Anthropology for Writers: My Interview On The Creative Penn Podcast

build better worlds anthropology for writers

Recently I sat down with the very wonderful Joanna Penn on her podcast, The Creative Penn. Her podcast has more than 500 episodes on just about everything you can think of when it comes to writing and she’s also a very well published author. Definitely check out her podcast and her books.

Check out my interview here! Build Better Worlds: Anthropology for Writers

Red, Yellow, Green: A Tool for Mindfulness and Developing Self-Knowledge

Know Thyself. As many of us are aware, we are all… | by CMAHC Australia |  Medium

Know thyself. That’s what we are supposed to do, isn’t it? The image here, a screenshot from the 1999 film The Matrix, is, in part an exploration of knowing oneself. It’s a point when the character Neo, must confront his uncertainly, face his fears and discomfort and walk forward into difficult and seemingly impossible circumstances.

There is great power and wisdom in learning who you are, in how you move through the world. Knowing how you will react to something, can be a useful tool for a better life and for working in less than ideal circumstances. There are endless books and meditation masters who teach how to develop this kind of self-knowledge and wisdom. But it’s not easy, is it?

I’ve now been a practicing Buddhist for 6 years. But before that, I dabbled in pretty much every religion and religious teachings I could get my hands on. For me, Buddhism has turned out to be the best path for developing self-knowledge, but it’s certainly not for everyone. Different people require different tools and different methods to develop their self-awareness and no one tool is necessarily better than the other, they are just different. So, when I come across a new tool, or a series of encounters that creates some sort of alchemy in my brain and allows me to share what I think could be a useful one, I try to share it with people.

Recently my partner introduced me to the concept of Red, Yellow, and Green consent. That when you are doing things together, you can use that as a method to regulate experiences to gauge how you are feeling about things, and how to proceed. Then today, listening to Pema Chodron’s wonderful audio lectures Don’t Bite the Hook, it occurred to me that this method could be used for developing all sorts of mindfulness and personal awareness when working with your mind and emotions, especially in the realm of anger and frustration.

Red, Yellow, Green, the colors of a traffic light can tell us a lot about how we are feeling internally. So let’s break them down:

Red: I am absolutely not okay with this. It needs to stop immediately, it’s too much or too fast… or too something… and makes me deeply uncomfortable, afraid, or angry. I need to step back now and get out of this situation.

Yellow: This is pushing my boundaries and I am feeling some discomfort, but if we proceed cautiously I might be okay. However, I might need to stop and step back too. I had better check in with myself frequently as I proceed.

Green: I’m totally fine and this experience is going well. We can proceed with what we are doing or where we are going without worrying. I am feeling at peace with my outer circumstances.

This can be applied to anything. You can apply this to going out to a bar and meeting new people. You can apply it to deal with that difficult family member. How about that solo backpacking trip in another country where you don’t speak the language? I think it could also work extremely well in counseling or therapy, especially when trying to tackle painful experiences and trauma.

Knowing where you are at can be hard sometimes and sometimes you might not be sure. If you aren’t sure you are at it, you are likely in the yellow territory. It means you need to pay attention to your thoughts and your emotions as the situation develops. Honestly, a lot of life we spend in a kind of trepidatious code yellow don’t we? Some of us more than others. So much of our life is framed with expectations and assumptions and one thing you can do with the practice of looking at code yellow moments really digs into why you might be having those assumptions and expectations.

I often say, especially when discussing forthcoming books or films, expectations are the death of joy. If you are so filled up with expectations, you may miss something amazing because it didn’t go exactly how you thought it would. This is a lot of what Zen Master Suzuki Roshi was writing about all those years ago in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. If we go into things like an open and positive beginner, much of life will be easier. But life can wound us, and if we aren’t careful, we fall into the expectation of it always wounding us, which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Why is this method useful? Well, when you are venturing into uncharted waters, no matter what that form might take, a few breaths and checking in with yourself can be a really important way to stop things from escalating to the point of allowing them to get out of control. Sometimes when we are in the middle of something we can find ourselves swept into an experience that we don’t understand, or that will later be a source of trauma, depression, shame, guilt, or anger. So, if we can check in with ourselves as things are happening, we can develop self-knowledge about how different experiences impact our mental and emotional health.

But what if I don’t have a choice?

If you go into a situation that you don’t have a choice but to be in a yellow or red situation, say dealing with a really difficult family member, you can still use this method. How? Well you know going in, it’s already a code yellow situation. You know that you are wary, and in the past, you have had lots of negative encounters with spending time with this family member. So, knowing that in advance, you can build in breaks or moments of comfort.

