Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Movies as Meditation - Keith Nobbs on cultivating compassion by watching Sean Penn - "You get goosebumps! Your body knows when it's real!"

Here's the truth, and it hurts. Bad. Sometimes I wonder whether this is all just an intellectual exercise. Not that often, but sometimes. I mean, does it really mean anything to anyone, when an actor approaches a role with compassion? Whether he or she really tries to portray them as a human being, without judgment? I mean, Transformers made over $200M this weekend! In spite of its astoundingly bad reviews. Shouldn't we all be emulating that?

But then there are times where a performance deeply affects us, and gives us insight into a human being in a completely new way. No, I'm not talking about Megan Fox. Keith Nobbs, who recently shared his thoughts on contribution with us, and whose own work has deeply affected many, talked to me about watching Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking:

You'll have to watch the video to see him describe Penn's performance, and how the briefest crack in his stoic veneer allowed Keith, as an audience member, access to understand the character as a human being. But here's what Keith says about how you know when it's working:
"When that moment happens, it's not an intellectual thing, it's an emotional engagement. You get goosebumps! Your body knows when it's real... you're completely invested in that feeling... watching people crack... just gets me every time."
Who hasn't felt that way, watching an amazing performance that connects to them personally in an unexpected way. Sean Penn plays a brutal murderer in the film, and creates someone we're able to see as a human being. And we know it's true, because we feel it in our bones.

It's this point that reminds me it's not just intellectual; it's emotional, it's real, and it compels us to understand other human beings as being no different from ourselves. That the way we suffer is universal, that our struggles are universal.

Keith goes on to point out that it ain't easy!
"It's such a beautiful, vulnerable strength, to be able to do that. And you try, and you try to be compassionate with yourself as an actor when you do that successfully, and when you don't. 'Cause you don't, all the time. Sometimes we mess up. Not mess up, but sometimes you're not able, sometimes you're too scared. But to be forgiving and loving of yourself... and to continue to be curious and to continue to be empathetic.... is the goal."
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, who I was fortunate enough to see recently at the New York Shambhala Center, shares this in his new book, Joyful Wisdom:
"Deeply entrenched in our habits of relating to ourselves, other people, things, and situations is a kind of lonely separateness––a sense of independent being that obscures our connectedness to others. This very subtle sense of difference or separation lies at the heart of many personal and interpersonal problems. The practice of empathy takes whatever difficulty or crisis we may be facing as a starting point for recognizing our similarity to others. It gradually opens our minds to a profound experience of fearlessness and confidence while transforming personal problems into a strong motivation to help others."
The empathy that Keith describes in Sean Penn's performance––the empathy Penn has for his character, which creates the empathy we feel for his character––is this "starting point" for recognizing our similarity, and that's why it gives us goosebumps. Rinpoche goes on to talk about how easy it is not to see this similarity.
"It's so easy to think that we're the only ones who suffer while other people were born with the Happiness Handbook...which through some accident of birth, we never received. I've been as guilty of this belief as anyone else. When I was young, the anxiety I almost constantly experienced left me feeling alone, weak, and stupid."
As I have previously quoted, Thich Nhat Hanh talking about what feeling that way makes us do:
"You can make a mistake only when you forget that the other person suffers. You tend to believe that you are the only one who suffers, and that the other person is enjoying your suffering. You will say and do mean and cruel things when you believe that you are the only one who suffers and that the other person does not suffer at all."
Rinpoche goes on to talk about his compassion mediation and how it affected him:
"I found that my sense of isolation began to diminish. At the same time I gradually began to feel confident and even useful. I began to recognize that I wasn't the only person to feel scared and vulnerable. Over time, I began to see that considering the welfare of other beings was essential in discovering my own peace of mind."
Is it possible that watching a performance grounded in compassion is a form of mediation on compassion, in that it causes us to feel more compassion for others? In the moment we're suddenly able to feel compassion for Sean Penn's character, a murderer who we might otherwise judge, is compassion being cultivated within us?

