Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Living Arts

I've written a lot earlier on in my blogs about my aversion to defining myself; who I am, what my goals are, and particularly the question 'what's my purpose in life' that had been posed to me in an EGL session. Much of the criticism that I levied against those kinds of questions centered on the fact that any given answer involves a lot of loss and limitation. Why would anyone want to limit their purpose in life, I asked? It just doesn't make sense.

While exploring that train of thought, as liberating as it felt and as philosophically correct as it seemed, there was always a little shred of doubt that maybe I was on the wrong path. I ended the essay 'Undefined' on that exact note, but never figured out why. It took 10 weeks in an utterly bizarre, frustrating and yet fascinating art class to get this straight. Where I think I went wrong is that I'm trying to analyze something that can't be analyzed.

I'm currently dead-in-the-mud stuck on my final project - a 100% pure, unabated open-ended design assignment. Literally, I can do anything I want. There are no requirements to fill or criteria by which to judge the outcome. It's been driving me completely insane. Somehow, some way, there are some projects that are better than others. But there is no way to judge it, except by the gut feeling you get. That's it. But how on earth do you plan for that? It's been killing me.

The premise of the class is that there is at least a vague formula for creativity - it's not random, it's not a personality trait, it's not necessarily a skill. It's a process. And that process looks something like this (rather bluntly):

1. Follow your gut, not your brain; find something that seems interesting-ish to you, and drive as hard as you can on that path. Do not plan, do not think too much, just do.

2. Take a break and do nothing for a while. Then continue.

3. Go until your interest wanes or your gut feeling changes. Then tear down everything you don't like, revise your direction until you get that interesting-ish feeling in your gut again, and once again put the pedal on the floor.

4. Rinse and repeat

There is no finish line. Rinse and repeat, then do it again. Keep rolling around that circle, and you'll start building something that everyone agrees is (but nobody can say why) awesome. It's the design-build-test cycle of engineering, only there is no design and the only test is your gut. It's the (middle school version) scientific method PIHERCA without the P, I, H, R, C, or A. And it's really, really hard, at least for poor suckers like me who expect the world make sense.

And yet it works. It absolutely, somehow works... if you can trust it enough to let go, that is. And that's the key - letting go. You can't make predictions or think it out or even analyze where you've been, otherwise you tank the whole process. This is where it applies to questions much larger than an arts class project - questions like 'what is your purpose in life'.

Just like in the art class, I struggled with the question because I wanted criteria, I wanted a plan, and I wanted it to make sense. What's the best possible answer for 'a purpose in life'? Unfortunately (or maybe it's a good thing...) I don't think you can really plan stuff like that out. Pick something that seems interesting-ish, or just kind of feels right, and drive that way until your gut tells you to turn. Eventually, something of real quality will arise of its own. Maybe it doesn't even make any sense. But, like good art, there's quality there nonetheless. Or so I hope.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Looking Into the Mirror

Like a lot of people, I made a New Year's resolution, and like most people, I've found mine's been more difficult to keep than anticipated. My resolution was simply to meditate for 15 minutes every day. That's it. Nothing extreme, nothing that should take unreasonable levels of motivation. Just 15 minutes of calm.

So why has it been so hard to keep? There are days when I have several hours totally free, and I remember that I need to meditate sometime today, and I don't end up doing it. I have all the reasons in the world to keep up the practice: developing a clear and calm mind, seeing the world more clearly, cultivating happiness, etc. There should be overwhelming motivation there to just sit for fifteen lousy minutes! Besides, it's not like I've just started to meditate; I've been practicing on and off for several years now. I just want to get rid of the 'on and off' part and actually keep a pure schedule.

For beginners, practicing meditation is described as trying to drink from a waterfall. The amount of thoughts and things running through the head is overwhelming, and the instructions are simply to notice them as they go by and not to hold on. It's almost impossible to keep it all out. With progress, though, the object is to calm the flow of thoughts to be able to concentrate, uninterrupted, on the breathing. By turning down the volume of discursive thoughts, naturally you are more present and clear-minded in everyday life.

At first I chalked up my avoidance to laziness. After all, there's a lot of difficult, continuous concentration going on. Before I start, I remind myself of what exactly I'm going to do 'now I'll concentrate solely on the breath and release all thoughts and emotions...', and I end by saying, 'and this will be the most difficult thing I attempt to do all day'. I've never once been wrong. It is incredibly difficult. But I no longer think that's why I fall into avoiding the practice. Ironically enough, it was while meditating today that I think I found a clearer explanation.

