Words are a means to penetrate. To penetrate soul, form, meaning, emotion, and experience. When you hear words that truly touch you, it is because those words have penetrated something true. The penetration itself makes the words universally true because each of us is an individuated expression of the same cosmic fabric. When words penetrate to a deeper essence they penetrate to an essence that is universally true and thus universally resonant.

How does one penetrate so deeply? Surrender. What does that mean? It is a continuing endeavor to strip away the unnecessary to arrive at the heart of something and a faith that through continued effort one will.

I find the act of making art to be penetrating. To create something is to enter its form from within. Through that experience I can channel language that deeply expresses my experience of that depth. It is for this reason that I wish to create more art. To experience and express the essence of what I observe in the process of creation. To experience and express the essence of my experience. I wish to penetrate deeply into life and creation itself. I wish to express this in such a way that gives other people this experience of sublime penetration.

Truth is my Identity

I was recently inspired by a vision I saw while meditating on a ten day silent Vipasana retreat.  Ten days is a long time to sit without speaking.  Inevitably the mind comes up with all sorts of ways to distract.  At one point, I had a vision of a nuclear mushroom cloud with the words SAT NAM overlaid over it.

Sat Nam is the main word that appears in the Sikh sacred scripture.  The word Sat means “everlasting truth” and the word Nam means “name”.  Translated loosely, it means “who’s name is truth” or “truth is my identity”.

In that moment I considered that all of life is part of truth.  Whatever concept of God we might have, it surely embodies all of reality as it is.  The light and the dark.  The good and the bad.

It can be easy to become disillusioned or righteous.  But how do we maintain an equanimous perspective – seeing the entirety of reality as interconnected?

I was inspired to translate this vision into a physical art piece.  I worked with mediums that were entirely new to me but quickly found support through research and friends.  The first piece came together within a couple of weeks and I felt called the expand on the concept with additional imagery beyond the nuclear explosion.  What was most striking to me was this idea of using challenging imagery not to criticize but to create dialog.

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The reality is that we are all products of this world as it is.  Were it any different, we would be different.  As we endeavor to change the world, it is important to accept this fact and recognize that it is implicit in whatever social or political function we wish to address.

I spent months collecting images that I felt were reflective of the global human condition that has emerged over the last century.

Each piece is a social mirror calling us to stop and reflect on how what we see has somehow informed who we are.  The goal being to approach the subject matter not with judgement, but with acceptance as we endeavor to see our own reflection in whatever is being depicted.

Though the things we see may not be agreeable to us, they are nonetheless part of our reality.  A reality of which we are also an expression.  By acknowledging this, we can overcome notions of the 1% or the 99% and consider that shifting our global situation requires a holistic approach that involves all participants in the system.

My wife, Natasha, and I partnered with Alhia Chacoff-Berger from UPstate to organize a discussion panel focused on this subject of “truth” and “identity”.  The panel included thought leaders from various spiritual disciplines: Hari Kaur Khalsa, Elena Brower, and Shaman Durek, with Alhia and Kyle Godfrey-Ryan as moderators.  Gerald Foster from WelcomeEarth was gracious enough to film the whole event.

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Here are the pieces and, at the end, my poem as a spoken word expression of the pieces:

The Art is the Heart

This last year I debuted my first art show.  On display were two heart responsive electronic pieces inspired by an experience I had at Burning Man.  Exploring the desert playa one night, I bumped into a small, golf cart sized art car covered in LED lights.  What was particularly notable about this vehicle was that it had a heart sensor that you could attach to your finger.  Once the sensor picked up your heart rate, the entire car would start pulsating with your heart beat.  It was deeply moving to observe my heart and my partner’s heart in this way.  I was inspired to explore the concept further on my own.  A few months later I did some research, bought all the electronics equipment I needed, and created my first heart responsive meditative mandalas.

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I’m fascinated with this idea of using external inputs to bring awareness to our internal landscape.  When someone initially plugs into one of these mandala pieces their first reaction is to tune into their own heartbeat to see if the LED pulsations are accurate.

Our heartbeat is ever present inside our chest.  From before we are born until we die it is there.  We never have to think about it, it just does its job.  Yet there is so much more to explore and understand.  Just on a sensory level, tuning into your heart, you can begin to feel the flow of blood throughout the whole body.  You become deeply present with yourself just by feeling the physical heart.