And maybe we only feel that way for a moment, and maybe the compassion fades. But guess what? Same thing with meditation! People practice Tonglen over and over and over for years. The Dalai Lama supposedly practices it every day! I mean, that dude seems pretty compassionate to me and still he feels like he needs to keep practicing. I hope he gets it right at some point.

Seriously though, I'm not suggesting that anyone give up compassion and lovingkindness meditation and start watching movies. But it's clear that watching a performance grounded in compassion opens us up to an understanding of our similarity to others. Including, perhaps, giant robots.

Thanks so much, Keith, for bringing the importance of this to my attention! *

Monday, June 29, 2009

Whoops! I forgot to be compassionate! - and a response from Peace Games' Courtney Wong

Whoa! Another week + has gone by and no posting. What's that about? Lest you think I'm sitting here in lotus position, mindfully breathing while I take on the business that is show, I'd like to share the following:

I frequently get so wrapped up in what's going on in my head that I forget to be compassionate.

That's right. Me. I can be a real jerk sometimes! For instance, I'll be on the phone with an agent, or a producer, or a casting director, and they'll say something that just rubs me the wrong way. Can you believe it? Me, Mr. Non-Judgment? Obviously there must be something really really wrong with them if it bothers me. Or maybe I'm just not being compassionate! Maybe I'm so busy being right that I'm not stopping to think about what they want!

Remember that Triumph song from the 70's, "Fight the Good Fight"? Make sure to watch this video from the 1983 Us Festival. At least watch through to the part where Rik Emmett's face is superimposed over an image of the crowd.

Damn, that guy has a high voice. What is it with Canadian singers? Regardless the message is clear: FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT! What can I do make sure I keep fighting the good fight?

I have an elaborate system of reminders that bring me back to... ommm... compassion. So that when I'm on the phone with someone who's somehow annoying me, I can stop and remember to be compassionate. I can remember what's important to me and why, I can remember to take a breath and come back to the present moment, I can remember why I must be compassionate, how it impacts me when I'm not being compassionate, how it impacts them, and how it impacts the world.

In case you forgot why it's important to be compassionate, click here.

So here are some of my reminders.

1. Buddha on the desk
2. Buddha on the windowsill
3. Pic of my kids on the desk.
4. Pic of my wife on the desk.
5. Pic of my kids and nephews on my big monitor.
6. Plants!
7. Mindfulness bell on my computer
8. Tattoo with my wife and kids' names, and red lotuses (the flower of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion). This is a recent addition, and one that I can take with me wherever I go.
9. Inspiring quotes on my desk. Today, from Chogyam Trungpa, "This very moment is always the occasion."
10. Stacks and stacks of inspiring reading.

If this gets you excited, feel free to find your own ideas. I'd hate to think you were copying me. I especially don't want you getting a tattoo with my wife and kids' names. Or steal, if it really helps. But seriously, don't get my wife and kids' names tattooed on your arm. Seriously. Find your own damn family. Whoops! Off track for a moment.

Anyway I'd like to share one of the other most inspiring things that really keeps me on track––I got an email from our friends at Peace Games who were kind enough to forward this note from one of their interns, Courtney Wong, who's working with them through the New Sector Alliance Summer Fellowship Program. Here, Courtney discussed the posting about Keith Nobbs' experiences in his work. The picture below is Courtney, just to avoid any confusion.
"I was touched by your moving post about Keith’s experiences with compassion in his acting work. The sense of fulfillment and personal impact that Keith felt in his role as an actor, inspiring compassion and empathy in his audience is quite similar to what Peace Games works to instill in its students.

As an intern at Peace Games through the New Sector Alliance Summer Fellowship program in nonprofit consulting, I only became acquainted with the organization’s work a few weeks ago. I hadn’t previously thought about the idea of “peacemaking” and its importance as a fundamental value taught to students, but in learning about Peace Games’ rich history and work by visiting schools and talking to staff members, I realize that it’s really all about teaching students to act with the basic but essential values of compassion, understanding, and mutual respect.