Perhaps you can only handle this person for an hour before you need a break. So, set an alarm, or have a friend call or text you to remind you when it’s been an hour and you need a break. You could also just set hour-long meetings with them until you’re comfortable with longer. In any case, after that hour, you can have a strategy for escaping what’s happening. Perhaps you go step outside for five minutes and center yourself. Maybe you go and take a little bit longer in the bathroom and take some deep breaths, notice where you are keeping tension, (or if your Buddhist say some mantras or practice a compassion exercise), and try to just be with it. Many religions and spiritual traditions have different methods for handling things like this. Make a plan. You’d be surprised how much it helps.

The point is if you know you are going into a situation that is yellow you can prepare. If you find yourself in the Red, it can be more difficult. You may have to physically leave. If you have no choice but to go into a Code Red situation, maybe consider bringing an ally that will help keep you grounded, or at least set  clear boundaries for how things will proceed. Perhaps on the way there you listen to something calming and walk into the situation centered. We can’t always avoid these kinds of situations, but we can prepare ourselves and shift the way we think about them. As Pema Chodron says, (paraphrased) you can’t really avoid pain, but what you do with it, is what matters. Pain can be a powerful ally for personal growth and transformation if we let it be.

And of course, this tool may not work for you. It may work for very few people in general. But the point is, to work on learning about yourself. Practicing remembering where you are at, what you are doing, and what habits are further creating conflict in your life. Sometimes just noticing those things that upset you can be a doorway to something so much better.

The Great Risk of Truly Being

The Great Risk of Truly Being

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about my Buddhist spiritual path and also I’ve been rereading Children of Dune by Frank Herbert. This is because the Dune movie comes out in October 2021 and I wanted to be reminded of why I love that universe. This quote in particular stuck with me today in thinking about my own spiritual path and the way I live my life.

“You, Priest in your mufti, you are a chaplain to the self-satisfied. I come not to challenge Muad’Dib but to challenge you! Is your religion real when it costs you nothing and carries no risk? Is your religion real when you fatten upon it? Is your religion real when you commit atrocities in its name? Whence comes your downward degeneration from the original revelation? Answer me, Priest!” – Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert: 9780593201749 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Now understand, if you haven’t read the Dune series, it is fundamentally about the nature and dangers of power and of messiahs/heroes. Paul Atreides, the main character in the first book, knows because of his ability to see the future, that a holy war will be waged in his name and there is little he can do about it. The book, and the series as a whole, asks us to consider what we believe, who we have mythologized, and what that says about humanity, power, love, compassion and asks what it means to be human. There is a reason that the book is considered a masterpiece by both the literary community and many sci-fi lovers. Dune is also the best-selling Sci-fi Novel of all time. Even if it’s not for you (because every great work has people who don’t like or understand it and there is nothing wrong with that), it has lots of powerful things to say about the way humans do things.

Stop right now, and think about your life path. Is your path about self-satisfaction? It is about serving your interests? Is it about the arrogance of being right above all others? Or, is your way of knowing the world about self-reflection? Is there a space for growth and change, the transformation into the best version of yourself? Are you taking the risk to truly be or are you buried in a series of identity markers and worried about defining who you are to everyone you meet? Do you focus on comparison? We all fall into these traps, I know I do sometimes and have to catch myself.

So many religious and non-religious people seek a philosophy not out of transformation and growth, but for comfort and safety. They like things that make their life feel cozy and warm. And while the benefits of community (notice the word unity at the end of the word) are important and worthwhile, I want you to sincerely ask yourself, what have you done to grow lately? Have you acknowledged the ways in which you are wrong or at least entertained the idea that you might be wrong? It can be powerful to look at your ideas and consider that you might be wrong about everything (even if you end up being correct) once in a while. Are you doing the work to be a better version of yourself or are you feeding the beast of arrogance and certainty?

You might be thinking, well isn’t a better version of myself a self-serving principle? It is not. Why? Because a better version of yourself will have better daily interactions. It will be less angry, less selfish/greedy. A better version of yourself will listen with patience to others rather than jumping to conclusions and is much more likely to help those in need. A better version will not only suffer less, but cause others to suffer less. A better version of yourself means that your part of the world, and potentially the whole world, is a little better. It might not add up to much, but imagine if everyone was doing this kind of work on at least a semi-regular basis.

So if your religion or ideology or philosophy (secular or non) is about what you can gain personally from others no matter the cost, then you might need to stop and reflect. What do you serve? Some of you might simply say God or Country, but if your service is exclusive only to those who believe what you do, or conditional on whether or not they will act and behave in the way you want them to, then you only serve an idol of the self and arrogance.

Another quote to consider from verse 8 of the Tao Te Ching:

“The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.”

