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Fall Neighborhood Walk
I know I haven’t been posting as much. Not much new photography going on in the blinding heat, I’m sorry to say. I am SO ready for fall. I am pining for fall. It’s pretty much been over 100 degrees every day since early June. I am over it.

I have been writing a lot, however, and you can see what I’ve been up to at my business blog, Working From the Heart.

Saying goodbye to one muse and welcoming another.

Over the last year, I’ve begun to realize that while I am no longer a performer in the traditional sense, my new career as an entrepreneur has taken me back to my performing roots in many ways. All the activities I do that involve other people – networking, pitching, negotiating, lecturing, teaching, & coaching are a form of performance. Improvisational, open-ended, revelatory performance. This realization, and the emotional roller coaster that comes from being that “on” for long periods of time has made me flash back on my years as a musician rather a lot.

On top of that, there have been a few times in the last few months that I’ve painfully felt the loss of music in my life. Random moments where I feel as if I’ve been living without a limb, and have just noticed its painful absence. I stopped pursuing music as a career in 2001. I stopped performing as a musician (with a few exceptions for friend and family weddings) in 2005. I used to sing all the time, now it’s rare and usually when I’m alone. Sorting through my feelings around this has been a sticky and harrowing process.

Music was both my gateway to the hell of self-annihilation and the heaven of self-transcendence. Some of the most spiritual moments of my young adult life were when I was performing and felt as if something beyond me chose my voice as its instrument. In those moments I felt as if I was the priestess and the sacrifice at the same time. I know that sounds mildly insane, but it was as if I was controlling and creating this experience of ritualistic catharsis on one (somewhat detached) level, and concurrently experiencing total surrender, ecstasy, and spiritual nakedness on another.

At the other end of the spectrum was crippling self-doubt, constant external and internal criticism, jealousy, extreme-sport competitiveness, isolation, codependency, and auditions. Oh man, did I get to hate auditions. At first they were kind of fun. Then I realized that every time I got in front of that opera company I was cementing some kind of impression of what caliber of singer I was with one more conductor/director, and there was very little I could do to control or change it once the audition was over. Pressure.

Singing for an appreciative audience is one thing. I’ve always had stage fright, but it’s never been enough to keep me off the stage. Hell, I’m still perform any chance I get (bellydancing, lectures, teaching…). But auditions – singing for people who are bored, exhausted, and whose job consists of disqualifying 99% of the hopeful young singers who they see – is hell. There’s no energy exchange, no ritualistic, shamanistic deeper meaning. You’re a show horse. They look at your teeth, your stance, your gait, and determine if you have the stuff. And when 90% of my singing became auditions, it ate my soul.

I think the moment I realized it was over was when I got 30 seconds into my first aria in a major audition and noticed I was already mentally out the door, deconstructing what I’d done to fuck it up this time. At the time I had the best and worst teacher I’d ever had – another polarized contradiction. He could hear the sounds my voice had never made and could help me find them. He could coax my vocal chords and abdominal muscles into feats of Olympian strength, endurance, and control. He was funny, encouraging, and supportive. He was also immature, egotistical, petty, and sometimes quite cruel.

Finally something (I think in that one audition) snapped. I had been trying to extricate myself from a crumbling destructive relationship that had spanned most of my 20s. And the moment I gave myself permission to leave it, I left my music career too.

I coach people on their core values now. And sometimes I help them create a personal narrative wherein they map which values were being expressed (and which repressed) during different phases of their careers. In many ways music was more in the service of my needs (approval, acceptance, adulation) than my values. It also was an expression of what I consider my greatest gift, which is creating connection. Music can connect people to the divine within themselves and others. It can connect us to the humanity of people who lived hundreds of years before us. As Joseph Campbell says, the artist is the shaman of our time. So I think that music served my need to connect to Spirit, and certainly utilized my core values of Courage and Compassion, although I think in a somewhat limited, self-centered way.

What I find strange, is that my other two core values, Inquisitiveness and Humor, had almost no expression during this time of my life. I took myself far too seriously. The ability to laugh at yourself comes with the willingness to look like an ass, and I had no tolerance for looking stupid. And Inquisitiveness – my God. I drank up every bit of academic, analytical juice I could find at the Conservatory, but there just wasn’t that much room for it. Even when interpreting the music we sang, better to trust the interpretation of someone who published an edition with written cadenzas and ornamentation 50 years ago than put your own stamp on it.

