On Observation 7

Observation 7: To solve the overarching problem, we're going to have to create a new way of engaging with each other both politically and personally. That means building on an understanding grounded in the flow of energy.

The foundation for creating a new way of engaging with each other begins with creating a new way of engaging with ourselves.

A general numbness to our lived experience is endemic among Americans. The evidence is so ubiquitous and so constant that it can be a challenge to even see it, because seeing it suggests that it could be different. One simple example: the proliferation of evidence that our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. What do you think drives the appeal of constant, insidious distraction?

We choose distraction because actually getting present to what's happening in the moment feels more and more fraught, more and more dangerous. Conveniently, technology allows us to escape the present more and more effectively. Why be here, now in this moment, when there are so many easy and entertaining ways to be anywhere else?

What's more: numbness is a functional way (of sorts) of getting through life. Numbness creates a certain stability, and most people get along fine(-ish) just stumbling numbly through life. (If it were otherwise, breakdown would be a far more common experience than it is.) Furthermore, if you've practiced numbness for long enough, the idea that it could be otherwise seems foreign, utterly disconnected from your own experience: This is just who I am. Isn't it?

Except: A life lived in numbness obviates the possibility of truly thriving in your life. Something will feel unsatisfactory. You'll find yourself struggling to earn money, or you'll find yourself struggling to stay healthy, or you'll find yourself struggling to find work that matters to you, or you'll just simply find yourself unhappy and be unable to explain exactly why. Whatever the problem is, you'll experience it as a persistent knocking, right at the threshold of liminality. You'll probably do your best to ignore it.

A lack of thriving is so built into our society and our system that it's simply seen as the way things are. It seems like crystal-gazing hippie-speak to suggest that it could be otherwise, much less that thriving could be as simple as making a choice to thrive and from there committing to a series of actions, all of which are available to literally anyone and entirely under your own control.

Well, nothing shatters the smooth, shiny veneer of complacency like crisis. In the early drafts for this piece, I wrote that crisis is coming. But that's wrong. Crisis is already here.

Crisis is what explains Donald Trump. Out of crisis come opportunities for demagogues and hideous men, people who offer facile answers and the anodyne promise that the problem is wholly outside of you. They offer the sweet lullaby-like promise of victimhood. Someone somewhere did this to you.

The thrust toward populist demagoguery succeeds because it offers change without any demands on its supporters. It is the last gasp claim that the system is fixable, that the difference between functioning and not functioning depends on who is in charge.

Ultimately, this thrust will fail. It will fail because it is a lie. The problem is not outside of you. You are the problem. So am I.

So when this thrust blows itself out--as it must, because it is false--and when the damage it causes ultimately brings everything to a standstill--and it will--then finally our illusions will be seen for what they are. We'll be forced to ask, "Now what?" What does one do from a bottom?

Here I speak from my own experience. The only thing that I've found that brought any lasting change was to learn to get very, very intimate with the present moment. From a close attention to the present moment, deeper truths begin to emerge. If you follow the truth for long enough, then … well, then what?

Imagine what happens when you let go of constant, numb struggle and discover that you are finally--finally!--beginning to thrive.

Creating Balance – Revisited

In response to ben’s post last week I thought that it would be helpful to review the practice of centering. Creating Balance was a three-part series that I’ll review over the next few weeks. After which I will expand upon the ideas presented here.

Seated Center

Wherever you find yourself reading this – take a minute, notice where your feet are. Notice your posture. Where are your shoulders in relation to your hips? Is your breath deep or shallow? Are you breathing consciously or unconsciously? How aware are you of your surroundings?

Now take a minute, put your feet firmly on the ground hip-to-shoulder width apart.
Have your knees bent 90 degrees.

Sit up so your shoulders are directly over your hips.

Now, gently raise your diaphragm – notice how your shoulders drop when you do this.

Relax your feet by wiggling your toes and letting your arches soften. As your feet relax your legs will relax.

Now, take a nice easy breath up through your hips and into your upper chest and shoulders. Did your breath rise? Try it again.

Notice your breath as it moves up through your pelvis, past your belly button, through the diaphragm and into your upper chest. Now, take another easy breath. Allow yourself the luxury of feeling what an open flowing breath feels like.

When your breath flows freely from your pelvis into your upper chest and shoulders you are CENTERED.
Centering when seated is the starting position to begin a meditation practice.

Practice maintaining this position and focusing on your breath for 3-5 minutes once or twice per day. Next week I will introduce some basic breathing and visualization techniques to begin the meditation practice.

Proposition 6: You Are the Problem. And So Am I.

