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Last month, I went to Guatemala to visit the Integral Heart Foundation.  It was my first time visiting Central America and I didn’t quite know what to expect.  I imagined that the enormity of the poverty would shake me up, but my experience was that it didn’t.  While there is a lot of poverty, I found that the indigenous population where I visited was on average as happy or more happy than the people in many developed parts of the world.  They have a way of holding their economic situation in juxtaposition to some of the real riches they have – family, a sense of purpose, being close to the land, etc.

On the whole, I liked the atmosphere.  The most appropriate word I could put on it is “soulful.”  Rather than having a white-washed quality, everything was in the open, both the best of the country and the worse.  This is not to say that the poverty associated with Central America is in your face in tourist areas, but you don’t have to look far to touch upon both the warmth of the local people and the social injustice.

Although I was a bit on edge at times, on the whole I found their was a “spacious” and “alive” quality about the place and the culture.  Truly, Guatemala is one of the most physically beautiful places on earth.  I also think some of the lack of formal education is offset by the common sense and simple wisdom of the native people.  I found they carried themselves with dignity and an authenticity that is rare to find in the average American city.

While I stayed and slept in a nice environment, the Porta Antigua hotel, I spent a fair amount of time visiting various villages, schools and areas of poverty.  I thought that if I had this contrast, it would help me to better contemplate my experience and if I got sick from the water or contaminated food, at least I would be relatively comfortable.  I also had some safety concerns, but that’s another story.

My main purpose in visiting Guatemala was to visit the Integral Heart Foundation founded by Mick Quinn and Debra Prieto.  I liked the idea of applying Integral Theory in a difficult social situation and it seemed like this broad approach had a lot of potential for being effective as it utilizes a multi-dimensional approach.  Without going into a lot of theory, it focuses on individuals, their social situation, the beliefs of the culture and holistic tactics to deal with complex problems.

In a more concrete fashion, I found that the Integral Heart Foundation really walked their talk and began with fundamentals such as providing education.  This occurs at an early age as exemplified by their kindergarten program and continues on to high school.  While academics are a big part of their work, the development of self-esteem, critical thinking skills and tapping into a person’s inner wealth through meditation and other practices is foremost from the inside glimpse I received.

I also enjoyed seeing the results of the implementation of their solar program.  In remote areas, there is no electricity so this puts a limit on how long kids can study.  While candles are available, they cost money and families that make $8.00 per day or less are reluctant to burn there money in this way.  While we take light for granted, these people experience the availability of light as life transforming.

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This program goes hand-in-hand with education and other social work, which is performed on behalf of the families involved in any programs.  Such basics as providing food is also part of the equation and therefore, it is easier to hold individual families accountable for their children’s attendance at school and other types of follow through that it takes to make the program effective.  Below, you can see some examples of a kindergarten environment and also a high school setting.

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Here, Jen M. a volunteer appears with some of the youngsters.  She came to Guatemala to support the work of the foundation and to share her big heart in person.  While the Integral Heart Foundation has some great volunteers, they also need sponsorship, corporate volunteers and other sources of revenue.  Now, they help over a hundred families on an operating budget of approximately $100,000.  This is barely enough for a middle class family of four to live on in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I also found that cooperation between organizations to share infrastructure was one way to lower costs and make the most of donation dollars.  I toured one school that works with the Integral Heart Foundation where the infrastructure and environment was at least as good, if not better than some of the schools in San Francisco.  I think this is because everyone chips in, people are committed to the outcomes and even the indigenous people who can volunteer in the kitchen, cleaning or whatever else needs to be done.

I was also impressed that the high school had a garden, recycled water and was in essence a green environment.  This is completely in alignment with many of the values of organizations in the Bay Area including various companies that develop, sell or distribute solar products.  Wouldn’t teaming with this organization represent a win-win?

Another area of commonality we have with this community is that we all consume coffee.  Unfortunately, it is the coffee economy and historical complexities associated with it that causes a lot of the poverty and suffering in areas such as Guatemala.

These are the people that the Integral Heart Foundation serves and their living conditions are not impressive.  On average, a coffee worker in Guatemala makes as little as $3.00 a day and perhaps a bit more than twice this amount if they are in their prime.  These low wages are one reason why people keep their kids out of school.  The more hands there are to pick coffee beans, the more income a particular family can make.

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Above, Deb Prieto during a lighter moment and below, Mick Quinn perhaps in a more serious one.  Philosophy, critical thinking and even Integral Theory are introduced at this level and therefore, some deep topics come up that help students related what they are doing to their social situation, fundamental place in the world and future.

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If you want to know about Integral Theory and how it can be applied, I have written several articles that appear on this blog and my other at http://patca63.wordpress.com/.  You can also do a search on Amazon under Ken Wilber or read Mick Quinn’s excellent book the Uncommon Path, which although is not on Integral Theory proper complements and augments the concepts of this general approach.  The former focuses on the high level perspective and the latter on individual mental health and responsibility.

While I was visiting, I gave a talk to some of the high schools students and I found them to be polite, curious, well-mannered and glowing reflection on the results this organization gets.  Indeed, several of the kids I spoke too had been accepted into college programs which is saying a lot given the circumstances they were born into.  I also met the young woman that I personally sponsor and I felt very proud of her accomplishments and to be personally involved in her ongoing success.