Don’t get me wrong, we could meddle with the dynamics, the tempo, the tone, and the articulation. But that was it. How many times was I told I think too much, I’m too smart? Leave your brain at the door (except for memorizing stuff) was pretty much what you were encouraged to do. And rightly so, in many ways. Singing is very athletic, and not very intellectual. You can’t really engage your brain until your body is under control, and the body part is about physical training and biofeedback much more than intellectual understanding and cognitive learning.

So this huge chunk of who I am lay fallow for the first 10 years of my adult life. I did a lot of reading, but I didn’t really exercise my brain the way I now know I’m capable of. Fast forward to 2006 and grad school (take 2). Once I got my head around the concept of critical thinking, I was in heaven. Instead of trying to get my brain out of the way of my creative process, it was my creative process! Being inquisitive and analytical helped me get good grades and start to write at a level where I would eventually get published. I began to integrate the creative, emotional, non-verbal side of myself with the analytical, discerning, intellectual side. I can’t express how much happier and more fulfilled this made me.

I’ve always been very verbal (ask my parents), and I know that I’m good at helping people find ways to express feelings that are difficult to verbalize. I considered being a therapist for a while because I know I have that strength. But I seem to have found my new muse (which is actually an old muse) in writing and speaking. While I’ve never had the ability to use words like paint the way a creative writer or poet does, I am good at using words to help crystallize and articulate aspects of the human condition that are hard to express.

It’s taken me a while to realize that I can be a writer without being a Writer. I’m not a wordsmith, I’m an ideasmith. There are lots of those out there these days, but I don’t think too many of them are women. Daniel Pink, Malcom Gladwell, and Thomas Friedman spring to mind. These are people who tap into some strand of the collective consciousness and articulate ideas that we are all becoming aware of simultaneously. While I don’t know if the ideas and concepts I can articulate are universal enough to land me a book deal like Gladwell’s, I think this is ultimately what I’m here to do now.

I still like performing – I enjoy teaching and lecturing and networking – but I also find it draining. It’s a great way to try my ideas out on people and see what turns the lightbulb on for them. There’s nothing cooler than seeing that happen. But coming to terms with wanting to write for a good portion of my living is this huge relief. It’s solitary and protected, and uses a totall
y different kind of energy than speaking of singing.

So words are my vehicle now. Not the words of poets or librettists that died centuries ago, my words. Are my words important enough to be considered by others? Actually, it doesn’t matter. I think that we all have an unique contribution to make, and this is mine. There is no other me, and nobody is going to talk about things exactly like me. So there’s no competition, because nobody else can have my voice, and I can’t have theirs. Will I find an audience? I hope so. Over the last year of this crazy experiment called entrepreneurialsim, I’ve had the most success finding publishers for my articles, and places to speak about my ideas. That part has come much easier than learning how to use Quickbooks, for example.

I miss music, and I hope I can find a way to re-integrate it in my life. But I think I’m okay with the Music Epoch being over. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Writing Epoch unfolds.

If you’re interested in reading some of my stuff, visit DiaMind Dialogues, my business blog.

Desperately Seeking Solace, or What I learned from Buddhism

This is a long rambley entry, so bear with me (or skip it.)

There is a lot to be learned from Buddhism, and it would be impossible absorb it all in one lifetime. Since I’ve moved away from the secularized version that is often practiced in America, and more towards Vedic, or Yogic traditions that form the foundations of both Buddhism and Hinduism, I’ve thought a lot about what didn’t serve me when I was practicing in the Shambala tradition. Namely, what I saw as a nihilistic need to regard a mystical experience of God as a crutch, and some ethical problems stemming from guru worship.

Recently I’ve started to realize how much I have integrated into my world and self-view, and how it has helped prepare me for this next phase of my own spiritual journey. At the same time, I’ve begun to observe a pattern among my friends and peers in the 35-45 age range, and my Buddhist studies have helped me frame them.

