The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Flow Is The Door

Byron Katie has four questions she uses to help people investigate their internal states. Taken deeply enough, they can have a profound effect.
1)Is it true?

2) Can you absolutely know that it's true?

3) How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?

4) Who would you be without the thought?

Very good stuff.


Flow is the highest state of "ordinary" mind (in the sense that most of us experience it, on a regular basis) and arguably the most basic of the higher mind states. It is a "threshold" to these states, and possibly the last stop for the rational, linguistic mind before something...else begins to take over.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written at length on the subject of flow, and while his work is valuable, it is more important by far to actually experience it. And the first step it to recognize it. This can be odd, because for many people, recognizing flow pops you out of it. As you go deeper, it stabilizes, and you can actually observe yourself in flow without disrupting it. One of the reasons I encourage people to seek goals in all three arenas is that I think, based on what people told me after I'd swallowed their b.s. for years, that 99.9% of people want love, health, and success--according to their own values. But they grow despairing, and it hurts too much to think about it, and so begin to lie. "I never really wanted it anyway..." is easier than admitting you want something you no longer believe you can have. For the .1% who genuinely don't want these things...I think you know what I mean, and my intent, and these comments don't offend or disturb you in the slightest. If you feel angry, frustrated, or disturbed, on the other hand...yeah, I'm talking about you.

Anyway, that's one reason. The other is that if you learn to experience flow in these three arenas, if you overlap the experiences in a little Vin diagram, you'll learn something interesting about the commonalities. This became clear to me when I'd found "flow" in the following physical arenas: tai chi, yoga, running (the sense of standing still while the world is moving around you is simply phenomenal. The sense in Tai Chi that you are standing still while the universe folds and unfolds you like Origami is stupendous. And no, I don't experience that any more--I simply haven't done enough Tai Chi over the last decade). A little in karate and silat. Kali and escrima...yep. Got a great story about that involving psilocybin, but that was a long, long time ago. Honest. Scott Sonnon's TacFit is simply gorgeous for teaching flow, if you will actually follow his instructions and NEVER take the relative pain above a "3" while simultaneously seeking a level of technique at a "7" or above. Add the "Be Breathed" technique, and you have a genius-level way to experience one of the most powerful forms of meditation: physical flow.The dissolution of the subject-object relationship. "She's moved into the danger zone, where the dancer becomes the dance."

The last few seconds before you reach an orgasm, where the ego boundaries between you and your partner begin to fade, and there are no longer two people: "it" is happening. Speaking to women who are non-orgasmic, I've repeatedly heard the fear of "losing myself" expressed.

Anyway, I got it. Flow is also experienced by many people in the mental realm. Writing, drawing, ...many others. The place where the page just "opens up" and you fall into the story. Time dissolves. Outside distractions fade. In a sufficiently deep state, the room could be burning around you, and you wouldn't notice. The "absent minded professor" is dealing with such focused states. In fact, my own suspicion is that the core human talent is the capacity to focus on a single thing...and then another single thing...and then another, until the job is done, or the lesson learned.

Emotionally, this is trickier. Imagine a crystal tube filled with rocks. You pour in gravel to fill the spaces. Then you pour in sand to fill THOSE spaces. And now, when it seems pour in water. The water is flow. Regardless of the obstacles in life, there is still something clear, and cool, and pure. Not the things you can see, or name. The space around the obstacles.

Anyone reading this blog knows that I've been dealing with major challenges on this level. My life, my environment, my career...many of the external things that I've used to define myself have changed massively, due to my relationship commitments. And it has been unbelievably painful and challenging, and has involved the death of much of my ego definition. And in the midst of that, I have to find a way to be loving, and connected, and supportive, and move on. The last weeks have, in other words, been a microcosm of life itself.