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Here, you can see me in a classroom with some of the Critical Thinking teens.  I was speaking to them about success, my life experience and trying to make a real authentic human connection with them.  I found they were open and engaged me at a deep level asking thoughtful questions and offering their own opinions freely.

I must say that while visiting Guatemala, I learned as much from these kids as perhaps they learned from me.  In fact, at times I felt humbled by their warmth, presence and attitude of gratefulness that they had.  They were clean, well-groomed and not just for this one day.  In general, I found the people in most of these villages very conscientious to details of outward appearance, not in a bad way, but in the sense of taking pride in themselves.  This surprised me given some of their living conditions.

If you visit the Integral Heart Foundation website or Facebook page, you can see a lot more pictures of the work they are doing, the families that their work touches and also of their hands-on projects.  The link for their website is http://www.integralheartfoundation.org  Below, I have posted one picture of the living conditions that are pretty typical:

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Here, indoor fires are common and many of the children have respiratory problems at a young age.  You will note that the walls of this dwelling our corn stalks.  This is fairly common, but you will also see some buildings made out of stone blocks or adobe.  In one village, the people were living in a setup like this and the one building they had was used for supplies and food.  In other words, they put keeping these things safe above their own comfort and lived next to and around the supplies.

I feel a social responsibility to spread the word about this organization and to participate in their work to the degree I can.  As I said above, I am also a sponsor and I encourage others to get involved.  Unfortunately, to some extent it is U.S. intervention in Guatemala that has contributed to the social inequity here and our habit to demand cheap coffee without thinking of the potential consequences on the people who grow it.  So, if nothing else, please be a conscious consumer and consider buying shade-grown, free trade, organic coffee.  If you want to do more or meet Deb and Mick, they will be coming to the Northern and Southern California next week to talk about their work.

http://www.integralheartfoundation.org/LA-SF-Fundraisers_Feb.2013.htm

If you can make it to this event and/or spread the word that would help.  You can sponsor a kindergarten student for a month for as little as $35/month and this includes some nutritious meals.  That’s not a big sacrifice for many people to touch a life in such a deep and long-lasting way.

I mentioned above that Guatemala is physically beautiful.  You can find many examples of that on the Internet.  However, I thought I would leave you with a picture of me near Lake Attitlan.  The poncho I’m wearing was actually a necessity because the morning at lower altitudes was uncomfortably cold and damp.  I don’t know how well I fit in with the other tourists, but that handmade wool poncho felt like a heating pad.  I brought it back with me as a memory of Guatemala – a soulful place with equally soulful people who I will always hold in my heart with great fondness and respect.

 

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Those who have no mental vigilance,
Though they may hear the teachings, ponder them or meditate,
With minds like water seeping from a leaking jug,
Their learning will not settle in their memories.

Shantideva

Learning is consolidated and embodied through meaningful action. If you don’t tame the mind and point it toward worthwhile goals at best you will churn in place or get off course.  However, you will almost certainly suffer more and increase the probability of getting caught in the net of your own delusions about life and reality.  A disciplined mind is like a compass that points to true north.  Since you can’t escape your own thinking, why not dedicate yourself to a worthy purpose and commit yourself to staying aware of it during your waking moments?  When you are witnessing the mind rather than identifying with it, you have a choices.  When you are acting out of your conditioning without awareness, you lose your freedom. Don’t let you mind put you on autopilot… associate coming back to awareness of mind with something you do regularly like washing your hands, picking up a phone, hearing a certain sound or turning on a light switch.  In this way, you take your practice off the mat and into your daily life.

Typical living conditions for many who pick coffee in Central America

Typical living conditions for many who pick coffee in Central America

By: Patrick D. Goonan

I had just landed in Dallas on my first leg of a journey back to California.  I had been visiting Guatemala to see the principles of Integral Theory popularized by Ken Wilber applied on the ground to complex social problems in Guatemala.  After landing, I knew I had a layover of several hours, so I decided to go outside and have a smoke.  Yes, this not a socially acceptable habit in some circles, but it is a vice that I still hold onto along with enjoying a coffee.  Some would say the two go together and once outside the airport, I looked around for the nearest coffee shop.

I happened to find a Starbucks back inside the airport a few gates down.  I ordered a latte and while I waiting for them to make it, I looked over the list of beverages and their prices.  The largest sized latte was $4.23 about one day’s wages for picking approximately 200 lbs. of coffee beans in Guatemala.  Those wages will get you something like a place pictured on the left usually without running water, electricity or even real walls!

Often 4-6 or more people share conditions like this out of necessity to supply our coffee habit and in order to survive.  Of course, some companies, countries and conditions are better than others.  However, in general it is rare to make more than $8.00 a day harvesting coffee in a Central American Country.  These numbers are according to the statistics found in the book UNCOMMON GROUNDS – A History of Coffee and How it Transformed the World.

