Western Lights – The Cover

WesternLights_FrontI very excited to share the cover for my new book Western Lights – A Collection of Short Essays on Buddhism.  A big thank you the Garrett Brown at Opaque Design & Print Production.  He made it look quick and easy!

Next, I need to wrap up the back cover text. Garrett needs to wrap up the inside layout, and then the package heads over to Story Merchant  to roll it out on Amazon.com.

You can sign up to keep up to date on the release and get special offers for referring people on the book’s website.

One Minute Meditation – Eisenhauer’s Pond

Surprises can often be received poorly.  Many of us become averse to them as we get older. Even to pleasant ones. Why is that? One reason has to do with our accumulated experiences.  If someone were to have negative experiences tied to surprises, you can imagine they would be conditioned to be averse to them.  They’d flinch.  They might recall past experience and project similar causes and effects. They’d be programmed to avoid and dislike surprises.

If the converse were true, that person might adore surprises!

SPOILER ALERT:

This weeks one minute meditation has a surprise.

PAUSE SPOILER

I filmed this video on Eisenhauer’s Pond in North Reading where I live. It’s a small pond my kids call the frog catching pond.  Being spring, I was out searching to record the sound of the peepers.  They’re one of the tell tale signs of life emerging from the cold.

It takes a little effort to break out of the winter shell and the habits formed from avoiding the discomforts of cold weather.  I’ve found that my routine of heading to my computer in the morning is nearly impossible to break.  Yard work beckoned, but it took a while to get outside. But once I was out and the work done, basking in the sun and blue sky gave way to a feeling that was like emerging from a cocoon.

Getting out and listening to the evening sounds of life is just as invigorating. Listen and enjoy.

I’ll talk more about the spoiler after the video

Frog Pond
Spring called on its phone
Ringing in my heart, birds bugs
I simply answered

UNPAUSE SPOILER

At about 47 seconds into the video you can hear a splash.  What was that?

Here is a little glimpse into my neurotic mind.

When I go out on a video adventure, it can be both an enlightening experience and the cause of suffering. Where I live, near Boston, the sounds of machines and people are ever present.  If I’m in the office early in the morning, I hear the building as it heats or cools itself. The lights have a low, but noticeable buzz. I live a few miles from an interstate highway and less than a mile from a state highway. There is a sand and gravel pit not far from my house that winds up about 5:00 AM everyday with a low and persistent din. Silence is a rare commodity in this part of the world.

So when I go out to take video, I’m looking for those quiet, tranquil places.  The kind of setting I encourage meditators to find when just beginning their practice. Very often I end up taking 5 to 10 shots of the same scene, because over the course of 60 seconds the machine tends to assert itself.  A car drives by or some people walk by chatting. This is a perfect meditation opportunity for me.  Do I fly into a quiet rage when a shot is contaminated with an unwanted sound or do I let it go?

At about 47 seconds into this video, I was presented with an opportunity.  There was a splash.  I kept my cool and let the video run. But my mind was less than tranquil.  Was it some teenagers chucking rocks into the pond, ruining my shot?  Arggggh. I hate surprises.  I’ll have to shoot this one AGAIN!

But keeping quiet paid off.  As my eyes adjusted to the light, I caught a glimpse of the offenders. There were three of them, periodically splashing the water in a way that sounded like a heavy rock breaking the surface and hitting the bottom a split second later.  They were sticking close to a little shelter that they had probably built over the last few years.  Others may have started it, but it was theirs now.

The three seemed a little bothered by my presence, but continued on playfully swimming around the lodge, diving, and splashing.  Perhaps they were searching for sticks or maybe they were just playing. The family of beavers provided me with a half hour of non-stop wonder.  I don’t recall if I’ve ever seen beavers in the wild before.  I smiled from ear to ear and soaked up the experience with absolute delight.

Ah, surprises!