If you are Christian, you can see a similar attitude in The Sermon on the Mount and a number of other places in the bible. If you’re Muslim, there are words like this in the Koran, or the Hindu Vedas, in many Buddhist Sutras, and so on. The teachings of many religious philosophies overlap in the idea of personal growth is vital, and yet, somehow the worship of the myth structure becomes far more important than the actual practice of working toward being a better person. We often view these ideas as a panacea for the poisons of living in a difficult world and forget that nothing comes without work.

Instead, we see so many religions (and secular ideologies) restrict people’s actions out of a false sense of morality or limited black and white thinking. But the world is full of shades of grey. Even really good people do terrible things. Really bad people sometimes show amazing acts of kindness and compassion. It is so easy to pin a group of people or a culture to a certain standard or ideology, rather than accepting the fact, that no matter where you go, people are just people and all are equally complex.

So ask yourself sincerely, what purpose does your religion or ideology serve? Is it about the betterment of yourself and humanity? If not, it’s just another object to be possessed, a kind of materialism, a limit to the way you think and approach the world. If your heart is closed because of what you subscribe to, then you very likely have missed the entire point.

The work is not comfortable. The work is not easy. The work isn’t about serving the self. The work is risky and sometimes dangerous to your identity. If you have summed up your identity in a few key terms (be it a religious identity, a political affiliation, a gender, a mental state, really anything), then you have forgotten that we are an ever-changing, ever-moving entity. You are not the same person you were when you started reading this short essay, even if you reject all of my ideas.

Personal growth, in my view, is the most important thing we can do. After all, using this life, this precious moment (no matter if you believe in one life or countless lives) seems to me, to be the reason why humans are on this planet. Let your spirituality or philosophy open you up to the wonders of the universe. After all, there is endless beauty and joy to be discovered both out there, and within. You need only take off the veils or masks that we all wear and look honestly.

Spoken Word: I’m Sorry to Interrupt (And I’m on TikTok Now)

Hey all, I recently started a TikTok Page where I talk about anthropology, history, worldbuilding, poetry and a few other elements of my life and experiences. But today I posted a brand new piece of Spoken Word there called, I’m Sorry to Interrupt.

Here’s the Video:

Here’s the text for those who just wish to read it.

I’m Sorry to Interrupt


I took a breath

I’m sorry to interrupt

Cause it’s time for me to deconstruct

What you just said

I have to make space

I have to write new words in this place

See

I took a breath

My heart was throbbing

And the pain was bobbing

Up and down my throat

It’s like, a perfect melody I wrote

And you just can’t play the right notes

And you struggle so hard to stay afloat

And you can hear them gloat about rigging the vote

But you just can’t devote the time and energy to spread an antidote

But you do it anyway  

So I took a breath

And I breathed some more

And you draw on every ounce of compassion out of your very core

Because before you open the sore

Before you start that war

Before you look for

A safe harbor to explore

Some common ground to open a door

You take a breath

And create some space

So that you face the anger and chase to replace

The commonplace assumptions from that deep dark place

Where we ignore that we treat people different because of race

And that history that we try to erase?

You take a breath

And then the question

You don’t know if that student will have any reception

To these new truths that will push up against their perception

There’s such a disconnection here,

So much fear of the things that they hear might be true  

But what I  am supposed to do?

Part of me wants to turn the screw

Part of me wants to make them rue the day they pushed through and cut off their classmates words intertwined in a shrew view that’s all askew that prevents them from ever having a breakthrough

Because they’re scared

So I take a breath

And I breathe some more

Because I know what I’m here for

And I have to push just a little more

Because I’m not sorry to interrupt

Live on YouTube! Build Better Worlds Chapter Reading and Q&A with Kyra Wellstrom and Michael Kilman

Good morning everyone,
Today, Kyra Wellstrom and I go live to read a sample chapter from our worldbuilding book and answer worldbuilding questions on YouTube at 11am MST. You can find the stream at https://youtu.be/QS3Yse-rv3g

The discussion will be recorded so if you miss it don’t fret! You will be able to find it at the same link. But if you can come live, we’d love to field your questions about worldbuilding and anthropology.

See you soon!

Anthropology, Mindfulness, and Navigating Turbulent Times (HPSfAA Spring Conference 2021)

Last weekend the High Plains Society for Applied Anthropology had it’s annual spring conference. We had lots of wonderful presentations. All of the talks will be available shortly on YouTube (all are currently uploading) at this link.

My presentation is more of an open conversation about the relationship between studying and working in the field of Anthropology intermixed with mindfulness. You can find my presentation, titled Anthropology, Mindfulness, and Navigating Turbulent Times, here.