Dao De Jing + Astronaut Training = Aim to Be Zero

Therefore the Sage manages his affairs without ado.
And spreads his teaching without talking.
He denies nothing to the teeming things.
He rears them, but lays no claim to them.
He does his work, but sets no store by it.
He accomplishes his task, but does not dwell upon it.
And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it
That nobody can ever take it away from him.

  • Selection from Chapter 2, Dao De Jing, translated by John C.H. Wu

These lines are from the classic Chinese text, Dao De Jing, a guide to enlightenment and leadership. How might we decipher these archaic lines?

I discovered one answer and modern example in reading Chris Hadfield’s Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. You may remember Chris as the star of the first space music video:

Don’t make the mistake of taking Chris too lightly like I initially did. He’s actually a very well trained and experienced leader as a retired military pilot Colonel, Director of Operations for NASA in Russia, Chief of Robotics, and three flights to space including Commander of the ISS. So, he’s knows something about training and leadership. And the book is an easy and great lesson in how to train leadership and like the title says, a guide to life.

In regards to joining a new crew, he writes:

…I’ve realized that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.

Upon entering a new group, you will be seen as a negative, zero, or positive addition. It’s interesting he doesn’t say that you can BE a negative, zero, or positive addition but rather how you will be judged as one of those three by your crewmates. What should you do? Aim to be a -1, 0, or +1? If you answered +1 then you’re wrong. Chris writes:

Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you’ll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform.

Of course, everyone wants to be a plus one yet coming into a new team trying to prove your value will certainty lead to you being seen as a minus one. Again, perception regardless of reality is how he expresses it. Why is this the case? How could wanting to be helpful and bringing your skill sets to help a team be seen automatically as a negative?

This experience actually happens often at the Monastic Academy. Our goal is to train the next generation of contemplative leaders in the skills of wisdom, love, and power.

Many new folks enter the Academy and want to help fix all the problems that they see. They have bright ideas and opinions about everything. And being a spiritual center, everyone is so nice and caring that it feels safe to finally share all your ideas. While the new folks have good intentions, they’re also blind to the context and can end up causing us more trouble. The fact is Monastic Life and Training is often radically different than what anyone has ever experienced before.

One example is when I first joined, I was put onto the business team behind our mindfulness in schools program. We were looking to generate more revenue. I had an internet marketing background and pushed aggressively for my vision and boasted that I could easily raise significant amount of money doing online advertising. Turns out, I was wrong. We made very little. Furthermore, I was ignorant of the years of prior efforts that I was repeating the same mistakes and learning.

At MAPLE, we filter people out by intentionally putting people in stages of training starting with Love/Equanimity. How does this look? Similar to what Astronaut Chris Hadfield says, we begin by placing new trainees in a forced zero position. We often assign people physical manual jobs which have a minimum chance of negatively impacting the rest of the organization whether it’s cooking, landscaping, or cleaning rooms.

But, if they have existing skills and experiences, why not immediately give them the power and opportunity to help and excel? Chris writes:

When you have some skills but don’t fully understand your environment, there is no way you can be a plus one. At best, you can be a zero. But a zero isn’t a bad thing to be. You’re competent enough not to create problems or make more work for everyone else. And you have to be competent, and prove to others that you are, before you can be extraordinary.

As a new addition, it’s not actually possible to be a plus one. The best you can aim to do is to be a zero, a net neutral force. Chris says:

When you’re the least experienced person in the room, it’s not the time to show off. You don’t yet know what you don’t know—and regardless of your abilities, your experience and your level of authority, there will definitely be something you don’t know.

To try to birth some major project will end in failure because you simply do not know the context you are operating in.

At MAPLE, after time, beginners understand how and why we do things the way we do them. In return, new participants gain a rare chance at humility: learning how to listen, pay attention, see what the reality on the ground is first, and support others without your own preferences, ideas, and judgments on how things should be. This process of observation and non-interference naturally develops the capacity for Wisdom.