Things change. I can’t ignore it anymore. What’s more, I’m old enough that things are starting to fall down faster than I can build them up. I may build a successful company, and I may write books. I may start a family. But I can’t not get sick, I can’t not age and die, and I can’t keep those I love from experiencing the same things. I couldn’t keep Simon from dying, and though the death of a dog may not seem that big on a universal scale, it shook my foundations. If Simon could leave, so could everything else.

Yes, everything is impermanent, and no, just trying to get used to that idea is not enough to make it tolerable. Not for me, anyway. So ultimately, I needed more than Buddhism (or at least the version I was studying) had to offer. I suspect that a lot of people my age are struggling with this transition, from the attaining/building/growing phase of life, to the beginning of the slowing/ending/dissipating part of life.

I’ve sought solace in relationships for a long time. Friends, lovers, family, pets; I’ve sought peace and balance, love and acceptance from other beings. Buddhism says that this seeking is itself a cause of suffering, and that when we cease seeking, we can find our own innate place in the universe. Only last year, after losing my certainty about my career (after I left my last job), and my dog Simon was I able to admit that I didn’t know where I was going. That was really hard for me, because while I’ve never been one to join groups, I’ve always needed to identify myself with a verb of some kind: Student, Musician, Designer, Manager. I didn’t know anymore what word to use to identify myself, or what words I might use in the future.

It was in this place of uncertainty, when the some of the things I clung to were no longer there, that I was able to start listening to my higher self, or the collective unconscious, or God, or whatever I choose to call it on any given day. Whatever. I could feel this connection and recognize it consciously at the same time, and I couldn’t do that before. Why is this so important to me? Because life (and Buddhism) had taught me that nothing is stable, that things fall apart, and that clinging to them doesn’t change a damn thing. Buddhism helped me realize that most people struggle with this, whether or not they know it. But my core, or soul, is always there no matter how much things change.

Some people I know just keep speeding up. They’re the ones who have always been achievement focused, and have never really given themselves the option of just saying, “What the fuck am I doing?” and putting on the brakes for a while. If it worked before, and it’s not working now, just do more of it. In these people I recognize the same aversion that I see to sitting with my mind quietly and seeing what arises, rather than trying to plan and control everything. It’s funny how society brands depression as dysfunctional and those who experience it as less successful than those who just never stop. One way or another we all need a mental break sometimes. I think often depression is just our body-mind’s way of letting us hibernate and germinate ourselves so we can deal with whatever just happened, or what comes next.

Others have gravitated towards ideologies, or organizations that have cult-like qualities, be they for work, self-improvement, or religion. Where the power of groupthink seems to momentarily free them from the fear of the unknown, but the anxiety that drives them is still readily apparent. This too, I feel like I’ve dabbled in myself. I certainly felt for a while that in Shambala, perhaps I’d found a belief system trustworthy enough to leave my critical mind at the door. That didn’t work out so well.

Others have done what I was forced to do, and now am trying to sustain. Slowed down a bit. I still struggle daily with feeling as if I need to do more, be more, accomplish more. But on the other side of the equation, I can’t really understand who I am and who I may become if I’m always running towards or away from something. I’m not saying I’m good at doing things slower, far from it. But between the two polarities of the drive of individual accomplishment and the pull of groupthink mentality, it’s the only place that makes sense to me.

Buddhism prepared me for this place. I learned how to meditate, I learned to observe how the qualities of emotions and thoughts change when we observe them. I learned that there is no “being good at” in meditation, and that it’s just as valuable when it’s frustrating as when it’s transcendent. I started to learn to listen and be, instead of talk and do.

It seems as if we’re all finding ourselves well out of the barely post-adolescent mental state that is our twenties, and we’re all trying to figure out what that means. We’re losing grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, and all the wisdom that we lose with them. We’re creating new generations. We’re trying to figure out what is really important to us, and what doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore.

I know now that peace and contentment are way more important to me than excitement and drama. I like solitude and quiet a lot. Rather than condemning those who join religions, I believe in some form of God. I’m not so quick to judge people who believe different things than I do – spiritually or politically. I’m more interested in the creative process and less interested in showing off the results (though I think I will always be kind of a show-off). I’m more interested in healthy, strong relationships, and less interested in flattery and adulation. I know the difference now between real courage and empty bravado.