Most of the time, it feels like the thoughts running through my head come from within. 'I had a thought, it came from my mind, it lived there, and it died there'. Lately, however, that feeling has changed a bit. It no longer feels like all those random thoughts come from inside my head. It feels more like a mosquito buzzing close to my ear. I also realize more and more just how worthless and baseless most of those thoughts are. They're just little distractions, stories, sources of entertainment to break up the monotony or to keep my mind occupied. And they're everywhere. During meditation, I am conscious of the stream. During the rest of my day, I barely notice it. That's the scary part - and that's what's been distracting me from my practice: fear. Let me explain.

With enough practice, that little mosquito in the ear should go away, leaving you in full control of your mind. In meditation today, while being pestered by the mosquito more than usual, I just had this moment of abject frustration. 'Just go the hell away already! I don't want all these worthless distractions coursing through my head day after day. I've seen them all before, and I don't want them there.' As soon as that crossed my mind, however, there was a retort. I should have seen it coming. I've heard the concept explained many times before, but I was unprepared for it to hit me. The answer that came back was simply, 'if I go away, what's left?'

The idea is this - all those thoughts, fantasies, feelings, remembrances, desires, the situations you envision, dreams, the stories you tell yourself... all go into this concept of 'you' that doesn't exist except in the world of your own head. They aren't real - all those thoughts and stories don't exist in the real world. It's pure fantasy. They only exist in the mirror - the mirror that you constantly stare into that reflects of how you see yourself. I mentioned in an earlier post the concept of the shattered mirror; this is what I'm talking about. When that mirror in your head breaks, there aren't any stories to tell yourself anymore. There is only the potential to constantly create and re-create who 'you' are in each moment. It's a powerful place to be. And it's equally as terrifying.

That's the place where there is nothing left to hang on to. It's pure emptiness. I think I may have reached a place where I can just start to comprehend the meaning of that emptiness, and it's scary. I can feel that the thoughts aren't really coming from 'me', and I can just get a half glimpse at what it would be like if that external thing were to disappear completely. I'm nowhere near that point of course. I've just seen the top of the waterfall, and that's the first step.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

On Religion

Excessively Long Note: Part of the UArts250 class I'm taking currently is an exploration of spirituality and what it means to live. Up for discussion yesterday was the Zen notion of the 'shattered mirror' - perception of self - and Meister Eckhart's quotes about cracking through the outer shells of nature and man to find essential truths. The prof also related a story about tripping over a homeless guy in the dark. It's all been sitting on my brain, bugging the hell out of me.

None of the ideas here are original, that's for sure. But it was something that just kind of hit me as I was sitting there, so I wrote it down, and I figure I'd put it up for discussion. It's just a start of something to think more about.

There's a general sentiment that's been growing over the years and decades in today's world; one of general discontentment and unease that a lot of people have regarding the larger philosophical questions in life, particularly on how to live with meaning. There are two primary reasons for that sentiment I think, the first and by much less important of which is the apparent clash of science, logic and reason with religion. Scientific facts, which can be proven again and again, seem to override many claims made in religious studies that simply ask for your belief and faith in their veracity. I used to cite this fairly often, having grown up without any religious inclination and being particularly interested in science and engineering. I now, however, think that claim is worthless.

It's worthless, in my opinion, because it misses the point of religion entirely. While science may conflict with some of the anecdotes written in religious books, it is completely and utterly worthless in trying to determine how to live and what constitutes meaning. That is the true point of religion, not the literal meaning of the stories or anecdotes. Science cannot function as a religion when that focus is emphasized, just as religion really shouldn't try to function as science.

The second issue causing discontentment today, and the more important one in my view, is that in the interconnected world today, there are more potential answers than ever. How are you supposed to objectively determine whether Islam has it correct and Hinduism doesn't, or that Shinto isn't better, or perhaps all or even none of them? Back in the early middle ages when religion was at it's peak of influence in everyday life and in the world, people grew up only hearing one answer (depending on where you lived). Almost nobody was exposed to other religions and potential viewpoints until they were much older and able to travel, if ever. So there was very little in the way of choice - there was only one answer ever presented, and that was that. Not so today.