 

There’s Nothing You Can Do to Make the World Better, So Don’t Ever Stop Trying

max-combAt a retreat I was helping to lead some time ago, I made a comment during the Dharma talk.  It went something like this, “There’s nothing you can do to change the world.” At the end of the retreat one of the participants followed up for clarification. He asked with a friendly but incredulous look on his face, “Did you really mean that?”

Taken at face value it sounds fatalistic.  Why would anyone say such a thing? With all things, there are two sides to the coin.  Let me explain.

It’s Not Just a Good Idea, It’s the Law

I’ve just finished reading a fantastic book called This Explains Everything. It’s a series of essays by various prominent thinkers answering the question “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”

Three ideas that weaved throughout the book will help me make my point. The authors cover a gamut of disciplines including cognitive science, biology, economics, music, social sciences, and physics. I confess to being an avid pop physics reader. So I was drawn to the essays focused on cosmology and quantum mechanics.

The first idea I’ll borrow from the book the idea of order. The universe appears to follow a set of rules. Things like Newton’s Laws and Maxwell’s equations are highly predictive and explain a lot about our experience. Even the bizarre probabilities of quantum mechanics demonstrate that there is a certain order to the universe.

Implicit in this observation is that the rules don’t change. This explains how we’re able to use them to predict events with some degree of probability.  If the laws changed, things would be completely unpredictable, in fact life couldn’t exist.

Order out of Chaos?

The second concept is determinism. The probabilistic nature of Quantum mechanics has shown that while the universe has order, it’s not precisely predictable.  The laws of nature point to likely outcomes, but not rigid cause effect chains.  This is a very important point. Ideas about determinism (and free will) have always been critical to defining our world view. If we misunderstand cause and effect, we’re at risk of misunderstanding everything.choose_determinism_med

The final idea is Emergence .  This is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.[1]  Scientists have used emergence to develop plausible explanations for everything from the creation of stars to the evolution of life. These explanations are truly deep, elegant and beautiful.

To Illustrate how cool these ideas are, I’ll give you some examples. Interesting fact; in the beginning, if the universe had a perfectly uniform density, it would have been a very different, bland place.  Because of the ever so slight differences in density throughout the fledgling universe, gravity caused some particles to congregate (see a recent TED talk on the confirmation of this hypothesis).  Over the course of billions of years these congregations of particles formed hydrogen and helium atoms which in turn formed the first stars.

As the process of emergence unfolded, the stars eventually exploded in super nova, resulting in the creation of larger elements like carbon, iron and so on. These ingredients formed the raw materials for new stars, planets, and ultimately life.

It’s remarkable that scientists have been able to reverse engineer the story of the cosmos. We have a decent picture of the past and a certain degree of confidence that its correct because it was derived from the same rules that we use to reliably predict probable future states.

Emergent Selection

The human body and its behaviors are adaptations produced by an emergent process we call evolution. We’ve evolved to respond to our environment in ways that increase the likelihood of survival (or more specifically, to increase the likelihood we reproduce).  We blink when something approaches our eye.  We produce adrenalin and its associated self preservation responses when we are in danger. These naturally selected traits allowed our ancestors to live another day by surviving one moment to the next.

Evolutionary development has allowed humanity to move beyond the survival stage into relative comfort and wealth. We even enjoy the luxury of contemplating happiness.

moment-of-happinessEmotional Rescue

Is happiness an evolutionary trait?

Norwegian biologist Bjorn Grinde proposes in his textbook, Darwinian Happiness: Evolution as a Guide for Living and Understanding Human Behavior, that it may be.

He argues that human emotions find their cause in evolution. Evolution might tend to add stronger incentives for behavior benefiting the genes in an individual with a powerful free will; as otherwise, the free will could easily result in maladaptive behavior.[2]

Recognizing emotional traits as emergent phenomenon is not hard to see.  The attachment between a mother and her child clearly serve to ensure that genes are successfully passed on.  But, day to day, it’s often difficult to see our own emotions in this context. We don’t view our love of family in the context of perpetuation of our DNA.  It seems a little more complex than that.