Coffee was initially discovered in Ethiopia and from there spread to the Arab world.  Eventually it caught on in Europe and with the demands placed on working class in Europe during the Industrial Revolution, it became increasing in demand.  In fact, coffee is an international commodity that drives the economy, politics and social structures of entire countries.  This is certainly true of Guatemala and it has lead to an uneven distribution of wealth and the exploitation of the indigenous Mayan people.

In general, coffee is grown between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn at altitudes between about 4,5000 and 6,000 feet.  After the Spanish Conquest, the Mayans were pushed up the slopes of the volcanoes onto what was considered inferior quality land.  However, coffee grows best in this type of volcanic soil at about this altitude.  As a result, this land became valuable, but the Mayans were displaced and subjugated into cultivating this very same land by new landlords, companies and an often corrupt government.  Currently in Guatemala, it is my understanding that 10 families hold about 70% of the wealth.  That is a very telling statistic.

This economic system evolved slowly and as we all know, these types of complex social inequities are difficult to resolve in practice.  Indeed, various governments including the United States have intervened in Central and South America often with terrible results.  Guatemala specifically, has also been wracked by civil war and other political problems.  It also a place where drugs are cultivated and possesses trade routes between countries that grow and distribute various types of drugs.

Lake Attitlan in Guatemala

Lake Attitlan in Guatemala

At the same time, Guatemala is one of the most beautiful countries on the face of the earth.  It blessed with beautiful weather, volcanoes, rainforests, etc.  Almost anywhere you look, there is an abundance of natural beauty.  However, beneath this natural beauty and the veneer of civilization that is presented to tourists in places like Antigua lies enormous poverty.

Several years ago, Mick Quinn the Irish-born author of the Uncommon Path came to Guatemala with his wife Deborah Prieto on vacation.  After visiting Antigua and other areas, they were moved by the contrast between the physical beauty of Antigua and and the lives of many of the people struggling to survive.  To make a long story short, they ended up staying and created a foundation called the Integral Heart Foundation http://www.integralheartfoundation.org

Having my Masters in Integral Psychology from John F. Kennedy University, I was intrigued by the application of the principles of Integral Theory to the social problems in Guatemala along with those found in Mick’s wonderful book the Uncommon Path.  I wanted to talk to them, so I pursued my intuition!

When I first encountered the organization on Facebook I was intrigued and set up a Skype call with Deborah Prieto.  I wasn’t quite sure what was calling me to Guatemala, but I arranged to visit in order to see the work they were doing.  In a nutshell, they were applying sophisticated models that take into consideration the interior and exterior aspects of situations along with the systems that accompany and give rise to them.  Their work is with individuals at a deep level, but also looks at the more complex relationships between various systems, developmental levels and even the interior of the society, which is to say the culture.

You can read more about Integral Theory on my blog, but what is unique about it is that it considers the external and interior, individual and collective aspects of reality as inseparable and irreducible.  This gives this model tremendous transformational power and when I went to Guatemala, I saw their work in action in all of these domains e.g. education, direct social work, education and even a solar energy program.  I also witnesses wonderful cooperation between other nonprofits and productive partnerships with every level of society.  This can be an article in itself, but you can hear Mick Quinn talk about this work in more detail in about 7 minutes by following this link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAWQl04QhvI

If you watched this video you get a sense of the work, people and synergy between the various projects they sponsor and how it all comes together to yield tangible life-changing results.  Moreover, they run the organization on a tight budget and although U.S. dollars donated go further in Guatemala, they are still running on a low operating margin and without larger donors or corporations they may encounter challenges in scaling their work.  Right now, they offer a sponsorship program for children and young adults and there are some companies and individuals who have been generous with their solar project.

I currently live in the midst of the wealth of Silicon Valley where the average person drinks a lot of good coffee from Guatemala and other similar countries around the world.  Per capita, I can’t imagine a population that appreciates coffee as much as it fuels the often late nights of the software engineers and other technical innovators as it did the working class during the Industrial Revolution.  I’m not sure exactly how many coffee shops are in the SF Bay Area, but it’s definitely in the hundreds if not thousands.

My thinking on this organization’s future is what if they partnered with coffee shops, coffee roasters and technical companies in Silicon Valley.  They have a solar energy program, it would seem it would be conscientious capitalism to raise awareness of the social issues that accompany the coffee economy and at the same time promote green initiatives, their companies products and further the education and survival of the indigenous people who are living at a subsistence level to supply us with our morning latte.  Again…. one latte is about a day’s wages for a healthy man working all day in the sun, walking long distances, etc.!

If that’s not bad enough because people are living at a subsistence level, they keep their kids out of school to pick coffee.  This implies that to break the cycle of poverty, you need comprehensive programs that include education, other types of aid and accountability.  This is exactly what the Integral Heart Foundation does and it works.

Critical Thinking Teens

Critical Thinking Teens

I have visited Integral Heart Foundations schools, witnessed the work of their programs and the wise use of their resources.  If you are interested in learning more, you can visit their website and become a sponsor or look for them on Facebook.  I am sure they would love to hear from you.

