Good and bad are just stories we tell ourselves

One of the biggest perspective shifts I had to make in my spiritual deepening is to move from a place of judgment (this is good, that is bad, ok, awful, best, worst…) to a place of is-ness and acceptance. I can see that good and bad are stories that make sense from one point of view. But with the gift of multiperspectivity, I can see that the world just is the way it is. Some situations can cause some individuals to experience joy, some to suffer, and everything in between.

But this doesn't necessarily lead to nihilism. There is hope. The goal is to minimize suffering. For people, yes, but for all life on earth.

So rather than labeling any situation, thing, or person as good or bad, simply ask if it adds to overall suffering or ameliorates it.


Tribal societies are like atoms in the 3 standard states (solid, liquid, gas); modern society is plasma

This is a nerdy analogy, but hey I'm a nerd 🤓

In the standard states of matter (solid, liquid, gas), an electron cloud surrounds a nucleus. The electrons and nucleus are essentially bonded with one another.

Atom

In a plasma, there is so much heat and energy in the system, some electrons have been decoupled from their corresponding atoms and roam freely with the other ions.

Plasma cloud

Atoms are analogous to tribal societies, with the electrons and nucleus particles representing people. The number of people is limited to ~150 (Dunbar's Number), and while tribes can exist adjacent to one another, they do not combine, other than the occasional transfer of one particle.

A plasma is like modern civilization. There really aren't clear, distinct units, and particles move around quite freely without strongly bonding with any other.

Yes, there are limits and exceptions to this analogy. But I think it's still useful in thinking about the differences, why they are the way they are, the pros and cons of each, and allows us to make more mindful decisions about how we want to live.


Levels of intimacy in our relationships are like backer levels on Kickstarter (Dunbar’s Number)

I’ve talked about Dunbar’s number before and how our modern society removes the relationship constraints that guided our ancestors to fit the model.

One analogy for the different intimacy levels in relationships is the backer levels for a Kickstarter campaign.

At the base level, you get some trivial recognition, like your name on a website or a thank you email. This is like your acquaintance group—friends of friends, work colleagues, old school friends…—where you recognize them and will say "hi" to them if you run into them.  (~500 or more people in this group)

The next level is a sticker, electronic content, or some other minor item. This is like your personal network, the level of friend you would stop and spend 10 minutes catching up with if you run into them in the street. (~150 people in this group)

Next is where you get a copy of the item being developed. This is like your active network, the people you tend to make plans with on a recurring basis. (~50 people in this group)

Next up is the item plus some special add-ons like limited edition swag and access to behind-the-scenes info. This corresponds to your sympathy group, close friends, and family who are the core of your “tribe” and are always there for you to recognize important milestones: birthdays, holidays, life transition events… (~15 people in this group)

The final group is the highest backer level: this includes all of the stuff from all of the previous levels, plus some personalized recognition in the form of featured credits, a personal call or meeting with the creator, and maybe even original assets signed by the creator. This maps to the most intimate relationship level—your support clique. These are the people who are your “4am friends”—people who support you unconditionally any time you are in need. (~5 people in this group)


The more we know, the more we know we don’t know

An engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician are on a train in Scotland.

The engineer looks out of the window, sees a black sheep standing in a field, and remarks, “How odd. All the sheep in Scotland are black!”

No, no, no!” says the physicist. “Only some Scottish sheep are black.”

The mathematician rolls his eyes at his companions’ muddled thinking and says, “In Scotland, there is at least one field containing at least one sheep, at least one side of which appears to be black from this vantage point some of the time.”

A Buddhist monk overhears this exchange and remarks: “That is what you currently perceive. In each of us, there is a river of perceptions. Perceptions arise, stay for a period of time, and cease to be. Our perceptions are often erroneous and cause us to suffer and cause others to suffer. It is very helpful to look deeply into the nature of our perceptions, without being too sure of anything. When we are too sure, we suffer. When we ask ourselves, ‘Are you sure?“ we have a chance to look again and see if our perception is correct or not.”

[This is an extension of an old mathematical joke. The monk’s comment come from How to See by by Thich Nhat Hanh]


The three essential truths: humans are social, deceptive, and adapted for the infinite game

As I've been researching and reflecting on the core of human existence, I believe three essential truths combine to explain why we act the way we do:

  1. Humans are social creatures. we are wired to connect. Thus, relationships are critically important.
  2. Our unique human superpower is to envision concepts that do not exist in the real world. Our big brains are essentially deception engines. We are so good at this that we can deceive ourselves and not even realize it. Continual awareness and practice are required to regulate our attention and separate fact from fiction.
  3. Humans—like other social creatures—are adapted to participate in the infinite game. You couldn't screw over your tribe mates without consequence. Yet we've created a society where it's possible to do that and still survive. This is the key to why we collectively are struggling.

You must first “consider the possibility” before change can happen

Change is difficult, especially when it involves our core beliefs. It is human nature to identify ourselves with our beliefs. But by doing so, we make changing our minds exponentially harder. I empathize with those in that scenario. It can feel like you will lose your existence if you let go of your ingrained beliefs.

What worked for me was to consider the possibility. It allows a more gentle transition from where I was to a new perspective.

