FIFA’s Tie Breaker Mechanic Further Punishes Teams Based on Race

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For Senegal, their hopes of making it through the World Cup ended Thursday in a rare and questionable fashion.

Senegal and Japan ended up tied in a series of categories, and for the first time in the history of the World Cup the result came down to FIFA’s “Fair Play Conduct Points”, which accounted for yellow card fouls given by referees during the group stage games.

The top two teams from each group advance to the group of 16, and Senegal represented the last African nation still in the tournament.The final standings for Group H:

1. Colombia (2-0-1, 6 points)
2. Japan (1-1-1, 4 points), (-4 “fair play points” for 4 yellow cards.)
3. Senegal (1-1-1, 4 points), (-6 “fair play points” for 6 yellow cards.)

After having the same number of points (4), goal differential (0), goals scored (4), and head to head results, the difference between Senegal and Japan’s World Cup journey was decided based on the difference of 2 yellow cards.However, this begs the question of how fair it really is to decide a tie breaker based on cards given and FIFA’s “Fair Play Conduct Points”.

Specifically, there is good reason to believe that individual Senegalese players are significantly more likely to receive carded fouls compared to their Japanese counterparts because of differences in how players of different races are refereed.

There is plenty of scientific data on the prevalence of racial discrimination in sports. Maybe most relevant here is the 2013 report entitled “A Statistical Study of Racism in English Football”.

Researchers at the University of Manchester analyzed player data collected from two hundred and ninety players and seventeen teams to determine the number of fouls, yellow cards, and red cards given to players of different ethnicities both by English and non-English referees. The study was conducted in the English Premier League from 2011-2012.

According to the results, Black players have a significantly higher chance to receive red and yellow cards:”One unit increase in the number of cards awarded by an English referee as a percentage of total cards awarded increases the oddsof being a Black player by 4.416 with a 95 % confidence interval of (1.547, 16.040); one unit increase in the number of cards awarded by a non-English referee as a percentage of total cards awarded increases the odds of being a Black player by 5.083 with a 95 % confidence interval of (0.863, 30.674).

The writers acknowledge that this result is significant, however they also say that there could be deeper factors than racial discrimination influencing the results of the data.

What if the differences in cards account for differences in aggressiveness or style of play between different groups?

It turns out that this hypothesis has also been well researched:

In 2013, a substantial research study found that non-White players in the EPL were 15% more likely to receive a booking than a White player, after controlling for player, team, referee and match characteristics.

They analyzed over one million in-match events, and “perhaps most importantly found that between White and non-White players, aggressiveness and style of play was not found to be statistically different”.

This is a multi-layered issue, from the implementation of rules, to the representation of populations, to the underlying assumptions and narratives that permeate the culture of football.

The forms of discrimination from the referees is consistent with the types of representation seen at the management level; only two Black individuals occupy management spots across all of the ninety two teams in the Football League (Cashmore and Cleland 2011).

It doesn’t end here. A study entitled “Racism in Soccer?” found evidence that suggested Black individuals were thought to be more aggressive and associated more with threats compared to White counterparts.

One explanation of this was down to the fact that Black individuals were often viewed as more athletic and thus perceived to be more aggressive.

Look no further for evidence of the underlying culture around these issues than Sunday before Senegal and Japan drew 2-2 to get them into this situation.

Japan’s coach Akira Nishino said that “[Against Senegal] rather than physicality, we have to use our brain to come up with some tactics and strategies”, reasserting this common narrative among commentators, pundits, and now coaches.

Admittedly, there shouldn’t need to be such special and rare circumstances before we can have a meaningful discussion of the role of racial discrimination in football.Even disregarding the new tie breaker rules, receiving cards poses a significant disadvantage to players and teams. The idea that these decisions is partly influenced by a player’s race is unacceptable.

By having the rules dictate that certain tiebreakers will be decided by “Fair Play Conduct Rules”, FIFA has built these dynamics into the structure of the tournament, increasing the weight of their significance and allowing for the types of situations we’re seeing now.

It could very well be that this tie breaking mechanism, ironically called “fair play”, allowed a deeply unfair system to make the difference between elimination and continuation for Senegal and the continent of Africa at large.

The Great Equilibrium

The sun shines through the clouds over the Arctic Ocean Aug. 17, 2009.