If you live in or near San Francisco or in Southern California, you can meet Mick and Deborah in person and see a presentation of their work, hear about their future plans and see pictures and video of their most recent work.  If you are interested in corporate sponsorship, partnering or just supporting them through your communication network or whatever is within your means, I know they would be happy to see your face in the crowd at their upcoming fundraiser – http://www.integralheartfoundation.org/LA-SF-Fundraisers_Feb.2013.htm

I’m very proud I can play a small part in raising the visibility of this organization.  If you come out to attend their fundraiser please share your perspective.  Although the United States has hit some difficult times, we still are very fortunate compared to the rest of the world.  If we all share a little, we can help a lot and even sharing your well wishes or communicating with your friends sets causes in motion that lead to results.

Here…. you can see me with the young woman who I sponsor, Dinora.  After being in the program, she is self-confident and is planning on attending college for pre-law.  I met her in person when I went to Guatemala and I hope to go again soon.  If you are considering sponsoring a child through their organization, I would love to hear that in your comments.  It only costs $35 a month to sponsor a kindergarten child for a month and that even includes nutritious meals.

Dinora and Pat

Pat Goonan and Dinora

I appreciate Mick and Deb’s hospitality while I was in Guatemala and I wish them success with their upcoming visit to the Bay Area and Southern California.  You can see exact details below:

The first step is to join the INTEGRAL HEART FOUNDATION founders Deb and Mick for their perspective on poverty and
potential, but most importantly the SOLUTION in education and how you can help make a difference to many.

Sunday, February 17, 2013 – Los Angeles – Hosted by Malena Gamboa.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013 – Berkeley – Hosted by our friends Terry, Valerie, Chris, Jeff, Lisa, Bill & Deborah at BAI

Who we are:
Topic of events:

Format:
Purpose:
Duration:

Contact:
Watch a 7-minute made-for-TV documentary on our humanitarian work in Guatemala
Learn about our four programs: Sponsorship, Integral Education, Kindergartens and Solar Power.
Talk and photo presentation by co-founders about our work with Q & A afterwards.
To raise funds for our work in Guatemala.
1.5 to 2 hours.
RSVP or questions to tour@celf.org
Solar Energy

Mick and Debra – co-founders IHF

It has always fascinated me that the manifest world that we can know via our senses exploded from lack of a better word from Nothing.  After all, the assertion that something can come from nothing seems absurd at first glance.  However, if you consider Nothingness as “No-thing-ness” i.e. One without a second — then perhaps we can make some sense out of this first moment in time.  The Buddhists refer to this Nothingness as Emptiness, but what is it empty of?

If we accept the Buddhist’s term of Emptiness for discussion purposes and then try to explain what it is empty of — then maybe we will have a useful starting point to look at what arose, how it might have come about and where it is going.  This is the fundamental assumption of this post.  As Shakespeare said, “a rose by any other name is still a rose,” what’s important is the underlying reality, not the specific word or symbol that is pointing to that reality.  I think different traditions use different words, but the concept seems to be eerily the same and yet ineffable.

In this context, I would like to point out that one thing Emptiness is empty of is space and time.  If we are looking at something prior to the Big Bang, it is prior to the emergence of the space-time continuum, prior to matter and prior to the cosmos in the sense of universe.

Clearly, Emptiness is a sort of infinite potentiality that has not differentiated itself from any type of ground.  This sounds suspiciously like what the various world’s wisdom traditions would label a Ground of Being – a fundamental Oneness upon which things stand out against the background.  In fact, existence implies “ex stasis” to stand out from a Ground of Being i.e. to differentiate from this underlying Oneness taking on qualia and opening up the possibility for categories and comparisons.

The world of manifestation, the world that science could measure with the senses and extensions of the senses came out of this Nothingness, which while empty of qualia such as space (extension) and time was nevertheless full of potential.  Prior to the Big Bang, it was certainly nothing and everything.  If not, how could a universe of matter emerge from it?  Instead of Emptiness, we could have chosen the term Fullness, but both would be equally inadequate in different ways.

The point I am making here is that the Ground of Being can’t be contained within a boundary or line.  Therefore, it is outside of categorical thought and comparisons, but yet we can intuit it as many cultures have across the world and throughout history.  Whatever it is, this ground seems to want to emerge into existence and unfold.  That is to say, it is this underlying ground that evolves in increasing levels of complexity, consciousness and wider embraces.  You can label it many different ways, but Spirit-in-Action seems to be equivalent to what many call evolution.  Pure undifferentiated Being merely abides, but really these are two sides of one paradoxical coin.

This is actually the argument I am making here.  That somehow, enfolded into what for lack of a better word we call Nothingness or Emptiness is the potential to become.    Further, it seems at each level of organization, new wholes emerge which are greater than the sum of the parts.  These new properties in this sense can be called emergent qualia.  Probably, the best example of such a progression is quarks, atoms, molecules, cells, organisms and man (self-reflective consciousness).

Another more general progression that shows up in the world’s wisdom traditions is matter, life, mind, soul and spirit.  This is the Great Chain of Being found within every major religious tradition.  Is this parallel a mere coincidence?  I don’t think so.  Life is more than the sum of the properties of molecules and mind is certainly more than the sum of properties of living cells, especially when you consider agency or will.

