Building the First Circle of Wisdom

I take as my model for a “community of wisdom” Benjamin Franklin’s “Junto”, a club of about 12 men who got together weekly for their mutual improvement.  They would take turn about in leading a discussion on morals, politics, or science, and committed to produce and read to the group an essay of his own writing once every three months.

Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

The first step is drawing up a list of likely candidates to form such a group.  Alternatively, you might use a resource such as meetup.com to find a group of individuals so inclined.  Or you might resort to joining a formally organized group such as Rotary or Toastmasters.

Franklin also drew up a list of questions (see questions under the link above) that I believe are indicative of what is a matter of concern to an “elder” or “wise one.”

In order for the group to be well run, for its members all to take part in the discussion, and for the group to eventually become viral, I believe the first meetings should address the ideas of channels of communication, of talk dancing, hand signals, and self-organization and self-replication of groups.

Why viral you may ask?  The group should have the goal of going viral so that the wisdom of the group can be shared with the world.  As the group grows and divides the elders become mentors to others seeking meaning and significance in their life.  This later became a goal of Franklin’s group as well, which eventually evolved into the American Philosophical Society.

Building a Community of Wisdom

What are we working for?  What is the end of practice?

Some writers, like Buford or Rohr for instance, talk about two halves of life: the first half that seeks success, and the second half that seeks meaning or significance.

I was in middle school when Kung Fu came out.  The fighting got my attention, but it was the mastery and wisdom of the old men that filled my heart with longing.

It is mastery and wisdom I seek now.  I want to seek it in community with other seekers, not alone; much like the monastery in Kung Fu, only one that is in the world and not shut off from it.

Is there a community of “wise ones,” where one can go to be trained in the ways of mastery and wisdom?  Why am I even putting these two words “mastery” and “wisdom” together?

I suspect that the two somehow go together.  That wisdom somehow grows out of the discipline and focus required to pass the trials inevitably required for one to become a master of anything sufficiently difficult.

Does that mean that our community of wise ones should consist of practitioners of the same art?  It could, but I think it could also consist of masters of different arts; that one art could inform another of its own particular species of wisdom; or even masters of science with masters of religion, with masters of the arts.

What if you don’t know any masters to hang out with?  Is it enough to hang out with seekers of wisdom, or seekers of mastery?  How do we build a community of elders, of wisdom?

Could we build such a community ourselves?

Marriage as Practice

Marriage may be the most rewarding and most difficult relationship a person can experience.  This makes it an ideal place for transformational practice.

What makes marriage so unique is the nature of the commitment.  We go into marriage with the expectation that it is for life.  You might argue that is no longer true.  But it is true that most people believe they are making a “long term” commitment, at least on the order of buying a house.

Most of us go into marriage expecting to create a family.  We want to leave a legacy of ourselves to the world in the way of children, either by blood or by adoption.  And by so doing, we take on the mantle of responsibility for those lives.  We make an implicit covenant to love them, provide for them, socialize them, and raise them to be independent, productive adults.

My dad says you’re never done being a parent.

Marriage is an everyday practice.  Even when our spouse is away, the commitment is present with us.  Will we reach out and touch them?  Will we think kindly or critically of them?  Will we bless as they come through the door from work, or greet them with our own anger and frustration?  Will we bring our work home, or give our family our full attention?

But I think the hardest and most rewarding part of the marriage practice is vulnerability.  We’ve got so much riding on this one commitment.  What happens if I lose face?  What happens if I humiliate myself right there in front of my partner?

What’s the alternative?  What if you don’t talk about the one thing you think you need but aren’t getting?  What if you don’t help your spouse get that one thing she needs?  What if you express yourself in a way that is emotionally upsetting to your partner?

We have to find a way to talk with, and reveal ourselves each other.  We have to find a way to compromise, so that each person gets some of what they need and want.  This isn’t easy.  But so much is riding on it.  It takes practice.  It takes forgiveness, because inevitably you’re going to hurt each other.

But the reward is the web of connectedness, goodwill, and love that come from a successful marriage.