Knowledge is simply knowing about things independent of conditions. Wisdom is the skill of applying the correct, appropriate knowledge to the current situation or person. In Buddhism, they call this upaya or skillful means. This could be its own long form post in itself. Actions happen within a context. You have to understand the context first before applying action.

Once you have love/equanimity and wisdom, how do you go about contributing without losing that open minded wisdom and humble love?

Chris speaks about one of his role models:

And yet during our course in Utah, he never imposed his expertise on anyone or told us what to do. Instead, he was just quietly competent and helpful. If I needed him, he was there in an instant, but he never elbowed me out of the way to demonstrate his superior skills or made me feel small for not knowing how to do something. Everyone on our team knew that Tom was a plus one. He didn’t have to tell us.

The best leader or team member does not have to show off. In fact, the most respected and valuable player is the one who cares first and foremost about the shared vision, then the group, and lastly themselves. They’re willing to do whatever is necessary. Because they have the experience of understanding the reality of what’s happening, they have the wisdom skill to know what’s needed while also having the equanimity of not bugging out about reality not meeting their expectations or assumptions. This consistent, grounded quality of wisdom and competence naturally earns respect and power from others.

Even as the most experienced person, even as the leader, it’s important to maintain the humility to see one’s self as always a student, a zero. This is the crux of the wisdom of first aim to understand and then be understood. This is having a fundamental trust that in the long haul truth and merit will win out.

Chris writes:

It was also a big part of what made him a plus one on our crew. Not only did he bring a wealth of experience and knowledge, but he conducted himself as though no task was beneath him. He acted as though he considered himself a zero: reasonably competent but no better than anyone else. That made a lasting impression on me. Especially when I’m entering a new situation and don’t yet have the lay of the land, I think about how to aim to be a zero and try to contribute in small ways without creating disruptions

The ideal entry is not to sail in and make your presence known immediately. It’s to ingress without causing a ripple. The best way to contribute to a brand-new environment is not by trying to prove what a wonderful addition you are. It’s by trying to have a neutral impact, to observe and learn from those who are already there, and to pitch in with the grunt work wherever possible. One benefit of aiming to be a zero: it’s an attainable goal. Plus, it’s often a good way to get to plus one. If you’re really observing and trying to learn rather than seeking to impress, you may actually get the chance to do something useful.

Let’s return to the full text of the Dao De Jing Chapter 2:

When all the world recognizes beauty as beauty, this in itself is ugliness.
When all the world recognizes good as good, this in itself is evil.
Indeed, the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low set measure to each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Back and front follow each other.
Therefore, the Sage manages his affairs without ado.
And spreads his teaching without talking.
He denies nothing to the teeming things.
He rears them, but lays no claim to them.
He does his work, but sets no store by it.
He accomplishes his task, but does not dwell upon it.
And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it
That nobody can ever take it away from him.

Taking the language of this classic Chinese text onto Chris’s teachings to a modern guide to life:

When you try to make the world recognize your brilliance, this in itself is ugliness.
When all the world judges good as good, this in itself creates evil.
+1 and -1 create each other.
By aiming to signal and be seen as a +1, you automatically cause -1.

The Sage does his duty without showing off. He stays as a zero. There is no polarity to zero. Zero is a non-identity, it’s letting your actions speak for themselves. It’s the fluidity and flexibility of wisdom and equanimity to know when to take appropriate action and when to sit back and just listen.

November 2017 Monthly Review

Last month, I said November is dedicated to consolidation after introducing a bunch of new changes in October. Specifically, I began new productivity methods/tools (habit tracking, note taking), began investing into cryptocurrencies, renewed my physical exercise regime, and more. For November, I wanted to focus on consistency and stability so that these weren’t just temporary projects. I did not want to add anything new for November. Fortunately, that’s exactly what happened: I made big strides in my major impact areas including meditation, circling, finances, and so on without adding anything new.