This idea that you write about, that compassion is the key to having an extraordinary impact, is exactly what Peace Games teaches its students. In our classrooms, students learn about and practice these values, in order to understand that their relationships with peers, family members, and teachers must be filled with compassion, respect, kindness, and empathy. This understanding gives students the ability to have an impact beyond the one already felt in their personal relationships – a greater impact on their communities at large, which they reveal through their community service learning “Peacemaker Projects” carried out during the second half of the year.

As you noted, Keith identifies himself and his work as an important contribution, which is Peace Games’ goal for its students as well. We teach students that we must all be a contribution as peacemakers, people who make a difference, and that the differences we make should be about fostering positive changes in our communities based on compassion and respect."
If you're not already familiar with Peace Games, check out this amazing video on their work:

And thanks so much to Courtney Wong for her inspiring words!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Compassion & Contribution: "Yeah, sure, compassion's great, but what's in it for me?"

Hi everyone. Sorry that it's been twelve days since I've posted. In that time I've done two extraordinary interviews, which I've been processing in my mind. I've been doing a lot of reading, too, and it all seems like it's bearing fruit:

You may remember that back in March, I asserted the following:
  1. Compassion is at the center of every career that truly inspires me.
  2. Compassion is the key to the most extraordinary career possible.
  3. Compassion is the key to making the most extraordinary impact possible
  4. Compassion is the key to the happiest life possible.
The very talented and articulate Keith Nobbs was kind enough to share his thoughts with me on compassion as it relates to his work in the arts. Keith's an actor, and he'll soon be seen starring in the massive HBO miniseries The Pacific. Here, Keith talks about working on stage:
"When people go in to a theater, they sit there and they think they have nothing in common with what they're about to see, or who these people are. And throughout the course of... the evening, they realize, these layers of protection start to melt away, and they start to identify with these people and they start to relate to them, and focus on what connects them to these people, instead of what separates and divides them."
This is pretty basic stuff, right? Most would agree, that if the artists putting on a play create something that allows the above to happen, they've been successful in some way.

But there's another layer I'd like to focus on, that's primarily related to numero 3 above: Compassion is the key to making the most extraordinary impact possible.

In the Christopher Shinn play Four, Keith played a young gay teen on a date with a much older man, in a sexually charged scene. The particular performance Keith discusses here is a "student matinee," in front of a theater full of high school kids.

In the video, Keith talks about his concern about performing this play in front of these kids.
“There was a part of me that was so terrified of doing this play in front of those kids, because I thought... these are the people [my character is] most afraid of, and he's having to get up in front of them and be that naked and that vulnerable, and reveal the parts of himself he hates the most, in the least safe environment possible.”

"The risk of doing that in front of other people and revealing that part of yourself in front of that audience... it's terrifying. These are parts of ourselves... they could be joyful parts of ourselves, they could be shameful parts of ourselves that you don't want to reveal, but the power and the freedom of being able to reveal that, and then having people recognize that, and having people respond to that and validate those parts of yourself, is such a powerful... gift for us and for them."
Keith goes on to describe how the kids ultimately reacted to the performance, at a graphic moment in the play:
“They were so invested in the story, and treating it as though this was a real person, with real thoughts and real feelings, it was silence. There was no anxiety, there was no nervous laughter. Everybody was just listening. And it moved me so much, I almost wanted to cry in that moment, because I could feel them giving my character respect, feel them listening to him as if he was a real person. And then I thought about... how amazing to have this forum to tell this story... and the kid out there in the audience... who's gay, who may not even know he's gay, and he's sitting there listening to this story, and these kids, who he's probably afraid of... he can see them listening to this character, and respecting this character, and how moving that it for him to witness.”

There are several layers of compassion here that are pretty obvious: Keith's compassion for the character, which enables him to portray him in a way that allows the audience to actually listen to him and respect him, the audience's compassion for the character, unexpected by Keith, Keith's compassion for himself, allowing himself to feel the fear the character himself might experience among his peers, and Keith's compassion for the audience.

It's this last one I'd like to focus on here, and the impact possible because of it.

After the performance, Keith notices two specific things: that the audience was able to give his character respect, and that there might be someone in the audience who specifically identifies with his character, and who gets something very important from that identification.