In the world of choice, we have this conflict. There is absolutely no way to judge one religion against another. So a lot of people today sort of create their own set of beliefs, or perhaps even just ignore it all together. Billions of people can't be wrong, can they? There are at least a billion adherents to three different religions.

And on the surface, most religions look completely distinct from one another. Different practices, different stories, different aphorisms, different cultures. Everything looks quite different. However, there's a theory I've been working on for which I'm finding strong evidence...

At the most basic levels, they are all saying exactly the same damn thing.

They are just using different words, different contexts, different practices and approaches to it.

What exactly does 'it' entail? Here a just a couple of the common threads I find everywhere I look: panentheism, or the concept that God(s)/Buddha/Tao/Whatever is present in all things, and in all things ( ) should be appreciated/worshipped/known/whatever... the release of ego, desires, fears, etc... awareness of the interconnectivity of all things, relinquishing the idea that you are distinct from the rest of the world... love begins in solitude, reflection and contemplation.

Only on the higher, less important levels to religions really start to diverge. I don't believe there are actually a multitude of potential answers.

This was a really joyous kind of epiphany that I came to today. If true, it offers not only a beautiful resolution to the questions of meaning and whatnot but also hope for some reconciliation between all these often-warring ideas in the world. All of this noise, all of these differences and distractions, are all basically arbitrary.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Comedy and Humanity

I was watching a standup comedy last night by Tom Papa. It wasn't anything spectacular, but he had a quote that stuck with me for a while.

'You always hear these stories of kids who jumped of cliffs or went postal or whatever, and the news always says something like 'it's so sad, he just never fit in'. Really, I'm sick of hearing that. You know what? Nobody fits in. I don't fit in, you don't fit in, back row with the purple suit there certainly doesn't fit in. That's the way it is. Nobody truly fits in. Life is awkward like that.'

It reminded me of a couple of other things I had seen recently. Havi Brooks, who writes a fantastic blog, had this to say in a post called The Clan of Outsiders:

'I had kind of a disturbing realization this past week — and it really shook me up.

Be patient with me though. It might seem kind of superficial at first glance, but it’s not:

I am not an outsider. And neither are you.

Whoah. Crazy. This makes no sense.

Nope. Not an outsider. Not a freakish, weird, unconventional eccentric different-from-all-of-you outsider. Not even slightly.

Which is seriously messing with my head because — for as long as I can remember — outsider-ness has just been a natural part of my identity. It’s not just part of the story. It’s the whole damn narrative.

I guess the other way of phrasing this is that we are all equally outsiders and that none of us gets to claim the narrative as original, but I’m not ready for philosophizing.'

She later mentions this article in The Onion, Everyone In Family Claims To Be The Black Sheep.

I think these guys are getting at something here. Back when I was way, way more shy than I am now, I kept getting advice like 'just try to relax', 'nobody's judging you', yadda yadda. None of it was very effective, and I think the reason was it all focused on me. I wasn't the problem. The problem was that I expected that everyone else was different. Once you realize and remind yourself that most people have the same underlying emotions and thoughts, that stress just kind of dissolves.

It's also probably the best way to engage and meet people. There's a certain smile that comes out that just hints at a little bit of vulnerability, a little recognition that life is awkward and that's alright. You feel it as soon as you see it.

Some people are really good at giving that. It's also something that can be practiced consciously, especially in meditation... I'll definitely be working on this as part of RLU.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Real Life University

I haven't written anything in a while here; not that I stopped trying or thinking about it, I just kind of stalled out. Seems to happen to me every few months when I blog - I had the same thing back in the New Adventures. Not sure why it happens. Anyways, we're back in AA and back on the blog.

I've been talking to a friend recently about the concept of 'real life university', the idea of shaping your education to get exactly what you want out of it, not what your professor or degree program thinks you should learn. The structure of classes, grades, and curricula are useful in some aspects of learning but not all. Erik - who launched the idea and is implementing it full swing this semester - lists 'too impersonal', 'lots of irrelevant material', and 'inefficient' as reasons to rely less on classes and more on yourself to learn.

Everybody's RLU is going to be different. I drafted up a hypothetical one-semester syllabus for what my RLU would look like, which I'll share here. Although I agree somewhat with Erik's rationales, for me the primary item can be summarized as 'classes focus on what you know rather than who you are'. Of course, no class should ever be designed to change who you are, unless you are the only one designing it and the only one taking it. Thus, real life university, as a supplement to (rather than a replacement) for normal class.

