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Setting Intentions for Research: Integrity, Utility, Humility and Social Justice

When a person first sits down to meditate, it’s a common practice to consciously set an intention for that sitting. It might simply to be present with the breath, or to be kind to oneself during the meditation, or to work to notice certain kinds of thoughts. It’s a practice I’ve used before, and found it to be pretty powerful. And so as I enter my work and role as a researcher, I figured it could be useful to do the same.

Setting my intentions as a researcher for me provides a touchstone I can come back to, that others can remind me of, and that I can build upon and revisit as I learn more about what it means to be conducting this sort of work in the world.

After getting my toes wet this past month both reading research reports and engaging in the practice of research itself more intensively than I had in my last position, I thought I’d share some initial intentions that have been developing for me as I’ve considered how I want to do research in the coming years:

  1. Integrity. I want to conduct research that lines up with the way that reality actually is, rather than how I would like it to be. This means first being curious and honest with myself about my own biases, agendas and hopes as I engage in research. After that, it means representing my findings in a way that is truthful and accurate. There’s no shortage of misleading or downright false research out there, I want to practice research that is faithful to the principles that are at the heart this profession.
  2. Utility. As I spend time reviewing literature, I’ve come across articles of all sorts. I read one, though, that really caught my eye. The content of it was quite interesting, and the analysis it made was insightful. At the same time, it was entirely inaccessible due its density and jargon, and worse, made absolutely no recommendations for practically applying its findings, or even any directions for future research. After I read it, I vowed that to the best that I can, I want to make decisions to research things that will have real applicability for people trying to solve actual problems in the world, and I want to report on these usable findings in a way that is accessible both rhetorically and conceptually.
  3. Humility. This one can sometimes be a challenge for me, as I rarely find myself without an opinion on something. But I know being a good researcher means to come first from a place of not knowing, rather than of presuming one knows what one is seeing and analyzing, or worse, making judgments for how something should be done without deeply understanding its context. Also, I believe it’s important to voice how difficult it often is to live by our  stated values and good intentions, and want to be humble in the face of my own inevitable, but hopefully small and rectifiable, failings to conduct research that holds to the intentions I’m stating here.
  4. Social Justice. Someone wise once explained this concept to middle schoolers in a way that I love: “You know bullying & being mean to people? It’s the exact opposite of that.” It’s that simple. At the same time, the question of what it means to have a just society, better the world, reduce suffering and a million other variations on doing well by others is no doubt a complicated one. And so I intend my research to come from a place of not presuming “the answer” to this question, but rather of presuming that it may need to be answered again and again, always from a place of kindness and compassion towards others.

By giving voice to these intentions, it’s my hope that I give them power to inform the work I do as a researcher. I’m sure as I delve deeply into this practice that’s so new to me I’ll have more to add, but for now this seems like a good place to start.

On Sitting Intensive Meditation Retreats (Part 6) – Seeing Things As They Are

This is the final installment in a six part series about what it means to go on intensive meditation retreats, something I’ve been doing for a number of years. In the previous four posts, I explored common misconceptions about meditation retreats. In this final post, I delve into what, in my opinion, doing these retreats is actually about.

In yesterday’s post, I discussed a concept called Right Effort, the process by which a meditator will abandon harmful thoughts, speech and action and cultivate positive ones. I used the example of seeing the habit of being harsh on yourself after a bout of impatience. Continuing with this example, in this post I’ll wrap up my series on sitting intensive meditation retreats by discussing what I see the core of this practice as being all about.

So in the described situation, there’s a certain sort of “seeing”, or noticing, involved. You’re standing in line, your foot starts tapping impatiently, you notice the impatience, you start the judgment process wherein self directed aversion rears its ugly head, and finally there is a recognition, a seeing, of the pattern and a subsequent abandonment of it, at least in that moment. This kind of seeing is one that spots macro patterns of mind, what are colloquially referred to as mental habits. While very important, this kind of seeing is not the sine qua non of insight practice. The fundamental seeing that insight practice refers to is far more granular.

A metaphor here might be useful. Imagine you’re in the passenger seat of a car, and you’re looking out the window at about a 45 degree angle, watching an approaching tree on the side of the highway come closer and closer, and before it goes by refocusing the eyes on another tree that’s further away. (Anyone who’s been in the passenger seat has probably done this!) Due to mind solidifying and tracking it, that original tree’s qualities may have become fairly clear even though it was moving, enough to know whether you like that tree or not. This is like seeing the mental pattern of judging oneself negatively and deciding it’s not very useful. This is the macro seeing.