I believe that this is incredibly therapeutic.  It is a meditation unto itself.  And this is the vision behind the mandala pieces, that one might have an external visual cue to reflect their internal state.  As I continue to explore this work, I may begin to see how to make the LED colors responsive to changes in heart rate to put more emphasis on the bio feedback.  In the meantime, the lights just cycle through the color spectrum as they pulsate with the heart.  Here is a video of one of the pieces in action:

 

Holding Space for Learning and Practice

As I’ve deepened my meditation practice I’ve found the concept of holding space to be deeply transformative. I can describe holding space best as listening deeply and giving the other person room to express themselves. When I feel this quality of presence from another person, I am uplifted.

Holding space can be particularly powerful in communities of learning and practice. People hold space for each other and in that space they create a container for authenticity and mutual support. This is the intersection of individual expression and collective integration. By holding space for others we create space for openness. By cultivating openness we become more receptive. By becoming more receptive, we are able to learn better and understand more.

Transformative experiences happen when we find small groups of people that hold space for each other to practice and learn. Yet even in communities that share the same values, it can be hard to find people that share the same level of interest and availability as you do.

There may be people around you who share your values. These people might also want to learn and practice the same things that you do. How can you connect with those people to hold space and support each other?

Over the last year I have been exploring ways to make it much easier to connect people in mutually supportive ways. I’ve built a simple tool that lets members within a community self organize into small pods around a shared intention. My hope is to find ways to foster more peer to peer support and, in turn, offer people a direct experience of deep presence and genuine connection.

We have so much potential to uplift others, provide accountability, and share our inner wisdom for mutual benefit. Each of us carries a lifetime of experience to share as a lens on almost any subject. When we hold space for each other in this way, we can shift our energy from competition to collaboration. We can support each other in being, learning, practicing, or just about any sort of co-creation.

(Virtual) Reality is Empty

I recently watched Michael Abrash, the chief scientist at Oculus, give a talk at Facebook’s F8 Summit on “Why Virtual Reality Will Matter to You.”  Abrash goes pretty deep drawing parallels to The Matrix and quoting Morpheus:

“What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

Michael’s talk revolves around the question, what is the difference between sufficiently advanced virtual reality technology and reality itself?  As human beings we innately believe that we have an accurate perception of the world around us.  But the reality is that our perception is based on limited sensory input.  All of our perceptions are based on signals from sensors on our eyes, our tongue, our ears, our nose, our skin, our organs, and throughout our body.  These signals are processed by the brain and interpreted as reality.  In a sense our mind is an inference machine.  We make meaning out of what we infer through the information collected by our senses.

Often our perceptual system has to make assumptions and sends its best guess to the conscious mind.  Given their direct experience, people are understandably certain about what they perceive.  However, although our perception of reality seems complete, it is, in fact, limited because what we perceive is limited by the scope of our awareness.  Take visible light for example, which accounts for a tiny sliver of the electro magnetic spectrum.

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Our experience of the visual world is governed by this tiny aspect of what we perceive through the eyes.  I think about how often I “judge a book by it’s cover,” judging the things around me by what I see.  Yet this is a tiny fraction of what’s actually there.

We construct our entire understanding of the world around us based on the data we get through our senses.  We interpret all sorts of complete experiences based on partial data.  Think of an animated flip book cartoon made up of hundreds of individual images rapidly passing over the screen to give the illusion of smooth motion.  We see all this data that comes in as complete, weaving an intricate picture of the world we experience.  But what’s underneath these sense impressions?  Can we separate the data to see it for what it is – a collection of individual input streams masking a deeper reality.  This is a common theme in Eastern philosophy, and the Bhagavad Gita speaks to the deluding nature of the senses often:

While seeing or hearing, touching or smelling; eating, moving about, or sleeping; breathing or speaking, letting go or holding on, even opening or closing the eyes, they understand that these are only the movements of the senses among sense objects. (5.8)

So, given the questionability of the information that our senses collect, what happens when you have a sufficiently sophisticated virtual reality system that directly emulates sensory input so accurately as to be indistinguishable from the real thing?  Does that, in fact, become the real thing?  Is there a point at which virtual reality ceases to be virtual?

Going back to the question that Morpheus asked – what is real?  At a certain objective level, everything physical is empty.  All matter is simply an ocean of atoms consisting of protons, electrons, and mostly empty space.  We look at something and we create meaning out of it.  What is a table?  A surface to eat and work on?  A piece of wood?  A collection of subatomic molecules held together by magnetic forces?

The table itself is just particles.  And when you look closely enough, even they break down into minuscule aspects of near nothingness.  Your mind creates the meaning of that table.  The Heart Sutra, considered to be the essence of Buddhist teaching, revolves around understanding this concept of emptiness:

Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.
Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form.
The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.