Nothing inspires me to connect deeply with what’s going on around me, to appreciate it, to pay attention to it, to be at peace with it, quite like the realization that my life is happening right now and that it won’t last forever. It’s strange that this ever needs to be a realization. Who am I to think that I would live forever? But a realization (sometimes a sudden one) is exactly what it feels like every time it becomes clear. Often, it’s accompanied by a feeling of stepping out of a trance, a feeling of waking up and suddenly being immersed in my own life again. The brevity of life is so obvious a fact that I feel like it shouldn’t be so elusive. But the truth is, if I’m not consciously reminding myself of this fact, I lose touch with it extremely quickly.

You might wonder why I care about losing touch with the fact that I am going to die. Isn’t reflecting on it unnecessarily morbid and depressing? The reason is that, in my experience, being in touch with this fact has the uncanny ability to cause me to make the most out of my time instead of reacting habitually to my surroundings. When I say “make the most out of my time” I’m not talking about efficiency, success, or better reaching my goals. I’m talking about all of the things that are left when my goals aren’t in the way. All of the things that we consider to be deeply important to us that transcend all the goals that relate back to our life circumstances and who we want to be.

I’m sure we’ve all reflected on what we would do if we had one day, week, month, or year to live. If you’re like me, you’ve found that very little of what you truly want out of your life involves success in the conventional sense. It’s much more likely to involve connection with nature, relationships with loved ones, and deep personal experiences, states that are actually available to us in everyday life but are often uncharted territories due to concerns that are thought to be more immediate. I believe this sense of immediacy is an illusion. I think that deep down, we all have a sense for the states of experience that we ultimately want out of life and there are different levels at which we can connect with those states, but our lack of enthusiasm to face the truth of our limited time holds us back from engaging with our lives more deeply. I also think that by practicing a deeper level of connection with the truth of our lives we can genuinely transform our experiences for the better.

Many of the things that cause me hardship in life are rooted in the feelings that I have towards death and impermanence. When I experience loss of any kind, it triggers the same feelings of insecurity that underlie my relationship to death. I recently became aware of this, and it caused a huge shift in the way I’ve been relating to things that are out of my control. I’m starting to frame these things as a safe training ground for the more fundamental and ultimate things that are out of my control, namely aging and mortality. This accomplishes two things for me. Firstly, it gives context for why experiencing loss, even trivial loss like having a few bad days in a row, can affect me. It frames those negative experiences and makes me feel like the pain associated with them is understandable and natural. Secondly, it allows me to practice acceptance of uncontrollability in daily life situations in a way that gives me confidence for the less trivial situations that I will inevitably face.

Another reason that I feel so passionately about this subject is that I feel like it has the potential to be universally empowering. Bringing it to each other’s attention, not ubiquitously but not sparsely either, allows us to share the wisdom of this reflection that spiritual traditions have been pointing to for a long time while still having enough room for each person to interpret the implications for themselves. The question of how to be with life, given that it will end, is both deeply personal and profoundly universal. It aligns my thoughts, feelings, and actions with my intentions in a nearly effortless way, and I think that this process is the center of the bulls-eye when it comes to spirituality. When my thoughts, feelings, and actions are coming from this place they feel exceptionally genuine. With this feeling of genuine connection comes a deep sense of rest, a sense that I’m allowed to just enjoy what is happening without needing to make it any different.

I’d like to share three pieces of audio that I’ve been inspired by on this topic. The first is a piece called “New Beginnings” by This American Life, which is essentially the story of a man sharing his experience of living six months of his life as if they were his last. The second is the Waking Up Podcast episode “Lessons From Death”, where Sam Harris speaks to Frank Ostaseski, a long time Buddhist and end-of-life care practitioner who has numerous deep insights on the topic. The third is a talk given by Joseph Goldstein during a meditation retreat where he discusses what it really means to live as if you were dying, and I embedded the audio file below. These are ordered in terms of popularity, and ordered backwards in terms of how meaningful they have been to me personally. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll have a chance to listen to whichever of them interest you.

The Impact of Formal Practice

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It’s amazing how easily my mind can convince itself not to meditate.

“I want my whole life to be more meditative”, it says. “I will practice body awareness while I exercise, I will practice mindfulness while I’m doing my work, I will practice compassion and kindness while I am around my friends and family.” Isn’t that what it’s all about?

This causes us to grow out of touch with the immense depth of inner resources that are available when the time and space are given. The remedial effect of formal practice, which I simply define as the time that is set aside for undivided meditation, seems boundless. It is the gift that keeps on giving.