At its refined stages though, insight practice is much more akin to looking directly out of the window at 90 degrees, so that the sightline is perpendicular to the road and the eyes are not tracking any one tree (You know you’ve done this too!). Instead of following individual trees, one is seeing the flow of the forest as it goes by, perhaps noticing streaks of green and brown and the experience of the speed of movement, not judging any one tree as being more or less desirable than another (the pattern “tree” can even disappear entirely sometimes). As it relates to insight meditation, this represents a kind of noticing that allows much more micro patterns of mind to become clear, getting down to a more fundamental and direct aspect of experience. Like the metaphor, when doing this kind of practice things tend to feel like they’re going quite quickly, as contrasted with some of the concentrated practices described earlier, which tend to be more characterized by stability.

When practicing in this way. it’s possible to directly see the comings and goings of sensory phenomena with clarity, precision and inclusiveness in a way that’s very hard to do in the context of daily life, which is why many people go on retreat. Things that go by mostly unnoticed, like the intention to take a step, or have a thought even, with this kind of practice can often be clearly seen. And so the experience of retreat itself is to create a container in which this kind of seeing can happen.

The seeing is the point, not the cultivation of any given experience over another. That’s part of why there’s no one experience or mind state that characterizes retreats, such as relaxation. Sometimes an entire weeklong retreat might be dominated by the experience of sleepiness, and another entirely characterized by lightness and clarity. More often though, retreats have a roller coaster quality to them, there are points of great relaxation and times of total despair. Sometimes you’re bored, sometimes you’re excited, sometimes you want to get a burger. But the practice is always the same: see clearly and precisely the sensations that make up the perceptual world moment by moment, without grasping at these sensations or pushing them away.

When a person starts to encounter this sort of seeing, something strange happens: rather than it seeming weird and artificial to be in such an intense and sequestered environment as a retreat, it seems weird that we ever live with the lack of clarity that usually characterizes life “out in the world”. It’s normal life that looks extreme and odd, rather than not talking for weeks on end. And so to have this sort of clear seeing is an amazing thing, it sets a high bar for how we might live in the world and is a laudable goal in and of itself. But while it is a major goal of being on retreat, the heart of whole practice comes not just with the clear seeing, but with the knowledge and insight that comes from it about the nature of experience.

This is where things start to get somewhat controversial, but I figure you’ve read this far so you’ve earned my full thoughts on the subject. The “Insight” part of Insight Meditation is about seeing not just experience itself, but the nature and attributes of experience overall. Experience here can also be referred to as reality, as from the perspective of the Buddha, there was no important difference between the two in terms of the questions he was concerned with. That’s not to say that there’s no reality outside of what we experience through the senses (ei – there’s still a table even though it disappears when we close our eyes), but just that for the purposes of the Buddha, this objective reality isn’t the key, but rather the subjective, or perceptual, one is. You might be wondering why I’m splitting hairs like this, but bear with me.

With clear seeing of sensory reality, the Buddha found that we can notice something rather surprising about it. Or, rather, three things, each building off the previous.

First, he found that experience is characterized by impermanence, or Anicca. Pretty uncontroversial actually, most people would agree that nothing is permanent in this world. Things start, and they end. Relationships come, and go. Jobs too. Ice cream frustratingly has the same quality. But in this case we’re more referring to things on a micro scale, that no given sensation has a lasting quality, that the whole process of experience is a constant arising and passing away of the entirety of sensory reality. Normally, we have a sense of continuity and stability, but in deep insight practice, as mentioned, the kind of inconstancy that characterizes a more fundamental level of reality becomes more evident.

On initial reading some people will immediately agree that this idea of impermanence is true on a micro-level as well as the macro, though some might argue that there are actually constants in experience. I could into a lot of explanations about why I personally don’t think this is true from a logical standpoint, but really I’d just say to check it out for yourself in a more experiential fashion. I’m not dogmatic about these things at all, but up to this point I haven’t found any sensation that’s stuck around.

The second point, called Anatta in Pali, builds off of the first, and it’s that there’s no sensation in experience that is characterized as housing a separate, static, persistent self. This “mark of existence“, as these attributes are called, is often given the shorthand of “no self” or “not self”, a somewhat misleading rhetorical reification of a deeper concept that’s caused no end of confusion for both practitioners as well as readers of Buddhist philosophy. The basics of it are this: from a logical standpoint, if the impermanence of all sensations is given, then the idea that one of those sensations persists from moment to moment, one that is the “self” sensation, would not hold. But for these ideas the logic is less important than the experiential understanding.