Grinde is right in that we don’t always make wise choices in exercising free will.  The effects of our bad decisions can be devastating. The fact that climate change is considered a man-made phenomenon, tells you how much of a mess we can make of things. But broadly speaking, the capacity to exercise freewill has proven to be a tremendous advantage. We only need look at the success of the human species for evidence.

So we should acknowledge that emergence seems to have mapped out at least two purposes in life.  First, we function to perpetuate life – i.e. pass on our genes.  Second, related to the first, is that we are stewards over the power to exercise the freewill.

Here is where I’m going to draw the analogy to Pure Land Buddhism. Embedded in these purposes we might recognize the metaphors that Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of endless life and endless light, embodies.

The metaphor of endless life reveals humanity’s natural propensity to preserve and perpetuate life. The metaphor of endless light represents sentience, and by extension the ability to exercise free will – i.e. we are sentient actors in the world.

There is Nothing You Can Do to Change the World

15To steer back to my original point, we have to acknowledge that there is much in the world we cannot change.  On an impersonal level, it’s fairly easy to recognize that the laws of nature are what they are.  The acceleration due to gravity will be the same tomorrow as it was 300 years ago.

Getting a little more personal, there are some truths that can be harder to accept.  Learning that your purpose is to perpetuate the information you carry in your genetic code can leave you a little cold.  My own experience with accepting this was rocky. It was pretty hard to take.  Viewing the love I have for my wife and children as simply the actions of “selfish genes” seems belittling.  But no matter how I choose to view it, I am basically a DNA carrier.

Accepting who and what we are is a must.  If we choose to resist the implications of our fundamental nature, we’re going to suffer.  The evidence is incontrovertible.  Climate change, pollution, and addiction are all problems stemming from a damaged or faulty understanding of our true nature.

And there is; the Buddha’s message!

The centrality of suffering and the causes of suffering in the Buddha’s teachings is very compelling to me.  The journey begins with discovering our true selves. If we fail in this, we’ll have little to offer the world.

My personal challenges with this hearken back to one of the best lessons my teacher gave to me. He taught that you have to work through your own stuff before you try to lend a hand to someone else. “So much of what we do is minding other people’s business” he said.  At best we come off hypocritical and more often we do harm.

Accepting what we can’t change about ourselves and the world is critically important.

Don’t Ever Stop Trying

hearstslaThe great embrace, the Mahamudra, is the peculiar union of the unchanging eternal nature of the universe and its constantly evolving character.  Both aspects of the world are observably true. The universe is what it is. Its laws are inviolable. But as these laws manifest over time, a vast diversity of matter, energy, and life is constantly unfolding before us.

This esoteric teaching is a deep, elegant, and beautiful explanation. Its something I view as on par with evolution and quantum mechanics. It reminds us that both things are true in this quirky little universe of ours. The world is simultaneously unchanging and constantly evolving!

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

We have freewill.  We have intentions, make choices, and those choices affect the future.  There is much good we can do in the world.  We can listen and empathize. We can speak up when we see injustice and we can be better stewards of our environment.

But we must do the hard work of putting our own house in order before we can start changing the world for the better.  We need only look to history for a multitude of ardent people who have paved the road to hell with their good intentions.  These would-be saviors arise out of naive ideologies.  Their solutions tend to lead to more harm.

My recollection of the idealistic 1960s and 1970s are filled with examples of misguided efforts to change the world.  The Symbionese Liberation Army, The Weatherman, and the Black Panthers were all founded on deeply held, but flawed premises.  They spiraled out of control because they perpetuated the cycle of suffering.

So get out there and change the world. But do it from a firm foundation. Do the work that’s required to understand the causes of suffering and apply what you learn to reduce it. It often starts from a promise that is less about doing good, and more about doing no harm.