So what do I want to learn? Well, what would YOU want to learn? Just thinking about it can teach you a lot. The classes I drafted up for myself have couple of purposes:


-become a more interesting person

-work on tools for success in the real world (everybody knows straight As don't guarantee success, things like communication are far more important)

So here's what I came up with:

Long-term projects:

-Start a micro-business

-Networking 101 (5% theory, 95% practice)

-Make a real attempt at art

-Being deliberately far more social in everyday life

-101 Experiments in Perspective (a list of things to knock you off your everyday roll, like 'call yourself', 'take a nap in the middle of the sidewalk', etc.)

Short-term projects (not limited to):

-Meditate for an entire day

-Live homeless for a weekend

-Exercise in overwhelming honesty for a time

-Exercise in overwhelming generosity for a time

-Random things to screw with comfort zones (like playing at the piano lounge)

These classes, although most are project-based, include homework in the form of writings/blogs, reading good books, and talking to other people about the ideas.

I mentioned in the previous blog the concept of travel as 'getting a minor in life', and here we are at the same topic again. I guess I'll be double-minoring. I'm going to be taking this curriculum down part by part. This semester, my main class is 'be deliberately more social'.

I'm also taking a sort of dive into the arts this semester, which on paper would sound awful to me but I'm actually really looking forward to. I have a class called Creative Process, which is mostly art and design. I'll also be taking yoga, tango and possibly salsa classes as well as continue to teach myself piano. I have a very easy semester class-wise, so having free time is going to be great.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Beyond the Pitch

Editor's Note: This is an op-ed I did for the Michigan Review following the 1000 Pitches Summit last Saturday.


Pat Milligan is a member of MPowered on the organizing committee for the 1000 Pitches Summit

True to the spirit of entrepreneurship that MPowered works to promote, we as an organization have launched a multitude of different projects in our short existence thus far. Most have fallen by the wayside. A few worked out well and are still running. But none have achieved the kind of success that we've had with 1000 Pitches. This year is only the fourth time the competition has been held, and two weeks ago at the close of this year's competition, we set an official world record with 3,303 pitches.

It was a fantastic year. But although 1000 Pitches is by far our largest project, we still treat it like a startup, and the question for us every single year is 'how can we improve the experience?' Over the past couple of years, the answer to that question has primarily been 'grow the competition'. We wanted to reach even more students, attract more sponsors and publicity, and promote more creative thinking. And for four consecutive years, we did exactly that, growing from 1000 to over 3300 pitches and generating more excitement each time. While that still remains a goal for future competitions, that is no longer the only one. We are now focusing in on ways to improve the students' experience and provide wider value than just the prize money for the winners.

This year we rolled out the inaugural 1000 Pitches Summit in an effort to expand on that focus. In past competitions, students would submit their pitches, a few winners would be chosen, and that was that. While some participants moved forward with their ideas, most simply moved on and forgot about it. Our primary goal with the Summit was to help get students started on the path to developing their ideas further and remain engaged with the entrepreneurial community and resources that are being built here on campus. To put it more concisely, we want the conclusion of the competition to be the start of building ideas rather than the end.

To do that, three objectives were set. First, we wanted everybody there to meet other people with interest and knowledge in similar fields. Until now, one disadvantage of 1000 Pitches vs other ideas competitions like Entrepalooza is that there was no explicit process for talking to others about your idea, building networks or forming teams. Second, we wanted to help students define the next step to take in the process of building an idea based on where they were at that point. And finally, we wanted everyone to get a start on that next step, just to begin building momentum, even if it's small. To that end, we invited as many outside mentors as we could get a hold of, developed 5 workshops based on difficult but useful skills, and did our best to make the event informal and basically get out of their way.

We don't expect or even want everyone to go out and start a business. It's not feasible and it's not within most students' goals. But we do think there is a lot to be gained by learning to think creatively; and that has to be an ongoing process rather than a one-time step. The real endgame for 1000 Pitches isn't the ideas that are created or the prize money rewarded but rather the experience people get by doing it. A lot of people who pitch in the competition aren't planning it ahead of time - students that are part of groups in the pledge program, students we approach at pitch stations and encourage to pitch, etc. But they are forced to come up with something creative on the spot, and those ideas can be great.