The problem, however, that leaps to mind is how can we know this?  I would suggest in the same way we know a “thought” or our own “consciousness.”  Certainly, we can’t look at a thought under a microscope or our consciousness via a telescope or other extension of the senses.  I believe this is because these are realities outside of space, but yet every scientific theory started as a thought and was formed in consciousness.  So, how do we know consciousness?  My conclusion is through direct experience, through union with that reality with no mediation of thought.  We have a simple feeling of Being.  Yet, I am more sure of my consciousness existing than the chair I’m sitting in.  In fact, how atoms exist or better, do they exist at all in the way we imagine is less clear to me than my own consciousness.  At least, since I studied quantum theory!

Without getting into a formal discussion of epistemology or theories of knowledge, I am asserting that I can and do know my own consciousness far more intimately than the physical universe although I can’t locate it in space or measure it with any instrument.  Further, I also propose that a scientific reductionist is making a very unscientific statement when they say that anything that can’t be known by the scientific method is unknowable.  That is a metaphysical statement, not a scientific one.  We privilege science so much, we often don’t take the time to reflect upon the fact that this assertion can not be proven by the scientific method.  Therefore, it is outside the domain of science.

So, for the purposes of this article I am assuming this Emptiness that exists prior to the universe is pure Spirit – undefinable, but NOT unknowable.  This pure ocean of Being must in addition to being pure potential, must have some type of intention to become, I call this the evolutionary spark.  It is an impetus for this One to differentiate and transcend itself in deeper layers enfolding (in-folding), which is to say depth while at the same time, embracing a wider span i.e. community.  Ultimately, this evolutionary process gave rise to our self-reflective consciousness, which has sufficient depth to contemplate the evolutionary process itself.

Like a wave coming out of the ocean, each of us is unique, yet an expression of the whole.  We are not really separate from the vast Ocean of Being, but rather a particular expression of it governed by organizing principles that differentiate us from the vast ground it arises from.  In fact, as something differentiates, it acquires more depth which is to say more consciousness.  In other words, more of this Being is wrapped or enfolded into a phenomena’s depth.  As it deepens the phenomenon also embraces or encompasses more of the Kosmos within itself.  Here I use this word, in the older Greek sense to denote not only the physical universe, but the nonphysical aspects of it.

If we extrapolate this line of thinking then an individual of infinite depth, would also have infinite embrace.  Certainly, Christians believe that is what Jesus represents.  In fact, this gives new meaning to the gospel quotation of “the kingdom of heaven is within you.”  In Christian and other traditions, this is often understood as an embrace of love where the divine that is outside of space (and time) is equally present at all points of space.  In other words, it is fully present everywhere, not a piece of it because it wholly outside of space and time!  This is what is meant by omnipresent.

In Hindu mythology, this reality is expressed through a different metaphor,  the jeweled net of Indra.  Here, at every point in the net, which represents the manifest world, there is a jewel that reflects the whole.  A more modern, but perhaps more crude metaphor might be a hologram.  However, it is interesting that this concept shows up in a variety of cultures, traditions and times.  Could this be revealing a universal truth?

While we can’t be absolutely sure of anything, it’s certainly interesting to consider this line of thought as a real possibility.  Is this any less fantastic that somehow the universe exploded from nothing in the sense of a vacuum and consciousness evolved out of inert matter by pure random forces through ascending levels of complexity over a LIMITED time frame – about 15 billion years.   Within a finite time frame, our current knowledge of evolution can’t explain the jumps in the evolutionary process to where we are at today.

While from one point of view a purely physics-based explanation is somewhat plausible, it contradicts the pull of our own hearts toward something greater than ourselves (meaning), the testimony of seekers of various wisdom traditions across cultures and it doesn’t explain many important phenomena such as love or consciousness.  In fact, as this point in time we can’t even pin down the physical universe at least as evidenced by having two great scientific theories that are not reconciled – namely, general relativity and quantum theory.

The quest for meaning is close to everyone’s heart, why?  Could that which you are seeking be the cause of you seeking in the first place?  Is God, Being, Emptiness or whatever label you care to put on it so close that you can’t see it.  If it is pure subject then it can’t be an object to consciousness, which would need to subsumes it.  This is like the eye not being able to see the eye.  Could your simple felt sense of Being offer you a clue as to Original Face prior to the Big Bang (a famous Zen koan or paradoxical statement meant to evoke a deeper understanding).  I would contend that yes, if you don’t privilege reason beyond other ways of knowing and you are willing to look at your unexamined assumptions about reality.

A large part of what I do is organizational development, leadership training and career coaching.  This blog is geared toward general personal growth, but I maintain a separate blog for articles relating to resumes, job searching, etc.  On the Meaningful Life home page, you will find the link you need on my blog role.  Alternatively, you can click on the link below or look under my contact menu choice above:

 

 http://patca63.wordpress.com/

Is it Infidelity?

December 11, 2012 — Leave a comment

As a personal growth coach who works in the area of sexuality among other domains, I often hear the question is such and such behavior infidelity.  I have a done a lot of research in this area and I have an e-book on Amazon on this topic.  It is an intriguing one and although seemingly difficult to answer, it is actually more straightforward than one would imagine.