The most simple way I’ve found to relay this concept is this: self, when we look closely at it, is a verb rather than a noun. There’s no “thing” that’s static and underlying, but rather there exists a process that’s constantly unfolding, shaped by past and current experience from factors that are both internal and external that we colloquially refer to as “self” as it’s much more convenient than saying “this constantly unfolding process of interactions just went to the store”. See, not so bad after all. This is an idea I think most people get at least in some qualified way from an experiential standpoint when they consider their own identity development over time.

Building off of that, the final mark of reality the practice points to is Dukkha, whose common translation, suffering, causes about as many problems as the translations of Anatta do. Suffering is certainly the most common one, but I prefer unsatisfactoriness or, better yet, unreliability. The basic concept here is that sensory experience, being characterized by impermanence, cannot provide a stable source of satisfaction, and is thus “unreliable” from the perspective of happiness. That ice cream cone might be wonderful and delicious, but its transitory nature means that it won’t provide a happiness that persists.

Dukkha directly builds off of the concept of not self in that dissatisfaction occurs because of a false belief that there is a persistent self that needs satisfaction. When we attempt to grab a hold of and own something, make something ours, and then it disappears, “we” experience suffering or pain. That’s not to say that “life is suffering”, as an simplistic misinterpretation would have us believe, but rather that putting stock in some experience, idea, object or person as the source of solid and lasting happiness will eventually disappoint, hence the platitude “happiness comes from within”. The key insight is that if the mark of not-self is realized, the process of trying to satisfy some separate self goes away, and along with it the whole idea of there being something problematic in experience that needs “fixing” or changing.

Through watching our minds closely, and coming to know these attributes not intellectually but experientially, something amazing can happen. We let go. We stop struggling with experience, trying to grasp something that will disappear, to push away from something that was never separate from us in the first place. We just let it be. And this is what the practice is about. This is what retreat is about. Happiness, of the most profound variety. Not the happiness of satisfying some solid self’s spiritual quest, or of ending pain as we conventionally understand it,  but the happiness of some evolving and changing bit of the interdependent universe coming to continually know and understand itself, and thus interacting with the rest of reality in a more compassionate, clear and understanding way. This is why I put in the time, this is why I sit.

I give you my thanks for reading, it’s my hope that something useful was found in these posts. I want to dedicate this writing to all the people that have supported me in my practice over the years, especially my family and friends, my fellow practitioners on the path, and the teachers I have who come in many forms. May all beings know freedom and live with ease.

On Sitting Intensive Meditation Retreats (Part 5) – Not Therapy, Not Self Improvement

This is the 5th installment in a six part series about what it means to go on intensive meditation retreats, something I’ve been doing for a number of years. This the last of four posts in the series that explore what an intensive meditation retreat isn’t. Tomorrow’s final post in the series will delve into what, in my opinion, doing these retreats is actually about.

The fourth and final misconception is probably the most complex given how many grains of truth there are in it, but I’ll aim to keep things simple.  It’s this: meditation and meditation retreats are not psychotherapy or self improvement.  I repeat: meditation is not psychotherapy, intensive meditation retreats are not some form of intensive psychotherapy, and the whole project of meditation is not one of self improvement.

If I wanted intensive psychotherapy, I’d find myself a good therapist and book multiple sessions per week (though I have no idea where I’d find the money to do such a thing). If I wanted self improvement (something I’d say a qualified yes too, more on that later), I’d engage in practices in my daily life resulted in more considerate, more organized, healthier, more skilled, more compassionate, and a dozen other “better” behaviors (and I do, or, at least, try to).  But that’s not what my meditation practice is about and it’s definitely not why I go on retreat. I think this is a really important point to hammer home because there are so many people within my tradition and others that do actually treat their meditation practice in these ways. I’ll try to explain why.

Especially when doing insight meditation, a practice of watching the mind in action, it’s quite common and admittedly very exciting to start to see big patterns of mind that previously went unnoticed. The way we react to certain people, what comes up when we get into conflict, the relationship we have to our blackberry, these and literally thousands of other ways that we relate to the world become much more clear. For many though, there can then follow a tendency to “figure out” how those patterns came to be, where they originated and why, and through analyzing these things come to better understand the chain of conditionality and history that led to these behaviors and perhaps puts them in context.

This “figuring out” part is not what insight practice is about, it’s what various forms of therapy are about.  Engaging in a “figuring out” process while “on the cushion” (ie – in meditation) detracts from actually being present and aware of what’s happening in the moment. While it might seem like a good and useful thing to do, from the perspective of the practice, it’s basically discursive thought that if you’re anything like me is quite easy to get lost in. Thus, not the practice.