I have a friend who has been pushing himself to run farther and farther distances each day. Today he told me a story about running farther than he has ever done before. His route was about 9 miles, and as he approached the last mile he ran past a man sitting on his porch. The man looked at him and said “run an extra mile for me today”. Taken aback and slightly annoyed at the fact that this man had no idea how long he had been running, my friend responded saying, “I think I just ran a couple of extra miles for you”. The man looked back at him, slightly smiling, and in a completely earnest tone told him this: “you need to get better”. At first, my friend was resistant. After all, what did this guy know about running? But after letting the experience settle, he obliged and ran the extra mile. He said that he basically limped home, and it was an exceptionally formative experience. I thought this was fascinating. I’ve personally never had an interaction with a stranger that remotely resembled this one.

About this time last year I attended a lecture by one of my favorite meditation enthusiasts, Jon Kabat-Zinn. He came to a church in Boston and they had set him up to address the audience from a great big podium. Instead, he chose to sit and face us from on top of a banister that was situated one level lower. It was an incredibly inspiring lecture and one of his central messages was the impact of formal daily practice. He encouraged us to set a timer, meditate till the end of the timer, and meditate longer than that.

The most disruptive trick I play on myself is the trick of forgetting to meditate. We have the time that we think we need, and if we use it right, we will often find that we have the answers to our own questions. Formal meditation is a resource that is virtually always available, and it is the resource that I have found to be by far the most useful for living a life more in line with my own personal goals and values. The beauty is that no matter what your goals and values are, meditating will help you live a life more in line with them!

For anyone who likes to listen to guided meditations and Dharma talks, I recommend Tara Brach, Joseph Goldstein, and Akincano Marc Weber. However, don’t forget that there is no substitute for silence.

A Vegan’s Appeal to Environmentalists

I want to give a big welcome to any and all readers out there who consider themselves environmentalists or sympathize with the goal of preserving the future of this planet. If this is the first time you are learning about the environmental devastation caused by animal agriculture (the practice of breeding, raising, and turning animals into food) then you are surely not alone. A huge part of the problem we’re facing is that the environmental destruction caused by eating livestock, which accounts for 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, is rarely given the appropriate amount of attention by our government, media outlets, and environmental organizations. Unfortunately, the lobbying power of the animal agriculture industry in the United States directs an immense amount of resources towards obscuring the environmental degradation and instability that it causes. It is really astonishing that animal agriculture, which is the leading cause of habitat destruction, water depletion, deforestation, species extinction, and ocean “dead zones” is rarely part of this conversation.

It has been said that the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago and the second best time is now. As environmentalists, we should be basing our efforts on a full understanding of the issues the world is facing right now. I think one of the most interesting ways to learn more about this is to watch the film Cowspiracy. It can be streamed on Netflix, but if you don’t have a subscription, you can download it directly off the Cowspiracy website for $5. I think we are all responsible for being aware of the ways that we can make the biggest difference in the realm of environmental preservation.

Many of us are already making personal sacrifices like recycling, composting, not littering, and being aware of our water use in order to engage in this project. It has been incredibly inspiring to find out about the magnitude of impact that eating choices can have. I hope that we can start a new conversation where conscious eating is added to the list of environmentally sustainable habits that are actionable in our daily lives.

Here are a few facts from the movie which can help contextualize our efforts and recalibrate our framework:

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Here is the official trailer:

 

We’re All Vegans Sometimes

About 3 months ago, after listening to a discussion on a podcast and doing further research around the web, I decided to try eating vegan. I became convinced that my choices mattered more than I thought, and I was unnecessarily harming animals while abiding by the status quo.

Years ago, a friend of mine told me that being a vegetarian isn’t all or nothing. This still strikes me as one of the most insightful points on the issue.  You don’t have to sacrifice your own well-being in order to not harm non-human animals. Any time you want to make a vegetarian or vegan choice, you can do that. And for every one of these decisions you make, there will be a corresponding and measurable positive outcome.

First of all, let me give my definition of what it means to be a vegetarian or a vegan.

Vegetarian: someone who wholeheartedly tries to never eat meat.

Vegan:  someone who wholeheartedly tries to never eat anything that’s production might involve the suffering of animals.

I’m going to get pretty specific about the reasoning behind making vegan choices. But first, I want to talk about why I was convinced that I should take these issues to heart.

For the first time in my life I became aware that my decision to eat eggs, dairy, and meat had nothing to do with a concern for my physical health. I’m not sure where I got the idea that my body needed animal products, but this was my good reason for continuing to eat them. I think in one way or another, most people are skeptical that being vegan is as healthy as being an omnivore. From what I’ve gathered, this skepticism about eating a vegan diet is not based in evidence, and runs counter to the current scientific consensus. I was even falling victim to one of the oldest and most common myths about vegetarianism, that it might lead to protein deficiency.

