The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Building a Perfect Life

There is a child within us, just as there is an ancient who understands the meaning of life and death. The child holds your passion and creativity, but it also seeks approval. Choose those people whose approval gives you pain and pleasure VERY carefully. Those choices will determine the quality of your life.

Three things to pay attention to, with infinite depth once you understand the implications: your "child self" in the past, your "inner elder" in your future, and the YOU who exists now. Everything you want can be found in the interactions of these three. Everything you could ever want to learn about success and consciousness can be found here. A beautiful visualization.

Here's a brief exercise to demonstrate how this works. Say you have a job opportunity coming up, and want to be your best. Ask yourself a few questions.

1) Is there an element of fun connected with this job? Something you would have enjoyed as a child?
2) Is there an aspect of this work that makes the world a safer, better place for children?

1) Is this job providing goods and services that make the world a better place, according to your values?
2) Can you find a way to make a personal contribution, or find self-expression, through this work?

1) Will this job enable you to care for your obligations in a moral and ethical fashion?
2) Will this job or career enable you to afford time and energy to do something that you DO love?
3) Will this job or career help you "play for position" by giving you skills, contacts, or experience you can parlay into a more suitable position in the future?

See how this works? Any of these reasons will motivate you to shine at your interview. But when you can align your childhood enthusiasms, adult responsibilities and mature understanding of the critical importance of dancing without fear, and living for the larger context...Something special happens.

And when you can set it up so that body, mind, and relationships all support each other, and all relate to what your child, adult, and elder "aspects" need and understand, you have taken your brakes off. Can act spontaneously and still perform at your highest levels. That is a miracle each of us can actually experience in life, one I wish for each and every one of you.


Sunday, January 27, 2013

OMG. A clean, funny joke.

Lost in a bad part of town, a turtle was set upon by a gang of snails and mugged. The police took the report, and quizzed the poor creature, trying to get better descriptions.
"What happened?" they asked.
The turtle shook his head in confusion.
"I don't know, officer," he said. "It all happened so fast."

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

After spending time in a mental institution, former teacher Pat Solitano ("Bradly Cooper) moves back in with his parents (Robert Di Niro and Jackie Weaver) and tries to reconcile with his ex-wife. Things get more challenging when Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) , a mysterious girl with problems of her own.

The coming attractions told me nothing useful about this movie, almost as if the studio was worried about it finding an audience. I knew Chris Tucker had decided to do something other than collect "Rush Hour" residuals, and that Di Niro actually seemed to be acting, but other than that...not much.

When I finally sat down and watched it, I was reminded of Lawrence Olivier's "Love Among The Ruins" in the sense that it is a story about two damaged human beings doing the porcupine mating dance--backing together very very carefully. Cooper was destroyed by his wife's cheating, is a twitchy, dysfunctional mess who believes he can hold himself together and hopefully reunite with his wife if he can seek out life's "silver linings." A dose of reality comes his way in the person of Jennifer Lawrence, a young woman just as damaged...but with her wounds in different parts of her personality.

She promises to help him reconnect with his wife (there is a restraining order) if he helps her compete in a dance contest. In and around this slender plot thread is Di Niro's obsession with football betting, and Chris Tucker's refusal to allow the mental institution to define him. The acting is wonderful across the board, and ultimately, by being specific enough about a particular difficult and fragile relationship, Silver Linings Playbook becomes about all of us, in our wounds and hopes and self delusion. And...astonishing capacity to stand up and reach out, again and again, despite the endless blows we suffer. To have faith that dawn will come, even in the midst of the darkest night. I was asked if I could recommend a "chick flick" for a reader, and if that term denotes a film held together more by dialog and emotions than plot twists and explosions, SLP over-qualifies. And it is enjoyable top to bottom. And yes, Di Niro is better than I've seen him in years. A "B+".
Hero's Journey analysis:
1) Hero Confronted with challenge: Released from a mental institution, Pat Solitano attempts to re-integrate his life.
2) Rejection of challenge: but he cannot do this without resolving his relationship with the wife who betrayed him. But little does he know that
3) Accepts Challenge: Tiffany, a young woman as damaged as he, is determined to drag him kicking and screaming back into life, by fair means or foul.
4) Road of Trials: he tries to get his job back. To heal his relationship with his family. To contact his wife. To lose weight and balance himself with exercise.
5) Allies and Powers: his family, nutballs though they are. His friend Danny (Chris Tucker), Tiffany, even his image of his wife. He has intelligence, passion, hope, resilience, a sense of humor...and finally, not a bad set of dancing skills.
6) Confront Evil-Defeat. That would be telling.
7) Dark Night of the Soul. His failure will mean devastation for his family. He has to take a certain very uncomfortable set of actions, for all the marbles.
8) Leap of Faith. In his own capacities, but more than that, in Tiffany.
9) Confront Evil--victory. He definitely has his moment, in which his choices determine the future path of his life.
10) The Student Becomes the Teacher--he is able to finally reach back honestly to someone who has emptied herself out trying to help him, touch him. Love him.