The self improvement part is where things get somewhat trickier. These patterns of mind that we begin to notice are often followed by one of two common reactions. The first, discussed above, is to engage in “figuring out” with regards to the pattern.  The second is to decide to either drop or continue the pattern.

Let’s say I notice a pattern in which I’m beating myself up for looking at my watch in impatience while waiting in line, judging the pattern of being impatient as “Bad”, then identifying as a ” Bad Person”, which the mind certainly thinks is a “Bad Thing”. I might want to drop that whole process. It’s not particularly productive, there’s implicit self deprecation in the pattern, I don’t particularly need it in my life if I want to be a happy person, and it could likely result in me being a jerk to someone else in line. In contrast, if I notice a pattern of helping old women cross the street (to use a trite example), I might decide that that’s a pretty good thing to do for both them and for me, and I’d want to continue to engage with that pattern.

This whole process is both generally good from a human standpoint, and also completely in line with the practice.  It’s actually referred to as “Right Effort“, defined as letting go of or “abandoning” thoughts, speech and action harmful to oneself or others and cultivating ones that benefit oneself and others. Generally, this lines up fairly well with broadly accepted notions of self improvement. Where it diverges though is again in intention.

Buddhist practice on the whole is oriented towards less self obsession, narcissism and solipsism, and more selflessness, both figuratively and literally. The process described in Right Effort of dropping bad habits and cultivating good ones is not about improving some self, but rather about promoting a selflessness that is a natural response to the suffering in the world and that will allow, again, for the clear seeing of experience in the moment. This may seem like a small semantic detail, but read through the self help section of a bookstore and I imagine you’ll find a lot of orientation towards “gaining” or “having” better habits, a premise which is subtly though clearly not about selflessness but rather about narcissism.

Tomorrow, I’ll finish off the series picking up with this idea of watching experience clearly as it unfolds, and do my best to describe what I think retreat is actually all about.

On Sitting Intensive Meditation Retreats (Part 4) – Not a High

This is the 4th installment in a six part series about what it means to go on intensive meditation retreats, something I’ve been doing for a number of years. This the third of four posts of the series that explore what an intensive meditation retreat isn’t. The final post in the series will delve into what, in my opinion, doing these retreats is actually about.

Third misconception: you don’t go on retreat to get high. No, I don’t mean to imply that people think that meditators are smoking pot as they sit for weeks on end (yogis on retreat follow the Five Precepts that constitute basic Buddhist ethics), but rather that meditation has long been associated with getting “blissed out”, or entering sometimes spectacular meditative states that are characterized by calm, tranquility, pleasure, or equanimity. Things get somewhat complicated here, as there are in fact in almost every meditative tradition including the one that I practice in (which, for you meditation geeks out there is the Theravada Buddhist tradition) practices explicitly meant bring you to such states, not to mention that even when a person is not engaged in those specific practices, other practices often involve chancing into those states unintentionally.

Some brief delving into the details of meditative practice here is useful.  As Daniel Goleman states in Varieties of Meditative Experience, and I fully agree with, all meditation practices can basically be broken down into two categories: concentration practices and awareness practices. Concentration practices involve taking an object of meditation, such as the breath, a colored disk, a mantra or a visualization and focusing the mind clearly and consistently on that object for extended periods. In contrast, awareness practices involve either using a subset, like sound or the breath, or the entirety of sensory experience to serve as the object of meditation. Awareness practices differ from concentration practices in that the meditator is not attempting to become completely focused on or absorbed in the object as it were, but rather aims to watch very closely the process of experience itself unfolding so as to learn something about the nature of sensory reality and the human mind.

Aside from anything else about meditative concentration practices, which include a plethora of permutations each with their own underlying logic, engaging in concentration practices intensively can result in states of mind that are just straight-up other-worldly. Some might be on the mild side, just resulting in general pleasant and consistently peaceful experience (which is actually mind blowing, come to think of it), others can result in levels of bliss that are pretty much entirely unknown to ordinary experience (depending on how powerful the mind gets), some even bring the practitioner to a place where the entirety of sensory reality drops away.

If this sounds pretty incredible, that’s because it is.  But it’s not why I and most meditation practitioners are involved in this whole thing.  That’s not to say that there aren’t or haven’t been points when I’ve cultivated concentration or engaged in practices that can lead to these sorts of states of mind, but they’re only a means to an end, like the aforementioned disconnecting from email. The point is to create the conditions under which what’s going on in the mind and experience can be clearly seen, as my primary meditation practice falls into that second category I mentioned, awareness practice.