(No, this was not one of the original six observations/propositions. But in trying to follow the logic from O/P5: ("Hyper-partisanship is leading inexorably to the collapse of the current system.") to the old O/P6 ("To solve the overarching problem, we’re going to have to create a new way of engaging with each other both politically and personally. That means building on an understanding grounded in flow of energy."), I discovered a gap. What exactly is going to open us to the idea that bioenergetics, centering, flow, etc. are the path to the right answer? What's going to bring about our awakening?)

The shift to hyper-partisanship isn't something those people did. You're a participant in it. So am I.

We can trace a massive cultural shift back to the fall of 1996 and the launch of the Fox News Channel. To people who wanted 24-hour news coverage but felt that CNN and MSNBC held a liberal bias, Fox News offered an alternative. Its meteoric ascent showed just how large that demographic really was.

Since that time, the proliferation of media outlets, along with the Internet's evolution from a curiosity to a central position in our lives has radically accelerated the fragmentation of the population into carefully orchestrated media demographics. When you extrapolate from the ease of providing content to any niche audience you can imagine, it doesn't take long before you end up with a situation as happened this election, in which people were so primed to believe things that fit their worldview that they stopped being concerned if those things were actually, you know, true.

The shift happened naturally enough. It results from tendencies within us that aren't even something to especially decry. One of the core tenets of TTW is the cultivation of a state of ease in all things that we do, and from that perspective it's clear why people would choose to consume media produced by people who share a similar worldview: it's far more comfortable. Who wants to choose the discomfort of constantly experiencing the dissonance of dealing with people whose worldview does not match your own? Instead, at our current level of energetic development, we seek the comfortable consonance of "This affirms what I already think."

Unfortunately, this is leading, pretty inexorably, to the hyper-partisanship that is destroying our society. So there are some downsides.

But as I've said before, if you practice centering with real regularity and are honest about what you experience, you will fairly quickly be forced to confront that your existence as an entity discrete from all these other entities is actually an illusion. The truth of our deep connection simply becomes undeniable. Which is not to say that your thinking will suddenly line up with that of people with whom you disagree. Rather, you will recognize that your thinking, and thus your participation in this culture of conflict, is built on a faulty foundation. Your thinking is built on a notion of "us versus them." But there is no them. There is only us.

Building Flow Part 5 – Revisited

Over the last four weeks, I have attempted to teach you to systematically increase your capacity to feel and create flow. The next step in this process is to begin to consciously apply the lessons in building flow to other aspects of your lives. As an example of how to do this, I went to the driving range in order to practice building flow within my golf swing.

I started by centering and doing a few light stretches while paying particular attention to my breath. At the end of five minutes, I was relatively loose and very centered. I took a few practice swings using a 58-degree wedge.

The goal was to create a reproducible pattern with my pre-shot ritual that would help to keep me centered while minimizing potential errors during setting up and executing the swing.

I started by standing behind the ball and taking a centered breath while picking my aim point. I placed the head of my club on the ground aimed through the center of my ball at the target. I then squared my club face to the ball and aligned my body to my club.

Addressing the ball (doffing my cap and bowing - Hello Ball! – and no it never gets old for me), I took an open and flowing breath up through my body and released the tension in my torso. Then, in order to ground my energy and lower my center of gravity, as I exhaled, I would bring the breath back down through my body and anchor it deep into to the earth. I practiced this ritual until I could comfortably execute it and felt balanced within my stance.

Now for the test: Using my newly developed pre-shot ritual prior to every shot, I would initiate my backswing from my core and attempt to hit a nice high arcing shot towards the red flag about 100 yards in front of me.

I considered a successful shot any that hit within a 10-yard radius of the flag, and the results were absolutely stunning. I hit 12 consecutive shots that all were well within 10-yards of the flag. Several actually hit the flag itself.

The next test would be switching to a longer club. Using my nine iron, I took a few practice swings and spent a couple of minutes working on the pre-shot ritual. After getting comfortable with a longer club in my hand, I started hitting balls toward the white flag about 130 yards out. After a couple of shots to dial in, the results were very similar: 8 of the last 10 shots were within the 10-yard circle.

The techniques for building flow that I have laid out over the last four weeks can be applied to all aspects of our lives. Using ritual practice to help build flow and create habits that help create consciousness is critical to the process.

This week’s assignment is to apply these principles to another aspect of your life. Create a ritual that centers you while building flow within your body. Allow yourself to stay conscious and notice what happens.

Note: I was hoping to recreate the test prior to this post. But, we are still hitting off mats and you cannot compare the scores of hitting off mats to hitting off the ground. I will recreate the test and report the results when spring has truly sprung.

On Proposition 5

Proposition 5: Hyper-partisanship is not just making things worse, it's leading inexorably to the collapse of the current system.

