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I’m an obsessive studier. If I don’t pull myself away from the computer, well. . . I’m likely to stay on it most of the day and night.  The virtually limitless possibilities of all the information there is like crack to an addict.

There is always another blog post to read. There is always the possibility of a Tweet with an enlightening link. When not on the computer, I’ll probably be listening to a podcast that I might learn from or read a book.

But, it’s only the time I’m apart from the information stream that there is the possibility of being creative. It’s necessary to assimilate all that information, to step back and let it percolate, let the ideas connect in order to create something new. Filling my head with other peoples’ thoughts makes it impossible to have my own.

Looking for information elsewhere is what I get a break from when I practice mindfulness. What I know, but what I can’t seem to remember, is that everything  I need to know is right in front of me all the time. All I have to do is look at it mindfully. What I also know, but this one’s even harder to remember, is that it is also inside me, and that’s why I practice mindfulness.

Benedictine monk

Image via Wikipedia

A recent article in the New York Times tells of how the Benedictine monks of Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island are using the internet to try to avoid a long, slow descent into oblivion.

This is the great example of how social media has the power to humanize a brand (o.k. calling the Benedictine monks a brand is a stretch, but I think it applies.)

Today, there are only 12 monks and the youngest is 50 years old.  If they don’t act soon, they will literally die out.  What can blogging and setting up a Facebook page do for this group of religious men live such an insular life and whose focus is on matters decidedly beyond technology?  It can do for them, the same thing it has done for others–bring their mission to light and to life, through videos, FAQs, and storytelling.

No advertisement for becoming a Benedictine monk can convince  a person to make the kind of commitment necessary to bring a new member.  But sharing the story about the benefits of the lifestyle through a multimedia approach and getting that story disseminated could.

By playing the music of Gregorian chants, describing in photos the benefits of the location on Narragansett Bay, by showing the accessibility of the monks, and by sharing what they find beautiful about the lifestyle through video and Facebook conversations, the Abbey has a chance of adding to its ranks.  Today, 336 people “like” their Facebook page (one of many pages of Benedictine monks.)  That number will grow and of those who read that page and visit the site, a percentage will decide to ultimately (after spending much time learning about the lifestyle) decide to join.  It will only take a small handful of the people who follow the monks to make a significant difference in their future.

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I connected three stories from three different people who spoke at Wisdom 2.0 that all pointed to one powerful message about the art of leadership.

The first was Soren Gordhamer’s decision to start the Wisdom 2.0 conference. He came up with the idea, found one person willing to present with him, committed to “losing $10,000” if necessary, then launched it and never looked back.  Would he be able to get 400 people to atttend? Yes, and a waiting list, and a virtual audience that viewed the conference over 200,000 times.

The second was Meng Tan, Google’s creator of the “Search Inside Yourself” program, the engineer who might have been a monk, a man with a goal to create world peace in his lifetime. He talked about his vision of a company where he would be the CEO.  At this company, there would be a photo of himself on the wall and the photo would be of the back of his head.  Why? Because he would be marching forward and people would be following him.  As the CEO of the company, he is not looking backward; he is looking ahead.

The third was a comment made by one of the presenters at the conference who said, “I am sure that Ghandi or Martin Luther King did not constantly look back to make sure they were being followed.”

It’s so easy not to take a stand, not to go for something.  After all, people will doubt you, disagree with you, laugh at you, and of course, you are just as likely to doubt yourself.  I recently read Seth Godin’s Poke The Box and heard facets of this lesson in that book.  You don’t have to create world peace or help liberate a group of people to be a leader.  All you have to do is start something and see it through, no matter what.  As Seth Godin would say, think about something that is worth doing that no one necessarily gave you permission to do.  Go, do that.

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Soren Gordhamer opened the conference with a story about playing hide and seek as a child, and how at some point, when not everyone has been found, the leader calls out “allie, allie in come free” and asks those who are still hiding to come out in the open. He spoke of having the goal of bringing mindfulness practice out in the open for everyone.