To do what must be done: love my family, do my work, care for my mind and body, find joy in a place I never ever wanted to be, begin to embrace a new existence by seeing the ways life is the the depths, life is the same. Only the rippling surface has changed. I'm not there all the time, by any means. But more often I have that quality of focused release, of effortless exertion, that I recognize from martial arts, writing, and meditation.

And where all three of these things: body, career, and relationship overlap, there is a quality of being present, aware, alert but unattached...that doesn't quite have language to express. It is real, but unlabeled. When in that state, zen koans make perfect sense. I'd think this might be nuttiness, except that by the subjective measure of observers my martial arts are most efficient in that state. The writing I produce in that state is better. And the quality of my companionship is superior. It also feels better. The problems are there. The fear, the depression, the anger, the doubt are often there, like rocks in the tube.

But if I don't take myself seriously, my ego shrinks until I can flow in the water between the grains of sand, the gravel, the rocks. I start to laugh. It simply isn't serious: it is just life.

My mother died twenty-seven years ago. I have her ashes on the shelf in my office. Every day I ask her: "How'm I doing, Mom?" And in the way only a loved one who has passed on can do, she reminds me that none of this is important enough to attach to, to take seriously. And that therefore I have no reason not to do my best, and adhere to my deepest values at all costs, to move beyond pain, and fear, and doubt, and jealousy. To contribute every day, and tell the people I love that I love them.

Because none of it matters. And everything matters.
And that makes perfect sense when you flow.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

“if you were a character in a story, and at the end of the story you got everything you wanted, what would the character do now?”

Monday, April 25, 2011

If you feel tired, achy, and depressed...and get less than 7 hours of sleep, until you plug this obvious energy "leak," look no further.

Ashtanga Yoga

I recently commented that Ashtanga yoga might be the single most powerful series of yoga poses in the world. I thought I'd leave a bread crumb trail of my reasoning.

1) This comment relates to the "1st Series" of Ashtanga, designed to heal, strengthen, and prepare the body and mind for the rigors of series 2-6. Series 4-6 is for mutants only.

2) K. Pathabi Jois, the core teacher of Ashtanga, was one of the three primary students of Krishnamacharya. the others were B.K.S. Iyengar (arguably the most influential hatha teacher in the world) and V. Descachar, creator of Viniyoga. A serious percentage of all yoga studied in the Western world derives from these three. Therefore, it is reasonable to suspect that Krishnamacharya can be considered a candidate for most important yoga teacher of modern times.

3) Krishnamacharya himself lived past his 100th birthday. I pay attention to stuff like that. It is reasonable to assume he was doing something right.

4) Ashtanga is an interesting beast. It uses the biomechanics of Iyengar, but is designed as several distinct series of poses, unchanging, each of which takes about 1-2 hours to perform. They are "aerobic" in the way hill walking is aerobic, using muscle locks and gymnastic jump-throughs to create inner heat. A good Ashtanga session is like a sauna. Amazing. Your body becomes rubbery.

5) Supposedly, Ashtanga originated in a document called the Yoga Korunta, found in an ancient library by Krishnamacharya and Jois. No one else has ever seen this document. Well, we've seen examples of THIS before, haven't we? It is reasonable to assume that it is possible the Y.K. never really existed, that what we have here is actually Krishnamacharya's statement on a lifetime of teaching. Iyengar style changes poses from class to class. Viniyoga is specifically the science of breaking poses down and individualizing them according to student needs. But Ashtanga is rigid, and one must find freedom within that rigidity. If that is the intent, then the poses chosen, and the methods designed to teach them, could reasonably be expected to be extraordinary.

6) An advanced Ashtanga instructor and athlete once told me she reckoned a well-done Ashtanga sequence was equal to "an hour of stretching, an hour of weights, and running a 10k." I don't know if I'd say that much...but I've noticed that if I do Ashtanga, my body works the way it did in my 20's. I'd say it creates a "false physiological profile" of a more efficient, energetic, lighter, stronger body.

