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I practice, here (or, the importance of the present moment)

Shifting on a low wooden bench, knees tight from the unusual position, my mind wrestles with focus. This is not uncommon, but rather the feel of something ordinary, regular but unnoticed, like the cadence of a subway turnstile in a busy manhattan station.

One thought passes through, a memory from earlier that day. I picture the scene and sift through the critical few moments. The scene is altered, I react differently this time, my mind practicing for the next occurrence.

The flicker of a candle reminds me of where I am and the practice at hand. From somewhere aware I remind myself to let the thought subside, to dwindle out. I first force it away and then calm my attitude, letting it settle out like a candle at the end of it’s wick. It isn’t the result that matters but the action. The goal isn’t an empty mind, but one disciplined to not fixate and focus on the internal world.

Zen is not a practice performed in a group setting, in a room with Asian motifs on every wall. It is, from what I can best ascertain after just two years of experience, a practice of intentional living, the mind trained to be present in each moment. But this does not mean you shouldn’t think of the past or forget what has happened; it means you don’t dwell there.

And this dwelling is the central point and the reason for this writing. When I sit I practice so later I can be more aware of the moment and my place within. Why am I reacting to strongly to the person next to me? Why do I object so strongly to an idea proposed by my wife or a peer? Where am I unintentionally (or even intentionally) deceiving my self or others? Did I even see the new building being built next door?

It will be obvious to most the impact our devices have had on our ability to be present. But this is nothing new. Humanity has seemingly always had books and events and games, among other experiences, distracting us from the moment. Roman leaders would provide food and entertainment to citizens at key moments to distract from the turmoil or gain key political advantage, leading to the expression “bread and circuses”. As long as we are fixated on something more enjoyable we are free from seeing the subtle and nuance, good or bad.

But the now is filled with nuance that is often overlooked. As I write I am looking at a crumpled paper towel. It’s folds and creases unique and original, shadows cast on the side away from the window. Patterns formed in manufacturing create a textured look that could be simply tactile in function or provide for better absorption. In touching the surface in a quiet room a sound is produced, barely audible unless close to my ear. I am reminded of the unmistakable sound of a burning cigarette as an actor in a film takes a long, purposeful draw, its glowing amber reflected in the sound it makes, the volume increased drastically for noticeable effect. I hear the sound of leather shoes on marble flooring (truly one of my very favorite sounds), taking on the rhythmic vocabulary of horse and rider but with the clear and distinct audible aroma of wealth and power.

This moment would have never happened had I been fixated on yesterday, or a recent issue with someone close, my mind plagued and overrun with the memory.

I do not use the word plague lightly. A thought can be truly overwhelming, overtaking all other thoughts and plunging the body into a physiological reaction. As someone with diagnosed OCD, I know this feeling well. Perfectly comfortable in bed at night, lights off, drifting off to sleep, I often get up and check the door again to ensure it is still locked from the last time I checked minutes ago. The thought of insecurity and “what if” permeates and courses through my mind like red dye in a glass of clear water, my body raising my heart rate and releasing cortisol. Until I react I can not go to sleep, I believe. It seems or feels out of my control.

It is difficult to know how we will feel or react to a situation. Sometimes the mind is treated as a separate entity in the way we might refer to our bodies as separate but connected. The mind seems to, well, have a mind of its own. The lion will never be tamed, but it can be trained. This may seem like a limitation, but it is not. In training we might have a full experience, not limited to what ever mental conditioning we have been subjected to that has gone on unchecked for so long it feels natural and normal.

With practice I create space and room to breathe. My emotions and thoughts are expressions, or tenants, rather than owners. I let them come and go. I see the value and benefit to feeling them but I do not let them invade and take over.

The more we see these moments for what they are, our emotions and reactions too, the closer we come to seeing ourselves for who we really are. Who am I?

These are things I notice and am learning as I practice, here.

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The Art and Experience of Music

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The Lone Bellow at the Fillmore Theater

In the deserts of what is now Morocco secret events were once held to showcase musical and dancing abilities. For most occasions the abilities of the artists were profound at best, their abilities on par with the best musicians of their day, their choreographed pieces played with precision and skill.