The following day he described his first attempt, last year, to get this conference up and running. He was prepared to spend $10,000 of his own money and he had gotten Chris Sacca to speak. He figured, if no one else would speak, then he and Chris would put on the first Wisdom 2.0 together whether 200 people or only 2 people came. This year, there were 400 people in attendance with a long waiting list of others who would have attended and the livestreamed conference was viewed over 200,000 times. Clearly, something has clicked with people.

It was a brilliant move to start with the biggest Silicon Valley companies. Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, Zynga and eBay, moving at lightening speed and for all the good they do, are also having the effect of distracting hundreds of millions of people and speeding up their lives in stressful ways. Jon Kabat-Zinn described it as our being so hungry for the next moment that we are missing the current moment of our lives. This was not the intention of the builders of these companies. Many of them had very good intentions to connect people for good but the reality of what is happening is that peoples’ attention is becoming more scattered. The fact that arguably, many of the most powerful businesses in the world are willing to step back and take a look at what has happened and to walk the walk in their own companies is a hopeful sign.

Rich Fernandez, head of learning at eBay showed perhaps the most convincing slide of the conference for business people who are skeptical of implementing mindful practice internally for the way they treat employees and the way employees treat eachother. It was a comparison of the 100 top companies to work for with the Russell 2000 and there was a 10 to 1 ratio of success in financial terms. I hope he makes his slides available publicly because every one of them was fascinating.

As Roshi Joan Halifax said in the first panel addressing Kevin Rose, Chris Sacca, Eric Scheirmeyer, and Bradley Horowitz: “You are the role models.” These four men spoke of the fact that they could not accomplish what they have without honing their ability to pay attention. Eric described using martial arts to hone his attention. Chris Sacca said that everything that led him to be successful in his business is related to mindfulness and health. For Kevin Rose, “be mindful” was at the top of his New Year’s resolutions. He took up drinking tea as a way of slowing down and learning to pay attention and opened a chain of tea rooms in the San Francisco area to share that experience, called The Samavar Tea room. As Kevin said, when he described the super high powered, high stress lives that these guys all lead: if you don’t stop and reflect and take a break, bad things will happen. Bad things like serious health issues they all described including bleeding ulcers and panic attacks. Bradley Horowitz, who heads up Google apps, said at any one time, he is working on products that effect hundreds of millions of people and so millions of them may be dissatisfied at a given moment. It is daunting to imagine trying to manage that responsibility emotionally at a time when things happen in your personal life, including, for him, the death of a father and diagnosis of his mother with terminal cancer. His meditation practice helps him manage through the crises and remain productive.

Bradley Horowitz described how at Google he implemented a process where the attendees of meeting will pause before the meeting starts, acknowledge who is there, and set an intention for the meeting. There is a requirement to arrive on time to respect everyone’s time and for one person to “own” the responsibility for making the meeting productive and for distributing the notes. There is permission for anyone at any time to “call bullshit” and walk out of the meeting if it deteriorates. The result is shorter and fewer meetings.

Throughout the conference there was the recognition that technology could be used for good or for evil. As Bradley Horowitz added it can be a force for creating revolutions for for being a time waster. Chris Sacca commented that the more that the transparencies of social networks grow online the more difficult it is to fake anything. “Truth,” he said, “is surfacing.” On the other side of the coin Kevin Rose pointed out that “going all in on technology will eventually tear you down.” His story of using tea to slow down was referred to many times during the conference by speakers. There are many different ways to be mindful.

Kiva, the micro-financing organization, was the perfect example of another theme of the conference, “small actions that can have big impact.” This has implications for how organizations can start the process of being more mindful. If every organization, whether it is a corporation, a family or the local PTA, can do some small things to appreciate people, to recognize people, to pause for a moment and think about what they are doing, it will be the beginning of big changes.

In the background of the conference were the people attending. Everyone I met was involved in fascinating work that consciously helps others. The point of going here is to learn from others, but as it was pointed out several times, you can’t change anything until you create the conditions to learning in yourself.

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It would be nice if you could make other people feel better when they are sad or scared, but you can’t.  You want to say the right thing to fix it or to empathize with the person but what is the right thing to make that particular person feel better.  Be honest. You don’t know.