So here, compassion is potentially the key to an extraordinary impact. What I find exciting about the way this occurs to Keith is the fact that he so deeply recognized this impact, and in some ways it appears to be part of the fundamental reason he put himself on the line––courageously exposing himself in a terrifying environment.

Here, Keith declares himself a contribution, he recognizes the impact his work may have on an audience, or even on one individual in the audience, and that impact is part of what gives him the ability to take action, however terrifying it might be. And, inevitably, that impact reaches beyond any one individual.

The amazing Zanders talk about "being a contribution" in The Art of Possibility:
"The practice is... inventing oneself as a contribution, and others as well. The steps to the practice are these:
  1. Declare yourself to be a contribution.
  2. Throw yourself into life as someone who makes a difference, accepting that you may not understand how or why...
...when you play the contribution game, it is never a single individual who is transformed. Transformation overrides the divisions of identity and possession that are the architecture of the measurement model, recasting the tight pattern of scarcity into a widespread array of abundance....

...naming oneself and others as a contribution produces a shift away from self-concern and engages us in a relationship with others that is an arena for making a difference. Rewards in the contribution game are of a deep and enduring kind, though less predictable than the trio of money, fame, and power that accrue to the winner in the success game. You never know what they will be, or from whence they will come."
I titled this entry "Yeah, sure, compassion's great, but what's in it for me." I hope that watching Keith Nobbs talk about his work inspires you to consider what is, in fact, in it for you. Think about what Keith says, above:

"And it moved me so much, I almost wanted to cry in that moment, because I could feel them giving my character respect, feel them listening to him as if he was a real person."

How extraordinary to feel that sense of aliveness, that connectedness with his audience, his awareness of the impact possible from his work. As the Zanders say, the rewards are deep and enduring when we take on being a contribution. And considering how you and your life are a contribution to others is the essence of compassion.

Thank you, Keith! *

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Aimee Mullins on Possibility - “You know, Aimee, you're very attractive. You don't look disabled.”

How cool is Aimee Mullins? I've gotten to know her just a little bit lately, and she's completely blown me away with her artistry, her strength, and particularly, her compassion.

Check this out from her recent TED talk:
I was speaking to a group of about 300 kids, ages six to eight, at a children's museum, and I brought with me a bag full of legs, similar to the kinds of things you see up here, and had them laid out on a table, for the kids. And, from my experience, you know, kids are naturally curious about what they don't know, or don't understand, or what is foreign to them. They only learn to be frightened of those differences when an adult influences them to behave that way, and maybe censors that natural curiosity, or you know, reins in the question-asking in the hopes of them being polite little kids. So, I just pictured a first grade teacher out in the lobby with these unruly kids, saying, "Now, whatever you do, don't stare at her legs."

But, of course, that's the point. That's why I was there, I wanted to invite them to look and explore. So I made a deal with the adults that the kids could come in, without any adults, for two minutes, on their own. The doors open, the kids descend on this table of legs, and they are poking and prodding, and they're wiggling toes, and they're trying to put their full weight on the sprinting leg to see what happens with that. And I said, "Kids, really quickly -- I woke up this morning, I decided I wanted to be able to jump over a house -- nothing too big, two or three stories -- but, if you could think of any animal, any superhero, any cartoon character, anything you can dream up right now, what kind of legs would you build me?"

And immediately a voice shouted, "Kangaroo!" "No, no, no! Should be a frog!" "No. It should be Go Go Gadget!" "No, no, no! It should be The Incredibles." And other things that I don't -- aren't familiar with. And then, one eight-year-old said, "Hey, why wouldn't you want to fly too?" And the whole room, including me, was like, "Yeah." (Laughter) And just like that, I went from being a woman that these kids would have been trained to see as "disabled" to somebody that had potential that their bodies didn't have yet. Somebody that might even be super-abled. Interesting....

