington performance poets should be paying attention. Being very present in the social and entrepreneurial culture clubs around here I know there are several opportunities for poets to open and lead off events. There simply needs to be a push to take advantage of the expectation and normalization provided to us by Jason Graham.

I look forward to watching our artists make and ride the wave created by the meaningful ripples from this TEDx, and to see them build a bridge between the worlds of spoken word and public speaking. It could mean a lot to the growth, cohesion, and identity of Wilmington. If nothing else, I think it would be extremely nifty.

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Today I retired a pair of jeans. They weren’t too old yet, but, regardless, a hole at my bottom-left buttocks rang the death knoll for the faithful black garment. I noticed it only a few minutes ago. It’s a pity, honestly. A few inches could have made all the difference. A hole at my thigh might have been acceptable.

Yesterday I retired three pair of shoes. The reason was quite the same. Each had a hole burrowed straight through the soles or toe. Unlike my jeans, the holes were not a new discovery. They had been Swiss cheese clods of rubber and canvas for months, yet still I kept them. What’s more I wore them. Often. For quite some time they were my only shoes.

I have an intimate relationship with decay, or at least it feels that way. Chaoskampf, or battle against chaos, is the theme of my conscious narrative. Far too familiar is the sensation and even realization that rot and wear are actively taking what I have from me. This ranges from my material possessions like clothing, to more abstract things like my sense of organization and (at times) my reputation. At some point I began to identify with the concept.

Over time my loved ones grew a bit concerned at the thought and sight of me doing business, delivering speeches, and performing in my Sunday worst. As these shoes were very obviously past their prime they saw it fit to purchase me three new pair for Christmas. It is now the end of March and I’ve finally separated from my more unfortunate footwear. Why did it take so long?

Part of me was also fed up with walking the streets of my town looking poor (though I am at present impoverished) and wanted to put on the nicer, newer, warmer, drier shoes my family bought me. Another much louder and dominant part, however, convinced me certainly that the moment I put them on they would fall apart to sawdust.

I had some good reason to get this sense, honestly. I’m not kind to my shoes. Currently I don’t own a car, so I walk and cycle often. This puts a fair amount of stress on my shoes. Further, I’m active in my idle time. See me with my children at the park jumping, climbing, running, rolling, and skipping along with them and you won’t be far off from how I generally spend my time away from work. The mere fitting of a shoe on my foot is a death sentence to it.

But isn’t it supposed to be?

I’ve grown fearful, and if there’s anything I have learned it is that nothing good comes from fearful action (or inaction). I had grown afraid to wear my own clothing, which was designed to be worn, lest it become worn. Somehow I managed to internalize the most inevitable tendency in the universe: entropy. In science, the natural movement of everything toward disorder. I felt I was an agent of wear and tear. Even feeling responsible for its presence in my life. No small responsibility. And in being afraid of losing something new, I clung to something old to protect a possession I never allowed myself to actually possess.

Let’s talk about possessions a moment.

The realization has made me rethink something else I have embodied pretty holistically in my life: minimalism. The culture of minimalism is vast and varied, as is the definition of the same. It should perhaps be made clear what I mean when I use this term. I refer to it as the reduction to and maintenance of practical essential items for the ease of effort. It is to have less stuff so I have room for more purpose. Let me note that “purpose” holds the most important place in my view of the world and my self image.

Having been raised in a Catholic school and being an avid watcher of David Carradine in Kung-Fu and Kung-Fu the Legend Continues I had many flattering impressions of monks. Their piety. Their discipline. Their aversion to possession. It was romantic to me that one’s dedication and purpose could be enough to stave off material and sensory desire. So, pretty naturally I was shown and therefore I felt that these were qualities attached to one who was truly devoted to a cause or mission, which is what I wanted for myself. This became the impetus for something that didn’t yet have a name and that I encountered as a type of minimalist lifestyle.

It was cute and even noble at first. At this moment, with my shoes and pants lying in the trash, I am now aware that minimalism became a validation for both my poverty and my fear of having and destroying new things. I wasn’t a minimalist so much as I was desperately trying to salvage the old while constantly denying the new. This became my piety and an outward symbol of my devotion to something lofty. Further, fulfilling my innate desire to “save” something or someone, salvaging the broken became part of my purpose. I held on to the worn and broken until it could no longer be loved, and only then did I reluctantly purchase the new, thereby damning it to a death without dignity as it fell apart upon my body.