One leading expert in this field who I admire very much is Frank Pittman, a psychiatrist who has been specializing in this area for over 30 years.  If you have read the literature or books about infidelity, he will almost inevitably be listed as a reference.  When he is asked this question, he says something along the lines of, you must suspect it is or you wouldn’t be asking the question.

When it comes to matters of infidelity, intimate relationships are as unique as the people who make them up.  What they all have in common, however, is some sort of agreement.  On a very fundamental level, if someones behavior is in contradiction to the agreement, then a behavior is clearly infidelity.  However, what about circumstances where a particular behavior is not explicitly mentioned or part of the agreement?

In cases of the above, the person you need to be asking is your partner.  If you are asking a third-party, it implies on some level that you are feeling some sort guilt or sense a lack of alignment.  The authority on whether or not your partner thinks something is cheating is your significant other – why not ask them?

I think these borderline situations can and do cause a lot of problems.  That is why, I recommend that when you are in doubt, do your best to follow the morally safer course.  After all, you have a lot to lose if you guess wrong!

We can get clearer on defining appropriate behavior by going back to some sort of definition of infidelity and considering what exactly the nature of betrayal is.  Literally, the word means a breach of faith and implies someone was deprived of information they had a right to know.  It is the deception and the disorientation that follows it that actually does the harm.  Therefore, when in doubt it is almost always better to err on the side of caution and over communicate.

Here is a concrete example, a woman does not sleep with a colleague, but she flirts with him and occasionally goes to lunch alone with this person.  While there isn’t overt sexual activity, there is certainly some sort of erotic charge and if this is accompanied by guilt or a desire to hide the behavior from her partner, then there is an intent to deceive and it is reasonable to consider this as at least a type of emotional infidelity.  If you ask a lot of women which is worse sexual or emotional infidelity, you might be surprised by the spectrum of answers.  Usually, women are more hurt by their partner falling in love with another woman rather than say a one night stand with a virtual stranger.

These situations often get confusing, but it is helpful to ask yourself, if I were on the receiving side of it, would I want to know, how much would I want to know and would I want my partner to err on the side of over or under communicating.  This is a good starting point for an inquiry into these tricky waters.  Even better is to have a frank discussion with your partner so there are no misunderstandings in this sensitive area.  It’s one of those key things that once your relationship takes a hit because of a misunderstanding or false assumption, it can be hard to get the trust back.

Love only grows in the fertile soil of mutual trust.  Therefore, even little white lies can undermine the foundation of your relationship.  That is to say that a little bit of deception can go a long way and even withholding information is deceptive and disorienting.  If your relationship is about love and intimacy, then deception is clearly not in the best interests of a solid and secure space to be intimate and emotionally vulnerable.

You may be asking, what if I was unfaithful and I have a lot to loss by confessing it.  If so, you are not alone and the experts seem to be divided on what is best.  My own opinion is that if you withhold something, you will be living a charade and on some level you will know that.  You may or may not be caught, but you will have some level of shame and guilt and it will be more difficult to connect with your partner.  I believe in most cases, it’s better to come clean, deal with the fallout and move on.  For some couples this is impossible, but for others it often leads to a transformation from good to better.  Granted, this shift can take a lot of time and my involve a considerable level of discomfort and tears.

When people cheat, often they are unconsciously trying to bring attention to an area of the relationship that needs attention.  In fact, some theories say that the person wants to get caught and perhaps acted out with the hope some unmet need would be forced to the surface.  Certainly, this is not true in all instances, but it often is.  Chances are if the behavior is repeated it’s a sign of some unmet need or unresolved issue in the relationship.

Infidelity is a very common phenomenon.  We are all human and while we may aspire to perfect faithfulness, the statistics suggest that it is quite likely that in a long-term marriage or partnership one or the other partner will cheat.  One study, puts the actual number for one-time infidelity by either one of the two partners in a marriage as high as 80%.  When you consider the divorce rate, the infidelity rate among men (50-60%) and the doubling of the infidelity rate among women over the last five decades, these kinds of numbers are seem more reasonable.

With the use of contraceptives, people spending more time at work, women working outside the home, an increased level of business travelling and more stress in general, these trends make even more sense.  Also, the institution of marriage, which is largely social in nature vs.the more private nature of a love affair sheds even more light on the temptation.  People also live longer and undergo more change, 100 years ago until death do us part may have meant living until 60 rather than 90.  At the same time, people years ago weren’t bombarded with media and advertising riddled with perfect bodies, perfect lives and the type of anonymity and isolation we often see in cities and even suburbs.

All of these factors make infidelity a phenomenon that we will likely have to deal with at some point in one of our key relationships.  Interestingly, it doesn’t necessarily mean your partner doesn’t love you if they stray, especially when it’s the man doing the cheating.  It could mean many things and it’s probably in the couple’s best interest to get to the bottom of what really went wrong or caused someone to act out.  Don’t try to read the other person’s mind, you will almost certainly not get the whole picture.