...the conversation with society has changed profoundly in this last decade. It is no longer a conversation about overcoming deficiency. It's a conversation about augmentation. It's a conversation about potential. A prosthetic limb doesn't represent the need to replace loss anymore. It can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space. So people that society once considered to be disabled can now become the architects of their own identities and indeed continue to change those identities by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment. And what is exciting to me so much right now is that by combining cutting-edge technology -- robotics, bionics -- with the age-old poetry, we are moving closer to understanding our collective humanity. I think that if we want to discover the full potential in our humanity, we need to celebrate those heartbreaking strengths and those glorious disabilities that we all have. I think of Shakespeare's Shylock: "If you prick us, do we not bleed, and if you tickle us, do we not laugh?" It is our humanity, and all the potential within it, that makes us beautiful.

For commentary we go to the amazing Zanders, Rosamund and Benjamin, talking about "being with the way things are" and "speaking in possibility" in their spectacular, amazing, thrilling, and uplifting book The Art of Possibility:
"Often, the person in the group who articulates the possible is dismissed as a dreamer or as a Pollyanna persisting in a simplistic 'glass half-full' kind of optimism. The naysayers pride themselves on their supposed realism. However, it is actually the people who see the glass as 'half-empty' who are the ones wedded to a fiction, for 'emptiness' and 'lack'... are abstractions of the mind, whereas 'half-full' is a measure of the physical reality under discussion. The so-called optimist, then, is the only one attending to real things, the only one describing a substance that is actually in the glass.

The practice of being with the way things are can break the unseen grip of abstractions created as a hedge against danger in a world of survival, and allow us to make conscious distinctions that take us in to the realm of possibility––dreams, for instance, and visions. Imagine if we were to faithfully whisper the immortal words of Martin Luther King, Jr. 'I have a dream....,' as a preface to our every next remark. Speaking in possibility springs from the appreciation that what we say creates a reality; how we define things sets a framework for things to unfold."
Why do I bring this up? Because Aimee's description of the kids' reactions to her many pairs of legs was 1) simply a reaction to the way things are as opposed to a story about how things are i.e. there is a problem here, there is a shortcoming. And, 2) the kids were easily coached by Aimee in to speaking in possibility. She did so by getting two minutes alone with the kids before the adults were able to come in and "censor their natural curiosity" and asking them a question that immediately sparked their imaginations.

Aimee enrolled the kids, which the Zanders talk about later in the book:
"Enrollment is the art and practice of generating a spark of possibility for others to share.... we have at our fingertips an infinite capacity to light a spark of possibility. Passion, rather than fear, is the igniting force. Abundance, rather than scarcity, is the context."
Again, what does this have to do with compassion?

A whole let, let me tell you.

Compassion makes one able to see the limitless possibility in anyone. The Zanders talk about Michaelangelo having said that "inside every block of stone or marble dwells a beautiful statue; one need only remove the excess material to reveal the work of art within." By being truly compassionate, by refusing to judge, by paying attention to what is rather than our story about it––there's something wrong here––we're able to notice what's actually possible for another, whether physically, or in the words and thoughts they have to offer.

So film, for example, gives us an opportunity to notice this, to dwell in possibility rather than in limitation. Watching a historical account of a small time lawyer who rises to free India, for example, in Gandhi, or an aging professor who's played the field for his entire life and suddenly, unexpectedly, finds himself in love in Elegy, or in films starring actors other than Ben Kingsley, one realizes the humanity of others as we see their journeys on screen.

In Elegy, for example, Kingsley's character David Kepesh is utterly sure of himself and his game. When he begins to seduce Consuela (the ridiculously beautiful Penélope Cruz) we immediately understand that the moves he's putting on her are moves he's put on a thousand others. It'd be easy to judge him, but the film––Kingsley's acting along with Cruz, Clarkson, Hopper, Sarsgaard, the wonderful script and direction––allows us to join him on his journey, and gives us an opportunity to understand someone who's been sure of himself his whole life, and then finds himself questioning the whole thing. We see the possibility in Kepesh, we want him to have love and happiness, we know it can be true for him if he'd only allow it to happen. We, as an audience, want to chip away the marble hiding the work of art within.