I saw myself a dozen times in this film. And if that isn't a measure of quality, I don't know what is.

Submitted for your approval...

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Five Questions

Who, Why, How, When, Where?

Everyone who ever took a journalism class (or saw a movie about journalism) has heard these: the basic information necessary to write a story. Since the "Lifewriting" method asks us to write our own Future History in advance, it is valuable to ask: do you know these five questions about each goal in your life?

1) WHAT: Have at least one goal in each of your four major life areas: body, mind, relationships and finances. Specificity has power. The goal should be photographable, tangible. In other words, if you say "improve my relationship" that is mushy. Say "have a second honeymoon in Maui" and suddenly you have specificity. But in brainstorming, prepare to be flexible: "you can have anything you want if you let go of how it's supposed to look." No, you can't flap your wings and fly off the edge of a building...unless you have a hang-glider.

2) WHY: You need reasons. Whenever people fail to reach a goal, or are lost in a position of poor fitness or sloppy finances, invariably their reasons for achievement are weak. They may have one or two thin motivations, but nothing to keep them going through the Dark Night of the Soul. And there WILL be a dark night of the soul, absolutely. It is idiocy not to anticipate the @#$$ hitting the fan, when you've seen it countless times in your own personal history. If you have 2 or three reasons, you'll fail. If you have 20 or 30 reasons, so powerful that when you read them you feel your juices rising, NOW you have leverage.

3) WHERE: Where do you have to go to get the resources you will need to bridge the gap between where you are and where you need to be?

4) WHO: Who are the allies and role models you need to achieve your goal? The safest bet is that IF YOU HAVEN'T DONE IT, YOU CAN'T DO IT WITH YOUR CURRENT RESOURCES. You will need to grow, and change. Change believes and re-organize values to reflect your current life and vision of the future. You will need help. The "Mastermind" technique is the ONLY known way to compensate for lack of talent or even intelligence. It demands that you bond yourself to people with the skills you don't have. How? Here's a hint: smart people need friends too. Offer genuine loyalty, honesty, open-hearted support in exchange for advice and support. Offer value in exchange for value. And keep asking until you find someone to say "yes."

5) WHEN: A goal without a deadline is just a pipe dream. You need to know when this seismic shift in your existence will take place. A date. And by studying role models who have accomplished similar goals you will gain the perspective needed to Time-bind your intentions. "There are no unreasonable goals, only unreasonable time frames." People who want to lose five pounds a week are probably going to fail, or get sick. One pound a week is perfectly doable.

Who, what, where, why, when. Write the story of YOUR life. Be the Hero in the Adventure of your lifetime!

Submitted for your approval...

Thursday, January 24, 2013

1000 Words A Day

My 2013 plan is to catch up on my book backlog--I have about six of 'em stacked up in my head, and it's crowded in there. To deal with this, I've looked more carefully at what I call "The Machine"--the work-flow leading to finished, published product. Basically:
1) Write
2) Read 10X as much as you write
3) Finish and polish.

I asked myself: how much do I need to write to dig my way out of this hole in, say three years? Without overwhelm or burnout? If there are three different basic components of producing work (as opposed to marketing it, for instance) then research and planning, free reading, rough draft production and re-writing do seem to be the most essential steps. And the pinch point would seem to be the production of new text. Set this number too low (or let the work be intermittent) and there is insufficient production to reach goals, as well as lack of developing the specific "muscles" of production.

If I have to create 1000 words a day, that means reading 10k a day of various fiction and non-fiction works to "feed" my unconscious. It also means that I need to re-write at least every other day. Re-writing occurs at a MUCH faster pace than creation of original rough text, so every other day works fine. That first draft stuff needs to be worked every day optimally, sort of like stretching to keep muscles loose. Or dredging sludge out of a feeder stream.

So the morning schedule is: Up at 5: 45, meditate. Out of bed by 6am, drink my tea and do something kinda no-brainer, like look over emails and check Facebook. See if there's a morning essay (like this one) that begs to be written. Jason's morning ritual starts by 7 am. Afterwards, I have maybe thirty minutes to work out or relax, and then by 8 I have to start on my 1000 words.

