Philosophy Tuesday

Language is great. I mean, blogs would be pretty weird without language! Putting the bad jokes aside, though, language is so crucial to us as humans in that it frames just about everything, from our perceptions to our thinking to our experience of life and what life even is.

You know that great feeling of amazement we get when we hear a word that oh so perfectly encapsulates something that we’d been having trouble explaining or expressing? Or when the word is so illuminating that we become aware of something we had been totally blind to until that point? Language, and words, can be limiting, but it can also be amazingly empowering.

That’s why I love learning that in Japanese there are a pair of words that have the same English translation: “muzukashii” (むずかしい) and “taihen” (たい|へん). *

In English, both of these words translate to “difficult.” However, they are not the same: “muzukashii” refers to difficulty from complexity, whereas “taihen” gets its difficulty from an overwhelming scale. So, for example, for a math test a muzukashii would be a hard differential calculus problem, while a taihen would be four thousand simple addition and subtraction questions.

Which is very cool, because when we experience those kind of situations they are quite distinct. As are our reactions to them, or the efforts we may need to take to get through it, or how we might go about solving them, and a whole host of things. And when we talk about the obstacles that lie before us (both as individuals and as communities and more), it makes a difference to know what kind of difficulty it may be to take it on… or even if it may be different groups of difficulties, some relating to complexity, some relating to scope. Otherwise, it’s easy to collapse it all into a complex morass of epic proportions, leading us to dejection before we even start.

I’m keen on being mindful and taking this new distinction forward to see how it alters my perceptions of things and, from that, what new avenues of agency and empowerment it opens.

 

* I do hope I got the writing correct… I came across this distinction in a comment by glilimith on this Folding Ideas video.

Philosophy Tuesday

In life, when something (usually unexpected) pops up, there’s two ways we can proceed:  we can react, or we can respond.

They may sound the same, but they are different.  A reaction is an automatic impulse that usually is aimed directly back at the incoming force.  It, at best, resets the situation.  At worse, our automatic flailing further mires us or even might make things worse.

To respond, however, is to take what’s coming in and move it where we want it.   We listen, we engage, we reflect, we direct, and we bring it to a place of resolution.  In responding we have both agency and flexibility.

Perhaps the best way I got to experience this difference – and thus learn to distinguish them for myself – was through Sifu, especially through our push hands exercises.  With an incoming force, to react is to resist and push back.  Again, at best this might stop the incoming force, resetting the situation and allowing things to start anew.  More often than that, however, reacting causes us to stiffen or to overreach, leaving us spent, off balance, and open for an exploit.  And against someone with good sensitivity (ie, someone who is trained in responding), our reactive energy can even be used against us.

But when we learn to respond, an incoming force is not a crisis.  It is just an incoming force.  We can feel it, sense it, know its direction, know its intent, recognize what could be done, and then guide it to a place of safety – or beyond, harnessing it for our advantage.

No surprise, so too it goes in our lives.  With mindfulness and practice* we gain access to the beauty of responding.  A world of equanimity opens up, and with it the ability to create outcomes that empower and enliven ourselves, those around us, and the community at large.

 

* Especially in dealing with and doing the work to remove our “buttons” and worries and concerns and etc that have us freak out or get defensive, things that very much almost force us to react forcibly…

Philosophy Tuesday

The word competition comes from the Latin, competere, which means (according to etymology online) to “strive in common, strive after something in company with or together,” or, in the classical Latin, “to meet or come together; agree or coincide; to be qualified.”

And… wow.  That seems so much more expansive than how that word is normally used these days.  To strive together.  It isn’t an individual thing, and the outcome isn’t intended to be just an individual thing.  It’s about us all pulling together to attain new heights.

There’s no better reminder of this, in a very literal way, than perhaps the feel-good moment of 2021 when Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi shared the gold medal at the Olympics:

What’s even better is that they are good friends.  They’ve been competing for years.  Striving together, pushing themselves and those around them to aim high and see what they can do.  Sometimes one did better than the other, and vice versa.  They had fun with it.  They were competing to get fit together.  And you can hear in the interviews above how excited they were for how well the entire field was jumping.

All culminating to that moment where they gifted to us such unbridled expressions of joy.

Philosophy Tuesday

In the world of being, power is not synonymous with force.

Quite the contrary:  force is what is present when power is not.

Being truly powerful is when we are achieving our intentions without force or struggle, without browbeating or controlling those around you, without a tight grip or cudgels.  It is when things resolve themselves productively and with velocity.

Actual power is effortless.

 

(Now, it is true that we collapse the idea of someone forceful as being powerful all the time – which is especially nasty in the context of leadership, though that’s another conversation – but if we think about it, someone who was actually powerful wouldn’t have to use force at all.  If they’re using force it’s because they have to, well, force people to do their bidding.