After educating myself further on the issue, I realized that a vegan can be as healthy as an omnivore. Moreover, I think that vegan choices actually lend themselves better to physical and mental health than omnivorous ones. The vegan options that are usually available to you tend to be less processed and more free from additives and other artificial substances. Of course, an omnivore can decide to eat vegan any time they want, so there’s no basis for saying that an omnivore can’t be as healthy as a vegan either. But, from the point of view of nutrition, veganism is a totally viable way of eating.

The Impact of Forgoing Meat

I remember a time when I used to think that vegetarianism didn’t make any sense, because if you went to the grocery store and chose not to buy meat, the meat was still there, which means that the animals had already been killed.

This turned out to be a naive way of understanding the impact of vegetarianism. However, I can see why the incorrect notion was easier to grasp than the truth. The truth is, we’re lucky to live in a system where our individual choices in the market will affect what happens both within and outside the grocery store.

Imagine you go into a grocery store and you had planned on buying one of their 1 lb. packages of chicken breast. Then, as you’re walking through the aisle, you remember reading about the effects of vegetarianism, and you change your mind and buy something vegetarian. There is a whole cascade of consequences that arise from your decision to not buy the meat. The impact of making vegetarian or vegan choices is realized in the reduction of demand for those products, which has effects on the economy of meat production as a whole.

Think of a grocery store. In a general sense, the way that a grocery store works is that they purchase products from a supplier, and then make those products available to people who want to buy them. Eventually, the grocery store always either has to restock their products (because they run out, or because the product expires) or decide to stock the shelves with products that they think will do better. Either way, they will be making a decision of how much of that product to put on the shelves in the future.

Lets say that, until today, the grocery store had been selling 50 packages (1 lb. each) of chicken breast a day. Every two days, they sell 100, and then they restock their shelves with 100 new packages of chicken breast.

When you decide not to buy a package of chicken breast, they sell 49 packages instead of the 50 that they usually sell. The next day, instead of having 50 packages of chicken breast left over, they have 51. Again, they will sell their 50 packages. But because one of their regular costumers decided to eat vegetarian on one occasion, when they go to restock, they are left with 1 lone package of chicken breast that was not purchased. They cannot keep this package to use later, because it’s now past its expiration date. So they have to throw it away.

For every package of chicken breast that they buy without selling, they lose money. And every time they lose money, they have to reconfigure their estimations of how much they expect to sell, so they can avoid losing money in the future. Assuming that you are going to continue to stop buying chicken breast, they should only order 99 packages from their supplier instead of 100. Even if you were going to go back to always buying your normal amount of chicken breast, the expectation of how much they would sell will never be 100 again. They might expect to sell 99.9 packages, when accounting for your one arbitrary decision to eat vegetarian, but that number will always go down from 100. Lets say that you decide to only eat vegetarian half the time. They should still expect to do better financially by ordering 99+100 in their next two orders than if they ordered 100+100. Therefore you’ve decreased the number of chicken breasts they want to order by making some vegetarian choices.

 

Further down the supply chain, the supplier of the meat will need to decide how much chicken breast they need to prepare. The grocery store usually orders 200 packages every four days, so that is how much the supplier gets ready to provide. It costs the supplier money to raise, feed, and kill each chicken that is used for meat. But this cost is made up for by the money that the grocery store pays for the meat.

For simplicity, lets say that they have to raise, feed, and kill one chicken for every 1 lb. package of chicken breast. If the grocery store all of a sudden says that they only want to buy 99+100 (199) chicken breasts, because of your decision to eat vegetarian, then the meat supplier will have raised, fed, and killed one chicken that they will not make any of their money back for. Because you have decided to always change half of your meat eating choices to vegetarian ones, the supplier should expect to do better financially if they decide to only raise, feed, and kill 199 chickens every four days.

In this scenario, every four days, you would be saving one chicken from being born into a miserable life. And this life really is miserable. The conditions in factory farms are actually so appalling that I won’t force you to confront them. But if you are interested in or skeptical of how bad an animal’s life can be in this setting, it’s not hard to find out about this online.