I think a good way to avoid infidelity is to make your expectations known and communicate about what kind of container you are trying to create for your intimate life.  Assuming your partner knows what you expect isn’t good enough for such an important area.  Intimacy sort of defines itself — “in-to-me-you-see.”  If communication is motivated by this orientation to go deeper, you can handle problems before they occur.

What is inevitable is that in any long-term relationship there will be moments of weakness and temptation.  Deal with them proactively and you won’t be in the very uncomfortable situation of trying to piece your shared life back together again.  If you or your partner does stray, seek out professional help in a coach or therapist.  This will save both of you a lot of grief and possibly prevent your from burning bridges and hurting other innocent people on the road to recovery.

Another name for meditation is awareness.  When we observe what is arising moment-to-moment we enter the present moment more fully.  What we are aware of during meditation is the faculty that is aware.  What arises are objects with respect to this awareness.  In this sense, the witnessing consciousness is pure subject.  So instead of being identified with a stream of thoughts or sensations, we are able to create some reflective distance between what some call witness consciousness and the world of phenomenon.  This consciousness is roughly what is meant by Emptiness in Buddhism.

What I talked about above is the essence of the meditative experience.  It is as if your consciousness is a mirror reflecting what is going on, while remaining clear and spacious itself.  In other words, the witness or pure consciousness is reflecting back experiences as though they were clouds floating in a bright, expansive blue sky.  It remains untouched by what it reflects.

Again, this ever-present awareness is not affected by what it reflects ever.  In this sense, it also like the sky where various weather fronts just pass through.  If you have flown over clouds in an airplane, you get this perspective as you fly above various cloud formations that just seem to be passing through a vast space.  This space is analogous to your consciousness.  If you try to locate your consciousness, you can’t pinpoint it… however, it feels vast in a deep meditative experience because it is vast.

So, what you are trying to get at is a simple feeling of Being.  You are in effect loosening your attention from the various objects that could grab your attention in the way a scary movie can.  In other words, sometimes when we watch a movie, we are pulled in by the drama to such an extent that we forget we are just watching a movie.  This is a good analogy for how we step back from the contents of consciousness when we meditate.  We come to realize what we experience is like a movie and they we are a larger presence watching it from a mental distance such as when we consciously realize we are in a theater. The movie is relatively real… the theater experience is a frame of reference that is more real.

With these basic concepts out of the way, we are now ready to talk about two broad categories of meditation.  I will call the first pure awareness practices because the idea is to be like the sky and loosely hold the contents of consciousness.  In this type of meditation, your attention is opened up widely to take in the vista of consciousness without any one thing grabbing your attention and stealing it away from the big picture.  In the context of this article, I will call this calm-abiding.

The other general type of practice involves narrowing attention.  Here, you pick a very specific focal point and return your attention to it again and again.  If you get distracted you just gently remind yourself that thinking (or whatever) just occurred and return your attention to the breath.  The attitude that accompanies this mental labeling is gentle, loving and patient.  In other words, practicing  kindness toward yourself and paying attention to the tone and stance of your inner voice without judgment is one key to this practice.  If you want more information on this, watch the brief video on Maitri.

If you think about it, in any form of awareness, the field of attention moves around within the space of awareness.  Attention is like a search light and the beam can be set to be broad or narrow.  You as the meditator get to control the width and the direction of your attention.  This ability that comes with discipline will serve you at other times because when your mind is not disciplined, you will be pulled into drama, difficult emotions and the ups and downs of life more easily.  Rather than identifying with your peaceful. open awareness that is your consciousness, you will be overidentified with the contents of the mind.  A side effect of meditation is more general mindfulness in daily life.  This ultimately translates into more options and freedom to chose your responses more skillfully.

To this point, we looked at awareness vs. attention, the correct attitude toward yourself and the concept of manipulating your attention in different ways within the field of awareness.  At this high level, the other skill we need to cultivate is balance.  When you meditate, you can either hold our attention to loosely or too tightly.  If you are a nervous wreck that is an error in one direction and if you fall asleep that is an imbalance in the opposite direction.  The correct stance is being relaxed, but alert like a cat patiently waiting for a mouse to come out of a hole in the fence.  It’s like tuning a guitar string just right, not to tight and not to loose.

Now, we can bring in some additional points that can help you even further.  While you can meditate in a variety of postures or positions, you want to pick one that will support the balance I’m suggesting above.  Through many years, this has proven to be a posture where your spine is straight, you are well-supported by the ground or a chair, your chest is open and your chin slightly tipped downward.  For now, maintaining good posture while staying relaxed is a good starting point.  The eyes can be either open or closed or you can experiment with both methods.

Below, I will suggest a few different practices that will provide you with different kinds of experiences.  You may want to keep a notebook with your thoughts, impressions, feelings and observations you’ve made experimenting with them.  You can take a few minutes to write these things down when you are finished.  These ideas will come in handy down the road.  So, now we can just dive in to the meat of the article.

Calm-Abiding – In this type of meditation, you maintain a posture like I described above.  Generally, your eyes will remain open, looking slightly downward and about 4-6 feet in front of you.  The idea here is to relax your attention by simply counting your out breaths.  You only need to hold your attention lightly on the counting to the point that you don’t lose count.  You count from one to ten and then start over again from one.  While you are doing this, you remain aware of everything else that is going on, but each object of your awareness is being touched lightly like a feather touching a bubble.  You continue way for, however, long you decided to meditate.  Even 5 or 10 minutes is plenty, when your alarm goes off or you feel you are finished, stop counting and bring your attention back to the body.