Falling Down Joy

What do you do when your passion doesn’t measure up?  When your best work is considered average?  When your goals go unmet, your progress stops, and the audience boos?

What do you do when you’ve tried one interest after another, and you’ve fallen short in all of them?

What do we, the audience, tell this person?

Is it OK for the average to enjoy their work?

What meaning will our work have when it has all been superseded by machine intelligence?  That day may be closer than you think…read Automate This, by Christopher Steiner.

We lament the loss of love of learning, while we pressure our kids for straight A’s, while we pressure them to go to Ivy League schools, to get high paying jobs, while we measure and compare them in every possible way.

Why are we surprised?  None of that is about learning; it’s about being better than your peers, better than Europe, better than Asia.  We want more, so that we have more than the next guy.  If we’re doing better than our neighbor, then we must be doing OK.

School has become one great endless competition.  There is no more status conscious place on earth than the university.

Joy has come to me by focusing on the work.  I try to clear everything else from my mind; no thought of my audience, no thought of my “grade,” no thought of my peers.  I want to focus on my work, and experience the joy of working.

Here’s what I’d tell that person:  “Do the work you love, admire those whose work you admire, and learn from them.  Live within your means, and be a blessing.”

Apologies and Thanks

I’ve discovered that many of you have liked my posts, and that some of you have even taken the time to leave comments, all of which have gone unacknowledged by me.

Please forgive me.  I feel a deep sense of gratitude for your time and attention, and a deep sense of shame for having ignored them for so long.

I haven’t paid enough attention to the mechanics of blogging.  I kept seeing this stat for comments, approved, and spam, but couldn’t figure out who was doing the approving or spamming, or where the comments were going.

Then finally I went into the email I use for businesses, where I expect to get lots of unwanted email, to look for something from WordPress.  But when I typed in the search for WordPress, screen after screen of emails came up; emails looking for approval for comments, or a notice of being “liked.”

I’ve had the blinders on, totally focused on writing a post every day.  And I missed the opportunity to converse with you.

I’m committed to work through your emails, respond to your comments, and to read your blogs.  I pledge to set aside an hour each day to do just that.  But it’s going to take some time to get through them all.  So I hope you’ll be patient with me.

Thank you for reading my blog, for liking my posts, and especially for sharing your thoughts in the form of comments.  I will try to do better.

The Siren Song of Mathematics

Treat yourself to a book or two of Euclid.  You might discover an aesthetic you never knew existed, a beauty bare, austere, and elegant.

Forget about utility.  Forget about any fear you might have of math, or some childhood humiliation you may have experienced.  Expect a pleasant surprise.  Just enjoy the geometrical progression of your rule and compass across the page, as they make visual music out of a geometrical problem.

The book begins with definitions, common notions, and postulates.  These are the assumptions, the building blocks out of which everything else in the books of Euclid are made.

Take each proposition as a puzzle to solve, or a dilemma to resolve.  The thing I love about geometry is how the visual and rational aspects come together there before you on a sheet of paper.  Each construction seems to me to be a thing of beauty.

And I love Euclid’s proofs, his economy of expression, his rhythmic flow of thought, and his inexorable downhill run of reason.

I discovered Emily Dickenson while I was in college.  I loved the compressed language of her poems.  Math is like that.

At some point math captured me with its symbols and proofs.  The symbols were an innovation made to compress an oft repeated, complicated verbal expression into a single visual expression.  I can remember being drawn to “The World of Mathematics” by James Newman by the summation symbols that ran along its spine.  And I felt that when I’d come to the end of a proof that I’d finally understood the concept expressed in the proposition.

That power of a name Ursula Le Guin describes in her Earthsea trilogy realizes its full force in mathematics, e.g., e=mc2.  That formula precisely names the relationship that exists between energy and matter.

Math is a wonderful ocean, deep and wide, and brimming over with ideas.  Dive in.  Euclid is a great place to start.

Visualizing an Excellent Life

Can meditation speed me on my way to an excellent life?

