All Asanas Create Shadow

In January, yoga classes become overcrowded as every kind of mutant and beast rises from the darkest sofa to shine forth into a new era of hope and ambition. The one next to me is hairy, overweight and proudly displays a pair of Calvins underneath basketball shorts worn gangster style. His breath is simultaneously laboured and shallow. He grunts with every pose.

I try not to judge him.

I try, simply, to maintain my equanimity.

This becomes the most ironic and absurd of struggles when – clearly – he sees no reason to take the beginners modification of “Utthita Hasta Padangustasana.” No, that would make him look clumsy and inept. Instead, he reaches confidently for his big toe with his right hand (somehow managing to grab it), and then swings his foot out – violently – mere inches from my face, parking it there with another grunt.

Disgusted, I cringe and watch the deluge of sweat pelt down from his hairy foot onto my yoga towel. Now I’m just trying not to throw up. I want to punch him in the face. Om.

By the time we are lying on our backs and working our abs I am having a mild panic attack from the cognitive dissonance of being filled with rage and disgust while striving to achieve enlightenment. Here I am, seeking mastery of higher states of consciousness. I’m not exactly sure what that is, but I have this image of myself being extraordinarily present, radiating energy and drawing people into a deeper life simply through the look in my eyes.

It occurs to me that I have a lot of work to do.

Surely one who is a master of these things would have no issue being wedged in next to the hairy grunter. Surely it would roll off of his back like water off a duck. Or sweat.

“What has gotten me so activated here?” I ask myself. “What am I resisting or trying not to see? What is the real fear – yet undisclosed – beneath this disgust and desire to bolt?”

“OH FUCK ME!!!”, he yelps during eagle sit-ups, snapping me out of my stream of consciousness. Did he seriously just say that? In. Yoga.

I realize I am not even doing sit-ups anymore. My body is weak. I am tired.

Wow. I am so full of anger and rage and disgust that I can not find the energy to do sit-ups. (I can barely even move, in fact). Fascinating.

“Where are you, oh Shadow, where are you? What is holding me back? What can’t I see? What is the clue in my anger at the hairy grunter?” I try to follow it.

“What is it about myself that I can’t be with, and have projected on to him? Do I want people to hate me and be disgusted at me? Do I think they already are? Am I angry at myself?” These questions flicker in my mind.

A “simple intervention” approach to will power.

In this Authors@Google video, Kelly McGonigal gives us five “really simple interventions” – based on data (she teaches a course at Stanford called The Science of Willpower) to help people know how to be self possessed.

  1. Train your willpower physiology.
    Getting an extra hour of sleep predicted drug addicts’ resistance to relapse by a correlation of 0.7 – wow!
    Meditation also impacts the physiology of willpower – Just meditating for 10 minutes a day results in measurable improvements in the brain systems responsible for maintaining focus on goals and core values within as little as two months.
  2. Forgive yourself.
    People who don’t make themselves wrong are less likely to succumb to temptation. Anger at oneself is a distraction that doesn’t make it easy to stay in touch with one’s future goals and core values – and in one study people who wrote themselves “forgiveness scripts” that they would say to themselves in advance of a junk food breakdown were shown to be more impervious to the breakdown in the first place.
  3. Make friends with your future self.
    Study participants were asked to write a letter to yourself to themselves from their future self (five years from now), thanking themselves for overcoming a willpower challenge, and this was shown to help them deal effectively with that willpower challenge. People who “get” that as their future self they will be impacted by their experiences just as they are today are more likely to be self possessed than people who don’t.
  4. Predict your failure.
    Imagining yourself not succeeding in your willpower challenge can be an effective tool for enhancing will power, according to the data. Participants were asked to answer questions like “What will you say to yourself that will allow you to break your diet…?” and simply being in such an inquiry helped them stay on track.
  5. Surf the urge.
    Learn to pay attention to the physical discomfort of wanting something, trust that you can tolerate those sensations, and wait it out, breathe it out, knowing that it will eventually end just like a wave.

Jesus doesn’t want you to be nice! (Book Review: “The Wisdom Jesus” by Cynthia Bourgeault)

“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

It’s an injunction most English-speaking people have heard, and most of them have conceivably either attempted to live by it or filed it in the “wrong” box. As an adult, I have done the latter. I imagined the sentence loaded with metaphysical and meta-ethical baggage that melts under the spotlight of modern inquiry. I saw it as an egregious oversimplification of human motivation and choice. And for these reasons, I rejected it and similar Christian teachings as incapable of offering much to any contemporary human attempting in earnest to navigate the choppy and sometimes dark waters of their own internal being.

But Cynthia Bourgeault offers a radically different interpretation of that sentence. One that I’ve never heard stated so eloquently. One that brings it to life once again, as an adult, for me.

In “The Wisdom Jesus”, Bourgeault rejects the commonly held thought that Jesus was here in order to get you to believe something about him (i.e. that he died to save you from your sins). And she spurns the notion that his main point was that he wants you to be nice (which is funny when you say it out loud, but how often do we, unbeknownst to ourselves, actually frame most of what he was on about that way?)