So what do you think? How are you dealing with this transition and how is it going? How have your values changed in the last few years? How are you finding meaning and fulfillment now as opposed to when you were younger? Drop me a line sometime and let me know.

Not such a light topic

I watched the movie Waitress last night. It’s really good, great script, good cast. The story is about a young woman living in rural somewhere America with an abusive husband. She’s a waitress and has a major talent for cooking, she directs all her pent up emotions into creating amazing pie recipes. It’s quirky and funny, but also pretty intense as in spite of the fluffy trappings, the characters are more realistic that one would expect.

The reason I’m writing about it is because it brought up a lot of memories for me. I was in an abusive relationship in my late teens-early twenties. We were together for 4 1/2 years, living together for most of that time. My close friends and family remember that period with horror, they were terrified I would marry my boyfriend and end up more trapped than I already was. A user review I read of Waitress an iTunes panned it for having “stereotypical” characters. But the thing about stereotypes is they have some grounding in reality. And the abusive husband in this film was not portrayed just as a hulking, threatening, knuckle-dragger. He was also incredibly insecure, incapable of hearing any version of reality that made him uncomfortable – he would literally tell his wife exactly what words to say in order to make him feel better. He would beg for reassurance and induce guilt and fear to get it. When he couldn’t control the world around him, he became verbally and physically abusive. This is actually much closer to the reality of abusive relationships that the way they are often portrayed in cinema and on TV.

The relationship I was in probably looked creepy from the outside, but many of my friends and family didn’t recognize the warning signs, or even believe me when I first started talking about it – several years in. Abusive people can be charming, kind, generous, and friendly. They do not have “poor anger management” tattooed to their foreheads. My boyfriend was very smart and witty, kind of childlike in demeanor, and often generous to a fault with his friends. The side that very few people saw was the toddler-like screaming tantrums, the dangerous road rage, the stuff he broke in anger, the way he used fear, guilt, and shame to control and manipulate me, the fights he picked that would go on all night (often right before I had an important test or performance), the extreme jealousy, and the hitting.

People who have been in abusive relationships live with the stigma of having “allowed” these things to happen to them. As a result we often feel that others see us as weak-minded or innately damaged in some way. I still struggle with shame over having let this man, and other people treat me in a way I would never want anyone I love to be treated.

What people don’t understand is that abusers are master manipulators, and they don’t just use fear and anger to control others. They may also use flattery, gifts, affection, and charisma to get what they want. But underneath the adult body and vocabulary is usually a spoiled, terrified toddler who will do anything to feel safe and secure. Adult reasoning and ethics don’t apply, in fact my ex was a genius when it came to using big words to rationalize very irrational and often destructive feelings and desires.

The important thing to remember if you feel trapped in a destructive relationship of any kind (it could be with a spouse or lover, friend, teacher, employer, or relative) is the abuser needs you more than you need them. Most of their energy is spent trying to convince you that it’s the other way around, but it’s not. They may think that they can’t live without you, but you can live without them. It’s important also to remember that that intense need is also somewhat addictive, especially if you have your own insecurities about being lovable or desirable. Abusers are very good at magnifying and manipulating your fears.

If you have had an abusive relationship, another important thing to be aware of is your own need to control based on insecurity and fear. It’s well documented that abused children can become abusive parents. When I stopped having relationships where I was being controlled, I had to examine my own tendencies towards jealous and controlling behavior. I had to choose to deal with my fears direcly, rather than projecting them on my partner and blaming him. Having been abused does not make us incapable of being an abuser, but it does give us a greater responsibility to stop the cycle.

How do you know if a relationship is abusive? If the other person is very critical, makes you feel worthless or repulsive, if you have arguments that seem to stretch out forever, or if your partner gets angry if you spend time with other people or talk about your relationship with others, these are some major indicators. If you think you are in an abusive relationship, ask for help. Ask people you truly trust to listen to you without judgement, and talk to a counselor or therapist. You are not alone. You are not trapped. You are entitled to be treated with respect. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not someone you want in your life.

