Body: the Fifth Circle

There’s a deep connection between the motions of the body and the development of the brain.

In the book Spark, John Ratey asserts that the brain developed as a result of motion or the need to move.  He gives the example of a sea squirt, which has a rudimentary brain it uses to permanently attach itself to coral, and then promptly eats its brain.

It seems body comes before mind, at least developmentally.  The mind functions best in the vessel of a healthy, moving body.  Maybe the circles should be ordered as body, mind, and spirit.

In any case, our health and happiness is to a large extent dependent upon the health of our bodies.

Body, the fifth circle of practice, tries to answer these questions:

  1. What am I eating and drinking?  How much? Are they healthy?  Am I temperate?
  2. How can I keep body fit?  How can I leverage my personality in choosing my exercise?
  3. How can I leverage the mind/body connection?

Oftentimes those things that taste best act like slow poison in the body.  They may have high concentrations of fat or sugar.  Not coincidentally these are often “foods” that take little or no time to prepare; “processed” foods that are ready to eat, but have had all the life processed out of them.  One of the best things we can put in our bodies is water; and most of us don’t drink nearly enough of it.

How can we exercise enough without eating too much?  How can we wire the brain with the body in ways that promote a healthy symbiosis?  How can we detox, de-stress, and renew our bodies and our minds?  Are we competitive?  Do we enjoy athletic competition, or avoid it?

Let motivation be your guide.  If something turns you on and tones your body, pursue it.  A competitive person might choose something like tennis over yoga, and vice-versa for a non-competitive person.  Do what you enjoy, and you will look forward to it.  Nerves that fire together wire together.

Mind: the Fourth Circle

Mind, the fourth circle of practice, tries to answer these questions:

  1. What am I interested in, or curious about?  What holds my attention?
  2. What is good, or true?  How can I increase my knowledge and understanding of the world?
  3. How can I appreciate or create what is beautiful?

Once we begin to find our answers to the questions of the spiritual domain, we naturally begin to raise these questions of the mind.  We want to spend our time, and find purpose and meaning in, those things that interest us, that pique our curiosity, and that fully engage our attention.

We want to pursue those things we perceive to be good, and believe those things we know to be true.  It brings pleasure to the mind to grow in knowledge and understanding.  It also gives opportunity to apply that knowledge and understanding in the world around us, from which come reputation, compensation, and power.

Beauty arrests our attention, whether by symmetry, or rhythm, harmony, or melody; whether visually, aurally, tactilely, or fragrantly.  In some respects it is subjective; in others objective.  We know it when we experience it.  It fills us with awe, with longing, with desire.  To appreciate it is to grow, like a plant toward the sun.  To create it is to bear fruit that blesses the world, like an apple that falls ripe from the tree.

When we can answer these questions with clarity and confidence, then we have marked out an intellectual path before us as plain as the yellow brick road.  To read about and apply those ideas which fully engage us, to grow in knowledge and understanding, to appreciate and create beauty, is to walk the Elysian Fields crowned with laurel.

Spirit: the Third Circle

I’ve written about building a practice group, beginning with the first circle of talk dancing and the conversational space, and answering the second circle question of why you have come to the group.

I start with the premise that everyone lives in the “domains” of spirit, mind, body, emotion, community, household, vocation, and finance.  And while we may not have the same amount of focus or interest in any one of them, none of us can avoid living in any of them.

I believe the domain of spirit seeks to answer three questions:

  1. Who am I?
  2. How am I connected with other human beings, with life, and the cosmos itself?
  3. How can I create a meaningful life for myself, and bless those I care about?

I think it’s important to answer these questions as best you can before moving on to the other domains, because it is easy to get lost in those other domains only to “wake up” one day and realize you don’t know who you are, or how you are connected with the cosmos, or whether your life has any meaning.  Having no answer to these questions is almost the very definition of an existential crisis.

Notice that while I’ve said nothing about a person’s “faith,” it is faith that attempts to answer these questions.  Our faith consists of the assumptions our life is predicated of; of our self-awareness; of our experience of connectedness or isolation, whether with God, or nature, or with other human beings; of whether our lives have any meaning.

The practice group can help us draw out answers to these questions from ourselves and from one another.  We don’t need to be of the same faith, but we do need to respect one another’s faith.  We don’t need to have the same answers but we need to try to understand each other’s answers, and challenge each other to formulate the best answers we can.

Begin the Adventure

An adventure takes us out of ourselves.  It removes us from who we thought we were, and places us in situations we didn’t expect to face; demands from us a strength we didn’t think we possessed; gives us wounds we didn’t expect to receive, or thought we could recover from.

An adventure changes us.

How does a person with a day to day job have an adventure?  We think of Jason and the Argonauts, or the Odyssey, not Bill at his 9 to 5 desk job.

To some extent, Harry Potter and his buds are in a situation like this.  They go to school every day.  They have homework.  They play sports.  Sure, they’re magical, but even the magic is routine in the sense that they have to learn and practice to be able to use it.

Harry had Voldemort and the Death Eaters to contend with.  But our lives aren’t without fears or monsters, or even forces seemingly out to destroy the world.  Our life is an adventure too, if we can only see it that way.

Our practice is preparation, an initiation to our own adventure.  To some extent our adventure chooses us, but we also choose it.  Each of us has that dragon in our minds that we need to face and subdue in order to move forward, to get past that gatekeeper and move on to the next level.