But mindfulness helps them by helping you. When I am around other people who are feeling bad emotionally, if I am not mindful, I find myself being effected by their emotions–sometimes even taking them on.  That is not what the person needs.  They are scared. so I feel scared for them and that doesn’t make anyone feel better.  What they need is for another person to listen to them without judgment, without input, but with an open mind and open heart.

Being mindful when listening to someone who is suffering helps me by avoiding my taking on their suffering and helps them by providing a safe way for them to share their feelings.

How Long Should You Meditate?

I have a morning schedule that involves carpooling, dropping 2 people off at different locations and then getting dropped off in time to make a train that is always right on time.  It’s a bit stressful trying to make everything come together.  The only way to do it is to allow extra time, because things happen.

But meditating is also part of my morning routine.  It’s easy to let that one part of my routine go. There’s no one depending on me to appear on the cushion.  Here’s a confession: I plan 20 minutes in the morning to meditate and when I see that I’m not going to have 20 minutes, I’ve been skipping it.

I have an app on my phone called the Zen Timer and it helps me keep track of the time without watching the clock.  It also maintains my meditation history and allows me to enter notes into a journal after each sesion.  I love using it.  It’s been set for 20 minutes for a while now and I somehow felt locked into that.  But I realize now that it would be better to meditate every day for at least some time, than to miss my practice because I can’t meet some arbitrary amount of time.

What I have started to do is set the timer for 5 or 10 minutes–whatever I know I can do. It  helps to take at least some amount of time every single day to pay attention to  my breath.  I’ve noticed that even a few moments at the start of the day make a difference. During the day I am more likely to remember to pause for a few breaths when I started my day that way.   So, how long is it necessary to meditate?  Some time. Every day.

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How To Be More Creative

I find myself more and more addicted to the constant connectivity of the internet.  I have a phone that lets me know when I have email and I check my personal and business accounts so many times each day when I am not at my desk checking it, that I would be afraid to know the number of times.  I read 20 blogs a day, listen to music on the iPod on my way to work, and sometimes read a book on my Kindle at the same time.

I am starting to feel like I have become the Borg. For those of you who are not familiar with Star Trek, the Borg are beings that are part human and part machine, and are constantly connected to a machine that has an irresistible pull on them–the phrase resistance is futile is their motto.  They are drones, connected to a single mind.  It is the ultimate form of busyness. Keeping the mind occupied constantly is far too alluring and far too easy over the last couple of years.

Yet, with all the information I am absorbing, much of it in the service of work, I find it harder to focus and that busyness creates a buzz in my head that drowns out ideas.

Apparently I am not alone.  The folks who live in the center of the digital world are starting to talk about what to do about this.  Today in Techcrunch, there is a story about a site called “Do Dothing for Two Minutes” that has gotten a strong and immediate reaction, bringing in 20,000 unique visitors in the first 8 hours. Next month, there will be a conference in Silicon Valley called Wisdom 2.0 that brings together the thought leaders from the digital world, like Bradley Horowitz, VP Products of Google and Alana Kornfeld, Senior Editor of Huffington Post with  the greats of the mindfulness community including Jon Kabat-Zinn, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield.

Although it is more difficult to pull myself away to meditate, I find that when I do, it has a profound effect.  The silence is stunning when compared to the onslaught of information processing.  I start to feel more like myself without all the other voices of blogs and email correspondence and music in my head. And the one thing that I truly love about meditation is that the ideas and insights bubble up.

The idea that you can become more creative by doing less is counterintuitive.  Yet, when you think about it, you can see how it might work.  Ideas are just below the surface, but the space that they need to present themselves is taken up with random thoughts and constant inputs of information.  There’s no room for them.  The connections that I can make are based on all the information that I have acquired are more easily made when I meditate because the information has the possibility of being processed when my mind is not in quieter state.  It is so common for ideas to arise when I meditate that help me be more innovative in every aspect of my life that I’ve started to keep a pad and pen nearby.  For as soon as I start reconnecting with my computer, they fly away like dreams.

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