Apple and Ethics

Several months ago, my research team did an ethics audit comparison of Microsoft and Apple. Surprisingly, Microsoft came out overwhelmingly in the lead on most ethics and governance issues. Apple has a dismal track record on environmental concerns, seems to have little sense of global social responsibility beyond the education realm, and has been targeted for poor labor practices in China. This is distressing, as I vastly prefer their products to Microsoft’s. I love the industrial design, the user interface, and just the bloody cleverness of the products and how they market them. What I do not like are first release products with giant bugs, software with giant bugs, snotty customer service, and difficulty finding documentation on known issues.

So let’s add to this list: Deceptive Business Practices

This week Apple announced that you can now rent videos on iTunes. You pay for the movie, download it (this takes about two hours with DSL) and then you can watch it on the Apple device of your choice, including Apple TV, which we have. You have to watch the movie within 24 hours of starting it. So I figured it would be fun to try it out on Saturday night after dinner. After waiting two hours for the download, I spent the remaining two hours of the evening trying to get my Apple TV to recognize the file. I tried every suggestion I could find on the support site, and finally came across a document explaining how to transfer a rental to my Apple TV. Unfortunately, the interface described in the document didn’t exist. So I emailed iTunes support asking where it was. I got this response:

“All the new features of Apple TV—including movie rentals—are coming soon as a free software upgrade.”

Gosh, there’s a really big difference between “now available” and “coming soon”. So I emailed back:

“Why are there instructions on how to transfer rentals to my apple tv on your support site when it is actually not possible yet? This is misleading and unethical.”

And received this response:

“Thank you for responding. I entirely agree that it is misleading, although I will dispute the “unethical” with you.

So my question is, how is a statement that is knowingly untrue not unethical? The customer service rep went on to explain that it was okay because they were releasing the software upgrade soon that would fix the problem, and other parts of the documentation were actually already accurate.

Not so much.

This is a BIG problem. Selling something under false pretenses is not cool. Ever. And saying that since some of it was accurate, it’s okay that other parts were misleading does not make it better, it makes it worse.

I believe that Apple suffers from the same disease that I used to observe in the opera industry. When you worked with a talented person, say a really great conductor, if they acted abusively or sexually inappropriately, people would excuse it, saying he/she was a genius, or brilliant, as if one canceled out the other. But in the grownup world, someone can actually be brilliant and abusive, or talented and immature. Both qualities can exist in the same person, and the negative traits may in fact prohibit the person from being able to exercise the positive ones. But in the entertainment industry, people seem unable to resolve this dichotomy.

Similarly, Apple, and I think probably specifically Steve Jobs, seem to think that because they are design and interface geniuses, that they are not subject to the same basic ethical scrutiny as other companies. They are wrong, as the increasing number of lawsuits against Apple show.

Rather than expound even more on the possible effects of poor ethical practices, I will distill my advice to Steve Jobs and Apple into two words:

Grow up.

Learn to be a responsible, adult member of the world business community and adhere to commonly recognized ethical principals (and the ethical minimums dictated by those pesky law things). Stop behaving as if being smart/talented/pretty places you outside the social norms or the law. It doesn’t.

Parties and Terriers

When they can’t get my attention, they wail on each other in the most amusing fashion.

DSC_1485I’ve been out of commission this week, I got the stomach flu the day after my wedding reception. And while it sucked, I am so very happy that it didn’t happen that weekend. All the parties were fun, and we had a great turnout at the reception. Kyla’s wedding cake was amazing, and Tracy and Donald took a million pictures, a selection of which can be seen on my flickr page (click on the badge to the right). Connie made me a fabulous necklace to wear, and Tracy did my hair and makeup. All in all, it was a great weekend. My childhood friend Roxanna and her husband Nic and baby Maxine came out for the madness fun, which was really cool. My brother was also out to visit and we got to take him to Fonda San Miguel for dinner, which he’d been looking forward to since I got him the cookbook for Christmas a couple years ago.

Anyway, I’ve had to take it uncharacteristically easy this week, which is probably good for me, as I’ve been running at top speed for a few months now. Funny how your body forces you to slow down when your mind won’t take the hint. Hello, three flus in three months? Blah.

I’m glad Weddingstravaganza I went well, part II will be in Santa Barbara in March, date TBA. In between I plan to write, rest, do more yoga, and have a nice, quiet celebration for my husband’s birthday.