Now, here’s the conflict this all presents and why any of this really matters for my life. I am a person quick to announce my love of philosophy, and at least of rational thinking. A rational thinker in my opinion should reassess his premises and do so often to ensure they are not carrying false beliefs, disproven truths, or faulty mental models. Here the metaphor starts to thicken like cooling grease. This event is a call-to-action to look through all the worn ideas I continue to wear and not replace because I believe I’m “saving” them.

This. Is. Important. One of my hobbies is the casual study of antiquity. Few series of ideas and philosophies are more rightfully on the chopping block now than our ancient views of the world, influenced by government-run religions, scienceless tribes, and outdated world scenarios. Even without this fact, I am very much human, and a first generation American at that, inheriting old-world knowledge from habits, rituals, and wives tales that I grew up coming to know as sooth. I think it’s time to look for where there may be holes and to discard old concepts. First and foremost should probably be my ideas of minimalism, purpose, and what to do with all of these holey turtlenecks. Happy Spring Cleaning.

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Art and Ideals

It’s a long-standing question: what is art for?

This is a question that has existed ever since the existence of art itself. Art was once simply an expression of craft, a signature that came out of mastery and skill. Art for art’s sake became possible once there was enough abundance in the world’s communities that people could simply appreciate something merely because it existed. You could, of course, argue that artistic things existed long before and the purpose was always simply appreciation. Since ancient days art existed to represent or to pay homage to some principle, generally a spiritual principle like a god or ancestor spirit, in order to gain favor back. Gods and spirits remain very vague and intangible, especially today, and both the definition and nature of art are still as vague. Yet somehow it makes sense to look at art in this light – ethereal and vaporous.

I myself have come to a personal conclusion on what I believe art is. Art is the result of any system or relationship between an intentional medium, some media, and a controlling force/inspiration. For instance, a dancer is the medium, the dancer’s body is the media, and the controlling force may be whatever the dancer decides at the time. Maybe it’s the flow of the music, his own rehearsed choreography, or his particular emotional feelings at the time. I believe what makes great art is the ability to consciously choose and change this controlling force, especially during the process of creating an artistic work. A great dancer can move to music, then fluidly place in a rigidly choreographed series of moves, and then suddenly express emotions that weren’t planned or even felt by the music all to convey exactly what the dancer intends. This goes for all of the types of mediums and media. The painter and the paint, the potter and the clay, the smith and steel, etc.

I still haven’t been able to address the question of what art is for, especially in our current culture. I’m definitely not sure if what art exists for is the same as it’s always been, but I would like to believe that whatever purposes it has carried are all closely related. I once felt adamant that art existed entirely to express reality. The ability for an artist to convey some aspect of reality accurately and objectively made them a better artist. And this way one could say the photograph was a upward evolution of art from the painting. I didn’t hold that belief for very long, as I started to feel that it diminished so many other pieces of art without clear validation. I then began to think maybe art exists to convey an ideal. For instance, art might exist to convey an emotional ideal, or an ideal person’s face, and so on. Soon this reasoning to began to fail me as well.

Finally, I came to the view I hold now as I write this. Art exists to express the ideals of that which is in reality. Art is a way to express some aspect or property of reality in a way that it could be made bigger and larger than life, made in a way that is greater than our senses would provide to us directly. You might even say in this way that art is the distillation of qualia. The particular attributes and a particular perspective through which they are expressed are controlled as a contract between the medium and that controlling force.

So, the fact notwithstanding, I haven’t put enough actual work in to qualify this as a definitive series of truths. If we suppose that these statements are the case, or we take them as fact, how may we more consciously use art today to express ideals within our reality? How might I use streaming video, or infographics, or emojis, to create an expression of aspects of reality that ought to get more attention?

This recent video from the school of life does an excellent job hand expressing ways that this can and has been done.

Is art a way to flatter reality? What are your opinions?

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Learning From the Student

While watching Convicts 4, a biographical movie from 1962 about the life of John Resko, I came across some very interesting reasoning. This movie is about a convict, as implied, who finds himself with an opportunity to be free after having once been on death row. This freedom comes through means of participating in a rehabilitation system proposed by one of the guards. Through this system, he would be creating art and presenting it to the outside world as a means to show his humanity and his progress in rehabilitation by expression of art. While almost overwhelmingly neck deep in the early century culture of psychoanalysis, the concept itself is interesting, particularly in that I love the idea of creating a rehabilitation and learning system through the means of crafts. What struck me the most though was a series of lines from the guard to the warden in a conversation.  That conversation goes as follows