On the other hand, when we’re open and authentic and related and fair and liked, we move and inspire others such that we can create together and, even more so, often they’ll even take it on themselves to realize it, and they’ll be fully empowered in/while doing so!

When we truly honour our word as ourselves and operate with integrity (not morality, but integrity), we needn’t fight ourselves or spend effort hiding.  And when those around us know we operate with integrity, great alignment, and thus great power, becomes possible.)

Philosophy Tuesday

So, there’s this story about Van Halen and brown M&Ms.  Perhaps you’ve heard about it before.  If not, the gist of it is that tucked away in the 53 pages of the band’s rider (a contract that lists out their requirements for the venue) for their 1982 show was a little gem:  There was to be provided a bowl of M&Ms – which seems normal enough.  However!  There was a caveat: Absolutely no brown ones.

Which, on the one hand, seems like some weird arrogant stuck up super band celebrity weirdness and excess.

But, it wasn’t.  There was method to their seeming madness.

The 1982 VH tour was a large and intricate affair, requiring equally extensive and complex setup.  It was perhaps one of the largest rock concerts of the time.  It required serious prep work by the venue to ensure that the show went off without a hitch (or without anyone being injured).

The brown M&Ms, then, were an integrity check.

If the band went into the dressing room and found brown M&Ms, they were tipped off that either the promoter hadn’t read the rider carefully – which is bad enough – or that the promoter’s integrity was lacking and that if this thing was missed then more important aspects of the setup might well have been botched.  (Which meant the band would then spend the time to double and triple check everything.)

Integrity isn’t about morality; it’s about honouring your word as yourself.  It’s also, more importantly in this case, about doing complete and proper work.  And like on a racecar, even something a little bit loose, or missing, is not just a small ‘out of integrity’ – it will almost certainly cost you the race (and might lead to a crash).

Thus, the M&M rider.  A small detail whose legend is as big as the band’s, and a great little story to latch on to as we ponder the meaning of integrity and our relationship to it.

Philosophy Tuesday

There’s an oft-used phrase that I think fits very well for many of the unconscious social constructs we often (nearly always?) find ourselves trapped in:

The Circular Firing Squad

While the phrase is most accurately used to describe situations where groups are engaged in self-destructive and internal conflicts and recriminations, I’m bending it here to mean… well, actually, pretty much the same thing.  It’s may not necessarily always be as destructive as the phrase implies (sometimes it may be Nerf weapons), but it still is quite similar.

What I mean here are all those situations where we are behaving in a certain way because we know everyone else expects us to behave that way, and we can see them all behaving that way… but the only reason everyone else is behaving that way and the reason they expect you to do so is for the exact same reason:  they also think you, and everyone else, expects it, and they also are following what you, and everyone else, is doing.

Which can lead to unproductive and deleterious but also sometimes hilarious situations.  Like how we often worry that we’ll be judged by others… when everyone else is also, simultaneously, worried they’ll be judged by us.  So much so, that they, and we, are often not judging them because we’re too worried about being judged.  It’s kind of delightfully absurd, isn’t it? How fascinating!

Of course, we do indeed often judge others – it’s a human thing to do – but our little and “normal” bit of judging is further encouraged and enhanced to an unproductive level by us creating and then living inside a context (or, more often, many contexts) that fosters and even demands judgement.  “If everyone judges, then I’d better judge to! (And get them first)!“ is a first level of this, but additional contexts, such as that of vertical individuality, push it even further until we’re in a full prison where we spend 90% of our time judging others, and the other 90% of the time worried about being judged.  No wonder we’re frazzled.

There’s a social capital “game” going on here, one that is, again, something quite human to do and not necessarily an issue.  It may even be necessary for a vibrant community.  But the unhealthy levels to which we play the game are driven only because everyone else is similarly playing it.  We see people out to get us, but they’re only doing so because they think we are out to get them.  And then we do go out to get them, because we think they’re out to get us, so we’d better get them first, which causes them to react in kind, which confirms our suspicions and… boom.  We’re caught in the circular firing squad.

How easy is it to see these and free ourselves from them?  Individually, it’s not that difficult.  We can recognize and not choose to play the game, or to play the game on our own terms in ways that are productive for all.  And the best part is that when we do so, we unconsciously give others the freedom to also forego the game.*  We can engage in more authentic ways; we can be free and self-expressed and at peace.  It’s a glorious thing.

The more we practice and lay down our metaphorical arms, the larger our circles of freedom become, and we begin to create new types of circular squads, squads of joy, love, support, excitement, creativity, peace, and more.

 

* Though it may take them a little while to get over their ingrained habits and fears.