Two friends and I spent several weeks reading and discussing Mastery of the Mind East and West a few years ago.  In it Dan Brown contrasts peak performance with a continuous way of being in the world.

He identifies seven factors of enlightenment from the Buddhist literature: mindfulness, intelligence, balanced energy, light-heartedness, sustained concentration, calmness of mind, and equanimity (non-reactivity).  These were considered prerequisite to making progress in meditation.

When one of these factors is absent, he says the Buddhists visualize a deity or Buddha embodying the virtues the practitioner wants to possess.  The examples he gives here weren’t very clear to me, so I looked for others on the web, and found some on this website.

Now regardless of your religious predilections, it’s hard to argue with the intended outcome: radiating wisdom and compassion in all directions, transforming all sentient beings into enlightened ones, all environments into pure lands.

In other words envision your ideal self, blessing those around you, even nature itself.

Perhaps you’re uncomfortable with the particulars of the visualizations given.  Alter them enough to fit your own faith.

Sometimes I think we are all pursued by the same god, but we don’t see god the same way, or hear god the same way, or feel god the same way.

We don’t see paintings the same way, or hear a poem the same way, or feel music the same way, even when we speak the same language or live in the same culture.

We get so caught up in right and wrong that we don’t listen to one another, or learn from one another.

I suspect the Buddhists have something powerful to teach me here.  I haven’t put this practice to the test, but I’m going to.

An Ordinary, Flourishing Life

I think of my life in terms of these domains: spirit, mind, body, emotion, family, community, vocation, finances, and household.  A flourishing life exhibits health and vitality in each of these domains.

If we suffer a collapse in one of these domains, it becomes difficult to flourish.  If two or more collapse, we are well on our way to a train wreck.

I keep a practice for each of these domains by which I can improve or maintain the well being of each.  It is particularly important for householders to keep their balance, and especially difficult as well.  The life of a householder is full of obligations, commitments, and stress.

If we are determined to become “the best” in a particular domain, that translates into at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, or three hours a day for ten years, while still maintaining enough gas in the tank to keep the other domains in a state of health.  That is no mean feat, especially if you’re a householder.

What happens to someone like me if he lets go of excellence, and chooses instead to flourish? 

His practices teach him what’s important, teach him discipline, and give him a sense of accomplishment.  His practices lead to emotional and behavioral stability.  He is a blessing to his family, and blessed by them in turn.  He practices vulnerability, reaches out to others, and serves his community.  He becomes skilled at his vocation, financially secure, and lives in a clean and organized home.

He is an ordinary person, flourishing in an ordinary life.

My Problem with Excellence

The problem for me with this whole “Wheel of Excellence” thing is that I’m more interested in non-attachment than I am in competition.

The idea of “mastery” appeals to me; the idea of “wisdom” appeals to me.  Is there a difference between these and excellence?

The end in view for the “Wheel of Excellence” appears to be peak performance; it appears to be winning some sort of competition.  But we can be “the best” and still be pretty lousy people, leading pretty miserable lives.

Mastery and wisdom feel less about peak performance and more about a way of life.

I want to live a good life.  I want to be happy.  I want to be a blessing to those around me.  I don’t want to be so consumed with being “the best” that I lose sight of everything else; that I lose my balance, my way.

Being “the best” feels one dimensional to me.  The focus is entirely upon one’s craft.  And it inherently involves comparing my own performance with that of everyone else I’m competing with.

Some other things grow out of that, of course.  The world’s best canoeist is undoubtedly disciplined, focused, and in top physical shape.  He is supremely confident.  He is committed.  He has a medal to hang on his wall, and validation of all his hard work.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with any of that.  I just wouldn’t be happy pursuing that kind of excellence, that peak performance.

I want my life to be meaningful.  I want to be competent, physically fit, and emotionally happy, with deep social connections.  I want understanding, and wisdom.

Peak performance doesn’t preclude any of those things I desire.

But when winning becomes the only thing, that light at the end of the tunnel just might be an oncoming train.

I’m OK with not being “the best.”  Maybe that makes me a “loser.”  But since I made peace with being ordinary, my life is a whole lot better.