The oft-quoted Tom Hiddleston:
"Within all of us there is the capacity to be anyone or anything... There is an Iago and a Romeo within all of us, there is that lover, and there is that sociopath."
Benjamin Zander recently gave a TED talk on music, passion, leadership, and possibility:
"I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. And you know how you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you're doing it... So if the eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. If the eyes are not shining, you get to ask a question. And this is the question: Who am I being that my players' eyes are not shining? We can do that with our children too. Who am I being that my children's eyes are not shining? That's a totally different world.

Now, we're all about to end this magical, on-the-mountain week, and we're going back into the world. And I say, it's appropriate for us to ask the question: Who are we being as we go back out into the world? And you know, I have a definition of success. For me it's very simple. It's not about wealth and fame and power. It's about how many shining eyes I have around me."

So maybe it's a good opportunity to ask yourself: who am I being that my children's eyes are not shining? Who am I being that my clients' eyes are not shining? Who am I being that my audience's eyes are not shining? Consider that everything you do, say, or even think has an impact, and creates an opportunity to awaken possibility in others.

By focusing your work, and your life on compassion, you create an opportunity to awaken possibility in others. Perhaps, to imagine themselves in love, in spite of the stories they've told themselves. To imagine hope, happiness, and humanity where they'd previously thought none. To imagine themselves having something to contribute, when they might have previously considered themselves worthless.

And by refusing to focus on compassion, by mindlessly ignoring it, you're costing the world something huge.

Aimee Mullins, and the Zanders, are awakening opportunity, and creating shining eyes all around them through their tremendous compassion.


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Eckhart Tolle, Jim Carrey, and Melissa Etheridge at the Global Alliance for Transformational Entertainment Event - June 4 2009

On Thursday night I went to the Global Alliance for Transformational Entertainment [GATE] event at Fox. I was really excited to be there, mainly because Eckhart Tolle was scheduled to speak. I'm a big fan of his books A New Earth, and particularly, The Power of Now. I actually listened to the entire Oprah ten hour podcast about A New Earth, though I suppose in the spirit of the book I might have benefitted from just listening instead of running around Prospect Park while listening. And Eckhart did not disappoint. I'll get to that in a moment.

The theme of the evening was “Transforming the World by Transforming Media and Entertainment,” and though it was a bit long, it was really inspiring and I took away a few things that I thought were in alignment with this site.

The intention of the evening was to show how media and entertainment can cause transformation in the world, causing “humanity's awakening... to the truth of who and what we are, and what we are here for.”

Sounds pretty good to me.

From The Hollywood Reporter:
"Clearly, these are times of unprecedented transformation, both individually and globally,” says [GATE] founder John Raatz. “Everywhere you look, people are questioning values, identity, and meaning. We’re intending for GATE to support entertainment and media professionals who realize media’s power to effect positive change, and want to contribute to this transformation through their work.”
Rather than reviewing the entire evening, I'd like to address a few key points that are particularly relevant to this site:

First off, and most importantly:

Eckhart Tolle is a big Seinfeld fan.

I mean, who'd-a-thunk-it?

I had him pegged for That's So Raven.

Okay, seriously.

Melissa Etheridge talked and performed, and I was totally blown away. Some of you who are fans of Ms. Etheridge might not be surprised by this, but being momentarily on automatic pilot, the judging, assessing machine that I am completely dismissed her when I saw her on the program. Ya see, I'm into really cool music, not that pop crap that's on the radio. And so, because Melissa Etheridge was unfortunate enough to sell millions of records and have huge airplay, I decided she wasn't worth paying attention to. Yay me!

If you're not getting the tone here, it's ironic. Sometimes hard to pull that off in print. Anyway check Dawn Andrews' recent post for clarification; the same thing happened to me that happened to the slam poet in her story. Melissa Etheridge opened her damn mouth and I was completely blown away by how funny she was, how honest and personal she was, and how what she had to say about her life and career was something I completely understood. I'm not going to do her speech the injustice of trying to paraphrase it here, but suffice it to say she talked about the immense success she had and how empty it ultimately felt, and her subsequent fight with cancer, and her spiritual awakening. And then how Al Gore called her and wanted her to write a song for his little movie. And then she sang I Need to Wake Up which apparently won her an Oscar. Wow, she can sing. Who knew?