But occasionally there was a moment where the experience was so profound, so completely consuming for viewers and artists alike, the audience would rock back and forth, hands in the air, proclaiming the name of god. It was said that in these moments it was the finger of god that touched the participants and became the energy, the life force that controlled their every moment. These moments were inspired, a gift.

Last Friday I had the privilege of viewing The Lone Bellow perform at the Fillmore Theater. I went to school with two of its members, in what seems like a different life ago. The Fillmore Theater hosted some of the most important bands of the last 50 years: Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Doors, Frank Zappa, the Allman Brothers… It is one of the great musical spots in the US and the very wood resinates with the years of sound like a well aged violin.

I have forgotten what it is like to see raw emotion poured out on a stage. In this moment it was there, able to be cut with a knife as though the inspiration for each song was still present, somewhere in the room on view like a curio cabinet or documentary film. Each song sung with intensity, voices throttled to a fever pitch, the audience responding and feeling with the coming and going of each movement.

When I pay for a show I don’t pay to be just entertained. I can entertain my self for hours with a never-ending stream of songs and movies on any number of devices I have on hand every day. I want to be transformed, consumed in the way that only music can do so, caught up in a moment that is not manufactured for shock and awe but wholly real and fully present in that very second by second alone. I want my very being to be picked up and merged with that of another, or that of the room. It is in those strange, ecstatic moments, our experiences entangled with those around us, that we are able to look at our own lives in the way that the artist might: with intensity, honesty, emotion. We borrow these emotions from the artists and take them home for a few days after. We connect the pieces of our own narrative through the music. We see in the stories how our outcomes might play out, with hope or despair. But we get to be present with it, if we are lucky enough to be present with the artist who is also present and not just performing an act.

At least this is how, at times, music effects me. I might begin to differentiate between music, the collection of notes, and Music, the consuming experience of connection brought on by the illicit display of emotion shared with those able and willing to be consumed in kind.

The musician giving all is left with a part of his or her heart unconscious and in recovery. It is no wonder so many musicians and actors wrestle with depression and drug problems. If done right everything is consumed, night after night.

Towards the end of the concert the band moved to the center of the audience. Like the unified rumblings of a religious service, the audience moved as one, controlled by a common string, swaying back and forth, hands in the air, as if in ancient Morocco ready to name the name of god. Perhaps some did, or perhaps some felt the celebration of their own emotional journeys in a culture that prefers the conservative assessment of being as always in control, always professional, never standing out except in acceptable and preordained moments. We may not let our selves go completely, or even know what that is like, but it is the artist we pay to be fully involved on behalf of ourselves. 
 
What does it mean to let ourselves go? We pay for ecstasy whether by drugs, alcohol, religion, movies, events, sex, hot yoga, or many of the hundreds of ways we have to move beyond the now into the other; whatever or wherever that place is. And what is that place? Humans have an innate desire for a shift in consciousness. There is not a culture on the planet that does not have an intoxicant as part of their religious or social experience. This is as normal and common as food, water, family. 
 
I propose that the place we go is the now. With the music drowning out internal checklists and story lines, we become the thing we already are: feeling, sensing, experiencing, human. We get, for a few minutes, to be fully present with a sound in a group of people, like the dancing tribal celebrations in a National Geographic video. 
 
So I applaud The Lone Bellow for the gift of that experience, in that moment in time. In their pouring out and consuming emotion through Music they were able to point the way for others to move aside their day at work, upcoming weekend of errands, and never ending list of do’s and don’ts. We got to be human. We got to be present. 

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Ten (/tɛn/): equivalent to the product of five and two; one more than nine; 10

When we are young a week is a lifetime. Minutes can tease and a simple school day might take an act of force to simply move through.

Then a month goes by, slightly faster.

And a year.

And a decade.

At 34 I feel the speed building steadily and continually. The last 120 months feel more like a restless redeye flight, where I look down in a half-awakened state as miles of moments slip by on Zeno’s arrow.

Ten years ago I stood, my feet nestled in warm sand on a wonderfully moderate August afternoon, and said, with shaky knees, words entirely new to me.

