Introspective Retrospective January 2010

As we get our February on, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a very brief stroll down memory lane. A thorough investigation of the past helps us prepare for the future and an entry on the subject helps me organize my thoughts, so here we go.

Today marks the 39 hash mark toward 100 days of Qi Kung. I have been practicing with erratic irregularity for about five years, so setting my sites on actually getting a consecutive practice down is a big deal for me. On Nov 8, after over a decade of smoking, I finally kicked the habit for good. It served me as a coping strategy for a very long time, so the adjustment to not relying on that crutch has been considerable. Serious Qi work has helped.

Luck Lessons: I started reading Richard Wiseman’s Luck Factor (download a .pdf of an abridged version here) which explores how cognitive practices can influence good fortune in your life. Far from waxing new age-y, Wiseman is a psychologist who backs his arguments with empirical evidence. My reading of it really regards “luck” as more a metaphor than actually bringing— what is by definition—a supernatural force to bear on your day-to-day. I’d also contend that a lot of the thinking Wiseman advances is Taoist in nature, which I will elaborate on in later posts. Feel free to download the .pdf and participate in this journey, I’d love to get your feedback on some of the forthcoming lessons shared here.

Think Fast, it’s coming. Influenced & inspired by Art of Non-Conformity, I am writing an e-book manifesto in collaboration with the talented staff at RMK Photography. I’ll keep you all posted on the project as we move further along. You can get a sneak peak checking out my five part series on Overcomplification, which outlines some of the basic ideas.

I also want to share some great finds I’ve had this month, namely:

Art of Conformity: Chris G writes a thought-provoking, globe-trotting, engaging & inspiring blog on changing the world.

Rambling Taoist: I came across this site looking for like minded, Tao-oriented folks. Trey, at Rambling Taoist, has been posting his interpretations of the classic Wen-Tzu, which I have found interesting & insightful.


Overcomplification Epilogue

It is happening again.

Twenty-ten, year two of my five-year plan, it is now all happening again.

Just like 4-years-ago when I started as a grant writer; just like years before that when I worked as a counselor, I am experiencing a quantum explosion of growth and self-improvement in my life.

Over the past year: I quit smoking, lost 33 lbs, started going to the gym 3 xs a week, and began practicing Qi Kung regularly.

I landed a creative job that I love in public health. It immerses me in stories of resilience and redemption, challenges me to stay on the cutting edge of innovation— reading, researching, experimenting and dabbling— and draws upon every preceding professional experience to make any progress.

In the past year, I have written and read more than the three that preceded it combined, started studying for the GREs, and gearing for grad school.

It is happening again & this time I’m writing a book on it! Inspired & encouraged by Chris Guillebau and in collaboration with RMK Studios I am writing a manifesto based on the Overcomplification series. I will be posting & cross posting about the project as it develops & keep everyone updated.

The world got a little less awesome today…

Howard Zinn stopped kicking ass after 87 years of age. The lifelong activist, historian and bard of the ordinary & the oppressed passed on today. He packed more into his time on Earth than most people could in twice that span, which obviously can’t be tested. He also left the world a much better place than it was when he had entered it.

Overcomplification Series (4 of 5): When the going gets tough, a Taoist moves slower

Chuang-tzu, the classic Taoist tome, expresses the Mastery of Nurturing Life by telling the story of a butcher. The king watches as a particularly skilled butcher is carving up an animal carcass. He is incredibly impressed by his technique and asks how the butcher can be so good. The butcher replies:

The Way (Tao) is more advanced then any technique. When I first began to cut up oxen, all I saw was an ox. Even after three years I had still not seen a whole ox. Now I meet it with spirit rather than look at it with my eyes. When sensory knowledge stops, then the spirit is ready to act. Going by the natural pattern, I separate the joints, following the main apertures, according to the nature of its formation. I have never cut into a mass of gristle, much less a large bone. A good butcher changes cleavers every year because of damage, a mediocre butcher changes cleavers every month because of breakage. I have had this cleaver for nineteen years now, yet its blade is as though it had newly come from the whetstone.

It is a gruesome way to illustrate the Mastery of Nurturing Life (especially for the vegetarians in the crowd), but the core of the lesson is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined Flow. Flow is “a mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.” Across disciplines this is the moment where the practitioner is completely immersed in their performance, often to the exclusion of everything else happening around them.

Peak athletes in the zone, that’s Flow;

actor’s embodying their characters, Flow, too;

musicians connecting with the song they perform, Flow.

The question Chuang-tzu’s butcher brings us back to: how do we tap into Flow when we are overwhelmed, run down or distracted?

The answer, move slower.