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi1000509261001_2033463483001_Mahatma-Gandhi-A-Legacy-of-Peace

 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darwinian_Happiness

One Minute Meditation – Fosters Pond Dam

crocus snow

 An Excerpt from “Spring Melt

by Katherine Bode-Lang

We pull

the muck of winter
from the gutters, hope

the water runs clean again;
nothing more than this:

read the rest of the poem here

Turning the corner to spring, my hopes are modest but they are rooted deep in my heart.  It’s my 50th year. There’s a lot more life to be lived. But I see clearly that impermanence will be magnified over the next few years.  I know is coming. It’s always been there, waiting.

Looking back I feel the fading of details, and see the fading hearts of friends and relations. Looking forward  I feel the weight of worry and the call to let go.  The change of seasons seem to echo these transitions, or perhaps its the other way around. But these secrets of winter of spring do not define us. We are the ebb and flow of potential and actualization. We carry the hope of spring and the passing of autumn. Where the boundary lies is as fuzzy as an old man’s memory.

In mid March we had difficult times.  My wife and I had to rally hard to keep the homestead whole.  To stay together myself, I took a few short breaks to get out and film.  Taking in the fresh air, the sun, and the signs of spring buoyed my spirit and gave me the energy to work through the challenges.

This shot was taken at Foster’s Pond Dam in Andover, not far from where I live. Its remarkable how many beautiful little hideaways there are in our own backyards.  As I recall, my experience  at the dam was focused on some small but memorable things.  The sharp feel of the cold air as it traveled across my nostrils, up my nose, and down the back of my throat.  The urgent teaming sound of the water rushing through the gap in the dam and of course the emotions of spring, set free by the melting ice and snow.

Watching the video now, I know that you’ll take away your own, different experience.  What I encourage you to do is to notice, to be receptive to whatever comes.  The openness that develops from the practice allows you to be resilient during challenging times.  Hardening, its opposite, only makes you brittle.

So take the moments, during the calm and during the chaos, to return to nature’s rhythms. They call up an ancient memory of  the peace that lies in wait, always, at our core. It can be found in a teaming waterfall, or in the beating of your own heart.

At the Base

We can only fall
to the center, where peace lies
let yourself go there

NOTE: The video is loud.  You’ll want to turn down your devices volume before you play it

Writer’s Contract Signed to Publish “Western Lights”

bookshelf-for-blogThe release of Western Lights is coming along nicely.  I just inked a writer’s contract with Story Merchant to release the book on Amazon.  I hope to have some layout and cover art to review in the next few weeks from Opaque Design & Print Production.

Once the book is released, the marketing begins. There are some funds in the budget for press releases and other activities, but I’m going to have to rely primarily on DIY publicity .

Over the coming months, I’ll be posting easy ways for you to lend a hand in getting the word out about my book.

I’d also be grateful for some more in depth help as you’re able.

Here are some key ways you can pitch in

  1. Writing a review on Amazon.com.
  2. Sharing a link to the book on your social media
  3. If you blog or know people who do and you’d be willing to help get the word out, right on.
  4. If you have connections to media outlets where I could obtain an interview or get the book reviewed, that would be wonderful
  5. Any other means to get the word out or get the book into the right hands would be phenomenal.

Thank you all for helping get me this far.

How I Met My Goal on Indiegogo

gogorocketAbout 2/3rds of the way through my campaign to raise funds to publish my book Western Lights, I engaged a company call GoGoRocket to increase my projects ranking in Indiegogo.

They have a multi-part strategy that includes an defined marketing effort for you to follow and a monster social media blast from them. 

I hemmed and hawed over whether I should engage a service to boost my fund raising.  I didn’t decide to act until later in the project.  So one of the prefaces to this article is that I don’t know if it makes more sense to engage a company sooner or not.

The key elements of my work to support the GoGoRocket Campaign included

  • Posting pictures to the Indiegogo campaign page
  • Emailing or blogging about your campaign
  • Making regular small “seed contributions” to your own campaign get momentum going
  • Post comments to the Indiegogo campaign page
  • Provide updates to the Indiegogo campaign page

I thought it would be worthwhile to publish the results of the effort via the data I collected over the course of the fundraiser. First and foremost…

We met our goal!

campaign

In fact we slightly exceeded the goal by $327.