  • Monastic Academy
  • Psychology/Health
  • Meditation
  • Circling
  • Misc Life
  • December Plans

Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth (MAPLE)
Our head teacher, Soryu Forall, returned after three months away. I was happy to present ourselves as a more mature, skilled, and cohesive team. I had taken major leadership while he was gone especially leading the past two retreats along with new renovations and other projects.

When I began at the monastery, the question on my mind was how to step into leadership more. Now, it seems my role is increasingly how can I mentor and support others into their own leadership. It kind of feels like being a parent. After the November retreat about two weeks ago, I made a deliberate decision and publicly told everyone that I’m trying to have the group take over operations more and not be involved in daily decision making unless it feels necessary. It’s nice and a key challenge for me to have the freedom to let go of that burdensome constant vigilance of watching and thinking about everything. It’s also a good exercise for me to trust the group and the process.

PSYCH / HEALTH
After the November retreat, I’m feeling much more at ease and fresh now. Before the retreat, I was holding a lot of tension around Soryu returning and nervous how he would feel about our past three months of work. I also held a lot of tension around how successful our Circling retreat went. It felt like the world was asking me to step out of the shadows of being a perpetual student and start being LARGE and BIG for the benefit of others. I have something to truly offer, to teach and lead others.. In the past, I’ve felt okay being the Manager, the Organizer, the Facilitator. But, now, it feels more and more that I have something to offer as the Leader, the Teacher. The Nov retreat really helped me accept this and let go of the tension around my old identities and new ones forming. Yet, an even larger calling came at the end of the retreat that I’ve been trying to digest. More on that in the next section, Meditation.

I still am not doing as much physical exercise as I would like. I think I need more positive and negative reinforcement to keep me going. I’ve been doing a lot more Qigoing since the retreat though. Food and nutrition are holding fine. Got some blood work recently where everything is looking overall good.

Feeling more at ease these days and feeling both extremes of emotions more, letting them arise and pass more easily. The frozen parts of my lower body are continually flowing more and more as I deepen in my meditation practice. It’s interesting to see how much holding tension energy is down there and feels like it’s holding against the incredible amount of energy and blissful pleasant feelings that come with flow.

MEDITATION
I noticed my meditation practice drastically improved in past month correlated with Soryu returning to teach us. While he was away, I had been focusing in my practice on relaxation but after he returned, I moved back to cultivating concentration. Now, I’m alternating between setting a foundation of relaxed body/breathe and then moving to deeper concentration and power. Relaxation of just following the breathe without any force or goal. Then incorporating more energy and deeper concentration into every single moment of the breathe so there’s no gaps in the focus. It’s a paradox how to hold powerful concentration with ease. In deep concentration and relaxation, there’s no longer some watching Manager who’s constantly checking to make sure I’m concentrated. Instead, there’s the natural concentration taking place on its own which is deeply relaxing to no longer have that Checking Manager constantly hanging over my awareness. That constant mental chatter is actually exhausting and distracting, ie not relaxing and not focused as much as a relaxed, steady attention is. Another word for Checking Manager would be nervous, anxious self-consciousness.

I had a particular shocking moment on the last day of retreat in the evening. It occurred right before the dharma talk. I was meditating and trying to find a way to bring my awareness down to my core. Feeling the usual resistance to keeping my concentration low in my body. And, this voice just said, “I keep looking and there’s nothing to find.” It’s a simple thing to realize and say yet that moment had an immediate and profound impact on me. My body got really tight, and my eyes went wide as I kept repeating this statement to myself in my head. I keep looking for “some thing” that will make everything okay. For example, if I could just keep my attention low then I would be able to properly meditate then I’d be happy and everything would be fine. That’s the subconscious tension happening as I’m trying to meditate or really grasping with attachment to anything. If I make a million dollars then I won’t have any of these worries or limitations and then everything will be fine. I keep looking for the right career, the right partner, the right beliefs, the right life purpose, the right whatever. Looking, looking, looking. Living my entire life looking and never actually just here. It was rather shocking to me and my body felt really tense but even so I walked outside in the freezing weather and nothing really bothered me. My mind was free. Usual aches and pains I knew were present but my attention didn’t feel like it was thrown around trying to go this way and then that way. Later in our final day expression period, I laughed a hearty laugh and expressed my constant looking and nothing to find. Absolutely nothing at all to find.