Called Vipassana which means “clear seeing” in Pali, the ancient language of Theravada Buddhism, it is often referred to as Insight Meditation. In technique it’s very simple, though can often be quite challenging in practice. As the Buddha said, “In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized.” Basically, the practice entails having a bare awareness of experience from one moment to the next, without grasping at it or pushing it away. Concentration is a means to an end in that it helps with the “one moment to the next” part, as one might be aware in one moment, but unless there’s concentration, the next one will go by unseen. So, concentration is a necessary part of the practice, and hence some of these blissful and otherwise altered states of mind might come about, but they’re not the heart of the practice or why it’s done. You might get a little high in the course of a retreat, but that’s not what it’s about.

Tomorrow I share the final and most complex misconception – Not Therapy, Not Self Improvement. Stay tuned!

On Sitting Intensive Meditation Retreats (Part 3) – Not an Escape

This is the 3rd installment in a six part series about what it means to go on intensive meditation retreats, something I’ve been doing for a number of years. This post, and the next two, continues an exploration that started with yesterday’s installment about what an intensive meditation retreat isn’t. The final post in the series will delve into what, in my opinion, doing these retreats is actually about.

Point #2: Meditation retreats are not about escaping from an increasingly busy, fast, and full on life that’s defined by a person’s calendar, to do list and smartphone. Anybody who knows me knows that I love my to do list, delight in scheduling things, and generally prefer to have a chocked full life lived with smartphone in hand, thank you very much. Retreats are not an escape from a crazy world of financial meltdowns, global conflicts, and environmental woes – you still have your mind when you go and sit, and believe me, it’s a crazy world in there too (and if you don’t think that’s true for you, go ahead and sit down for 45 minutes, close your eyes, and watch your mind. You might be shocked by what you see).  In short, going and sitting is not an escape or retreat from life or the world, though the term “meditation retreat” does this misconception no favors.

Caveat time: this idea of retreat as escape might have such incredible sticking power because many of the external conditions the notion is based upon are, in fact, accurate. On retreat, a person cuts themself off from the world at large, they don’t have responsibilities in the conventional sense save an hour a day doing a “yogi job” (washing dishes, chopping veggies, sweeping leaves, etc.), they aren’t on email or using the phone, they’re not even engaging in conversation. So yes, it is a retreat in those senses. And people that often go on retreat even talk about how much they enjoy these aspects of them.  Heck, I love turning off my iPhone, not having to worry about meeting a deadline or being enslaved to a news cycle that both endlessly fascinates and depresses me.

The key factor though in why escape isn’t what a retreat is about is intention. The silence, the lack of work, the not reading the news or constantly having meetings, none of those are an end in themselves. Rather, they’re conditions set up to allow the mind to settle, to come to a level of stillness so that it’s actually able to see clearly what’s happening during the process of experience, so often taken for granted. It’s an act of renunciation from the sensory overload that often defines our world, and the renunciation is in service of a desire to actually arrive in the present, so rare in daily life.

In fact, it’s when we are out in the world, rather than when we go on retreat, that we are more often playing a game of escape. Whether it’s through consuming media, keeping busy, or even just shooting the shit, we find a million and a half ways of not actually encountering and paying attention to our lived experience.  After all, why would anyone want to just sit around and watch what’s going on inside their heads? That must be so boring! Well, generally no, though boredom is sometimes there.  Ever tried to stay with boredom though? It can paradoxically be quite interesting to watch if you’re not wrapped up in it. Anyhow…   On retreat, you’re not escaping from the world, you’re opening up to it, paying attention to it in a way that is unique and wonderful and I think quite rare. So, to retreat is not to escape.

Tomorrow – Not a High.

On Sitting Intensive Meditation Retreats (Part 2) – Not a Spa

For those that missed the introductory post, this is the 2nd installment in a six part series about what it means to go on an intensive meditation retreat, something I’ve been doing for a number of years. This and the next three posts will outline what a retreat is not about, and the final post will attempt to put out what it is about.

First off, going on retreat is not going to a spa.  If I wanted a spa, I’d go to canyon ranch.  There are no massages, facials, pools or gyms, and I don’t go on retreat to relax, though it’s a welcome byproduct that occasionally presents itself. In general actually, retreats can involve a high level of rigor, hence the “intensive” bit in “intensive meditation retreat”. Pretty much the entire day is spent in formal meditation outside of meals, and even during meals and other non-formal practice periods one is aiming to maintain continuity in the meditative practice. That’s anywhere from 15-20 hours a day spent in meditation, and trust me, these hours are just as often painful, exhilarating, disconcerting or a million other mind states both pleasant and unpleasant as they are relaxing.