Warden: “You want to rehabilitate this dog meat with painting, writing, and carpentry. You’re spitting in the face of the penal system that’s worked for 200 years.”
Guard: “Has it worked? This prison, every prison, is overcrowded.”
Warden: “Sing-Sing has a certain solution for that problem.”
Guard: “There are certain problems which you can’t solve by an electric chair.”
Warden: “Oh, but you can solve my with your artsy-craftsy?”
Guard: “If we understand what makes a man commit a crime; when a man paints a picture or tells a story, he’s revealing something about himself he doesn’t know he’s revealing. Interpreted by an expert, he might become aware of his problems and change.”
Warden: “College boy, you got yourself a fat vocabulary. You think you can change Resko?”
Guard: “I might. Why don’t you let me work on him?”
Warden: “I might just do that.”
Guard: “It’s gonna make my job a lot easier.”
Warden: “But you fail I’m gonna put you on the report, you and your artsy-craftsy.”
Guard: “I’d still like to try.”
Warden: “I admire your guts. I really do. But I got a feeling you don’t give a damn about Resko. And one more thing — I’m getting a little old, and you’re a little long on ambition.

It made me think a lot about what it takes to change systems especially systems that are long established and archaic. Institutionalized mistakes punish the next generation as penance for sins of the father. It takes a special type of ambition to look into the face of something so large and so and believe that you have the ability to create initiative to change it. In the end I was inspired by lines, and hope that I can fill a similar spirit in my own efforts.

What about you? What systems do you work with or do you interact with that you know needs to be changed, or at least shifted in its direction? What would you do? How would you do it? And probably most importantly, who would you appeal to to allow yourself to initiate such a change?

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This particular video made me think a lot. I realize that I myself have had a huge problem with focus. My problem was a little bit different though, it wasn’t so much that I would begin too many projects. Rather instead of starting a lot of projects, I got involved in other people’s projects. I became the best support person and the greatest team player, however, I very rarely started my own thing.

Doing this meant something heavy, it meant that I was very involved in other people’s work however I never found myself in a situation where I can work on something that was close to my own heart. This is very similar to being a North American wage slave, except with the problem that the investment is much larger. Because of this, I was unable to extricate myself from the other projects that I did care about, but they just weren’t my soul search, my life’s purpose.

You can get both a large breadth of experience, and a great amount of confidence in your execution abilities by involving yourself in someone else’s endeavor. Both of these things are very good, very noble and probably make you a better person. I generally suggest taking a role in someone else’s work, at least for a time, for the following reasons:

  1. to build your authenticity both in the field and as a team player
  2. to increase the amount of accomplishment by society
  3. and to gain favor when you work on your own thing.

The caveat is this: knowing how long something is slated to go on before getting involved really helps to make sure that you can pull yourself out of something that is less important, at least to you, and free yourself so that you can involve yourself in your own work.

Greg McKeown, the writer of Essentialism, has said something in several lectures that always runs very strong with me when I hear it. That’s the greatest enemy to focus is Success. So be careful what you choose to succeed in because if its success outlives your desire to be involved with it, you find yourself tied, chained and wholly bound to it.

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On the Matter of Tai Chi

Avoiding the debate on the validity of the force in question I will refuse to weigh in on my opinion or experience. Instead I want to focus on the practical takeaways from this article.
The seven secrets mentioned here are, in essence

  • belief
  • attention
  • relaxed sensation
  • orientation
  • breathing
  • imagination
  • and efficient movement.

Again I will ask no one to believe or disbelieve in Qi, Ki, Chi, Prana, or Vitalism. Instead, keeping it universally practical, let’s worry only about believing the technique. Don’t be hesitant in attempting a technique. Honestly this goes for T’ai Chi, weight lifting, running, or eating soup. Don’t cheat yourself by not getting the most out of any exercise, whether because of doubt, fear, or laziness. This would still, in practice, prove consistent with the eastern exercises in question since in literature Qi, like gravity, doesn’t really care if you believe in it or not. However Qi, again like gravity, can be used more effectively if you understand the techniques to use it, belief or not.

Regarding attention, I’m pretty certain I’m on record stating “attention” as the most important activity of being alive. At the very least be aware. Any exercise that attributes its effectiveness to Qi, Chi, or Prana is like a mini science where you shift weight, pressure, and balance and constantly correct until you get it. It won’t work if you aren’t fairly present or in the moment. The same goes for anything you want to perform excellently in.