So that's lesson one I took away from this evening. When I'm judging and assessing, I'm not actually paying attention, but I was fortunate enough that she was so amazing, she shook me out of my fog and I actually started listening.

Lucky for me.

Jim Carrey was awesome too. I have not been a fan in the past, and in fact I have often sneered as I said his name. Like this:

Oh, I just can't wait until they remake Being There. Except instead of someone who'd play it totally real like Peter Sellars, they'd hire, like, Jim Carrey, and he'd do a funny voice the whole time.

That little piece of compassionless judgement was eradicated after watching this video.

That dude is freakin' funny! I might just rent The Yes Man at some point. Or if it's on a plane. Seems like a plane movie.

On to Eckhart.

John Raatz has talked about the media's power to effect positive change. Eckhart Tolle talked on Thursday night about different ways that's already happening. And in my view, all of the ways he discussed ultimately point to compassion.

Eckhart talked at length about impermanence, which is a fundamental concept in Buddhist studies. In fact, it's called the First Dharma Seal. But it's common sense: everything is changing, all the time. Nothing is exactly the same as it was a moment ago, or a year ago. From Thich Nhat Hanh's The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching:
“The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent––flowers, tables, mountains, political regimes, bodies, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. We can not find anything that is permanent.”
Eckhart pointed out that media that portrays impermanence effects transformation. He pointed out the film Titanic, and how it showed the young Rose and the elderly Rose, as well as the gleaming new ship rising from the image of the wrecked ship underwater. These remind us of the impermanence of life, which, in turn, reminds us to embrace the present moment.

From Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Understanding impermanence can give us confidence, peace, and joy. Impermanence does not necessarily lead to suffering. Without impermanence, life could not be. Without impermanence, your daughter could not grow up into a beautiful young lady. Without impermanence, oppressive political regimes would never change. We think impermanence makes us suffer. The Buddha gave the example of a dog that was hit by a stone and got angry at the stone. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.

We need to learn to appreciate the value of impermanence. If we are in good health and are aware of impermanence, we will take good care of ourselves. When we know that the person we love is impermanent, we will cherish our beloved all the more. Impermanence teaches us to respect and value every moment and all the precious things around us and inside of us.”
Tolle, and Thich Nhat Hanh, understand the importance of recognizing the pervasiveness of impermanence in our lives, and Tolle points out that being reminded of this by film creates an opportunity for transformation.

So the $64,000 question is, how does this relate to compassion? We don't really know whether Jim Cameron told the story in the way he did because he wanted to teach his audience a lesson in compassion. But the work itself is fundamentally compassionate, because it tells a story that connected to millions of people. Think about it. People watched Titanic, and felt connected to it, not simply because of the enormous spectacle, but because of the human story. We've seen plenty of examples of hugely expensive films that came and went, and plenty of them made a fair amount of money. But Titanic was a phenomenon, and a great deal of credit for that has to go to the inherently human story at its core. Part of that human story was this implicit reminder that we all age, we all decay, and like the lovers at the center of this story, we can only seize this very moment not knowing what's around the next corner.

Tolle also talked about the amazing film Groundhog Day, and how Bill Murray's character is stuck in an endless loop, repeating the same day over and over until he finally starts to grow out of his self-centeredness. Tolle talked about how Murray's character finally learns to accept the present moment, and accept and befriend those around him, finally finding real love rather than empty seduction.

At its core, a lesson in compassion. A story about a man who's stuck in an empty life, angry, unhappy, and doomed to repeat every day the same way until he grows. An exaggeration, perhaps, but not an extreme one––how many of us live the same day over and over, angry, unhappy, stuck in our story and unwilling to change except in ways that benefit us, directly, in the short-term. And the message here is that when Murray's character finally starts to realize how stuck he really is, he starts to take a different path.

What's clear to me is that each film had a massive impact on its audience. By genuinely and deeply exploring the nature of human beings and their relationships, the filmmakers of each film were able to connect to an audience in a profound way and effect transformation––whether by highlighting the impermanence of life, and the value of cherishing every moment, or by showing how we're doomed to repeat the same thing over and over until we finally start to genuinely connect to others.