The following days hit me hard. More sensitive to the world. More aware of the deep patterns, habits, and suffering present everywhere. Seeing from the micro level to the global level how fixated and stuck so many habits that people go through are. The insecurity, the anxiety, the doubting, the cynicism, the ignorance, the hatred, all of it. It was physically painful to really see all of it. And continually aware just how difficult it is to practice constantly. To stay mindful in every action. To live and express from an aware mind is so challenging. It takes work Soryu says. Modern world with all its luxuries has often forgotten how to just do the hard, grunt work. So, I’m doing it. Maybe for the first time in a long long time I’m trying to actually practice throughout my day, valuing the meditation much more higher on my daily priorities. And shocked how often I just completely forget about it.

Big news is that at the end of the retreat, Soryu offered that I go into the solitary retreat cabin to have an awakening breakthrough. It’s just too difficult for most people to really gain insight in group retreat. It’s much more highly likely to breakthrough on solo retreat for extended time. I’ve been wavering back and forth on the decision. At this point, I feel needed to lead the group, circling is taking off, and my investments need monitoring. Yet, when I take the perspective of my whole life, it seems obvious that this opportunity is one I should take and take soon. Going into the cabin means trusting and relying on others, on letting go of my fears and attachments around financial safety, and clearly choosing this awakening path as the foremost priority, as the most important thing so that I can do everything else as an expression of compassion and service. The logistics have to get worked out. If possible, I plan to start sometime in January though.

CIRCLING

Circling continues to grow each month. We continue to practice long sessions together at the monastery. I also led two sessions in Burlington in November. I was amazed to find over twenty people showed up for one of the Burlington sessions. It was the first time I did a Saturday evening, I guess that’s the sweet spot. Half or more of the folks completely new or relatively new to the practice.

I’ve felt a growing sense of pride, terror, and awe that I’ve introduced directly circling to dozens of people who have then gone on to introduce circling to others. Some of them have gone on to become circling facilitator themselves. Thus, I’m indirectly responsible for hundreds of ppl coming into circling. It’s a strange feeling that I brought circling to the monastery and the majority of people in Vermont who’ve experienced circling likely learned from me. I’m like the God Father of VT Circling. I also received a nice message from a large circling group requesting me to help out at their larger circling course that I sadly can’t do because of the monastery and solitary retreat. It’s a dream come true. A year ago, the best life to me was to be a circling teacher. But awakening takes precedence even above my highest dreams.

We’re also running a 2nd Weekend Circling and Meditation Retreat in early January. Registration just opened up. Nervous to see how many people we get this time. Details to signup and learn more here.

I’m focused on training a core of facilitators, mostly residents and a few community members. I want them capable of running birthday circling and introducing circling themselves. It still feels a little weird for me to be teaching it to others when I still feel like a student myself. But I suppose the truly great hopefully never lose that student mindset.

I would still like to train as well but not sure when that might be. Probably not until the spring or summer at the earliest. Seems like my edge in circling now is more and more on training the next set of leaders and also being able to manage large groups particularly newcomers. It’s challenging to lead a night and entrust others to circle newcomers. Besides that, I am really good at entering deep presence and connection with others who are open to it. My challenge is trusting my intuitions to move and speak and act from deep surrender and not just get stuck in the nice feeling of deep, silent connection/presence. But, I’ve found that type of compassionate, non-judgmental deep presence with others is quite healing and amazing for me and others.