Was My Investment in GoGoRocket Worth It?

This of course is the most important question. When I first started talking with GoGoRocket, my first concern was that their service’s goal wasn’t necessarily in line with mine.

GoGoRocket Goal:

Increase My Projects Rank on IndieGoGo*

My Goal:

Increase the Amount of Money My Campaign was Raising

*measured by what rank my campaign appeared on my project category page 

Fortunately, the data showed that these two goals appeared to be functionally compatible on my campaign. As my projects rank increased, the number of contributions increased.  My campaign actually made it to number one!

rank v contributions

This isn’t a perfect correlation, but there was definitely a bump in my campaign as my rank increased.   I also computed that the bump in funds essentially paid for the investement with GoGoRocket. It seemed like the investment was worth it.

What appeared to be most effective?

Of the 5 elements of the GoGoRocket.com strategy, I found the first three were correlated to success

  • Posting pictures to the Indiegogo campaign page
  • Emailing or blogging about your campaign
  • Making regular small “seed contributions” to your own campaign get momentum going

Here are the graphs of the data

The Effect of Posting Pictures

On Rank

pics v ranking

On Contributions

pics v net contributions

The Effect of Email and Blogging About the Campaign

On Rank

blogs versus ranking

On Contributions

blog and contributions

The Effect of Seed Contributions

On Rank

seed versus rank

On Contributions

seed versus contributions

In short, it was worth it!

One Minute Meditation – Skug River Tributary Swamp

GaiaTransitions are what drive life and life drives transitions. This week’s one minute meditation was shot during March’s shift from lion to lamb at Harold Parker State Forest in nearby Andover, Massachusetts.

Visually and audibly it portrays the beauty and barrenness of winter contrasted by the emergence of spring.  The sound of the wind blowing across the ice says winter. The cacophony of birds and temperature in the mid 50′s says spring.

Transitions are where it’s at when we’re looking to understand life.

Gaia Hypothesis

I’m just wrapping up what might be one of my favorite books of all time – This Explains Everything.  It’s a collection of essays by eminent thinkers on what they feel are the most deep, beautiful and elegant theories of how the world works. Dinosaur paleontologist Scott Sampson writes about the Gaia hypothesis.

This Explains EverythingThe hypothesis suggests that organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet. Examples given in support of the hypothesis include:

  1. The maintenance of the ocean’s salinity at a stable level, despite the constant influx of minerals from rivers (perhaps a consequence of mineral fixing bacteria),
  2. The maintenance of the earths surface temperature at a habitable level, despite a 30% increase  in the sun’s intensity over the last 4 billion years (via regulation of carbon emissions and methane in the atmosphere by plants).

Planets without life don’t adapt like that.

If the hypothesis is correct, life itself adapts to preserve itself and it’s environment.  The current global warming phenomenon is an example of a transition that we’re in right now. In the worst case scenario, human life may be the price of keeping the balance. As one of the hypothesis’ chief proponents stated,

lynn_margulis“Gaia is a tough bitch — a system that has worked for over three billion years without people. This planet’s surface and its atmosphere and environment will continue to evolve long after people and prejudice are gone.”  

- Lynn Margulis (1937 – 2011)

Now that’s a vision of the divine that I can connect with.   Powerful and real.

The idea of a human focused divinity misses the reality of the situation.   Life (not humanity) is preserved in a delicate balance that adapts to renew itself. Gaia and Buddha Amitabha embody this metaphor perfectly. Both are urging us to let go of the delusions of the self centered world view so we can save ourselves. The endless life of Amitabha isn’t about you and me. The endless light of Amitabha is about opening our eyes to the reality of the situation.  Open your eyes and see Gaia as she is, the tough bitch that will lay waste to our economy and to the lives of millions of people if you ignore her.  We should revere her as the protector and sustainer of life, but recognize her wrath.

Goddess
Giving birth is life
Shifting forms to sustain us
Praise her boundless gifts