Just morning thoughts on this terrific series of poses. The outer shell is very different from the inner world of breath control, muscle locks, visualizations and so forth. But look at Ashtanga on Youtube, and you'll see quickly that this ain't your Granny's yoga. Unless of course, she does an hour of stretching, an hour of weights, and runs a 10K every day. In which case the acryonym "GILF" may well apply.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Only when you don't need someone, when you know that your happiness does not depend upon them, are you truly free to love them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Think you aren't a winner? Nonsense. You outswam 100 million other sperm for the right to be you. Own it. And never stop swimming!

There is a price for what you want in life, and the price is always paid in advance.

All it takes to get everything you need is everything you've got.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What you are aware of, you are in control of. What you are not aware of is in control of you.
--Anthony Demello

Saturday, April 09, 2011

"Hanna" is an art-house "Kick Ass," an action film with heart, soul, and fight choreography by the great Jeff Imada. See it.

The nature of the rain does not change, but it grows thorns in the marshes, and flowers in the garden.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Raising the Wild Child

Some of you know that Jason has been a rambunctious trial--as of course, little boys should be. I'm sure my sainted mother is grinning from heaven. "Told you so!" At any rate, over the last year we had a wonderful therapist, Dr. Meyer, who oversaw our efforts to help him learn to obey, cut down the lying and tantrums, control his behavior, and in general mature. Dr. Meyer didn't object to the idea of spanking, but I noticed he smiled and scribbled when I decided for myself that I didn't want to take that path: didn't want Jason to associate my touch with pain. But discipline was necessary, and discomfort is a great teacher (one of the reasons drugs are such a bad idea for the immature, by the way: without pain, we simply don't learn whole swaths of critical life lessons.) At any rate, I began to collect a cluster of approaches, and test them (without testing, theories aren't much good) and Dr. Meyer was fascinated, and actually wanted to write an article with me for a journal of child psychology specializing in ADD kids. I hesitated because I wasn't getting results that were sufficiently positive. But as time went on, and I kept adjusting, I started getting those results. The move to Atlanta has of course added chaos to our lives, and we have to start some of this process over, but I'm still impressed by how much Jason matured during the time when I was applying these techniques.

The most important of them had to do with meditating morning and night with him, and teaching him hatha yoga. I spoke of this to one of my coaching clients, R., who is having issues with his own kids. R. asked me to provide him a break-down of my approach. The following note went out yesterday, and with tiny modifications I thought I'd share it.


Dear R.--

Terrific talking with you today. Actually glad you reminded me of the breathing thing, and wanted to jot down a few thoughts in that regard.

1) Breath is the "canary in the coal mine"--it is the first thing to shift as the body-mind degrades from calm to stress to strain. Control the breathing, and you control the rest of the chain.

2) Breath is the only process that is both voluntary and autonomic. It is the doorway to control of ordinarily unconscious functions, such as fight or flight response.

3) The best way to learn any skill is to practice it multiple times during the day for short sessions (rather than expending the same amount of time in a lump).

4) I was using breathing with Jason in several ways. First, every morning and every night we would sit together cross-legged and chant "om" in multiples of ten. If everything was fine at home and at school, it required only ten. But for every level of difficulty, I'd add another ten, until sometimes he was doing it forty times morning and night, counting up to ten over and over again. "One. Ommmmmm. Two. Ommmmm." etc. Breathing slow, and deep in his belly. Most of the time, I would do this with him. Sometimes, I would force him to do it alone while I watched. I kept track to see which was more efficient and effective

5) Hatha Yoga is just a breathing exercise, tying knots in the flow of breath, then unraveling them and tying a new one, seeking calm and flow under increasing levels of physical stress. By the way, this is a core explanation of the transformative aspects of many body-mind disciplines: martial arts, tai chi, so forth. I chose the "downward dog" pose because holding it causes real stress. It is a bear. But if you use focus and proper form, as well as control the breathing, the "pain" becomes mere intensity, and can be ridden like a wave. When Jason has been "bad" I'll put him in Downward Dog position. Usually after 30 seconds, he's a hurtin' unit. I can remind him to breathe, extend, and focus, which entrains proper habits of body-mind integration under stress (remember: if stress does not become strain, it will not hurt you. Behaviors linked to fear and anger can thereby be controlled). This allows me to use the aversive conditioning of "talking" to his nervous system (pain) without anchoring violent physical contact into our relationship, and teaching him a VERY valuable skill simultaneously.