Of course, the numbers used in my example were made up for the sake of simplicity. But this post on the Counting Animals blog is a great resource for figuring out how many animals you could save by making more vegetarian choices. The post specifically deals with vegetarianism, so I’m sure the numbers for vegan choices would be even more inspiring. To summarize, here are some conservative estimates that were gathered from Counting Animals’ research:

A vegetarian saves more than 25 land animals each year, about 24 of which are chickens. For sea animals, the average American eats about 12 fish and 137 shellfish per year, but between 144 and 293 wild sea animals are killed annually to feed the fish and shrimp eaten by the average American consumer. In capturing these sea animals to serve the consumption of an average American, between 46 and 104 wild sea animals are unintentionally discarded dead or dying. And finally, when all these figures are added up and consolidated, it is conservatively estimated that a vegetarian saves between 371 and 582 animals annually, which accounts for more than one animal per day.

Conclusion

I decided to focus this post on the direct effects that our eating choices have on the well-being of other conscious creatures, but there are so many other good reasons for making more vegetarian or vegan choices. One of the most important ones is the impact it can have on our environment, which I encourage anybody reading to learn more about.

I also didn’t go deep into the differences in impact between being a vegetarian and being a vegan. The way I understand it, there is a comparable amount of suffering that comes out of the production of eggs, specifically, and if you can go without dairy products, you’re definitely having a positive impact through that venture as well.

Our choices about what we eat have consequences that relate specifically to the way that the food was created. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the consequences of eating eggs, dairy, and meat are extremely undesirable. I think that at some point in the future, people will probably look back on how we treat animals now and be embarrassed about this part of their ancestry.

I’ve been posed the question of whether I would eat meat if the animals that were being killed had great living conditions. What if we cared about the animals we ate the way we cared about our pets? This would be amazing of course, but we have to admit that none of us are close to having access to meat that is being produced in this way. I think the question of what to eat would be a lot different, and many of the current reasons to forgo eating meat wouldn’t apply. But wouldn’t it still be weird to want to eat our pets whenever we deemed that their life had been long or good enough?

For me, the decision is often between, on the one hand, all of the reasons for making more vegetarian choices, and on the other hand, the convenience, comfort, and taste of eating meat. The question would be significantly more complicated if personal health were an issue, but thankfully it is not. Still, this is a personal decision. If you don’t feel compelled to make more vegetarian or vegan choices, then by all means do not force yourself to do that.

If you do feel compelled to start eating vegetarian or vegan more often, that’s also great! I use this handout, which I’ve cross-checked with other resources, as a general guideline of how to stay healthy while making more vegan choices. Furthermore, there are a ton of resources, both in print and online, and a huge community of people that are engaging in the same project. I think you’ll be pleased with the amount of great food you can make, the new eateries you’ll find yourself frequenting, and the general feelings of personal well-being that I attribute to making more vegan choices.

Learning Limits

Please decide now whether or not you will read this post in full.

In the past, I haven’t wanted to set aside time for formal exercise at a gym. Instead, I’ve tried to set a routine for myself, doing a daily session of basic exercises at my house. The purpose of these exercises was always to stay in shape and address the restlessness that I would experience later in the day. I also knew whatever small amount of exercise I was doing would be supplemented during the week by pickup sports, where most of my cardio exertion comes from. My system was inconsistent, but when it was working, the benefits were more-or-less apparent.

Recently, however, I was encouraged by my brother to engage in a formal daily exercise during the days that I work. Specifically one that makes me sweat and raises my heart rate significantly. This practice came highly recommended. The reason I decided to engage in it was a mixture of trusting the person that was proposing it, and knowing that I had to sacrifice a relatively small amount of personal time to get it done.

What my brother was recommending was a daily session of interval biking on a standing bike. Part of why I’m writing this is to pass that recommendation along. The exercise takes 12 total minutes, and so far it has made me sweat and has pushed my limits every time. The idea is that you bike while being able to look at a clock or timer, and go back and forth between two minutes of steady paced biking and thirty seconds of maximum exertion. So if you started your timer at 00:00 it would look like this: [00:00-02:00 Steady] [02:00-02:30 Max] [02:30-04:30 Steady] [04:30-05:00 Max] [05:00-07:00 Steady] [07:00-07:30 Max] [07:30-09:30 Steady] [09:30-10:00 Max] [10:00-12:00 Steady]. The level of exertion will depend entirely on what you’re comfortable with, so this exercise can be tailored to your personal needs.

This is what I’ve been doing every day after work, and it hasn’t ever required me to be in the gym for more than twenty minutes. It hasn’t completely changed my life; but I now understand the importance of formal exercise and what the tangible benefits are. I believe that the fruit of the practice comes less from the development of physical fitness and more from the development of mental fortitude. Exerting yourself in a controlled environment allows you to experience the process of being put into a difficult situation.

