Being Present

Can we be truly present?

For more on the man she sees (her ex=partner and collaborator, Ulay), this piece in Zen Garage (and thanks Regan, Lee and Susan for sharing).

For more on the background to this piece, The Artist is Present, see this article in The Atlantic.

[Day 57: Listen]


Mindfulness Practice Update (February)

As I shared at the end of January, one of the things I’m trying to do this year is develop practices that bring compassion closer to hand. One of these is a regular meditation practice, just 10 minutes per day. Over January I managed to averge 1 min per day.

Seeing that post, my friend Suzie suggested I use Lift, an app that helps build new habits by getting you to check in every day, with the added incentive of peer approval. So far my best efforts have gone in vain – managing only to maintain my 1 min per day average across February. Let’s hope March improves!

Meditation Feb

[Days 42-56: Practice]

Make it not-boring

I have a post brewing on shame and empathy, but a series of tight deadlines is allowing me no space to think that through. Two projects require short written articles on topics that have elsewhere taken chapters and I’m struggling to find the hook.

“everything is boring until a writer makes it not-boring”

That quote from this article: Parenting Actually Is a Boring Subject (but It’s Worth Writing About Anyway) in The Atlantic yesterday.

And I won’t say that it’s helped me write my articles, but it did spark thoughts about the ability to notice beauty, to to be present. A conscious pause before reverting to past judgements. A shared conversation on noticing difference.

Yesterday, shepherding my oldest girl (she’s two) to daycare, my wife remarked on the cornice of a brownstone that had been painted a vivid yellow. “I never noticed that before,” she said. I nodded. I hadn’t noticed it either, although I said I supposed it had probably been there awhile. I added that I rarely looked up at this particular building, instead focusing on the exterior door, with its rough-hued iron bars and blue-tinted plate glass windowpanes. That always caught my eye. Such conversation! American Gothic comes to Brooklyn.

[Days 38-41: Reflection]

Following Up with Shame

Confession time. The term “vulnerability hangover” is not my own. I have absorbed it from Brené Brown reflecting on her TEDxHouston talk on the power of vulnerability. Here how she started at TED 2012.

I’m going to tell you a little bit about my TEDxHouston Talk. I woke up the morning after I gave that Talk with the worst vulnerability hangover of my life. And I actually didn’t leave my house for about three days.

The first time I left was to meet a friend for lunch. And when I walked in, she was already at the table. And I sat down, and she said, “God, you look like hell.” I said, “Thanks. I feel really — I’m not functioning.” And she said, “What’s going on?” And I said, “I just told 500 people that I became a researcher to avoid vulnerability. And that when being vulnerable emerged from my data, as absolutely essential to whole-hearted living, I told these 500 people that I had a breakdown. I had a slide that said Breakdown. At what point did I think that was a good idea?”

I went for a walk this morning, the random shuffle gave me Joy from The Sundays. And I was taken back to a time in my life when I felt truly ashamed. Such a beautiful song, such a strong sense of shame. Not what I felt I needed this morning, but opening this big question on compassion and vulnerability means being brave enough to receive an answer I might not want to hear.

So Brené Brown’s second TED talk has been on my mind – for the vulnerability hangover, for courage, and for thinking deeply about shame.

[Day 38: Listen]


Vulnerability Hangover

This morning I woke at 5am with a severe vulnerability hangover.


The early wake-up was necessary to catch a flight to Adelaide to facilitate a board strategy session. The vulnerability hangover was residue from our final teaching session for the course I teach in Foresight and Social Change. I’ve talked about the headspace required to teach this course before – how we use scenario thinking to place ourselves in different worlds, and how we might think about pathways and agency as essential components of hope.

Yesterday’s class focused on images of the future, teasing apart the differences between optimism and pessimism (Polak, 19723 [PDF]). This exercise requires people to declare how they see the future and then inhabit others’ views. In running this process, I often find it helps to articulate my perspective – the fairly persistent pessimism that prompted this study of compassion. I’ve facilitated this process a lot and it’s always emotional as the group gains a felt understanding of what it means to perceive the world differently.

We followed this with a meditation on two essential questions – “Who is my Self?” and “What is my Life’s Purpose?”. We chart the journey of Theory U / Presencing, requiring participants to lose their internal voices of judgement, cynicism and fear, and be present for each other and for the future as it emerges. Holding this space requires me to do the same.

Holding this space requires that specific type of courage to ‘let others see me as I am‘. When I left the classroom I felt raw. And still raw today.

Moving to the head space of a strategy session only delayed the recovery. Normal hangover tactics like cocooning with a nap or the triple of coffee, vegemite toast and paracetamol didn’t work. For me relief from this vulnerability hangover came through talking to a friend, taking a walk and and having a quick cry.

[Day 31-37: Reflection]

*Taken on my walk


Sharing Resources

I’ve been heartened at the feedback I’ve received in sharing this study of compassion a little more widely.

Some of that sharing has occurred through posting the links to videos, podcasts or articles I’m reading to the Year of Compassion Facebook page, as a signpost for what I’m learning about. Some of that feedback has occured becase I’ve linked directly to this blog where I’m trying to synthesise what I’m learning and reflect on things more deeply.

As I’ve started to build the material I’m considering, I felt it would be good to keep track of those resources. They link to each other in many ways – the science of the mind to mediation to practices for compassion; vulnerability to shame to ways in which we develop empathy. I’ve now added a Resources Page (available from top menu of this blog) to share the materials I’m drawing on, hoping this also provides a useful reference for you.

