Have You Done the Ten Bulls Meditation?

The Ten Bulls is a very old series of scenes. I first bumped into them during my university days, when I picked up the book “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones”.  At that time, I was just getting started thinking about zen. Why did I reach out for it? I suppose that I felt a lack of perspective in my life. I was searching for something. But I did not really know what it was.

The other short stories or fables in the book are nice, but the ten bulls  stuck in my mind for over forty years. I have found myself remembering certain images or lines from the poems, especially in times of intense emotion.

This is what you find from Wikipedia

Ten Bulls or Ten Ox Herding Pictures (十牛; Japanese: jūgyū, Chinese: shíniú) is a series of short poems and accompanying pictures used in the Zen tradition to illustrate the stages of a practitioner’s progression towards the purification of the mind and enlightenment,[web 1] as well as his or her subsequent return into the world while acting out of wisdom.

I did not really understand them at first. They were just beautiful. And I was skeptical that one could use them to gain transcendence and enlightenment. It was just too easy. But they were certainly about transcendence, and that itself was intensely interesting for me. I needed to transcend aspects of my life that I felt held me back.

BTW, you can access the entire Ten Bulls on the web. Here is one link — in fact, there are quite a few.

Over time, I began to realize that for a western mind, the ten bulls is less about achieving transcendence than about experiencing the path that life offers — if you are open to it. In other words, the goal is not to be always in the tenth, most enlightened state (an ego trip). It is instead, to appreciate each step as a story in itself. Doing that allows you, in a sense, to transcend the ten bulls. In this sense, the ten bulls is like any work of art.

You can build appreciation for the ten bulls journey rather easily. Read the stories and absorb them unto your memory. Then each day, sit and close your eyes. Either ask someone to read each poem to you —allowing a space of ten breaths between each. Or, better yet, speak out loud what you think about this particular adventure.

Each time you do this, you will find that it is easier to get beyond yourself. The self is enhanced therefore by feeling connected to a larger reality.

Give it a try!

Hey You! Take Your Brain for a Walk!

If you follow this blog, the following thought — thrown out in an article as if it were something new — would be obvious.

For a long time, it was believed that people are born with a given level of intelligence, and the best we could do in life was to live up to our potential.

Scientists have now proven that we can actually increase our potential and enjoy ourselves in the process.

We now know that by learning new skills the brain creates new neural pathways that make it work faster and better.

The article is not all a restatement of the obvious. It also lists some activities that you can do that will increase your cognitive capacity

Nice stuff. But on a more basic level, before you start doing this stuff regularly, you need to embrace a more basic idea. As Musashi said, each second gives you the opportunity to be the person you want to be. In other words, it si not “one and done”. It is a path you take where you build capacities as you go. No path, no building. No building, nothing new.

Go for it!.


Do I dare Gamify?

Remember the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?” It starts like this (leaving out the excerpt from Dante’s Canto 27)

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

The poet, T.S. Eliot asks us  to join him. Should we go?`Maybe not! Maybe he will lead us astray! Maybe he will take us to a place where we cannot return from! But who could not read on? The next stanza is more reassuring

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Women? There is an odd sexual implication as well as — perhaps — an association between sex and art.

We need not go through this poem line by line – you can have that pleasure on your own. But we jump here to the question

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

Indeed. But the ultimate question is what do we dare do in the interim — in those spaces of time where we are not doing what we think we should be doing? Here Eliot is doubtful one can find satisfaction. Later he would try to do so with religion — an intensely personal style of religion.

But why do I dwell on Prufrock? There is a reason. It is a simple reason. Eliot was troubled by a lack of meaning beyond the urges of the self. He found those urges to be tempting but ultimately superficial. And he was right to be troubled. He saw the self as a fixed thing — an aging man, who has lost his youthful attraction.  Seeing the self as a fixed thing, he could not help mourn its demise. And indeed, those fixed things are part of the self. But they are as large or small a part as you choose to make them.Eliot did not dare admit to this type of choice.

In other words, you can gamify the self. We can, and we should learn this. It is at the core of strategic thinking. Or we will be trapped along with Prufrock.

What Should I follow? Passion or Engagement?

Back in the 1960’s Joe Campbell became rather famous. Here he is

Joe created quite a stir by offering a “one size fits all” solution to finding a great life. He that it was simple. Just “follow your bliss”. He was not alone. Alan Watts also had a lot to say. He said you need to ask “what makes me itch?”

More recently, Sir Ken Robinson  has written and spoken about the need to “get into your zone” by finding the intersection of passoin and meaning. Here is Sir Ken

So what is going on? Are we just stupid about passion? Do we need to be woken up to some sort of inner self that will lead us to nirvana?

There is something to this. That something is the power of emotion. Only recently have we begun to see how powerfully emotions drive us. Not reason driving emotion – the other way around. And thinkers like the above can be seen as prophets of that wake up call.Wake up to the power of emotion.

But this is not the full story. It is not even close to half of the story. The truth is that our emotions do not offer a simple “one size fits all” solution to having a great life. They may offer a “one size fits all” solution to having a great time at a party. But in a lifetime, emotions change.  In other words, it is a mistake to place them in the role of strategic decision maker  If we do, they will lead us all the hell over the place and then back again.

So what do we do? William Macaskill offers some pretty interesting ideas that are linked to research.  I highly recommend his post. In sum, he is saying that we grow in love with things that we learn to do well. Doing leads to insight, not pondering what we might like to do.