I really like my version of circling with its meditative and compassionate bent. I like that the groups I tend to work with also share this. It’s interesting it feels like a completely different branch of circling in some sense. A lot less relational reactivity and much more inner work via the mirror of others.

MISC LIFE

I’m scaling down my focus on extra activities including crypto, writing and learning. More and more of my focus moving towards meditation and circling.

Crytocurencies
This could become its own future section if I keep it up. After the monastery and circling, this topic has become an obsession of mine. Note, I am not a financial adviser. This entire market is still the Wild West, anything could happen. If you do invest here, do a lot of research first. And only put in money you won’t need for years and possibly lose all of it. If you don’t have an emergency fund then don’t invest in speculative assets like this.

After meditation and circling, cryptos have taken the most amount of my attention. Definitely most of my free time. It’s really hard to ignore with returns 60%+ in the past month. Consider Bitcoin, the #1 cryptocurrency, was $4,000 just two months ago. This past week it was worth $12,000! I’ve been investing in several different coins and sadly missed the initial growth of bitcoin. I regret I sold three bitcoins last year for $700 each. I had purchased them for around $700 each too so it was a wash. Today, they would be worth around $30K. I only put some of my savings into crypto though. I still have enough in savings that I could survive for several months if needed. I’m confident that the stock market is in a bubble right now and a major correction or even crash is pending in the next year or two. Likewise, cryptos will crash eventually but I believe they will rise from the ashes and grow even more over the next 2-5 years. I’m in a dilemma of the idea of going into retreat for three months without access to checking on all of these though and will need to consolidate and simplify my holdings in December/January before entering retreat. Kind of paradoxical, a modern monk investing in cryptocurrencies.

I feel a bit torn around the bitcoin network’s high environmental impact. I think it’s a problem that will get resolved eventually, but right now it’s a serious issue. It’s also clear that the crytocurrencies are also in a bubble stage right now where the speculative value is far beyond the current actual value of any of the digital currencies. Yet, you could have said the same thing about Amazon, Facebook, Linkedin, Tesla, and so on a decade ago. I’m also reading the book Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money. I wasn’t aware that so much of the smart hedgefund and VC investor money got involved back in 2013. I thought it was more like 2016 so I’m worried we’re getting towards the end of the bubble rather than the beginning. There’s an ethical question around investing in bubbles where there’s a winner and a loser. In the long run, it’s possible that everyone is a winner if the asset does appreciate over time. But, if it’s a hard crash and people sell low after buying high then you’re just gaming vulnerable people. I’m contemplating how much of my disposable savings to put into crypto but haven’t resolved it yet. It’s going to be a challenge being away for three months without access to my portfolio. Fortunately, I’ve never gone a year where I actually lost money in my investments although it’s arguable sometimes whether I would have made more money and definitely saved far more time keeping all my funds in boring index funds.

Back to Misc Life:

I need to settle all my accounts and prepare for long term retreat. Once I’m in retreat, I won’t have any outside contact including phone, email, and internet for months. It feels like I’m preparing for my death in some ways or that I’m moving away from this planet.

In terms of learning, I’ve been continuing with Sebastian Marshall productivity training including this past month’s of Monthly Review process. He offered a much more through process that I am trying to wrap my head around. Most of all, I like his idea of giving each month a theme and mantra. This December will be Prepare for Death.

DECEMBER PLANS

We have a 12 day retreat in mid-December which leaves only 15 days or so for everything else. In preparation for entering solitary retreat, I’m primarily focused on simplifying and winding down my affairs, delegating out my work responsibilities, and spending time with loved ones outside of the monastery. The theme for December will be preparing to enter the wilderness for my spiritual ripening.

Given my new solo retreat plans, I plan to spend some vacation time around the holidays to see family and friends.

More I wish I could say but some things don’t deserve to be on a public blog.

Circling will begin winding down for December and January, my primary focus has been on training the residents to be able to lead each other while Miles and I are gone.

After January, I will likely be out of contact including no more writing here.