We all deal with difficult decisions and circumstances. But when we exercise, we have a chance to get into a situation knowing what our response is going to be. Knowing it is going to be to push through and stay focused on our task. To stay true to our goals, and not let our whims and distractions derail our state of mind. To not always trust our inclinations to stop, and to see what lies beyond the first frontier of what we consider comfortable. In other words, we are given a chance to discover what happens when we don’t give in. I find that we rarely regret this path of exploration, but we are usually afraid to take the first step. So, I think we should take the first step more often than we tend to .

I still do my daily exercises in the morning. I was inspired to change my method to twelve minutes of lower body stretching mixed in with intervals of abdominal crunches. However, the attitude with which I do these morning exercises has completely changed. Before, I felt like I was trying to get through my sets and repetitions to feel good about myself, like it was a burden that I had deemed to be worth it. Now, I treat the moments of resistance and difficulty as an opportunity to learn about my inclination to stop. Instead of doing repetitions of abdominal crunches, I try and do repetitions of feeling uncomfortable and staying focused on my task.

Pursuing Knowledge

I had a bewildering experience tonight. I was leaving a restaurant after dinner and I was about a block away from home. As I was crossing the street, I had a strange rumbling sensation coming from the right side of my chest. I wasn’t sure if it was heart burn, but it felt totally unfamiliar. I had just eaten a large bowl of ramen, which was my first meal of the day, so I assumed that explained it and continued walking. About five steps later I felt it again, a tight rumbling feeling in my upper-right chest area. For some reason, my first reaction was that the feeling might be an indication that I needed to pay attention to something. I reached into my pockets to see if I was missing anything, and sure enough I had left my cell phone in the restaurant.

I knew I wasn’t going to have the feeling again for the rest of the night, and it seems so far that I was right. It’s hard for me to explain what else, other than some sort of subconscious knowledge, could have caused this unfamiliar feeling. And it’s even harder for me to explain why my reaction was to check if I had left something at the restaurant. But, I’m generally skeptical about this type of reasoning and like to be sure my connections are grounded in reality before I follow through with them. This is a rare case where my intuition tells me that I need to shift my notion of reality in order to accommodate for a connection that I was previously unaware of.

I’m not going to go off the deep end and start believing we can tap into the deep truths about the universe by listening to our feelings. However, the example of my rumbling chest seems to lie somewhere on the spectrum of things that I could learn, not by seeking more information, but by paying closer attention to the information I already have.

I was always taught that I didn’t know, and if I wanted to, I could find out. But this seems to relate only to outside sources of information. Growing up, I learned how to incorporate other people’s knowledge into my own life. Obviously, this is still an important part of my learning process. But, as I get older, and the things I want to do become more specific to my personal value-structure, I’m increasingly motivated to respect the fact that there is a large base of connections and knowledge within my mind that has the potential to develop and be understood more deeply. It seems to be generally more efficient to address my problems by learning more about them internally. This realization has been a massively counterintuitive development in my learning process.

Maybe it’s just my learning style, but I think we’re not all that different. I’m convinced we could use more of this type of knowledge pursuit, and rely less on outside resources in order to understand our world better.

Inner Life

I spend a lot of time on the inside. I wonder if other people feel the same way. I wonder how much different an experience of the same situation is for someone else. I feel like it can be a lot different, judging by how the same experiences can be really different for me. It seems like my state of mind determines a whole lot about how I view a situation, especially if I’m making a value judgement about it. It’s a weird thing. It seems like most of our lives are happening on the inside, but we all live together in a world that’s outside of that. I don’t really know how to make sense of that.

It makes sense to me on a personal level. Everything that I’m experiencing is probably, at some level, happening in my brain. When i’m going on a walk and listening to a song, i’m adding information to a brain thats already filled with stuff. And it’s incorporating it in a way that’s specific to me, because my brain is specific to me. It has experienced a unique set of experiences and has a unique set of genetic code to work with. But honestly, it’s hard to make sense of the fact that there’s something outside of all of these brains and experiences. It just seems like its all happening on the inside. I look at someone’s eyes, I connect with them, but i’m still only ever taking in information to my unique brain right? They are too, I guess. The place where an actual connection is taking place seems mysterious to me. I’m alright with that, just thought I would share how I was feeling about the topic.

Learning How To Meditate: Part One

I want to share a bit of guidance that was extremely useful to me when I received it. I hope that it comes at the right time for at least one person that reads this.