In terms of external forms of relaxation, the facilities and level of comfort they come with can depend on where you go on retreat. I’ve sat retreats in Asia (Burma, Thailand and India, specifically), as well as in the States, mostly in New England.  While there are certainly differences between those in the East and those in the West, there are some general things that characterize retreat centers that make them quite different from spas.

Lodging is usually sparse, with single though occasionally double occupancy simple, small rooms, and in Asia it’s common to be in a single room hut.  Food in the West is usually vegetarian and at the places I’ve been to quite good though nothing gourmet, and in Asia will be fare of whatever country you find yourself in, which can sometimes be a delight (as it was in Thailand) and sometimes not (I’m looking at you, Burma). Meals are usually twice a day, breakfast and lunch, and in the West I’ve usually been at places that have a very light tea, crackers, peanut butter, fruit and the like, in the late afternoon.  When I was sitting in Thailand there was actually only one meal a day, a huge breakfast at about 8 am that was chocked full of the sort of things you might have for dinner (curries, meats, rice, with plenty of delicious fresh fruit). I’ve almost always enjoyed the food on retreats, but in-house five star restaurants this is not.

Centers are often located in rural areas (the place I just came from is called the Forest Refuge) as it’s helpful to have a good bit of quiet, though I’ve also been to centers in Asia that have been in the middle of cities and are quite loud.  Shared bathrooms and showers are the norm (no hot tubs!), and in long term retreats there will usually be a washing machine in Western centers, and handwash in Asia. Sorry, no dry cleaning available.

Overall, these places are comfortable enough for a person to not get distracted by not having basic needs of food, shelter and clothing met but not get obsessed with these things to the point that a retreatant (or yogi, as they’re called) is luxuriating instead of meditating. This, of course, exists on a spectrum depending on where you are, but, as I said – not a spa.

Stay tuned for part 3 tomorrow, Not An Escape.

Photo Credit to the Forest Refuge

On Sitting Intensive Meditation Retreats – A Series (Part 1)

I recently returned from spending a month on a silent retreat practicing a style of Buddhist meditation that originated in India about 2,500 years ago. It’s a practice that I’ve been doing for almost ten years and that has become an important part of my life, and while I don’t always go on retreat for such an extended length of time, I usually set aside anywhere from a week to a month each year to enter a space that’s in many ways counter-cultural and often, I think, misunderstood.

It occurred to me this year as I was sitting, as doing such retreats or just meditating is colloquially called, that many people might not have an accurate sense of what it’s like to go on retreat or an understanding of why anyone would choose to do something like it when time, and especially time spent with those we care about, is often such a scarcity. So this six part series, which I’ll post over the course of this week, is basically a primer for those that have ever wondered what the heck I’m doing when I disappear for a couple of weeks a year and don’t answer my emails.

As a warning, while this series of posts is not solely dedicated to issues of philosophy, existentialism, religion and the like, some of my personal views on such topics are discussed. If this kind of thing makes you uncomfortable, well, that’s healthy.  They make most people uncomfortable. They hit pretty close to home in terms of our experience of life, something that basically everyone is attempting to understand one way or another. If these things in no way make you think twice, please email me and let me know what you’ve figured out that I haven’t.  Final caveat: the views shared here are mine and constrained entirely by my own experience, others that go on these sorts of retreats very well may think about them differently or sit at retreats of different styles or traditions that my descriptions don’t represent.

For this project I also decided to take a somewhat nontraditional discursive style. I figured rather than directly tackling the large and complicated question of what these retreats are about, I’d take a classic Buddhist approach of describing an experience in terms of what it’s not. So, the following posts, save the last one, will describe the retreat experience for the most part in the negative. I thought this might be useful, as articulating some common misconceptions about something that is fraught with them is often a good way of getting people’s heads around what the experience actually is. However, there is often a grain of truth upon which misconceptions are based, and I’ll do my best to give each half truth its due as I write. In the final post, I’m going foolishly attempt to explain what this whole enterprise of going on retreats and not talking and not emailing and going through both horrible and wonderful mindstates is all about (at least for me). I hope you follow, comment and enjoy!

Tomorrow – Not a Spa.

Moving on, and why working at Global Kids was the best job I ever had.

In January 2006, I began my job at Global Kids. I was the second full time staff member working in what’s called our Online Leadership Program, trying to figure out what value new media could add to our mission of youth development and empowerment around global issues. During one of my interviews for the job, I asked Barry Joseph, director of GK’s online programs, where he saw the program in five years. He replied quickly and unapologetically, stating that it wasn’t really possible to know, that the world of new media was developing so quickly and in so many different directions that it would be too hard to predict what would prove to have potential in terms of our mission.