[Day: 30: Reflection, Research]

Note: If it’s useful, I’ve also compiled the list of books I’m referring to on Goodreads.

Open to Imperfection

Yesterday I was reflecting on how scepticism – the type based on keeping an open mind – was really about allowing ourselves to vulnerable.

When I started this study, one of the first sources to revisit was Brené Brown’s talk from TEDxHouston in 2010. There are so many insights that resonate for me in her talk, and must resonate for others – 7.6 million views – if you haven’t watched it, watch now.

What strikes me as relevant to scepticism are her comments on the mindset we bring to research. As a researcher she felt her role in studying phenomena was to control and predict, control and predict. And yet the power of inquiry comes from being open not closed. Open to new discoveries, open to the imperfections.

Revisiting her talk emphasises the singular importance of connection. Connection is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. She notes that people who feel worthy of connection have a strong sense of love and belonging – described as whole-hearted lives. They have the courage to tell the story of who they are with their whole heart, the courage to be imperfect. They connect because they are able to let go of who they think they should be and be seen for who they are. And they get that the practice of compassion first requires us to be kind to ourselves.

That a practice of compassions requires us first to be kind to ourselves is discussed in Karen Armstrong’s book also and something I’ll come back to.

But the other traits of whole-heartedness? The courage to be imperfect? To let myself be seen for not who I should be, but who I am? This is awkward. I thought in some ways I’d managed this, but it seems as though in trying to do this I swap one set of assumptions and identity for another. It’s that ungraspable truth that in trying to reach it, you push it further away*.

[Day 29 – Listening]

*Dog bites basketball, Chasing a greasy pig and Trying to catch vapour, Pushing opposing magnets – These were the best my Twitter plea elicited to describe this feeling. That I think there is a common way express this, and that’s it’s sitting out of reach in the back of my head, and yet the more I think about it the further away the word slips is unhelpful but wryly funny.

A Model of Scepticism

Empathy requires us to take the time to understand the world from another’s perspective. Yet as someone who is troubled by our inability to respond to the potential impacts of climate change, how might I effectively engage with someone who denies it is a problem – the cynic, the troll*, the climate change sceptic?

This was a topic for discussion as part of the Science Online 2013 Adelaide Watch Party I attended in early February. One of the sessions we viewed was “Persuading the unpersuadable: Communicating science to deniers, cynics, and trolls”. Among the tips was using the “foot-in-the-door” strategy. This works to persuade someone to an idea they find difficult by first getting them agree to something small. So if agreeing to climate change is a step too far, perhaps we can both agree that the cost of living is rising, and then both agree that reducing energy use is a helpful strategy.

One of the ideas floated in the session was that cynics and scientists do share something in common – their scepticism. This interested me as we’re picking apart forms of scepticism in another project.

There are in effect two broad types of scepticism. The first is scientific scepticism, based on holding evidence open to allow for more evidence, or a better explanation. The second is the scepticism of cynics and deniers – based on criticising the evidence as insufficient or incorrect.

So while it sounds like a reasonable strategy, to start a discussion on the shared focus of questioning evidence, being sceptical, I don’t see much commonality apart from the language. These types of scepticism do not stem from the same drivers.

Perhaps there is a better way to consider two types of scepticism. One type of scepticism is based on open-mindedness. It’s the futurists’ mantra of “strong opinions, weakly held”. The barrier to ideas is porous, and information that confirms or denies the existing idea is sought. It also means that when we stand in this space, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

Scepticism - Open-Mindedness

The other is based on fear. Information is sought that confirms the existing idea as a way of strengthening a position, fortifying a defence and protecting the idea. When we stand in this space, being right, and being seen as right is important.

Scepticism - Fear

As an aside while it might be true to say that scientific scepticism is based on open-mindedness, it does not necessarily follow that scientists’ scepticism is the same. The number of scientists at Science Online who felt safe to speak openly online because they had tenure was startling. Fear of limiting career opportunities can close down the porous boundary. Fear of looking stupid errs to the defence of ideas rather than exploration.

Really understanding someone, being empathetic, does not stop at finding a common language, it requires understanding the deeper motivations.

Persuading deniers and cynics to the evidence for climate change is not going to be successful because you’ve explained the scientific method (a shared language of scepticism) – but it may come about if you can acknowledge their fears.

[Days 25-28: Reflection]

*I’m not sure the trolls can be saved. My empathy circle clearly needs widening.

Mindfulness Practice Update

The purpose of this personal study into compassion is to:

develop a  series of work, family and individual practices that bring compassion (and insight) closer to hand.

One of the first things I’ve tried to implement is a regular meditation practice, based on my readings and following Andy Puddicombe’s TED talk on Ten Minutes of Nothing. So (and here the graph speaks for itself) here’s my update on my daily minutes of meditation over January:

Meditation Jan

[Days 22-24: Practice]

iO Tillett Wright at TEDxWomen

Visibility is key. Familiarity is the gateway drug to empathy.

By taking photographs of the faces of people who were not 100% straight, sparking empathy became the backbone to iO Tillet’s Wright’s project Self-Evident Truths.  Human beings are not one-dimensional, overly small boxes to categorise each other are useless. Appreciating each other’s complexity is valuable. And we do that by really seeing each other, by getting to know the stranger.

Seeing them makes it harder to deny our humanity. At the very least I hope it makes it harder to deny their human rights.

[Day 21: Listening]

Hat tip to Stephen Collins and Anneka Deva.