I became interested in learning how to meditate after listening to talks given by somebody who I felt had a lot of wisdom to share on the topic of emotional self-regulation and clearsighted decision making. He seemed to me to be someone who embodied qualities that I wanted to bring into my life. Naturally, I tried to get a sense of what his secret was. I read most of the material on his blog, and decided that I would try meditating according to his instructions. By being introduced to the practice and being motivated to learn more about it, I was introduced to a vast reservoir of teachings that always seemed to be tailored to my specific needs, probably because they just had so much to teach. This is the video he chose to introduce the topic, and I think its a timeless talk for anyone who wants to know more about what meditation is and how it can be a resource in their own life:

If you haven’t seen it, I recommend taking an hour or so for yourself, getting comfortable in a personal space, and watching or listening to the video in its fullness.  I listened to about 20 minutes of this video this morning (from about the 25 minute-45 minute mark) as a part of my daily sitting practice. The act of putting aside time to be with your own experience and observe it directly and openly is infinitely valuable. It acts as an important declaration, if nothing else, that you are willing to invest time and energy into yourself.  At the least, it is an acknowledgement that you are willing to take the time to listen, even if that is uncomfortable, to the reality of what you’re life is and be open to what it has the potential to be.

Full minute-back guarantee. Every time you meditate you will get that time back by increasing the quality of the rest of your day. I always feel like my day is made longer, no matter how long my meditation is.

Letting Go

Last month I went on my first meditation retreat with Michael Grady and Larry Rosenberg at IMS (the Insight Meditation Society) in Barre, MA. Because I wasn’t able to write while I was away, I took some time afterwards to verbalize the parts of my experience that I thought were worth remembering. Then I turned that journal entry into this blog post, so that I could sum up my experience and let it be a point of reference to someone other than me. Here it is:

I spent 5 days in mostly silence, doing a lot of meditating and trying to keep my mind on the present moment. Before I left for the retreat, while I was spending time in DC, I was having good experiences with being more in the moment. I had been writing a response for Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge when I started to come to terms with the fact that I was becoming very focused on finding out “the truth” about life, or about complex situations, and it was causing my thought process to become unclear and fragmented. So I started shifting my attention from trying to figure out what is ultimately “true” to focusing more on what is “true enough”, what I can gather from my direct experience. In the formative words of Terrence McKenna, I started making a shift from being a faerie, maneuvering through some metaphysical “superspace”, into being a monkey with the world in front of him, trying to sort out what was what. It was an important step in a process of grounding my attention, and it felt both energizing and edifying.

So going into the retreat I had experienced some serious letting go, and seen the corresponding feeling of liberation that accompanied that change in attitude towards my experience. I tried to bring that way of relating to my life with me, so that I could feel what effect it had if I kept with it. I wanted to try committing to just letting go and seeing what life was like uninterrupted.

I spent the first couple of days of the retreat going back and forth between simply trying to let go (and be entrenched in my experience of the moment) and doing what I thought of as “properly mediating” or “meditating the right/best way I could”. It was difficult. I felt at odds with myself and confused, the physical relaxation that usually came with my meditation practice was missing, and replaced by an underlying feeling of being stuck. I was jumping back and forth between two concepts of how to feel liberated, and trying to make the best of my time on retreat. Then, I started remembering how I felt during my last week in DC, and recognizing that during this week I felt really deeply at peace, and I even felt that my interactions with other people changed as a result of that feeling.

So I started to try and really bring that state of mind and relationship back to my experience. I focused less on verbal concepts and started to try and maneuver nonverbally using my feelings to dictate what was working in terms of being in the moment.

Also, the way I was focusing my vision seemed to be guiding me towards or away from this state of mind. Sometimes my vision would be really focused and guiding. It almost felt like physically opening my eyes more fully or focusing on one spot more with my vision was helping me shift more into a state of letting go.

As I became more in tune with my intuition, I started to realize that my ability to feel liberated, deeply happy, and at peace (with whatever was happening) relied on my ability to let go of excess thought and fully experience my life in the present. In a way, this is simple, but in practice this process did not always manifest itself easily. It required me to reach a sort of “sweet spot” where I was in the current of my changing experience, but not holding onto wanting to be in the moment so much that I didn’t notice that the current is still moving. This required me to do two things. First, I had to deeply trust my ability to recognize what was right and wrong in this respect, and let go of my feelings of doubt. Second, I needed to realize that it was a lot more effective to let go of what was not working than to move towards what was working. Because once you let go of what is not working, everything is already working much better than it was before.