Why is it so hard to perceive this aspect of reality for what it is? Because our entire experience of reality, and of ourselves, is based on our senses and our subsequent attraction to or aversion from what we sense.  Everything we perceive is in the mind, and it can be very hard to see outside of that construct.  We are what is being perceived thus we are unable to perceive what we are.  As Thich Nhat Hanh put so eloquently: “Form is the wave and emptiness is the water.”  From the perspective of the wave, it may be hard to perceive that it is, in fact, an expression of the ocean.

If the true nature of our reality is emptiness, then what difference does it make if we activate our senses through physical phenomena or virtual input?

I recently wrote about the relationship we have with ourselves, asking, *what* is having that relationship to self?  If everything is empty, then what is this that we are experiencing?  Somehow all this emptiness appears to be in relationship with itself in an infinite multitude of ways.  Our entire reality consists of relationships.

The table is also the tree that it came from.  It is the rain that helped grow that tree from seedling to oak.  It is the cloud that released the water for that rain.  It is the logger who cut the tree down.  It is everything that happened to the wood as it went from tree to table in your living room.  All of these aspects are in the experience of the table.  As I sit at this table, all of these aspects form the web of relationships that exist in my experience of the present moment.

How does virtual reality affect this chain of relationships?  Does it simply replace them with a different chain of digital relationships?  Is there something lost when we remove ourselves from nature?  Is a perfectly emulated virtual experience of a forrest the same as the real thing?  Somehow I feel that that deeper connection, of all the relationships that went into the tree might be missing – the earth, the roots, the wind, the rain, the clouds, the sunlight.  The elements that don’t just exist in that virtual moment but have worked in concert over time to have a relationship with me in this moment.  Can that chain of relationships ever be emulated to give the same feeling in one’s heart?

When it comes to VR, I am mostly left with unanswerable questions.  Can virtual reality help us more accurately perceive reality by training our senses in unique ways?  If I’m interacting in a virtual environment, how will my non-tangible senses like intuition be affected?  How will my relationship with real people be affected when I can step in to any virtual world and have ultra realistic fantasy experiences?  Is this a form of escapism, or simply the next step for humanity?

I am often confounded by what I see as the inevitable evolution of the human species – the integration of carbon and silicon.  We are already seeing the proliferation of prosthetic limbs that deliver functionality superior to natural limbs; human computer interfaces that plug directly into the brain; and deeply immersive virtual reality experiences that are only at the very beginning of their development.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that technology is only becoming smaller and humans are only becoming more and more dependent on it.  Eventually, we’ll surgically implant a “mobile phone” chip into a person that will interface with the visual cortex and allow you to surf the internet with your mind.

This doesn’t even seem that far fetched anymore and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw something like this within the next 50 years.  In the 1950s a room full of computers had less processing power than an iPhone.  I have no doubt that when such technology becomes available there will be many people happy to integrate themselves for the sake of convenience.

As we develop highly advanced VR, how will that affect our relationship with what we perceive as physical reality?  Is there a difference between virtual and physical when you have an interface that connects directly with the brain’s signal processing system?

I’m not sure I have a clear answer other than an intuitive aversion to the prospect of that level of technological integration.  I feel that VR brings a tremendous risk of further disconnecting people from each other.  Rather than connecting with real people, a person can immerse themselves in a world of fantasy relationships.

At the same time I can see that sophisticated VR can have far reaching implications and potential benefits for many aspects of our lives.  It can connect people in realistic ways that would never have a chance to meet otherwise.  It can completely revolutionize education and almost any kind of technical training.  It can provide people with safe environments to learn and grow.

As with most technological progress, it can really go both ways.  The ultimate decider is likely the level of consciousness on the part of the user.  One thing is certain though, the age of virtual reality has arrived and it is here to stay.

Gratitude is a function of mindfulness. When you are mindful and present you can cultivate gratitude for the experience that you are having regardless of what it is.  Each experience leads into the next. Thus even the most enjoyable experiences are products of the less enjoyable ones that proceeded them.

Co-creation as Relationship

What does co-creation mean? Does it mean actually creating a tangible project together? Does it mean holding space for each other’s projects? Does it mean sharing knowledge and resources? Does it mean actively supporting each other in some way? Maybe it means all of the above.

Perhaps the true litmus test for co-creative potential is the strength of relationship between members of a community. How open and vulnerable do they feel with each other? How much do the know about each other’s true aspirations? How well do they understand each other? How much goodwill is between them? How much commonality? In this context their creativity becomes a shared resource even if their labor does not.