It’s almost five years later now, and I’ve had an incredible opportunity here at Global Kids to explore so many of those unknown possibilities that Barry was alluding to as he hired me; using social networks for social impact, training youth to conduct peer education in virtual worlds, teaching social issue game design and creating new afterschool programs around DIY media production. After doing so much meaningful work, I’ve decided that it’s time that I moved on and took my next steps outside of the nurturing professional environment that this organization has provided for me over the years.

I’ve always said to myself that I would only leave my job under a couple of conditions: either I’d stopped being able to contribute something meaningful and unique the organization, or I’d stopped learning and growing myself. I’m thankful that neither of those is actually the case now, though our learning culture here at Global Kids is, in a very positive sense, a big contributor to why I’m leaving.

In my work here, I was not only challenged to constantly learn new things to be effective, but was also almost immediately thrown into larger national and international conversations happening about learning, youth culture, civic engagement and new media. At the end of the day after writing curriculum, running youth programs, or conducting professional trainings, I’d find myself riding home on the subway reading white papers and books about situated learning in video games, the future of Internet, or how civic life is changing online. And so after spending years at Global Kids collaborating with researchers in these areas, I’ve decided to spend some time stepping back from solely being a practitioner to engage in research myself.

In the Fall, I’ll begin work towards a PhD in Learning Sciences at Indiana University, where I plan to study how the rich informal learning that youth are engaging in through online participatory cultures can shed light on how more formal learning institutions like afterschool programs, libraries, museums and schools are designed as learning spaces. As a society, we’re on the cusp of revolutionary changes in the ways young people learn, and I hope to do my part through my research to help learning institutions not just keep pace but wholly change their practices to ensure that we’re creating the conditions in today’s youth for a more just and equitable society tomorrow.

I know that I can’t do justice here to all the things that I’ve loved about working at Global Kids. I feel like I’ve accomplished and contributed a lot here, working on more projects than I can count with more organizations that I can think of. I’ve worked both in the schools here in New York as well as through online communities like Second Life where I’ve run programs with youth that have inspired and humbled me, individuals that made me wish that I’d had such dedication to the broader world when I was in high school. I’ve moved certain areas of our work forward because of the freedom that I’ve been given to do so, and gained valuable skills through the diversity of initiatives we engage in. Most importantly, the work that I did here as I showed up day after day kept me passionate and dedicated, and know that there were important lessons we were learning as we engaged in often uncharted waters.

None of the work that I’ve done would be possible without an incredible team of colleagues and friends that I’ve had to the opportunity to work with at Global Kids. I’ve learned more than I could have imagined from the bright and committed people that this organization attracts, and I want to say thank you to all of you. A special shout out, of course, goes to Barry Joseph, my boss and de facto mentor for my tenure here. Barry’s sense of playfulness and adventure combined with an energy to create and accomplish have made the culture of our team singular, and he’s taught me more than anyone else about what it means to be a professional.

I know that this work will go on in unexpected ways in the coming years, and looking on from the outside will certainly be tough. I wish Global Kids so much luck and know that by continuing to work in solidarity with our youth you all will continue to have lasting impact.

Delfest, Participatory Culture, and Life as Data

Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Photo from Magic Hat BreweryI spent this past weekend with a great group of friends in the Cumberland Water Gap, a rural area in Western Maryland where we were attending a Bluegrass music festival called Delfest. I’ve never actually been to a music festival of any sort (crazy it’s taken me this long!), so I didn’t have a lot of expectations coming into the weekend save having a good time and spending time outdoors.

The festival, in short, rocked, totally going beyond the pretty basic things I’d hoped for. It was pure summertime goodness; we saw great music, camped out at the foot of a mountain, went tubing down a river that looped around the grounds, made friends with strangers, and lost our sense of time for two days. (The answer to “What time is it?” was invariably: “it’s Del o’clock.”, or, every so often “ten to Del.”, and occasionally, “half past Del.”) And so a big part of being there was just about enjoying myself – getting some space from an increasingly busy, stressful and packed upcoming month, spending time with friends, soaking in the good vibes and remembering the spontaneity and adventure that can come with arriving in an open space with no real plans.

At the same time, the budding learning scientist in me was having a whole other experience of the festival. As someone planning on studying the learning that happens in informal environments, those outside of school and not traditionally thought of as ‘educational’, I was also viewing the event as part of what media scholar Henry Jenkins would call a Participatory Culture, and as what learning theorist Jim Gee calls a Semiotic Domain with an associated Affinity Space. All pretty high concepts for sure, each with their own useful nuances, but in the most basic sense I was seeing an open community of people dedicated to a particular idea or practice, in this case Bluegrass music, come together to do their thing, share and learn from each other (though likely not framing it as such) and in doing so define and redefine what that space means both in terms of its core practices as well as its broader culture and associated quirks.