It felt like there was a current or stream that made up my life and my surroundings, and it was always there. And the problem was that I was either trying to get out of it, thinking that there was something better somewhere else, or I was trying to stay right where I was and not go with the current, thinking that I needed to be in one spot. The truth was that the only thing that really worked was to be in it and to let the current take me with it. This is what it means to be present.

Still, I was going back and forth between my intuitive understanding of this and the formal guidance I had been receiving and repeating to myself. Don’t get me wrong, the formal guidance is great, and it acts as a way to verbalize some of these same concepts so that they can start to be realized experientially. But, in order to further let go, I really needed to commit, like a leap of faith almost. As long as I kept focusing on what to “do” with regards to my meditation I was trapped in the infinite reminders to “do this” and “not do that”, reminders that I wanted to hold on to so that I would never forget exactly how to get and stay where I wanted to be. This method of instruction never seemed to get resolved, I never felt like I had finally remembered enough instructions to stop telling myself instructions. And the instructions themselves were getting in the way.

Those moments that I was using to give myself further instructions were missed opportunities to actually be present. So my practice became noticing when I was perpetuating my thinking, and realizing that only letting go in those moments (and there were a lot of moments) would make me free and connected to my experience in life, as a part of this strange universe. I recognized that I wanted to be more connected with the current, for good reason; and telling myself how to operate tended to be a bad way of doing that. While engaging in walking meditation (when I would walk very slowly, usually back and forth) I started to really feel like I could commit to the present moment and let go of thoughts of the past and the future all at once. I would ask myself “where am I going?” and be aware of the fact that there was really no place other than the present moment, the flow of the current. I had prolonged periods where I felt deeply that there was nowhere that I needed to go and nowhere that I needed to stay. Afterwards, even things that I used to consider hindrances to my meditation were just a part of my experience like everything else. I could think, even fantasize, or regret, and that would be okay, as long as I was with it, experiencing it, not trying to escape it or change it in order to experience something else.

Throughout this time it was apparent that this was the way to diminish any suffering that I was creating for myself and be free to live and enjoy my life fully. So I made my only intention to cultivate that state of mind and build that ability to be present. I tried to experience it and come back to it as much as possible.

The idea of committing to “now” at all times proved useful, because it allowed me to acknowledge the fact that the present moment is all that I am ever going to have. In some sense, the current of my life is always available to be experienced more fully, and therefore there is always room to be more fulfilled in each moment of my life. Even if I thought of something in the future that I wanted to do well in, I recognized that it too would benefit from my ability to embody this sweet spot, where letting go doesn’t compromise attentiveness and attentiveness doesn’t compromise my ability to let go.

I almost felt like all the meditation instructions I had ever received and was continuing to receive were designed to put me at odds with myself to the point that I felt the need to drop it all at once and stop picking it back up. I was told, and I told myself, to not do anything, just sit and focus on my experience, but even in that, there were implications and questions, so I had to stop telling myself anything at all in order to really be free, and that didn’t require a strategy or method, just a sort of commitment. Eckhart Tolle talks about how thinking is an addiction, and relates thoughts to entities that don’t want to die, and want to become bigger and more secure. I think this is a useful reminder of the nature of our thoughts.

I had heard that probably the most universally accepted and prevalent of the Buddha’s teachings was about three qualities of our experience: impermanence, imperfection, and impersonality. The Buddha said that if we could deeply and truly understand that our experiences were always impermanent, imperfect according to our wants, and impersonal (not indicative of an intrinsic self or essence) then we would be completely free.

He also said that reconciling deeply with one of these qualities will inevitably lead to the experience of the others, so in one sense its all part of the same understanding. I think this is an important teaching, and I think this retreat showed me how reconciling with change or impermanence can act as a gateway to understanding these other characteristics and being more free.

Two quotes came to mind and I think they beautifully sum up the mechanisms of unnecessary suffering and potential liberation that I became aware of.

 

The first comes from Ajahn Tuhn, who rephrased the Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths” based on his own experience. He said:

“The mind that goes out in order to satisfy its moods is the cause of suffering.

The result of the mind going out in order to satisfy its moods is suffering.

The mind, seeing the mind clearly, is the path to the cessation of suffering.

The result of the mind, seeing the mind clearly, is the cessation of suffering.”

 

The second is a quote from Ajahn Chah, who had once been to IMS, more than 30 years ago. He said:

“If you let go a little, you will have a little peace;

if you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace;

if you let go completely, you will have complete peace”