I could not eat that day from nerves. Three bites of a burger and the rest thrown away. My suit fit strangely, hair needed cutting. Family, friends, so many wonderful faces.

I looked over at her, a person I barely knew. A complex woman with a wonderful mind and beautiful smile. Someone who would surprise me continually, nearly every day. A person patient, with a seemingly endless capacity for kindness and love.

Sometimes now we’ll lock eyes in wonder that we are not the same. How is it that we are truly other people? Who is this person here in front of me?

I wonder how we are so closely connected while hindered by repelling atoms. A touch must be more. A feeling. A response to proximity. I feel it. I know we are here together.

There are things we can not know but rather feel about each other. An intuition might come one moment, a compulsion to be touched and calmed. Every minute that follows is one in which one will slowly clutch the other, a quiet tension in the hands for only seconds.

For ten years my life has been connected to that of another. This person I chose, she chose. We continue to choose.

And I chose on our first date. We played with sugar packets and talked. And talked. And talked.

And still we talk. Some nights we must force ourselves to sleep. Our language takes over and we blend our thoughts into some kind of asynchronous entanglement.

The world is full of words on love, so I will talk of being; I am here and she is too. For ten years it has not been the language of marriage, I do, or love that have kept our worlds in orbit. These simple words are nearly lost to me from overuse.

It is the intuition, the gentle beating I feel when I think of her.
It is in the quiet I listen but it can not be heard.
In the open I feel for it but it is not in time or space.

I know of her and she of me.

Like a gentle heartbeat…

softly…

always present.

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Dwindling Attention Spans, Technogluttony, and Three Tips for Living in the Present

Busy Florence Street - Robert A Murph

*Reader beware: This is a long post; especially long for a topic related to ADD. If you must, you may skip ahead to the part at the end where I list resources and steps to take to develop more of an awareness of the present. If you do, you will miss out on the why. Only you will know… Well, I will also know, thanks to Google Analytics. Only the strong should precede. What are you, chicken??

You’re sitting across from your friend or spouse as they begin to tell you about some strange event that happened earlier that day. For the first 30 seconds you listen to every word, staying right with the speaker.

But then suddenly, without intention, you begin to wonder if a promised email has been delivered to the iPhone sitting beside you on the living room couch or dinner table. By default you nod your head in agreement with the speaker, subconsciously picking up on and responding to non-verbal cues that the speaker is putting out.

A thought about email involuntarily leads you to wonder if anyone on Facebook has yet commented on the photo you posted of a particularly unique dinner or a cat wearing people clothing.

Your hand moves towards the device only to stop in realizing how rude this would seem. But you continue to think about it anyway.

The story you’re supposedly listening to is halfway through now and you tune in for a minute only to check out again when it occurs to you that you that the stove might be on, an assignment at work was left unfinished, or the check list from an evening of errands still has remaining items left unchecked.

You are now fully staring into space. Your mind has turned inward. You know something is going on around you but you could be in a trance. Your mental life is front and center, replaying the highlights of your day, the things you should have done, the fears and hopes you have for the future.

Your friend/partner gets to the end of the story and looks to you for a response or validation, partly suspicious that you have moved on from the conversation and care about something else more than what they are saying. The problem is, you couldn’t repeat back the master narrative if someone held a gun to your head. You utter, “Wow. That’s crazy. How did they take it?” You have a 50/50 chance that the story did involve something that went wrong for someone and now your gamble will either pay off or you will be found out. In a clear moment you realize the irony of how fully fixated you are now on the conversation.

The Greater Stimuli

I was diagnosed with ADD at an early age. I was a Ritalin kid and struggled for years with keeping present and keeping on task. I remember a teacher stemming his feet to “wake me up” out of my distraction or looking up from a test to realize I was lost in thought for 30 minutes and had to fly through the questions in order to finish.

Eight years ago I read a few books by the world’s premier ADD expert, John J. Ratey. He describes ADD not as the weakness that I was told but rather an evolved condition that equips the brain of individuals to seek out new and exciting means for stimulation. An often used, though imperfect, analogy is of the farmer and the hunter. The brain of the farmer is satisfied being in one place and taking on a repeated action. The brain of the hunter is only satisfied wandering, looking, and exploring new places to hunt.