Coming Out

I’ve been experiencing something very new recently, and I’ve been unsure about whether or not to discuss it/blog about it. Spirituality is controversial at best, and people tend to have very powerful feelings about it, for good or ill.

I find that I’ve always linked spirituality and religion, and assumed that if I believed in God, I would be joining the unenlightened masses that believe in a male, humanoid, capricious, cruel, often discriminatory, and all-powerful deity (this secular perspective of religion, while terribly reductionist and judgmental, is not uncommon). In spite of this, I have been spiritually seeking for a long time, for the last ten years or so at least.

What have I been seeking? Insight, truth, some sense of belonging, justice, kindness, peace. It is a very long list. But I have never felt the presence of God, nor have I felt any real connection to most of the religious texts I’ve read or rituals I’ve witnessed. I often experienced it as empty, cryptic, contradictory, and conformist. My belief system has been largely agnostic, humanistic, and rationalistic. While I’ve felt some sense of resonance with the work of Jung and Campbell on archetypes, myths, and the collective unconscious, and an affinity for Buddhist practices and principals, I have always felt very much cosmically alone.

As I’ve gotten older, that sense of being alone has become harder to ignore, and harder to tolerate. As we age, the inevitability of our own death (scary) and of those we love (scarier) becomes inescapable. Buddhist principals say we should neither cling to pleasure or run from pain, but this is incredibly difficult when what lies beneath the clinging and running is emptiness, fear, and often in my case, despair. Easier to be caught in the karmic wheel than face the abyss. Anxiety and depression have been the periodic result of this struggle.

Recently my perspective has shifted dramatically. I have experienced a spiritual awakening. I don’t know a better way to describe it. I have become aware, from deep in my being, that we are not alone. I have begun to experience God or Atman/Self or God-Consciousness (call it what you want) in a way that is very immediate and tangible. It is a mental, emotional, and physical experience.

I’ve been reading a whole lot of stuff to try and help me understand what I’m experiencing. Deepak Chopra, The Upanishads (pre-Hindu texts), Rumi, Hildegard von Bingen, the Thomas Gospel (this is one of the Gnostic texts – concurrent with the bible but not associated with the church), and a stack of other books. I’ve had to re-evaluate my fairly ignorant opinions of people with religious or spiritual beliefs. I’m realizing that strict rationalism or humanism that excludes the validity of others’ spiritual experiences is just as dogmatic as any religion that does not allow for a personal experience of God.

My beliefs are no longer secular, but they are also not strictly religious either. I think that all of the universe and what lies beyond is some form of consciousness, and that I am part of that consciousness. It feels as if I am a cell in a body that exists to experience itself – my life is a vital part of that consciousness’ awareness. This leads me to feel as if the difference between myself and other beings is not as substantial as it once seemed. It also gives me a profound sense of the ecstatic quality of life, something I have had difficulty accessing in the past. I find it easier to forgive myself and others, and easier to let go of fear and shame, emotions that have been very difficult to release in the past.

Strangely, I have been drawing mandalas for years, mostly because I thought they looked cool. Now I think perhaps my higher conciousness was struggling to express itself.

I decided to write about this because I really like to blog about my thoughts and feelings, what I’ve been reading, and my personal reflections. This is a big shift, and has brought on quite a bit of obsessive book reading, so I’m sure there will be more about it in the future. I am a little worried about the reaction of some of the people I know read this blog, but I think it’s worth it to stay authentic in a forum where that’s kind of the point, you know?

Rocks and Viruses

I’ve been thinking a lot about where the line is between a religion and a cult, or a philosophy and an ideology. I think it is obvious that the main differentiator is the individual – do you need your beliefs to be simple and dogmatic, or can you engage in critical discourse? Does your relationship to the world change, or is it fixed?

But what about the nature of the belief system itself? How does it deal with challenges? Both political parties in the US have changed tremendously over the past 100 years. Sometimes one or the other seemed more dogmatic and purist, but sooner or later that purism was fractured by reality and the changing demands of society. So the two party system has continued, in spite of massive changes in the values and demographics of American society. At the same time, more extreme and ideological political systems, such as Communism, have largely failed. Pure, unadulterated capitalism has also failed. I guess I should say how I define failure – I believe a system has failed when basic ethical norms are regularly violated and are not adequately punished or prohibited by the system.