There are a few steps here that are worth remembering:

  1. we need to accept that we do not know lots of important stuff — and just because we do not know, or are not sure, does not mean that we just sit there staring out the window waiting for inspiration
  2. to reach our peak cognitive functionality, we need to balance what we believe to be true with why we believe it to be so and refine our understanding of the answers to the why questions
  3. We need to get over the belief that the answers to our “why something is important” are universal truths. Instead, they are deeply personal and subjective  insights.
  4. We need to gamify our path to higher performance — this is an engaging process that will take us to greater meaning in life.

Feeling Impatient?

I confess that I have felt this way many, many times. I wanted to know how a story turns out or the answer to a complex question, before I even thought about it. Ms Popova writes

I frequently lament a particularly prevalent pathology of our time — our extreme impatience with the dynamic process of attaining knowledge and transmuting it into wisdom. We want to have the knowledge, as if it were a static object, but we don’t want to do the work of claiming it — and so we reach for simulacra that compress complex ideas into listicles and two-minute animated explainers.

And of course, she is right. Remember The Matrix? A key aspect of the story line is the capacity to use digital technology to instantly master complex tasks, like flying a helicopter.

this presents a problem. Why? Because the process of gaining knowledge may be more important than the knowledge itself. A guy named Hegel understood this 300 years ago.

The goal to be reached is the mind’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there. The length of the journey has to be borne with, for every moment is necessary; and again we must halt at every stage, for each is itself a complete individual form, and is fully and finally considered only so far as its determinate character is taken and dealt with as a rounded and concrete whole, or only so far as the whole is looked at in the light of the special and peculiar character which this determination gives it. Because the substance of individual mind, nay, more, because the universal mind at work in the world (Weltgeist), has had the patience to go through these forms in the long stretch of time’s extent, and to take upon itself the prodigious labour of the world’s history, where it bodied forth in each form the entire content of itself, as each is capable of presenting it; and because by nothing less could that all-pervading mind ever manage to become conscious of what itself is — for that reason, the individual mind … cannot expect by less toil to grasp what its own substance contains.

The end result, an opinion or belief in what is true is trivial compared to the opportunity to learn more about the self gaming that opinion or truth. The journey is more valuable than the reward. Indeed, life is no more than a journey. Death is the reward.

Creativity Deconstructed

One of the more interesting areas of learning is about building creativity.

The interest is, at least in part,  a matter of timing. The 20th century put a premium on building efficiency. But the push towards greater efficiency tended toward “one size fits all” solutions. And it limited the flexibility of productive institutions to adapt to new ideas and challenges. These limitations have become frustrating for people who now take the efficiency gains for granted. These folks want something more. And they are searching for ways to realize what that more could offer. They put a premium on creativity over efficiency.

The conventional wisdom has been that one is either creative or not. A wrinkle was thrown into this line of thought some time ago, when some argued that education can enhance or retard our natural creativity. In other words, we are all born with a gift of creativity that must be nurtured in order to be a useful cognitive resource..

So how does one nurture creativity? This is where things get a bit complicated. On the one hand, we do it via an internal process. We master skills ourselves. On the other hand, it seems that we cannot just do it alone. We also need the right types of connections with people that unleash creative energy. Creativity, therefore, appears to be both an individual and a social phenomenon.

On the individual level, we become more creative when we “connect” with a passion that gives meaning to us. That might be writing songs or mastering accounting. There is no one size fits all solution here. But we know that this type of connection produces a cycle of creative challenges. And that cycle looks like this

  • discovery – we see something that is valuable that is outside of ourselves and start thinking how to take it over
  • emulation – we copy techniques for doing what we are passionate about hoping to upgrade our skills to a level of expertise that allows us to add value with what we do
  • divergence – we transcend the mechanical copying and add our original ideas to the process – now we are demonstrating results of creative application
  • crisis – we perceive that we are no longer taking risks, but just treading water in what we do and and we start looking to move on

The idea of “competence” plays an odd role here. The more we assess our competence as a fixed thing (I am or am not competent), the less open we are to getting through the discovery phase (where we are beginners and NOT YET competent). And the less open we are to taking risks that take us beyond emulation. In other words, “competence” is not a goal here – it is simply a measure of prefab standards. The more we need competence now, the less likely we will grow.

Notice how complex and fragile this is. One does not just wake up with a creative capacity. Instead, one nurtures the process of doing in order to become more creative. This fragility is a problem when we start thinking about optimal social connections to facilitate higher levels of creativity. Why? Because that social dimension needs a certain amount of conflict in order to stimulate movement. But the conflict should not be destructive.

The Writer’s Life

From A Solemn Pleasure (elaborated by Brain Pickings)

If your commitment isn’t to truth, then you are in the wrong line of work. The poetics of silence still exist in America, but as writers I feel we have a responsibility to engage in history, in painful history, to be responsible witnesses to our own time. We are not separate; we are not an indulgent elite. We are not blind to suffering. We are, in fact, aware of our intimate relation to all other beings, and are thus accountable, deeply responsible. We must connect the personal with the political, the political with the spiritual. And though we can only work from our particular place, our given spot in the world, the particular can be a place of great power — the cry of the human heart and the yearning of the human spirit are, after all, universal.

Truth is a funny thing. You think you live it, but you can’t help but confuse what you see with what is behind it all.