There were a number of people I talked to at the Summit who said that prior to that conference they had never even considered pursuing their idea or becoming an entrepreneur; it was just an idea they recorded one day and forgot about until we named it a semifinalist. That's the kind of value we want to provide going forward. The Summit was just the beginning; we have follow-up events planned next semester, each of which ideally builds off the last. If those help just a few people discover something they're passionate about that they had never thought of before, we will be very happy. If, however, the experience can also help a large number of people think just a little more creatively and see the world in a different light, then this whole project called 1000 Pitches will have been truly successful.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Notes on Uncertainty and Letting Go

To my dad, who is prone to believing in the end of the world. Everything is going to be just fine, even if it isn't.

The Modern World

SO APPARENTLY, the future might suck. We could have a global depression. We could have wars, there could be terrorists, people could be poor. Your neighbor could burn your house down. Your dog might die. There might be hurricanes or blizzards, or maybe even meteors, the earth might be heatin' up. You could break your leg. Or both. Someday, if you're lucky, you might just end up dead.

So what.

Modern society could be criticized in a lot of different ways, but in my view the biggest problem it's created is the expectation that life should be comfy, cozy and secure. You'll get your welfare check and your white picket fence and 2.4 cars and then you'll get your pensions and your medications and drugs so that you never feel any pain. That's the default. That's the expectation. And it's a problem.

The problem is not that it's impossible. In fact, we've almost done it. Up until recently, if you lived in America or Europe, or you happen to have a few bankrolls lying around, that's the life you got. The problem is that a comfy cozy life sounds so good on paper but ends up being so weak in the end.

Why are the richest countries the ones with the most depression, unhappiness, suicide, and negativity? The more money you have, the more problems you can simply buy off instead of having to deal with. And dealing with problems is as fundamental to life as joy and happiness. Modern society has tried to skim the cream off of life, taking just the positive and eliminating the negative. People forget that you can't have one without the other. The fairy tale doesn't work when there is peace and no enemies and the princess just walks up to the bored knight and snaps her fingers. Dissatisfaction and anxiety fill the hole where no other problems exist.

Viewpoints and Expectations

Turn on the TV and watch the news with me for a bit. Let's see - over the weekend, we had a grandma get murdered, a three car crash on the highway, third quarter financials came out, some new fears have the debt market spooked, something about Iran or Estonia happened, and Congress stuck a thumb up its ass. Now let's get a typical reaction to each of these stories. Granny - 'Oh my gosh, that's terrible, how could somebody do something like that? That makes me so mad.' Car crash - 'Oh that's so sad. Just awful.' Haywire in the markets - 'Oh boy I hope I don't lose my job.' Iran - 'Oh that's so scary! Sheesh why do they have to do that?' Congress - 'Oh they make me so mad. How could they be so dumb?'

Those are all legitimate reactions. A car crash is pretty sad. Losing your job would suck. The world is a scary place. But when you expect these things not to happen, you're set up for disappointment every time. Millions of miles are driven every single day, so crashes are inevitable. Billions of dollars flow around the economy, so layoffs and downturns will happen. Get used to it.

It can also be very difficult to take yourself out of your own shoes. Call a terrorist or a murderer inhuman if you will, but they are just as human as you are, and you'd be shocked at the things every single one of us is capable of in different circumstances. Call Congress a bunch of babies, but you would do the same things if you were there. The structure is set up to reward that behavior, with party lines and lobbyists and government funding and corporate influences. Call Ahmedinejad what you will, but he's not crazy.

You can rest assured that these things will continue in the future. There will always be a million and one things to be scared of and things to be pissed off about, even if the names and faces change.


These things will sometimes affect your life. And there's nothing you can do about it. But can change how you react to it, and that makes all the difference.

If you realize that bad things will happen, if you allow them to happen without diving headfirst into denial or anger or sadness or all three, then you can start to really appreciate the other side of the coin and all the good things life has to offer.

If you got laid off and kicked out of the country and were living poor, would you spend your time being angry and sad or would you enjoy life? There are a whole lot of very poor people who are very happy and content. You can still have friends and family, you can laugh, you can live. If a family member dies, would you spend years in denial and bitterness at the unfairness of life, or would you celebrate their life, mourn the loss and move on? If you die tomorrow, how are you going to react to that?

Basically, if you know the difference between what you can control and what you can't, if you know that people are human and everybody's circumstances are different, and if you can stop from clinging on to expectations and what you have, then life can really improve. It's something I definitely need to work on, but those are my thoughts for today.