In rock climbing, the recommended technique requires you to have 3 of your 4 hands and feet on the rock at all times. You don't let go of the previous hold until the limb that is moving has a solid purchase on the new hold.

This is the only way a change of perspective can happen. If you can see where you are, but consider the possibility of where you are going, then you can work your way up to holding both perspectives within you simultaneously. You will then see distinctions that were previously invisible that make both perspectives understandable (also known as multiperspectivity). At that point, it is safe to let go of the old perspective and embrace the new one.

But it can only happen if you first consider the possibility…


The elegance of evolution: code reuse in the human brain

Humans are social animals. As such, we are wired by evolution to want to help others in our tribe.

But rather than having separate circuits in the brain for how to treat others vs. how to treat oneself, nature proved to be elegant and efficient: how we treat ourselves is how we end up treating others, and vice versa.

 The work of Dr. Kristin Neff and Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education shows that if we can be gentle and compassionate with ourselves when we are struggling, we are more likely to exhibit these traits with others. This is a foundational concept in Buddhism—to help alleviate suffering in the world. And one of the tools they use is the loving-kindness meditation.

It is common to look upon self-care as selfish. But if done in a mindful, empathetic way—where you consider the impact your actions have on others—it helps you show up as a better person in all of your relationships.

Jim Rohn said it quite eloquently:

The greatest gift you can give to somebody is your own personal development. I used to say, “If you will take care of me, I will take care of you.” Now I say, “I will take care of me for you, if you will take care of you for me.”


Finite vs infinite games and how they affect your happiness

James Carse published the book Finite and Infinite Games in 2006. It begins:

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

Life is an infinite game. It might seem that death would make it finite. However any individual's death is just another event in the continuum of the infinite game of life. As Anne Lamott observed: “A hundred years from now? All new people.”

50,000 years ago, our ancestors lived in tribes with the same set of people for their entire lives. Of course new people were born and grew up, and older ones died, and there was the occasional inter-tribe swap for marriage and genetic diversity. But overall, you lived side by side with the same people year after year.

We now have a society where it's more possible than to have finite relationships. Went out on some dates but don't want to see them again? Ghost 'em. Get in a fight with a friend? Fine, I'll invest in these other friendships. Not getting along with your family? Withdraw, and see them once or twice a year at holidays, if at all.

Freedom to choose seems powerful on the surface but it's insidious—it allows us to avoid feeling difficult feelings and working out disagreements with others. In tribal times, there wasn't really another option. You had to work things out, get to forgiveness and move on. No doubt there were cases where one person was killed, or banished, or the tribe split, but those were rare.

Our society makes it easier than ever to avoid difficult conversations. And it's no surprise that given the choice, many people are choosing the easy way out. But that is making us less resilient than ever, and it is a root cause of our mental health and well-being crisis.

All of our emotions exist because evolution selected for them. They help keep the tribe together. They enable us to manage and repair conflicts. That doesn't mean it's an easy or pleasant process. But it's how we are coded to work.


The meta meta-narrative: I need to be a certain way to be worthy of love and belonging

In my coaching course, we've learned the value of narratives (or archetypes) in helping people see things from a fresh perspective. And we learned about 3 common “meta-narratives” in our culture: performativity, the inner critic, and the island where it all works out. Looking more deeply at the commonalities, there is a theme behind these three—the meta meta-narrative if you will.

At the root of all of these is the fear that I won't be worthy of love and belonging. We all need positive, healthy relationships to thrive, and we are hard-coded to want to be a part of a tribe, so much so that we will do whatever we believe we have to in order to "earn our place” in the tribe.

But this ultimately is a fallacy. Any healthy tribe loves, appreciates and welcomes you fundamentally. Unless you are a complete sociopath (and thankfully those are actually quite rare) you are already worthy of love and belonging exactly as you are.

Of course some of us grow up in "tribes" where this worthiness is not communicated clearly, if at all. That's ok. That's just not your tribe. You can—and will!—find another. You just need to be vulnerable and trust that it is possible. Once you find a healthy, compassionate person that you can connect with and open up to, you are on your way.

So if you feel like you need to do some activity, or achieve some goal or perform some role just to be worthy of human connection, let me assure you that is not the case. Be who you are. And the healthy people will love a celebrate you for it.


Mindfulness is ultimately all about emotional intelligence

Everyone experiences emotions. However some of us cope with and manage our emotions better than others. This is not an innate ability. All humans have the capacity to self-regulate their emotions. But like any other skill, it takes practice and requires experienced teachers who can model and instruct on the way to do this.

Meditation and mindfulness is at its core emotional regulation. It's recognizing and allowing all emotions that come up, and then making conscious choices about what action to take—if any—based on the information that emotion is conveying.

Buddhist monks are masters at this. It might appear that they do not experience the same strong emotions as others, but they do. In fact there's a lot of evidence that they experience their emotions more intensely and fully than most of us. The key difference is they have a mastery of all the skills necessary to manage those emotions, process them, and let them go.

A key concept in all of this: we are all each responsible for managing our own emotions. No one else can do it for us. And similarly, we cannot do it for anyone else but ourselves.

So as you practice mindfulness, keep in the back of your mind that it is part of the process for you to become more comfortable with the emotions that come up for you and how you respond to them.