Whenever I come to a knot, I see the difficulty to doing it. I am careful to remain alert, with my gaze steady. Moving slowly, I exert a very slight force, and the knot has come apart, like the earth crumbling into the ground.

The king said, ‘Excellent! Having heard the words of a butcher, I have found the way to nurture life.’

In Part 5, we will talk about goals, flow & f**k’n up.  The term overcomplification, to which this series owes its title, comes from author Stephen Graham Jones, The Chuang-tzu quotes come from the Thomas Cleary translation of classic Taoist works.

Overcomplification Series (3 of 5): Accidental Accomplishments of an Inadvertent Goal Setter

Check out Part 1 and Part 2

How the mind works is by making connections. It creates shortcuts in memory, usually through narrative, between ideas. It would be impossible to manage all the inputs and stimulus encountered in a single day if your brain didn’t have a system in place to process all of it. Anything that is new or isn’t familiar to your brain gets related to something that has been experienced. So, for example, if you are traveling in another part of the world, filled with new experience and stimuli, your brain processes these sights, smells, sounds and language by accepting what is familiar first. A train is a train, a street is a street, and a cow is a cow—anywhere you go— which makes the new experiences more manageable.

When I got in trouble four years ago, launching myself into a career that I wasn’t completely prepared to handle, it wasn’t surprising that my mind reflected on a similar experience. As I discussed in part 2, I had my first full-time job in social services before I had earned my degree. I had to sign a contract saying that if I became a counselor than I would graduate that semester. Managing the immense pressure and demands meant fanatically managing my time. It meant working with my brain and maximizing overlap.  Everything became a cycle. This was my life as a feedback loop.  I learned something in the classroom or textbook and I applied it to myself. Journaling the results, discussing it with my clinical supervisor, introducing it in session with my kids, the experiential learnings informed me in a way that just reading alone never could. Then, I wrote of these counseling sessions and the results for class assignments. Every experience fed everything else in my life.

Using this same approach as a grant writer, I found myself weighing in on a program design by applying curriculums to my own life. In a tattered notebook, another feedback loop life was created, working through multiple professional development exercises. In the weeks the program director and I went through this mini-accelerated course, we learned business communications, conflict resolution, anger & anxiety management, goal setting, and personal (& personnel) motivation techniques. We had made the deadline and I chucked the notebook in a drawer.

I was straightening up when I noticed it. Purging messy piles, tidying the office, when the discovery hit me. On a wrinkled spiral page in a rumpled spiral notebook, per those exercises, I had written out a list of goals. As if by magic, in three months time, every one of them had come true. I felt as if I was holding some fantastic grimoire in my hands and had become a supreme Mage with powers to manipulate the Universe itself. Seriously. As a result, I did something that I never thought I would do. I sat down and wrote a year worth of goals. By year end the replication was successful. I landed a better gig with more loot that I’d have believed was way out of my league. I accomplished some of the most far-reaching objectives I’d set to writing. A door had been opened.

In Part 4, we will switch gears a bit and bring it back to the Tao by talking about handling big projects. Initially, this section was actually going to include a “how-to” on goal setting, but I recently stumbled across Chris Guillebeau’s “Brief Guide to Global Domination,” which so eloquently expresses everything I would have on the subject that I have decided not to reinvent the wheel. Personally and professionally, I spent the last four years devouring hundreds and hundreds of pages on the subject (the job I landed at year’s end was working for the national leader in transitional workforce development, creators of the best-practice curriculum) but still think Chris’ book is the best thing I have ever read on goal setting.

Avoid Overcomplification: In writing & In life

The term comes from author Stephen Graham Jones. It is exactly the way it sounds. For Jones, it means unnecessary plot twists, turns, blindsides, and even characters, which I have been guilty of in my fiction as well, but it also applies to any writing, really (& to life as a whole).

There is a reason I have started five blogs that have written themselves out of existence, before they really got started. There is a reason that I struggle with how to start an article, essay, proposal, or any large project when I don’t have a deadline barreling down on me. There is a reason my play has been shelved at a couple dozen pages and my novel is in a file cabinet. Overcomplification.

To complicate it further, this applies to life as well.

How many times to we bog ourselves down before tackling a life goal with all the firsts we have to accomplish?

I’d love to take up mountain biking, but I am too out of shape.

I have to quit smoking before I join a gym.

I have to join a gym before I quit smoking.

I would like to take a class on web design, but I need to learn more about the Internet first.

These sound like lame excuses, yes, but I have heard (or used) all of them. And in your mind, at the time, it sounds perfectly reasonable to believe that you have to do one thing before the other. Four years ago, I started catching on to this attribute in myself and in my writing and doing something about it. This series is about how I simplified my life over the last four years ago and started setting and accomplishing my goals.