This can be production of book text, creation of script (about 5 pages) or conversion of script to book text. Any of these fit the bill. Then a break (if I'm tired, this is a good time for a nap) work out, or begin morning reading. This is Aristotle and Shakespeare (that complete BBC Bard is just phenomenal).

Then...the rest of the day is polishing the text from previous days, and, most importantly, preparing for tomorrow's 1000 words. What do I need to know? What is happening next? What do my characters want? How will their world respond? What themes do I seek to explore? I research, think, plot and plan and even go to bed with such questions in my mind, allowing my "dream time" to work on the problem.

And in the morning? A thousand words feels insufficient. I have enough works and images in my mind to create maybe two thousand words, which makes 1k child's play. I don't create more than that, because testing has suggest that, over time, it can lead to burn-out. And I won't have as much time for re-writing, polishing, and researching. It feels like stress, but not strain.

And stress without strain is what triggers positive growth. I'm enjoying this program, and six months from now, if I've finished two more books, I'll let you know.

Submitted for your approval...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Musashi's Writing Advice


There is a relatively simple reason why I have focused upon The Hero's Journey and the yogic Chakras to both represent my reality and as a writing tool.

1) There are two things to write about: what is the world, and who are the human beings who inhabit it? These two tools describe the path of internal and external knowledge.

2) These, unlike almost any other writing tools I know of, describe both the writing and the writer. Therefore, any work I do on my writing teaches me about myself. Anything I do to improve myself also improves my writing.

3) Once you've accepted that the model is not the thing itself, you are free to enjoy a miracle. If you combine these two models, you have wrapped your mind around at least six thousand years of world wisdom about the path of life, and the nature of our experienced reality. It is like glimpsing the arc of a dynamic sphere of life, a construct larger than any conscious mind can grasp...but capable of intuitive navigation.

This is how you know you've reached this place: given any character, a story automatically suggests itself. Given any story situation, a character automatically suggests herself. You "see" and "feel" the connection between them.

4) To access intuition, the component skills of an activity must be absorbed at the level of unconscious competence. This means that you must reduce the basics to a finite set of components, and practice them until they are on "autopilot."

I know of no more effective way to create this internal intuitive wisdom than having your writing approach overlap with your life approach. As Musashi said, "let your combat stance be your everyday stance. And your everyday stance be your combat stance."

Write with passion!

"You can't know that!"

I was teaching Tai Chi at Arisia science fiction convention, and a lady mentioned that she had struggled with anorexia. I suggested to her that she might want to perform a meditation to make contact with the child part of herself, someone younger than any damage or discomfort life had given her, that that part of her probably had some interesting things to communicate. After the class, a gentleman approached me and said that I shouldn't have said that. That he has been in therapy for years, and that it is impossible to know enough about someone in a moment to make a call like that.

My reply is that there are certain knowings that exist in time, and others that take place in a moment. That certain types of information are available instantly to us, if our eyes are open. The most important determinant is that we are honest with ourselves about how we came to where we are in life, the decisions we have made, and the prices we have paid.

At the core of what we are as human beings, there isn't tremendous difference. I love the analogy that suggests we're much like mushrooms--apparently individuals on the surface, but look deeper and we see these apparent "individuals" are part of a larger mycelial mass beneath. Go deeply enough into your individual reality, and you emerge at the universal. I've never gotten into trouble assuming others are like me. The only difficulties I've encountered over my life have occurred when I assumed others are different.

The second thing he didn't understand is that I'm not a therapist. I'm a coach. the difference is that I have no idea at all of the specifics that this lady has been through. But I know what a healthy human being is, and what the journey is. It is like meeting someone trying to climb Mt Everest. I don't know the path that they have covered to get to base camp. But I can point in the direction of the peak.

That's all I did. I know that a healthy human being, self actualizing, has a healthy balance between the different aspects of their personality. One way to represent this is to speak of "child" and "elder" aspects. There is no downside in what I suggested:

1) Visualize the child self. Find a representation that is young enough to have avoided whatever damage has occurred in life, even if it is an embryo. A single cell. An image of light, prior to your current "incarnation." Whatever works.

2) Become quiet enough to allow that part to communicate with you.

This isn't therapy. I always suggest that my students work with their personal wellness team. Many times, I have worked with their therapists, if they give me permission to contact them. What I'm doing is similar to a geometry student who can be given three points, and from that extrapolate the rest of a circle. It is a matter of keeping my eyes on what the full arc and expression of our humanity is, and believing it is within our capacity to reach it.

He walked away unconvinced. But the lady in question approached me after class...and thanked me. And that, for me, is the only standard that matters.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fake It Til You Make It?