6) By identifying an area where he craves excellence (Judo) I've been able to use that as a way to teach principles of thought and action (Musashi's Nine) and relate that to success in proper behavior in other school, controlling his temper at home, and so forth. "Do Not Think Dishonestly" and "The Way is In Training" work great for teaching discipline, homework, reliability, clarity, and a host of other positive values. He HATES being thrown, especially by girls. Heh heh. So by showing him how a discipline I want him to master will lead to results in alignment with his internal values. I get a serious twofer. Maybe a threefer.

7) Every day, in every way, I tell him and show him I love him, and that that love cannot be lost, damaged, and will never be withheld. I don't always like his behavior, but that is separate. He needs this like roses need rain. It allows me to speak to him honestly and directly about how I am helping him learn to be the man HE is committed to being. He wants to be a warrior. A hero. One others can rely upon. This is the only path I know that will educe such strength, and allow him grace in his journey.

Anyway, that's the basic stuff. Ask if you want more specificity!


Thursday, April 07, 2011

Saying spirituality cannot exist without religion is like saying hamburgers cannot exist without McDonald's.

Saying spirituality cannot exist without religion is like saying hamburgers cannot exist without McDonald's.

Would you want me to love you at the cost of my happiness?

Only when you're ready to lose your life do you really live. If you're protecting your life you're already dead. Only the dead fear death.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

If there is evil, it is deliberate cruelty. If there is true stupidity, it is lying to yourself about what we take with us into death.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

An awakened person does not march to the beat of society's drum. He dances to the tune of the music that springs up from within.

Finding My Footing

Those of you who have been following me on Facebook, my blog or through emails know that due to an emergency in Tananarive's family, we've had to relocate from California to Atlanta, Georgia. Let's just say that's the last thing I expected to happen to me, shifting away from my family, friends, business connections, and the life I've grown quite comfortable with.

In short, I didn't want to go. Just being married to someone who needed to be In Georgia wouldn't have been enough to force me to move. A bi-coastal relationship would have been preferable on several counts. But there was another consideration: our son Jason. By my values, Jason needs two parents. I am one of them. That pretty much ends the discussion. I have choice, but I made that choice BEFORE we adopted my son. It was a sacred commitment to be there for him, to give him what my father did not give me, to be certain that he could stand on my shoulders, rather than in the hole I've been shoveling frantically to fill most of my life.

Can't back down from an obligation like that. And that has been the first foundational position. "I" made this decision. It was and is in alignment with my deepest values. How do I know? A simple test:

1) Does my youngest self agree with this? In other words, does it match with my childhood dreams and aspirations? Can I find a way to wiggle it in to what I needed and wanted as a boy? Absolutely. I wanted a father, someone to love and nurture and support me. There was no male figure. No father, no step-father, no uncles nearby. No older brothers. Wasn't athletic enough to attract coaches. All my teachers were women. Nothing, and the lack was achingly deep. I remember when my mother (briefly) dated a guy, and I was about six or seven at the time. He was sitting on the couch, and I was on a seat behind the couch, curled up like a little kitten, my heart aching. Wouldn't he reach back and tousle my hair? Tell me I was strong and smart? Play catch with me?

I remember crying myself to sleep. Was I so ugly, so stupid, so...defective somehow that no one wanted to be my daddy?

I will burn in hell before I put a child of mine through that pain. To serve Jason, to love and nurture him, is a gift to the boy I was.