We each of us know what that obstacle is that is holding us back, that makes us afraid, or that keeps us from doing our work.  The adventure begins when we start to practice, when we learn discipline, and endure the pain of facing our fears.

Children as Practice

Maybe nothing in life is more painful or rewarding than raising children.

As a parent, I wanted to teach my children all the things I had learned from life.  Instead, my children taught me all the things I had yet to learn about it.

I acted as if my children were lumps of clay I could fashion into my own idea of beauty, of character, and of excellence.  They acted as if I knew nothing of beauty, of character, or of excellence.  They seemed to think my ignorance was only exceeded by my arrogance.

Nothing has humbled me more than being a parent.  Nothing has taught me patience like being a parent.

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned from being a parent is when to bite my tongue, which is often.  When it comes to words, less is more.  There is no quicksand like that created by an exchange of angry words.  What started out as a misdemeanor is quickly turned into a felony; what was at first a consequence is shortly made into a bombing run; what was a life lesson becomes a lifelong scar.

The other important lesson I’ve learned is to accept who my children are, and not try to turn them into who I think they ought to be.  This is a hard lesson, one I am constantly in the process of learning.

Sometimes it is hard to separate “the good,” “the beautiful,” and “the true” from our opinion of what those are vis-a-vis our children.  The best I have been able to do is to model what I believe the “three verities” are, and to discuss them with our children when I have the chance.

Our children are a constant source of feedback to us, as we are to them.  If we keep that channel of communication open, we can all grow as individuals, and grow as a family.  But if that channel is closed, we lose the feedback, lose the connection, lose eventually our sense of family altogether.

Interplay Between Domains of Practice

The different domains of practice inform and strengthen one another.  My spiritual practice involves my mind, my mind is invigorated by the practice of my body, my body is relaxed by the stilling of my emotions, etc.

The book Spark discusses the connection between aerobic exercise and cognition.  In nearly all of his books, Mortimer Adler explores the relation between a liberal education and “the good life.”  Plato thought mathematics so important that he inscribed above the door to his Academy the words, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.”

Life is a systemic network of connections between disparate entities, even in our own quintessence.  We function best as chorus singing in harmony, whether as facets of the self, or as facets of the community.

When one part grows out of control, or out of balance, a cancer develops.  Unregulated growth is almost the very definition of cancer.

Oftentimes we want to group like with like.  We may seek out those who share our interests, our beliefs, our culture, etc.  I have talked at some length about doing that very thing in this blog.

However we need the balance of opposites to keep our lives in proportion, to give perspective to our world view, to bring our melody into harmony with the world around us.

Wisdom is a melting pot of praxis, of faith, of art.  It is seeing, listening, and feeling at multiple levels, with multiple modalities.  It invites challenge, invites discussion, and allows for disagreement.

Seek out a variety of voices to sing in your group.

Circling Domains of Wisdom

Have you ever wondered where wisdom is found?

Where are you and your group of seekers going to look for wisdom?

I’ve come to believe wisdom dwells nearly everywhere and nowhere; kind of like the idea of quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

There’s a scene in The Last Samurai where Tom Cruise describes with awe these Japanese people who have turned nearly every aspect of life into an art form; whether it’s arranging flowers, drinking tea, writing, fighting, or planting, everything is done with discipline and an eye toward beauty and simplicity.

I want my life to be like that.

I tend to think of my own life in terms of domains: spirit, mind, body, and emotion; social, vocational, financial, and household.  I have “practices” I associate with each.  I would like to discuss each of these in the context of a “practice group.”  But how?

Consider for a moment the scope of these domains:

  • Spirit: scripture, prayer, service, worship, vision, planning
  • Mind: reading, writing, art, math, and science
  • Body: athletics, fine arts, martial arts, yoga
  • Emotion: meditation, aerobics, therapy
  • Social: family, friends, acquaintances, and affiliations
  • Vocational: formal education, certifications, continuing education
  • Financial: budgeting, financial statements, investing
  • Household: meals, organizing, cleaning, and maintaining the home

The point is, I think wisdom is present in each of these, but perhaps isn’t necessarily predicated of any one of them.  Do you discuss all of these under the auspices of one group, or many?

The idea of having one group address all these ideas appeals to me, because I think one circle informs all the others.  Franklin’s Junto addressed many of these, and was very active in the community.  The goal is for the group to act on these conversations.

Why is it Important for you to be here Today?

OK, so we are a group of seekers who have come together whose intention is to practice wisdom.  We are familiar with talk dancing, and the marginal cost of bandwidth on our conversation.

Now what?

I believe the title of this post is one of Peter Block’s six questions or conversations he developed in “A Small Group.”  I am familiar with Peter and “A Small Group” only by second hand.  But I read a post that refers to this question, “Why is it important for you to be here today?” and its follow-up, “What cross-roads are you at?”

I’ve grown tired of lectures from experts on how to live.  But I am energized by self-revealing conversations with other people who talk about their passions and struggles.  I want to learn from their practice.  I want to be inspired by their persistence.  I want to discover what keeps them on the path, with the hope that together we can all stay on the path.

I want to learn from other learners how they push through to the other side of transformation and transcendence.

Maybe these questions can get us started on the path together.  We learn to listen to each other’s story, about what matters to each person, and the decisions they face.

I say path, but there could be many.  Yet they will have threads in common; seen in different perspectives, maybe painted in different colors.  But wisdom is justified of all her children (Lu 7.35).

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?