"Another thing you can do is to think o fa time when you had a most sublime meditation and consciously dive deep into that experience. Think of its essence--how you were thrilled, how you were jumping with delight. At first you will just be imagining the experience, because you are not actually having that meditation. But if you enter into that world of imagination and stay there for ten or fifteen minutes, power will automatically enter into your meditation and it will bear fruit. Then it will not be imagination at all; you will actually be deep in the world of meditation."
--Sri Chinmoy, MEDITATION

I was actually surprised to come across this passage, even though I've re-read this particular book so often it is falling apart. Strange...I can only attribute this to the fact that our minds have an easier time absorbing different informations at different times, and now, this moment, was the first time I was prepared to actually hear it.

"Fake it 'til you make it" is a well known philosophy. ACT as if you have confidence, and you will. Do the things a courageous person does, and you will be what people consider courageous. Then, of course, you will discover what courageous people have known forever: that the internal state people call "courage" is often one of confusion and fear...but if the external aspects of calm voice and face and direct action dominate, guess what? It doesn't matter how you feel inside.

The same is true in many ways. Bravado, egotism, macho...there are many different terms that describe the adolescent forms of mature emotional states concerning "courage."

And in the realm of the spirit, "confidence" can be "faked" as well. In fact, "faith" as defined as "evidence of things unseen" is all about this. A sense that different aspects of the universe connect in a way the conscious, intellectual mind cannot quite data-crunch. That it makes most sense to you if you expand your definitions of "life" or "consciousness" so that the planet or the universe is a dynamic pattern that seems to behave as if it had what we consider will and ethical structure.

Or to take a further step, and believe (without evidence) that there actually is a living force, a being, that can be described in quasi-human terms, watching over us.

Or that the flows of nature best reveal their currents if we surrender the ego of individual identity and seek to feel the pull of existential wind and tide.


There are so many approaches. All seek to answer the question "how shall we live?" together and singly. All seek to align us with nature, with other human beings, with our own drives, both animal, child and adult.

All concern the journey between birth and death. The idea of clarifying who and what you wish to be, being certain that the idealized form of this is pleasing to every aspect of your existence, and then dedicating yourself to this process, is a wise one. It is a very rare individual who can just "zen" his way from one event to another and not feel rootless and without purpose. For most of us, the creation of a meaningful life demands purpose. But attempting to "become" something we seem not to be quite reasonably triggers fear.

Anyone who knew me in my college days can tell you that any true confidence I had in my ability to be a professional writer was covered up in ego and bravado. That shell was critical to buffer myself against a nearly universal opinion that my goals and dreams were impossible.

Anyone who knew me in the early days of my martial training could tell you the way I struggled to find a part of myself strong enough to stand up to the warrior-energy surrounding me. My false identity couldn't handle it, and surrendering to my true self, capable of flowing into any natural role, felt like dying.

Anyone who knew me in my early dating days would know how astonished I was to discover a woman was attracted to me, and how pitifully grateful when she accepted me into her heart or bed.

The answer in all of these cases was...I pretended to be comfortable with the circumstance. Regardless of the inner storm, I maintained the best exterior I could, and soldiered on until, at some point, I was astonished to discover that the pretense had become the reality.

The same is true in the spiritual arena. The surrender of our false self can feel like dying. When meditating, often EVERYTHING else seems more urgent and important. The moments of peace and power can seem far and few between. is those moments, however few, that point the way.

If you can force yourself to meditate day after day, you will almost accidentally find a moment when everything "flows." Remember those moments, seek to replicate them without obsessing about it (just have fun!) and you will find them starting to multiply.

Remember--your ego identity is a construct. It is "fake" to begin with. It is no greater fiction to imagine your self both great, deep, and insignificant in the face of universal truth. Nothing greater than you. Nothing less than you. No "you" at all...and yet you are in the center of it all.

Resolving that apparent conundrum is one of the major tasks on the path. If it seems impossible, welll...

Yeah. You know.


Friday, January 11, 2013

Every word, every step, every breath

The mind can be trained to steadiness through those forms of concentration which have relation to the sense perception.--The Yoga Sutras of Patangali

In "unpacking" the core meditation I was given by my teacher, it impresses me that it meets the student wherever he or she is. Merely beginning to "sit" and quiet the mind opens the door.

Becoming familiar with the cacophony within, and accepting it with humor and persistence. Listening to the heartbeat, with gratitude for life. Finding the youngest part of yourself that you can contact, something living before the strain of life warped your dreams. Nurturing that self, so that it can release you into the progenitive, nascent energies.

Cleansing the levels of your existence. Anchoring to your elder self, beyond all need to strive or pretent, beyond shame or pride, and having the courage to ask "Who are you?" of a being about to shed the flesh.