I acknowledge that worse is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, but let's use this chart of Congressional job approval ratings to make the argument. (This chart comes from Gallup, the polling company.)

Let's start our discussion in 1992. Through the Clinton presidency, Congress's approval ratings trended upwards. Notice the substantial spike after 1994, which was the election that brought us the Gingrich revolution and really began the era of deep partisan divide in Congress. I propose two reasons for that upward trend. One was the economic boom of the '90s--when people see improvements in their lives, they are more likely to see the government in favorable terms. But the other was in fact the partisanship that Gingrich brought with him, as highlighted, ultimately, by the Lewinsky scandal and Clinton's impeachment. Initially, and contrary to my thesis, people liked partisanship. What changed?

The boom ended, that's what. The boom itself was essentially extra-governmental. It arose via the first wave of efficiencies wrought by the Internet. Thus the partisanship of the '90s was essentially a sideshow. But then the boom ended, and we returned to a situation in which we needed a functioning government to make things better for people. And the government has increasingly failed to do so. You can see that failure in the trends of Congressional approval ratings since the end of the Clinton presidency.

If we discount the peak right after September 11, 2001, the trend was strongly downward throughout the George W. Bush administration, rose sharply but briefly at the start of the Obama administration, fell to news lows as that administration went on, and now has risen again--all the way to 28% approval!--at the start of the Trump administration. I predict the bump upward will be as short-lived as it was at the start of the Obama administration, and we'll soon see Congressional approval fall to new lows.

Conflict is not a path to creation.

So if partisanship has not led to outcomes people like, is there any sign that the trend toward partisanship is abating? In fact, just the opposite is happening. Check out this graphic showing how the electoral results across America are getting more and more polarized:

(For more discussion of this graphic and the underlying phenomenon, please see Purple America Has All But Disappeared on fivethirtyeight.com.)

So: partisanship is making things worse, and partisanship is increasing. Only time will tell if the second half of my proposition is accurate. But I propose that increasing partisanship and worsening results from the system form a feedback loop. Extreme partisanship leads to a Congress (and therefore government in general) unable to get anything done, which leads to disgust with the system and deeper distrust of the other side, whom each side respectively blames for everything that isn't working, which leads to deeper partisanship, and so on.

There's a limit to how much a system can degrade before it collapses. Once a feedback loop gets set into place, it will grow and grow and grow until something comes along to arrest it. Do you see any evidence that anything is going to do that with respect to our system? Any at all?

Building Flow Part 4 – Revisited

Last week we continued to work on establishing a sense of flow and allowing ourselves to move into our habitual patterns while doing chores.

Creating a state of flow as we move through our habitual patterns actually begins to infuse flow into the habit itself. Essentially, we are working on giving ourselves permission to habitually stay in a state of flow.

The assignment for this week is to continue creating flow as you move through your day. Consciously, check in with yourself a little more frequently and make adjustments as necessary. Pay particular attention to maintaining center.

Remember, staying in a state of flow requires good posture, an open flowing breath, core activation and a willingness to stay conscious.

On Observation 4: The Growing Awareness that Something Is Amiss

Observation 4: There's a growing awareness that something is deeply amiss, that our problems run deeper than just who's currently in office.

It was this observation that really drove Jerry and me to shift the focus of TTW from exploring using energetics and flow in the realm of sports to connecting with what we were witnessing happen in the political realm and throughout our society as a whole. We did not and do not see what happened in 2016 as just another election. The cultural currents at play are far deeper and more powerful.

I strive to be as non-partisan as I am able in these writings, so I apologize if this alienates you, but what Trump supported and stood for was problematic. He displayed deeply sexist tendencies. His immigration policies were built, at best, on deep xenophobia, if not outright racism. His "drain the swamp" rhetoric spoke, perhaps not unreasonably, to voters who felt that the problems we face are inherent in Washington itself, but in extending that rhetoric to attacks on the press, he inhabits a space usually held by despots and dictators. There's a reason freedom of the press is contained in the First Amendment: a free press is a core value of our country.

Some of Trump's support came from people who felt empowered by his uglier side. But I maintain that the vast majority of people are decent, and decent people who voted for Trump surely did so with substantial reservations. But for the many Trump voters who feel that the system is no longer working, the choice to vote for someone so hostile to the system itself was sort of a last-gasp attempt to force the system to change, instead of having to throw the whole thing away and start over.

But as we witness the chaos of Trump's first seven weeks in office, it's clear that the jolt Trump delivered to the system can only ever serve a negative purpose. By identifying and speaking to the problems driving populist revolt, he found himself in the White House. But he offers no positive answers. He's a destroyer, not a creator. (Don't think so? Consider that what he's most famous for as a celebrity is nothing he created but rather his catchphrase: "You're fired.")