So if you want to really connect to an audience, consider compassion. If you want to make an impact, consider compassion. If you want to be happy, consider compassion.

Thanks so much to John Raatz, Eckhart Tolle, Jim Carrey, Melissa Etheridge, and the evening's other speakers, who made it crystal clear how media and entertainment can have a transformational effect on the world. And from my (admittedly biased) point-of-view, for that transformation to take place, a focus on compassion is fundamental. *

Monday, June 1, 2009

Edoardo Ballerini - "at the root of every artist is a desire to connect with an audience" and Renny Gleeson on our culture of availability

Edoardo Ballerini recently shared his thoughts with us on listening; this was part of a longer conversation that we cut into bits separated by topic. I thought Edoardo's point-of-view on listening made a whole lotta sense, so much so that I've taken some pretty dramatic steps to improve my own listening which I'll share in a moment.

Renny Gleeson recently shared his his point-of-view on our culture of availability during a very funny TED talk this year.

Renny talked about the tactics and strategies we use to furtively check our emails and texts while in various social contexts. Check out the video, it really makes a point. My favorite tactic shows up at about 1:35 - the "love you, mean it."

Renny says that when we're standing with someone and looking at our BlackBerry or iPhone, we're saying, "you are not as important as literally almost anything that could come to me through this device."

It's the exact opposite of being present, and without genuinely being present to another, it's impossible to imagine being compassionate to them. How can you be compassionate when you're not listening? When you're saying, as Gleeson says, "what's happening here, now, isn't as important to me as what could be happening anywhere else."

So this has everything to do with Edoardo's talk about listening. Edoardo said:
"We spend most of our lives and days I believe with assumptions about the world around us... especially as the years go by you get a little older, you think you know how things work, you think you know what somebody's going to say to you or what they mean by something, and we stop listening. We stop listening to our friends, our partners, the people we work with, the random person walking down the street, we just kinda shut everything out. The skill of listening... allows you to let go of yourself, understand where somebody else is coming from."
In thinking about Gleeson's talk, and Jon Kabat-Zinn's work, and my daily doses of Thich Nhat Hanh, and with the help of a few of my friends, I'm cutting down my email, instant message, and Facebooking dramatically. How can I be compassionate if I'm not paying attention? If you've been on the phone with me, you know what I'm talking about. We're in the middle of talking about something, and then I pause... maybe respond with a noncommittal uh-huh, and then come back to our conversation as though nothing has happened. But what you probably intuited was that I was taking a brief peek at an email or an IM, and for that moment, I wasn't there with you, I was somewhere else. Doing something else.

Something that was apparently more important than actually talking to you.

So for the past two weeks I've shut down my email except for specific times of day, when that's all I'm doing. I'm not talking on the phone, I'm not in a meeting. I'm just catching up on and responding to emails. I've abolished IM'ing entirely. In the past, when I was on the phone, one of our assistants would alert me to an incoming call, and I'd tell them what to do via IM, while I remained on the original call. I don't know how I never noticed before that this requires a significant amount of brain energy, that while I'm iChatting, I'm not actually in the original conversation!

The same thing applies to when I'm at home: specific times of day for email, no furtive BlackBerry usage. Do I really want to send my wife and kids the message that anything coming through this device is more important than being here, right now, with you?

Wish me luck. All in the name of cultivating compassion.

Moving on to Edoardo's second video, which we actually recorded at the same time as the first. Don here kindly cut the videos to pieces so that we could discuss them by topic.

Edoardo talks about compassion, and how "art, in general, is rooted in compassion."

"As an audience member I think the things that fail, be it a painting or a movie... or whatever it may be, are the ones that you walk away from thinking that didn't actually say anything to me, it didn't actually mean anything to me, it didn't try to understand me, it didn't try to explain the world that might be helpful to me."

Again, fundamentally, Edoardo's pointing out the obvious: that without compassion, which requires listening, it's hard to imagine how an artist would be able to connect with an audience.

Thanks, Edoardo!