Democracy (theoretically) allows for self-correction, adaptation, change, and most importantly, ongoing challenges by members of the system. Any system that prohibits these things and threatens to harm or dissociate itself with those who challenge it is what I would consider a simplistic, dogmatic system. That’s when it enters the realm of cult or ideology for me. I think that the fact that the Bush administration is so far out of favor now is a testament to our system’s resistance to reverting to an ideology. The tension between the parties MUST continue to exist in order for our country to continue to mature.

I think an interesting analogy (and I ripped this off from Neal Stephenson) is the idea of viruses. An organism that is going to survive for the long term is one that can sustain multiple attacks from external sources – environmental and viral. It adapts, builds antibodies, evolves. If you apply this to a social system, cults don’t have much in the way of antibodies. They isolate themselves from critics, define themselves as “special” or “chosen” in some way, and those individuals involved must either turn all their energies towards accepting and supporting the beliefs of the group, or risk expulsion. I think one of the main features most conspicuously lacking in cult-like organizations is humility. From the Nazis to the Branch Davidians to Scientologists, you’re not likely to see members of these groups involved in any kind of public or academic discourse on the nature of their beliefs, and I suspect this is because these systems have no immune system. Belief in a superior race or creed does not lend itself well to humble self-examination, which doesn’t leave much room for testing and debate.

Compare this to Christianity or Buddhism, and you see organizations that have evolved, broken apart, re-formed, adapted, changed, and are very much a part of the intellectual and spiritual development of the human race. I am not claiming that there are no Christian or Buddhist factions or individuals that are dogmatic and ideological, but the systems themselves have proven over 2000+ years that they can withstand change and growth.

So my litmus test for an organization of any kind is, can you throw rocks at it? Can you test and question the beliefs, and do the members of the group regularly examine their own ethics and behavior based on those beliefs? If rock-throwing is taboo, then it’s probably not a system I really want any part of. But if rock-throwing is encouraged, if the system does not fear viruses but welcomes adaptation and change, then it just might be worth checking out.

Ruminations on systems

One of the terms that’s been thrown around quite a bit in the MSOLE program is “systems theory.” It took a while to get my brain around this concept, but now that I have, I can see why my professors bring it up all the time.

Systems theory basically states that most things exist as part of a system, and are often a system themselves. So a human body is a system, made up of organs and other stuff. Organs are systems made up of cells, which are systems made of molecules, and so on. A thing is a system if it’s components are varied and work together in some way to create the thing. This is a crappy explanation, but think of it this way; a plant is a system – lots of different types of things make it up – cellulose, chloroplasts, water. If you hack off the roots, it may die, and no longer be a living plant. A rock is not a system. It may have several components at the molecular level, but they’re not interrelated. If you hack a piece off of it, it’s still a rock.

Systems that are self-correcting – those that need to maintain some kind of equilibrium to survive are called negative-loop systems. Systems that grow or shrink are called positive-loop systems. So our bodies are negative-loop systems; when we get to hot, we sweat to cool down, and when we get too cold we shiver to warm up. The survival of the system depends on equilibrium. But a cancer is a positive-loop system; if allowed to grow unhindered, it can disrupt the body’s negative-loop system.

Take this to a sociological level, and you have systems like families, cultures, countries, and so forth. Systems theory, as it applies to business and leadership, is really useful for taking a wider view of things like corporate change efforts, government regulation, and culture.

My current class is on business ethics. There’s lots of interesting debate on the dichotomy of capitalism, the publicly-held business model, and ethics. If publicly held corporations exist in order to provide value to shareholders, and everything else serves that goal, there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to what is acceptable and what is not. I’m doing some research right now on the difference between personal and professional ethics, and it seems like personal ethics are often more Kantian (absolute) in nature, where traditionally business ethics are more utilitarian. So the big question becomes, who gets the utility? If it’s the stockholders only, then other people (employees, community members, etc) pretty much get the shaft. This seems like a very linear way of looking at ethics and responsibility. Put your stakeholders in order of importance, and make decisions accordingly.