The collapse of the system is only accelerating. But I get the sense that few Trump voters are regretting choosing him instead of Clinton. They threw up a hail-mary in the hopes that the system's dysfunction could be arrested. It's not working and it's not going to work. So if the answer to the question, "Which of the candidates could fix the system?" is "None of them," then we're forced to ask, "Where to from here?"

I'll offer an answer. At the far side of this crisis--which, granted, may be decades away--I predict a reconstitution of our political structures. At some point we'll finally see endless acrimony and conflict for the dead ends that they are. When that happens, we're going to have to re-agree that we're united in certain core values, and that though we may disagree about particular issues, we choose to have faith in the essential goodness of people, and build our new system on a lived foundation of mutual respect.

Building Flow Part 3 Revisited

Last week we worked on creating flow through the breath while completing a mundane task. Before we begin this week, take a couple centered breaths and reflect on how your practice went.

Was it open and flowing? Did you breathe new life and meaning into doing chores? Or like most of us, did you got caught up in completing the task at hand and slip into the comfortable rhythm of habit?

Although most of us will return to our habitual patterns after a couple of minutes, our practice is always rewarded. Because once an open and flowing breath is established, it continues to flow long after we stop paying attention to it.

The assignment for this week is simple. Continue to practice paying attention while doing chores. Establish an open and flowing breath and move about your business. However, this week, give yourself permission to move into habit. Try to notice the increased flow within your system as you move through your habitual patterns.

Note – Hopefully, it is easier to establish and feel the effects of being in a state of flow. This week, see if you can identify some of the things that reduce or prevent you from maintaining flow.

On Proposition 3: The System Fails Most Americans

Proposition 3: A clear manifestation of this blockage is that our system is no longer capable of bringing about outcomes that are for the good of the majority of Americans. More accurately and more strongly: only a small minority of Americans are benefiting from the system as it is operating now.

(Yes, I changed the word from observation to proposition.)

While debate about what led to Trump's victory will rage on, and while no single factor fully explains the outcome, it's undeniable that in the general election Trump was the only candidate speaking to the sense of decline felt by many Americans, a sense that they've been left behind. While it was easy to hear within Trump's call to "Make America Great Again" his supporters' anxiety about a world in which the previously dominant power structure (white, straight, patriarchal) is being superseded by something more inclusive of cultural, racial, and sexual minorities, it's undeniable that many of the economic changes over the last couple of generations have taken away the opportunities that once allowed the working class a path to middle class comfort and a concomitant dignity.

While Trump's protectionist stances were widely derided by the intelligentsia on both sides of the aisle--Didn't he get the memo that globalization is an unqualified success? seemed to be the general sense--it's worth remembering that the promise of deals like NAFTA was that free trade would benefit all people. And while it's true that the ability of capital to move manufacturing to the places where costs are lowest has meant that Americans get cheap TVs and cell phones, what's gone along with that is the disappearance of the sorts of jobs that a high-school-educated person could have relied on 40 years ago to be a safe ticket to the middle class, and millions of part-time jobs at Starbucks and Walmart aren't filling the gap.

Or let's consider the costs and benefits of the most significant and of course most controversial piece of legislation during the Obama administration, the Affordable Care Act. In my piece from two weeks ago, I defended the ACA as better than the system we had before, because it has given many millions of Americans access to health care who previously lacked it. Nonetheless, it's clear that the law is a far cry from an unqualified success. Is it better for the majority of Americans? Possibly. But a more salient question is, Do a majority of Americans believe it to be better? Republican electoral success since the 2010 midterms would suggest not.

Another useful measuring stick of the blockage I'm speaking of is the distribution of income and wealth in our country. Coinciding with the rise of supply-side, trickle-down economics, which hold that tax cuts for the wealthiest lead to benefits for all, an orthodoxy essentially unchallenged since the Reagan era, we've seen income and wealth inequality increase for almost forty years. The rich have gotten much richer, while the rest have seen stagnation, even decline.

When you consider the policy proposals at the heart of the Trump/Republican plans for governance--immigration crackdowns, repealing the ACA (without, it seems, the vaguest ideas of how to replace it with something better), increased military spending, and tax cuts (offered as a good unto themselves); and when you consider that the Democrats offered little more than the status quo, one has to ask, Is this the best we can do? Either the status quo of the last eight years or else a doubling down of the policies of the Reagan and Bush (I and II) administrations?

Sadly, by all appearances, this is exactly the case: this is the best we can do. And if the best we can do is to continue to run a system that will not and cannot benefit most of the people whom it is supposed to serve, then it has become time to change that system.