Bourgeault systematically and methodically makes the case that Jesus was calling people to transform in ways that would transform the world around them. And that this is not something that he (or anyone else) could do for them, it is something they had to do for themselves. (This is in fact, she writes, the point of the baffling parable of the five wise (read: transformed) bridesmaids who wouldn’t be nice and share their oil with the five foolish (read: unenlightened) ones: “The oil stands for the quality of your transformed consciousness, and unfortunately, it’s impossible to become conscious unconsciously, through a donation from somebody else. You have to do the work yourself.”)

Similarly, through this lens, the instructions “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” take on a different meaning. Borgeault notes that the Greek word being translated as “repent” is “metanoia,” which means to “go beyond your own mind” or to “go into the large mind” depending on how you translate the prefix “meta.” Either way, this does not sound like a command to change the direction of your life or to stop doing bad things. It sounds like an instruction to transform the way you know and see the world. And although this fact is often ignored, what is meant by “at hand,” is not a place you go when you die, but a place that is right here, right now. So, as Bourgeault puts it, the kingdom of heaven is “not later, but lighter – some more subtle dimension or quality of experience accessible to you right in the moment. You don’t die into it; you awaken into it.” Later, she writes, “It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place.”

All of this raises the question, if Jesus wanted his followers to awaken into a transformed awareness of the world, one characterized by a passionate, unified heart that is capable of loving with a fire that is “not of this world”, just how did he expect us to get there? “How do we die before we die? How do we love our neighbors as ourselves? How do we bridge the gap between what we believe and what we can actually live?”

Bourgeault believes that “Jesus does leave us with a path for getting across that gap,” and, although to her way of thinking it is something few human beings have ever achieved, it is what her book is principally about. I highly suggest that you read the book and form your own judgements about it. As for me, I’m not there yet. I do not claim to be enlightened and if anything I’m only more conscious now of how big the gap between the world I live in and the “kingdom of heaven” is.

At the same time, something in me says, “yeah, this is what Jesus was really trying to teach people. This is what he was on about. This is the weird, crazy stuff that baffled the spiritual leaders and turned the world upside down back in his day. It wasn’t just about being nice, and it wasn’t about dogma. Those things wouldn’t have had much of an impact. But this would have stirred the pot.”

What do you think?

PS: Here is a video of Cynthia Bourgeault for those who are interested:

Habit Formation: “Floss one tooth.”

In a memorable iTunes U lecture entitled “Changing Behaviour and Changing Policies” BJ Fogg offers this very interesting (albeit slightly foul and creepy) metaphor to explain why behaviour practitioners ought to focus more on “ability” and “trigger” (and not just “motivation”) when designing interactions for habit formation.

While change management literature often focuses predominantly on creating a compelling vision of the future that will motivate people to take action (and this is admittedly a significant part of the equation), Fogg suggests that success in new habit formation may depend more on making it easy for people to take a desired action. This is the logic behind the idea of flossing just one tooth. “You don’t work on getting people to walk 30 minutes a day until they have the automatic reaction, ‘Oh, I’m back from my coffee break, I’m going to go walk 5 minutes,'” according to Fogg, and  similarly, if all one has to do is floss a single tooth immediately after brushing, it becomes extremely easy to do, essentially eliminating the demotivators (such as bleeding, painful gums). Fogg’s thinking is that if the tiny habit is successfully trained, it does indeed become quite natural for that habit to expand on its own. So when it comes to flossing the rest of your teeth – no pressure – only do it if it feels good!

The key idea here is that a tiny habit, placed in an artfully designed context, has the potential to “grow without coaxing.”

Fogg reminds his audience that this approach underpins the success of consumer internet giants such as Facebook and Google that have been so successful in training users to return to their sites again and again. “Just use us for one little thing – search maybe, or to share your photos – and once we’ve got you visiting us every day, suddenly you’ll be using us for maps, mail, docs, etc.” What these companies do is “Put hot triggers in front of motivated people.” In other words, they put invitations to do things that are very small and easy to do NOW, in front of people that want to do those things.

This got me thinking about an intranet project I am building. What is the one aspect of an intranet that is small and needed by everyone in the company on a daily basis? What if we could build the most amazing, intuitive, simple, searchable, sleek phonebook in the universe and get people to LOVE using it and come back to it every day? Wouldn’t it be somewhat easier to add in things like birthdays, corporate announcements, knowledge assets, etc., subsequently, without having to train people to go to the intranet instead of their traditional channels?

What other applications for this idea do you see?

Never Miss an Opportunity to be Fabulous

I love listening to the Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series on iTunes. Last night I was listening to a lecture called “What I wish I knew when I was 20” (lecture 97), by Tina Seelig, the executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. Oh, and by the way, she just happens to have a PhD in neuroscience. Anyway, I was so inspired that as I was listening to the lecture, I imagined what the slides would look like and made up my own slide show to go along with it. I highly recommend that you listen to the lecture yourself, but here is my version of the slideshow for your viewing pleasure.

And yes, it’s possible, I might have too much time on my hands.

Update: I noticed that Tina Seelig has an account on slideshare! Here is the original slideshow (and… it appears she has actually written a book about it! Chapters, here I come.)