Meditating on Sound – This is a practice I love to do outside with my eyes closed, but you can also do it indoors or with a recording.  This is another type of loose attention practice and the idea is to notice various sounds as they arise.  It doesn’t matter if the sound is near or distant, but by focusing on the sound you will be carried more fully into the present moment.  For me, this practice is very relaxing and being outside makes it easier to get in touch with the spacious quality of consciousness.

A nuance in this practice is that with your eyes closed, it will seem as though your awareness is this vast expanse where various sounds are arising.  This helps you to disidentify with your consciousness being located in the head.  This is actually a habit of how we pay attention because our eyes are located in our head.  In this practice, you may even lose awareness of the boundary of your body, which is good.  If you are a nature buff, you are likely to enjoy it and because of it’s focus on spaciousness, it’s a good practice for stepping back from strong emotions.

Now that I have introduced two types of loose attention practices, I would like to suggest a couple of concentration practices where you narrow your attention.  The first of these sounds very simple, but you can use it for the rest of your life and it will just keep getting deeper and deeper.  The simplest things done well are often the most advanced techniques!

Breath Meditation – In this technique, you pay attention to breath, but here the attention is more concentrated.  You start by simply noticing the sensations that accompany the breath as you breath in and out.  In the beginning, you can even say in and out mentally or rising and falling (referring to your abdomen).  Alternatively, you can focus your attention on the subtle sensation of air flowing in and out at the edge of one nostril (more difficult) or the expansion of the shoulder blades moving apart and coming together.

In this form of meditation, the idea is to not let your attention be carried away from the focus of the meditation.  In the beginning, it may get carried away hundreds of times, but you just gently return your attention to the object you have chosen.  Jack Kornfield has compared this process to training a puppy to go to the bathroom on a newspaper.  The puppy will wander off and you just keep gently bringing it back over and over again.

The value of the practice above is that you become aware of just how active and all over the place your mind really is.  Over time, you will also start to notice that the process slows down and you will even become aware of gaps between each thought.  The awareness of the gaps is like when you are watching a train go by, but you can see between the cars to the other side.  When this starts happening, you are making progress.  Don’t follow the cars down the track, keep you attention where it is.

Of course, you can also use other things as a focal point for meditation such as a sensation in the body, a feeling or even thinking itself.  If you choose to experiment with these methods, it is good to be proficient in breath meditation and then use your breath as an anchor that you can return to if you are overwhelmed with everything that is going on.  I will describe how to do it in more detail below.

Meditation on Sensation – In this meditation, you start by meditating on breath.  You keep doing this for one third to a half of your meditation time in the beginning.  However, at a certain point when you feel you are ready, let go of the breath and focus your attention on whatever sensation in the body is most apparent to you.  This sensation may grow stronger, weaker or go away entirely, just notice this the whole process.  If another strong sensation arises, follow that in the same manner.  If no sensation is strong, return to meditating on the breath.  The breath is your anchor for your awareness in this practice and others like it.

In my next article, I will discuss other forms of meditation and provide some additional tips for your practice.  In the meantime, please experiment with these methods with openness and curiosity.  When you are learning, more frequent short periods are better than forcing the process.  Rather than forcing, simply let your practice unfold naturally.  If you are not looking forward to your next meditation session, consider the possibility that you might be moving forward to fast.  Less is more at the beginning!

One last tip, is when you get the hang of these techniques, consider alternating between calm-abiding and the breath meditation or some other form of practice.  This will give you the experience of experiencing your consciousness in different ways and manipulating your attention from moment-to-moment.  It gives you an opportunity to experience your consciousness from different vantage points, which will help you latter.  However, it is really the process itself that is important, NOT the contents of your experience on any particular day.  In other words, the path itself is the destination!  The HOW is more important than the WHAT.

In my next article on meditation, I will also discuss some finer points of breath meditation, provide additional tips to deepen this practice and introduce the practice of choiceless awareness, which is a more advanced technique, but naturally follows from practicing meditation on sensation.  This will help you to experience your mind and consciousness at an even deeper level.

If you can, it always good to attend workshops, retreats or work with a good teacher. The beneficial effects of meditation on the body and the mind are now well-documented.  In fact, in long-term meditators there is even a thickening of the prefrontal lobes of the brain that occurs as a result of new neurons forming and connecting.  That is a staggering finding with far reaching implications.

In future articles, I will also take up the topic of the various heart-centered practices.  Just as you can cultivate the mind, you can cultivate the practices of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.  There are others as well and they all require some degree of proficiency with the techniques above.  As in sports, playing music and other skills, the basics are critical.

If this article was helpful or you have any feedback, please leave a comment.  Also, consider subscribing to my blog if you haven’t already.  My calling is to help people to lead a more meaningful life.  If this resonates with you, I would love to hear from you and hope you come back regularly to share your own experiences.