Proponents of newer models of global business ethics obviously think otherwise. There are lots of models out there for how to convince a corporation to give equal weight to other people who are affected by these decisions, like consumers (who may not want to pay for shoddy products), community members (who might not be happy about excess toxic waste), or employees (who may not feel so good about layoffs or restructuring). But most of the stuff I’ve read for this particular class so far goes at it from a linear standpoint, and I don’t think it’s a linear problem. I think it’s a systems problem. Screw with your customers to drive up profits at the end of the quarter, and you may be facing lawsuits the next quarter. This is because you’re messing with the system, which consists of everyone affected by your business. Cut employees to reduce costs, and you end up with low morale, high attrition, and reduced efficiency. It might not bite you this quarter, but it will within a year or so. Again, look at the system as a whole. These decisions may not negatively impact profit to shareholders first, but it will effect them within one or two business cycles.

Ultimately, I think systems thinking forces us to take a longer term look at the consequences of our actions. If Krispy Kreme had thought about the potential longer-term problems that might ensue from cooking their books by over shipping to vendors right before the end of the quarter (and then picking up the excess donuts after), it seems like they might have changed their practices a bit. A 75% drop in stock price since 2003 might not seem like an acceptable loss, in hindsight.

I think infusing more systems theory into the field of corporate ethics could be really useful. It’s still pretty utilitarian – the greatest good to the greatest number – but because you have to see the issue from a more birds-eye standpoint to understand the systemic effect of decisions, those decisions are less likely to be harmful in the long run.

Thougths on personal ethical responsibility

“As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his side.” – Gandhi

This encapsulates for me the issues I’ve struggled with in Buddhism. Gandhi, a Hindu, points out that the teachings of one religious leader or another never, ever, trump morality. If you behave in a way that is immoral (or unethical) you are acting against the will of your spiritual practice – REGARDLESS of what your pastor, priest, rabbi, or guru says.

I had a personal falling out with Shambala after I read some of the details of the founder’s behavior. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche did some seriously unethical things in his life. He was promiscuous with his followers, he was known for being verbally abusive, was a raging drunk, and he even encouraged and condoned the promiscuity of his HIV-positive successor, resulting in several people becoming infected. Rinpoche did some amazing things in his life, too, and a lot of his teachings are really wonderful. Now, if you follow Buddhist teaching, everyone is allowed to be a fuck-up. Fucking up is part of what it means to be human. But in my estimation, he took this a step further, and found a way to conveniently sanctify his screw ups. He claimed that a guru could behave in an irrational, abusive, and destructive manner towards his student, if he felt that the student needed that experience to progress in his or her personal growth. He called this “crazy wisdom.” Uh-huh.

Let’s review Gandhi’s quote again, shall we?

“As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his side.”

So do non-theistic Buddhists have a loophole because they have no God to answer to? As a non-theist, I’m going to answer with a resounding “no.” If anything, we non-theists should understand with perfect clarity how important it is to strive to be ethical and compassionate in our lives, since we don’t have a strong belief in a post-mortality cosmic spanking or reward. What you do on earth matters, because as far as we know, it’s all we have. If you’re unkind, cruel, or abusive towards another person, no matter how “enlightened” you are, I don’t believe that it’s justifiable. I’m not saying that you can be a teacher and never hurt someone’s feelings. We’re not talking about being truthful, we’re talking about being deliberately hurtful.

Since the Buddah said that the first noble truth of life is suffering, I believe that life presents us enough opportunities to suffer and then grow, without some crazy-ass guru screwing with us. Call me crazy. Just don’t call me crazy-wise.

There are countless examples throughout human history of a movement, religion, or organization deciding at some point that it supersedes the boundaries of morality. We all know, in retrospect anyway, that the Spanish Inquisition, the concentration camps, and 80’s hairstyles were all fundamentally wrong (okay maybe not the last one, but you know what I mean).

I had a point here. What was it? Oh, right. No matter what you believe, you don’t get a golden ticket that says you can turn your ethical decision making process over to someone else. And even if you think you do, you don’t. Whether you have to answer to a God at the end of your life, or just your own conscience, your actions are your own.