A Final Frontier

We are, each of us, a little universe. — Neil deGrasse Tyson

Photo by Roberto Nickson from Pexels

I have always gazed at the stars, longing with the beating of my heart for some greater connection to our cosmos. My childhood was filled with science fiction, astronomy, and glow in the dark stickers of constellations on my bedroom ceiling that I spent hours arranging. Even as an adult, I yearn to see our planet from above.

Space is potential and possibility, a garden of infinity. It is a great treasure of wonder and knowledge. The Universe is mostly space, and yet at our scale, it appears to be so crammed with life, and stuff, and objects that we can often feel claustrophobic, especially in our cities. Everywhere you go, there you are, bumping into things and people. Then, you scale up, and even the distances from here to the next nearest star system, are vast and unimaginable. And what’s in that space between the Stars?

Nothing?

No, not nothing. Potential.

In the last several years, I’ve been asking myself. Why do I desire the stars so desperately? Is it my curiosity of the unknown? Am I hungry to see with my own eyes, the grandeur shown to us by instruments like the Hubble telescope? Maybe it’s just too many hours consuming Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate, the Expanse and countless other favorite sci-if films, shows, and books.

Is it that final frontier I crave? Is it an escape from the present and difficult state of humanity? Am I running away? Am I a coward?

What is it?

And then, I remember this quote from one of my favorite books, The Tao Te Ching,

“Do you want to improve the world?

I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.

It can’t be improved.

If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.

If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.”

I always pushed back against that quote, especially during my time as an activist, but what I have come to understand is that quote is about space. It is about potential and possibility, about the desperate need to turn inward and consider the space between thoughts and emotions. We run around trying to fix things in our lives for the wrong reasons. Our rush to change things, is a kind of running away, a distraction from what we really need.

Many of us run our lives ragged. This culture, this American drive for more, tells us that if we work hard, that if we grind and grind and grind, somehow we will come out on top. But it’s not true. Most people will stay in the same position they are born in and in fact, according to the research of American Economist Raj Chetty, social mobility is far more limited in this country than we think.

It is so easy to get lost in the hustle, the desire to improve our space in this place. We are gig workers chasing a way to eek out a living on top of our full time jobs. Though we may do everything right, we still fail. It feels, overwhelming and sometimes pointless. We drown in our desire, filled to the brim with a hunger that can never be satisfied.

Why can’t we just breathe and be?

Why do we chase the American dream? Why do we idolize those who have so much? Why do so many of us play the lottery and fantasize about what we would do with all that money? How do millions of people get sucked into Multi-Level Marketing schemes? Why do books like The Secret or Think and Grow Rich sell so well to those dispossessed in this capitalist system?

The answer is, that what we really crave is freedom and potential.

We feel that if we had the economic resources, the space, and time, we could become our best selves. But we don’t have to go anywhere to be our best selves. If we want to change the world, the best place to begin is within. We only become our best selves by making space in our minds and hearts, by contemplation and learning from our mistakes.

What comes from working on ourselves, from engaging in that final frontier within? If we look at history, at the great periods of science and learning, we see that diversity, contemplation, exploring our humanity, and questioning everything, lead to the illumination of the human experience. We made progress when we were allowed to play with knowledge and people who were different than us.

When I read about the International Space Station, and the cooperation between many countries that it requires, all in the name of something bigger, I feel hope for our species. Here, in space, is another place for great human questions and the power of diverse thinking. Space within, and space out there, are both necessary for humanity to grow beyond the shackles of materialism and empty promises in ad campaigns.

What I really want from this world most is the opportunity to explore beyond the bounds of greed and the lust for more. Space to me, represents everything wonderful about what it means to be human. Exploration, discovery, research and the pursuit of knowledge are, in my mind, the greatest of goals.

On our planet, and in particular in the United States, there is so little space for poetry, sculpture, theater, and other wondrous explorations of our inner lives. If it cannot easily be commodified and turn a tidy profit, it’s considered to have little importance. We see the demoralization of artists, writers, poets, and scientists. People who dedicate their lives to trying to understand the big questions, rather than the pursuit of a stock portfolio, are dismissed as idealists at best, and unproductive leaches on society at worst. We have become the dispossessed of our humanity. What happened to the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake?

Yet, what did you consume during quarantine? What treasures did you find in isolation? All were the spark of space and being, the talent of so many creators and the fruit of the research of scientists.

We, as a civilization have lost ourselves in the pursuit of the temporary high, the cult of happiness, instant gratification, gifted to us by the propaganda on endless commercial breaks and targeted algorithmic ads. Where do we have space to be human? I believe it’s out in the Stars but also within. After all, we are made of star stuff. We are a mirror to the wider universe, a fractal of knowing.

We need room for our imaginations and wonder in order to grow again. We need to value those who help us create the space for curiosity and creativity. There is so much space in the nature of our own existence, so much to the nature of our own magnificent mind. Space is everywhere.

I don’t know if sending more people into space will solve these issues, but I do know that exploration drives human ingenuity. We must however be careful of the mistakes of the past, and remember the horrors and wrongs we committed when exploring our own world, and the endless suffering that we caused to indigenous people. If we let greed be our guide again, we will continue the cycle among the stars.

I believe we can do better. We are worlds, within worlds, within worlds. Not only is our planet full of life, death, growth, and change, so too are our bodies, our minds, our hearts and even our perception. We ourselves are an epic tale of triumph and failure. I believe that we are at a turning point in our species. We can choose to continue down the path of greed and selfishness, or we can turn in, recognize the meaningless that we have created though our missteps, shift our goals, and then explore the final frontier within and without.

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.

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.