Well, that's settled. That boy wanted a father, and didn't have one, but I could and did grow up to be the father he wanted and needed. You have two chances to experience the bond of parent to child: one when you are a child, and again when you are a parent. I'll take what I can get.

Then there is the second aspect:

2) Does my oldest self agree with this? When I see myself on my death bed, tubes up my nose and the doctors making long faces, what does that ancient think of my life? I watched my mother and father die. Mom didn't die well: she was filled with fear and regret. My father died well. While he had made mistakes in life, he had come to terms with them. He and I had forgiven each other, loved each other. And his ravaged image sits on my left shoulder, reminding me that life is a river that flows in a single direction: you don't really get do-overs. Be cautious.

To be on ones deathbed with conscious awareness of the curtain's descent is to step beyond ego and illusion. All striving is past. The fear and pain can grow so severe that one is force to do what the wise do far earlier: to cease identifying with the "me" or the body. My father said to my wise-fool (and I mean that in the very best and most appreciative way) Uncle Carver: "Carver, I have cancer."

"No," Carver replied. "Your body has cancer."

And that reply set my father free. He got the joke, in a way that those who have hope and ambition and clever egos can't understand.

To "Die before you die" is a Sufic expression for which I have great respect. It is a clue to the nature of that state called "Enlightenment." What is important to people in that state? It is not work, that's for sure. Not fame, or money, or fun toys like that. When death comes to the aware, it seems to have a purifying effect, illusion, doubt, fear, and ego burned away, and what remains is those values actually closest to the heart.

What does that elder say? To love my family. To live my deepest values. To take every step, every breath, as a gift to the world and to the divine and therefore to one's truest self.

My father's cancer-ravaged image, always with me, reminds me to tell the people I love that I love them EVERY DAY. To dance every day. To learn every day. To contribute every day. To live in the constant awareness that the curtain is descending. Play my part with full awareness, total joy, and take a freakin' bow. Enjoy the light, while it lasts.

And that older Steve knows that one of my father's greatest regrets in life was not being there for me. Well, then...that kinda settles that, doesn't it? Yeah. To live one's life is great, but to smooth the way for the next generation is the only way you can honor your teachers and mentors. It is the flow of life itself. The final step of the Hero's Journey that allows you to move on to the next level. The Student Becomes the Teacher. Then, of course, the Teacher becomes the Student once again. Ah...yes. I can "get" that. Feel it. Have lived it. There is truth there.

Now, then, the following is important: I have nothing more important to say than this.

Where the youngest you, and the oldest you, agree on the path...that is the road to walk. The youngest is your passion and hope and ambition and desire. The oldest is your wisdom, clarity and egoless grasp of reality. Do a Vin diagram. Where they overlap, where they agree...that is your path.

Do all you can to align them. Harlan Ellison said: "Success is to bring into existence, in adult terms, your childhood dreams." I love that.

And I have heard wisdom from elders in the Sufic, Native American, East African and martial arts communities say that wisdom is to live as if advised by your own self at the moment of death.

And the path between them may be hard...but while walking that path for a while I held my daughter Nicki's soft warm hand. And there was nothing more worthwhile I have ever done.

Jason's hand is as soft, and warm. He is mine to shepherd for just a little while.

Whenever I wonder what I should do, how I should be, what values I should hold dearest, to what I should exert my considerable energies, I ask myself a question: "how long will I be dead?"

Armed with that, I make my choice. Jason. That means I also choose his mother, Tananarive. That means that although this is not the life "me" wanted, it is the life "I" chose.

The rest is just details.

I have my footing.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

If you look for the truth outside yourself,
It gets further and further away

Friday, April 01, 2011

When you think as a con, or a lib, or a man, or a woman, or "as" anything except perhaps a human have ceased to think.

It is not selfish to live your life by your values. It IS selfish to ask others to live THEIR lives by your values.