Relaxed sensation. This goes hand in hand with attention. The trick is to pay attention without the “tension” part. Don’t strain, put intention into each movement, and stay aware of your entire body and environment. Not only is this an amazing exercise by it’s own, it will help ensure you improve, execute each movement correctly, and don’t injure yourself.

The article refers to “grounding and skying,” but let’s just call it orientation. Plant your feet, stand straight up, align your posture, balance you hips, and stretch. Take up some space. Then soften your knees to a bend, keeping your back straight and take up just a little less space. Be grounded, and with the previous states of accepting, relaxed, attentive awareness, take note of your position in space.

The previous steps were like outwardly radiating states of conscious awareness. The next three steps are more about time and motion. The first of these is breathing. I cannot put enough emphasis in the importance of breathing in all activities. If I tried I’d only waste my breath. Instead, I’ll simply say to focus on breathing deep and full from your belly, fill your lungs until you feel your torso shift inside of itself a little. Be aware of that feeling, then release slowly. Continue doing this steadily. Make a slow, relaxing rhythm. Respiration, that is breathing, is the process that accesses all of the energy you can chemically produce in your body, and it’s the same for every other organic cell on the planet. It also comes from the word roots “Re-Spirit” as nearly every ancient culture empasized the importance of air as being part of the spiritual ether. From Adam recieving the breath of life to vedic Prana, there’s no disconnect to the importance of breathing. Go without eating, die in a month. Go without drinking, die in a week. Go without breathing, and your count is minutes. Breath *is* life.

Imagination is the next one. The article mentions visualization and the ability to re-create visions in the mind. It also goes into some abstract visualizations, which is why I rehabilite the term myself with “imagination.” To imagine is a bit more than merely visualizing. It’s part of the process that even gets to vision. What do you want to accomplish? What do you want to look like? How do you want to feel? Some of these are hard to visualize, but easy to imagine. Start with the idea and make it more real.

Efficient movement. This is part of the realization of that idea, but specifically speaks to the effectiveness of how we realize it. In any exercise, physical or otherwise, make your movement count. Control and contain your body, your limbs, your torsion, etc. Keep elbows tucked when running, keep knees evenly spaced when boxing, keep hands over home keys when typing, and so on. This should all prove fairly easy after being aware and oriented. Each micro efficiency not only adds up to save a maximum amount of energy, but also gives you more energy to put into the movements you actually intend to do. Stay effective.

All that being said, I love T’ai Chi, despite having been exceedingly bad at it and found this article interesting, particularly in building a list of lifestyle tools for success. Whether you rely on Qi or chemicals to power you through it all, I think that this breakdown should be equally useful for anyone who wants to put some active mindfulness in their work or workout today.

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Why I Failed to Increase My Value

I spent a month on a simple experiment. Could I willfully increase my personal worth by earning $1,000 more every week. This was essentially an attempt to become more valuable. The results were, yes I could earn $1,000 more each week. However, I lost about $3,840 that month. Ouch?

After a month of hard work, sales, marketing, and planning, I was also under slept, unhappy, and facing a possible law suit. Long story. The point is that I had the concept of value all wrong. I was making more “revenue” without actually being valuable. The cost the Universe levies for such an imbalance is generally pound-for-pound debt, and that’s what I found.

Inversely, in the past week I’ve committed 60% of my time and work into the health and wellness industry pro bono. The result? An immediate increase in value. How much? Well, that’s just the thing. None of it has been money, but if measured out for business purposes it amounts to about $5,000 in usable opportunities this month alone, and an estimated $15,000 by the first quarter of next year. Not a bad return on investment for one week of making people’s lives better.

As I said, I had the concept of value all wrong. Trying to measure in money instead of meaning, I was collecting something that can be taken away, money, in lieu of something that by virtue of its quality isn’t so liquid a commodity, meaning. But let’s not get overly esoteric now, although I love being esoteric. I’m not saying to give all your time and money to every and any cause and charity and expect 5 figures for 40 hours of being a “nice guy.”

Meaning implies discernment, and value implies quality. It wasn’t simply a good deed, it was THE good deed I should have done, a special and almost transcendent kind of “good” that makes me more valuable by adding value to the world, not trying to take it from someone else because I won a capitalist competition. Not that I dislike capitalism (I intend to die an unapologetic plutocrat) but it’s a much better game when money is a measurement of the good you do at work, not simply how good you do at work.

If you take anything away from reading this I may hope that tomorrow you may all be several thousand dollars richer, not because you took something valuable out of the world, but because you put something valuable back in.