The ADD/ADHD suffer is equipped with lower levels of the stimulating chemicals seratonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine that our brain uses to reward actions. And our brain is continually rewarding our actions. When I do dishes, finish a project, or got to the gym, my brain is continually rewarding me for the action. Think of this as a morphine drip every time you take on tasks. As Ivan Pavlov discovered with dogs and dinner bells, individuals will choose the action that provides the object they desire. In other words, my brain will reward me for taking on actions that result in my brain rewarding me.

Our minds, addictive by nature, in the presence of a less than satisfying stimulus will look for a new stimulus in order to get our “fix”. So when I am listening to a story that, for whatever reason, is less than interesting, my mind will have the tendency to wander.

Enter New Media and 24/7 Stimulation

I find it interesting to look at human invention through the lens of human nature. We truly create objects and actions the way we would want them. Yes, that seems a bit to obvious. But we create out of nature to serve or even create a need. For example, do we need 24/7 news channels? Does knowing that an event somewhere in the world at that moment impact my day to day life such that it requires immediate and in-depth coverage? No, but I am rewarded for it. Do I need to view the latest hollywood gossip streaming to my laptop all day long every day? No, but it can result in a reward.

Do we need 24/7 internet access? Before you think of people who do require this for their job, remember that this is a new invention that the infrastructure was built around, not the other way around. We created a system that will provide a stimulating effect, upon demand, all day, every day.

In many ways, this is great. We can connect with people who live thousands of miles away as though they are in the same town. We can keep track of world events and play a part in making the life of another a little better.

The internet has revolutionized so much of what we do. But as is the case with any change, there is always a cost.

The cost here is that our brains have gotten used to this continual steam of stimulation. Have you ever sat at a computer with the browser open and invented something to look up? You didn’t have to do something but doing nothing or very little felt unnatural so you made something to do. How hard is it to read a book when we are used to the shortened, abridged version of information being handed to us in bullet points

As an online marketer I know how important it is to create content that keeps someone fixed on a point of interest. I know that I have just seconds to give a visitor what they are looking for or they will move on to the next site or re-search in Google. I know that images can be used to distract but not distract too much, keeping the mind stimulated enough to finish the post.

Technogluttony

So what’s the downside? I don’t want to be the type to cry out DANGER with the advent of new technology. There is always a give and take. The good can be great. The bad is that what was once limited to just a portion of the population, ADD seems to effect nearly everyone now. We are, largely, over stimulated to some kind of mental obesity that I would like to call technogluttony. And it has side effects that can hurt our loved ones and keep us from developing the richer, deeper experiences that take time and hard work.

What Does This Mean for the Future?

There are a few options for us. In one scenario we may choose to go the way of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra who, coming down from the mountain like an Old Testament prophet, proclaimed that the era of the human was over and our very nature would have to change. What was to come next was the “overman”, or the next evolution: aka, what we are today will not be what we are tomorrow. There would be benefits of this change, but we would lose something in the process.

For example, in Japan the “celibacy epidemic” is gaining considerable interest in academic communities as youth, after years of technology driven relationships, are losing the ability to connect both physically and mentally with others. This is a serious change. Though extreme, we are all seeing signs of changes in our daily lives.

An alternative to letting this spin out of control is to put controls on our access. Our phones, computers, and 24/7 news cycles place constant access for new and stronger stimulants in our hands all day, every day. We have not adapted as a species in order to work with the long term impact of this technology on our brains. With intention, we could learn to put boundaries on our usage and train to bring back some of what we have lost.

Thats right, train. Think of the impact of the modern diet. When we eat too many calories we have to then work them off or deal with an uncomfortable condition. Walk through the snack isle at a grocery store and see how just how determined the human mind is to eat foods that will negatively affect us. The body is in best shape when we learn to eat within our means.

As is our minds.

What does mental training look like?

Training the Mind to Live in the Moment

I will not claim to be an expert in this field. I will, however, tell you what works for me. Over the past few years I have found these steps to have what I believe is a positive effect on my mind.