Photo from Magic Hat BreweryI saw amateurs working with experts – small jam circles of musicians with varied levels of talent playing around campfires with assorted string instruments where anybody could come and join in, contributing whatever they could even if it was just singing along or playing some simple chords, along with main-stage shows featuring artists recognized as being at the top of their trade, setting a (perhaps contested) standard for what good practice looks like in the community.

I saw plenty of things not immediately related to the musical practice itself but that emerged around it; the throwing of small, soft glowsticks amongst a concert-going crowd, each landing and then getting hurled up into the air again, fans dancing with wanton abandon in varied styles, substance use and perhaps abuse, and a do-it-yourself camping culture where people constructed elaborate tents, fires and meals. These are the sorts of things that give nuance, character and attitude to these kinds of informal spaces, and are an expression of the underlying values of the community – each points to a certain ethos or narrative endemic to the larger whole.

I noted various demographic groups as they became visible; low income local white folks from Appalachia that I’d associate with NASCAR and country music, “hippy” types in tie-die and dreadlocks, young professionals from DC, New York and other metropolitan areas, often working in politics, journalism or education (forgive the heuristics here) – as well as noticing those that were absent. I counted about 15 people of color and no one that was easily identifiable to me as queer while I was there out of what was easily over a thousand people.

And I reflected on what it meant for me to be doing pretty much all of this observation and analysis automatically, remembering a line that references Rilke from a great short piece by Mark Federman called The Tao of Thesis [pdf], about how one engages in thesis-level work:

“You will view the world and your entire existence through research-coloured glasses. The thesis process becomes less an effort to find answers, and more a vehicle through which you can live your question.”

My time at Delfest is interesting because it is one of several experiences that I’ve had as I near the beginning of my doctoral work where I started to consistently notice the world as data parsed by a particular lens, and it’s prompting me to wonder what it will be like to put on these glasses full time when I enter graduate school – what’s gained, what’s lost, and what the edges are to look out for when doing this strange exercise while still trying to live an integral life, one viewed through many lenses and that acknowledges the limitations of a singular viewpoint. I’m excited to find out.

Resonance, Rhetoric and Spirituality

Each year, I go on a meditation retreat with an incredible group of about twenty friends and mentors.  We meet in a house on Martha’s Vineyard where we spend 7 days together meditating in silence and then have a weekend of hanging out, socializing, sharing what we’re up to in our lives and spending time on the beach.  We’ve been doing this now for eight years, and I just returned a couple of days ago from our most recent retreat. (You can see pictures from prior years here.) While I can write a lot about this unique group, how it came to be, the wonderful individuals that are a part of it and the joys and challenges of the experiment in spiritual community that we’ve been engaging in for almost a decade, I’m going to save that for another time.

What I wanted to share was one of the practices that we have, one where people in the group give talks about our experience on the spiritual path. Colloquially these are called dharma talks in the Buddhist community, and they are generally given by meditation teachers and masters on specific themes and ideas from the “dharma”, or Buddha’s teachings. One thing I always loved about our group is that there is a trust in the ability of every person in it to bring the wisdom of their own experience to the larger community, as opposed to reserving the sharing of knowledge to those in the group that are formally spiritual teachers.

Over the years, these dharma talks have been one of the things that I look forward to most.  They’re invariably funny, profound and personal, and I’ve learned a lot from my fellow meditators through them.  I gave one last year, which I just now got a digital copy of, so I thought I’d share it.

The talk was on the topic of resonance and the significant role it plays on the spiritual path.  It has a lot to do with rhetoric as well, though I didn’t think of it in those terms at the time. Through the talk I weave in fan fiction and appropriation, ancient serial killers, Ze Frank, mental jujitsu and Obama, and I personally think it’s both fun and interesting. For those that would like to listen, you can download an mp3 here, or listen through the player below.  One caveat is that the very beginning is a little confusing out of context, as the talk was given in the middle of a week where others had given talks that I referenced then, a second is that while some concepts I talk about will only be familiar to those with background in Buddhism, overall the general message is widely applicable in my opinion. Also, when I use the word “practice”, it’s referring to the overall practice of the Buddhist path which includes meditation, worldview and ethical frameworks.  Enjoy!

Hi there.

Rafi in thailand, smiling

If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

Research. Meditation. Learning theory. Spirituality. Activism. Cooking. New Media. Pedagogy. Photography. It's all fair game, and will likely coalesce into some unholy mixture thereof. But hey, that's the integral life.