Every step in this process is an endless journey, impossible for the time-bound aspect of mind to plumb. But persist, and you begin to step outside that self, into a different world that cannot be described. There is a purity to that new experience that will spread back into your "ordinary" life, but understand: there is no place to "get to." It is the work itself that opens the door. The "you" that seeks to complete the journey is not the part of yourself you will encounter along the path. Some of this may make sense, some not. But the effort itself, the daily emptying, re-commitment, humbling and exaltation will teach you what is real and what is not if you build upon that foundation, extend it out into your sensory world, test the quality of your perceptions by noting the results achieved in the external world. When the inner journey and the outer journey begin to align, there is both peace and power. You will know when you are "there" and when you are not. See the direction of the light and be able to re-orient. It is quite a journey, and everything you do and learn can and should be just another way of exploring its depths.

Start with the heartbeat, or the breath. Embrace love and gratitude. Re-connect with your dreams. Align them with your values. Examine every action and thought so that it expresses this core, personal truth.

There is a lifetime of work in just the tiny sliver of wisdom I was given, and I am so honored to share it. Our imperfections do not matter. Our actions and commitments are as critical as our next heartbeat.


Wednesday, January 09, 2013

New Year's Exercise resolution

I've seen several posts from friends committing to losing weight or "getting in shape." In a couple of instances, they discuss using sports as exercise, because it is "fun." Yes...but competitive or complex activities are not ideal for basic fitness. They are EXPRESSIONS of fitness. "Weekend athletes" damage themselves constantly by not understanding this. They used to be able to get away with it when they were teenagers, and can't understand why it doesn't work now. Here's a good syntax that WILL work.

1) Meditation or journaling. You need to take a break to center yourself, listen to what is happening inside you. If you are attempting to lose an amount of weight that would make another human being, it is reasonable to expect that serious emotional "stuff" will come up for you in the process. Get ready for it.

2) Joint recovery. These exercises take little time, but if done regularly (every day) will help heal and prevent any number of back, knee and shoulder problems. Going to YouTube and looking up "Sonnon Intu-Flow" will aim you at a number of excellent mini-programs.

3) NOW you're ready for your exercise. Minimum? Something like the Five Tibetans. Start at only three repetitions per day of each. That will take you about 5 minutes. Add NO MORE than one or two reps per week of each, until you reach 21 repetitions. That will take you to only about 10-15 minutes a day.

4) NOW you can practice your sport safely, with increasing capacity. Hiking, martial arts, ice skating, salsa dancing...oh, the possibilities are endless!

5) Yoga-style stretching AFTER your sport. Even sixty seconds of conscious work here will help align your skeletal structure, which HAS been slightly misaligned by your sport, trust me. No way to avoid it, unless you have perfect form...which no one has.

That's the micro program. The entire thing can be executed in under 20 minutes a day, and will add years to your life, and life to your years.


Monday, January 07, 2013

Character, Plot, and Poetics

Happy New Year! And I'm starting this year by starting over from the beginning, re-establishing the entire framework of Lifewriting for Writers, and then applying to specific instances--popular films, and my own work. Then...we'll have fun taking questions. Ready?

Well, first of all, we have the concept that we treat our lives and careers as a story that we are writing, and that we write about issues, philosophical questions and emotions that are important in our own lives. In that way, everything we do to improve our lives makes us better writers, and everything we do to improve our writing makes us better human beings. Simple, but hard.

So. Next we take a look at the three major aspects of writing that have to be addressed: character, plot and poetics. Character equals the people involved, plot involves the way they interact with their story world. Poetics involves the linguistic and image systems used to convey the information.

I take the emotional position that there are two things to write about: human beings, and the world that they perceive. Who and what people are, and what the world is. How we know what we know, and think what we think...and what there is to know and think and feel about. The maps of internal and external reality, and our attempts to navigate them with grace and poise.

In other words...create a world, and a character. Make them in harmony with each other, then throw them out of whack. Show his efforts to put his life back together. The way the world responds will demonstrate your philosophy of the nature of existence, or the meaning of society.

Or...take someone who is OUT of balance with his world. Give him a shot at improving his life. If he takes it, you are making one statement. If he doesn't, you've taken another. If he tries, and succeeds, another. Fails, another. Gets something totally different, but good, yet another.

The way you detail human beings, and the way you look at life, and the world, are central, and underlie much of what you can ever say about people and the world they live in. The clearer you are on what YOU think of these things, the clearer your own theories and beliefs, the easier it will be to create vibrant characters and people your world with them. Do that...and your work is half done!