  • I recognize that I have a propensity for distraction
    I think of this as less an admission of guilt and more an awareness of being human. I am a person. I have the same problems that many people have. When this is admitted and even shared with others we have no choice but to take action or live in denial.
  • Cultivate an awareness
    I try to pay attention to what happens when I feel distracted. This often involves looking for the cues and the signs that I am about to float away to lalaland or feel compelled to check email, surf facebook, or just do something versus whatever is going around me. This also means developing a way of understanding what is urgent versus what is not. Not everything that comes across my phone needs to be handled then. This also means that I should give others the same space when I don’t get an immediate response.
  • Practice being present
    Four activities I’ve found help tremendously:

    • Reading: When I say reading, I don’t mean articles online. I mean books. I try to read anywhere from a few pages to a few chapters a day. This is a slower, more casual form of entertainment. It also gets the mind used to finding interest in longer narratives that take time to develop.
    • Exercise: Last year I joined a rock climbing gym. Though not for everyone, I find this exercise to be so enjoyable, both mentally and physically. I am never so present as when I am hanging by three fingers off a rock suspended in the air. My mind is fully engaged in the moment. Now here’s the kicker: if you want to learn to be present, skip the music. If you are running, look around you and see what goes by. Listen to your body and mind.
    • Meditation: I’ve been practicing Zen meditation for over a year now. Zen is defined as “a cultivation of an awareness of the present”. In other words, Zen is just about perfect for this situation. The first few sessions were difficult. Sitting for 20 minutes at a time is not easy. But the results speak for themselves.
    • Taking time away from the problem: I took three months away from Facebook and should have stayed away longer. I am trying, with my wife’s help, to designate time away from phones and screens in general. Creating space helps separate “me” from the device that my mind views as an extension of my self. It helps me understand that I don’t need these things. I only want them.

 

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The Brand and the Customer: Evolving Together and Creating a Unique Story

The self is the continuation of the brand. When we consume a brand we continue the story of the brand in our own lives, as a kind of ambassador. A wise brand will allow the customer to become part of the brand.

There are numerous benefits to such a strategy. Perhaps most importantly this allows for a brand’s unique evolution over time and space at the pace of the customer. All products, people, companies, governments, et al change. A well positioned brand will move with a customer, not the other way around.

Both a product and it’s customer are defined by each other. Today I sat in a coffee shop with twenty others, nearly everyone on a Macbook. Each user fit the profile of the computer, as each computer fit the profile of the user. You could see plainly how a brand is an extension of the user, much as the user is an extension of the brand.

Today we can each create our own brand online. We have social media that will freely advertise us being our very best. We can choose to show off only the best selfies, meals, or travel spots. We create our image and show this to the world. Like PR agencies we police our self image and only allow the best to be shown.

And the world, like us, knows that this is utterly insincere. As we each perform this action we are reminded that others are doing the same. Corporations do the same. Brands also do the same.

But if everyone is doing this, what should then be the reaction of the thoughtful brand? Some might pursue further flash and pomp. Some might try to yell louder or extend their customer base. But perhaps it is wise to consider the opposite.

What would sincerity and transparency look like in a brand? What if brands admitted weakness and limitation? What if through social media brands encouraged people to show their dark side, their weakness, their mistakes?

There is a wonderful trend in marketing that is gaining considerable strength. Storytelling is replacing older models of advertising and usurping in a new era of messaging. This important trend is shaping a new generation of marketing materials.

It will always be a struggle to measure the performance of such marketing using existing metrics. The emotional impact  of building connections between customers and brands is not easily quantifiable.

Sure, we can measure the number of tweets or percentage of return customers. And these are important. But just like how it is nearly or completely impossible to judge the level of caring one person has for another based on gifts or time spent, it is equally difficult to equate the same level of connection between a customer and a brand through the actions they take.

Though challenging to develop and measure, the impact of these emotional connections will far out last any short term campaign. A customer who writes a product or service into his or her life will not soon forget or move on. They will tell the story that they lived.

I believe companies should begin to listen as much to the qualitative as they do the quantitative as the impact of each story on the emotions of both the user and the observers can not be converted to an easy number.

Just like we are each not a number but a rich and complex personality built from experiences and continually changing, the product consumer should be recognized and understood for being the same.

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