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WEEKLY COMMENTARY

Some lessons I wish I could have learned earlier in life

I recently learned a few lessons I wish I could have learned earlier in my life. However, I am grateful these lessons came to me now, so I decided to share them with you hoping you won’t have to wait to later in life, as it was in my case, to learn and implement these lessons.

First, I recently learned that the opposite of an open mind is not a closed mind, but an empty mind.

After reading that statement, I thought that is true that many times we wrongly assume that whatever we think is the only think to be thought and, therefore, that there is nothing beyond that able to challenge our thoughts or beliefs. We then “empty” our minds of any idea or experience contradicting our own ideas or different from our own doctrines.

In other words, an empty mind wants and desires to remain empty. This is not an act of unlearning something to learn something new, but a decision (probably conscious) to not learn anything because we assume that either we already know everything or that there is nothing to be learned.

A preacher from ancient times warned us about the danger of leaving an “empty house”, because you never know who or what to enter and live there.

I also learned that it is useless to have good eyes if the brain is blind. This expression is obviously connected with the one that says that the worst kind of blindness is a person who doesn’t want to see.

Basically, a blind brain is something affecting all of us, and not necessarily for moral deficiencies or lack of intellectual abilities. Not to excuse ourselves from our own responsibilities, but we need to recognize we all have blind spots in our brains.

Remember the famous experiment where a group of students were asked to count the number of passes during a basketball game and the students were so focused on that task that they didn’t see a man in a gorilla suit on the court? We see what we can see and what we want to see.

As Annais Nin said, we don’t see things as they are, but as we are.

I also learned another lesson. We all heard about giving a fish to a man, so he can have food for a day or teaching him to fish. so he can food every day. That’s a well-known expression. What is not well-known is that the emphasis of the expression is on teaching, not on fishing.

If I teach somebody how to fish, because I taught him how to do it, now I can also teach others. And that person, having learned how others teach how to fish, will also be able to teach others. Experts describe that situations as transgenerational plasticity.

Yet, not teaching is possible if we keep and empty mind and a closed heard. But we can’t remain blind and closed at this critical and transformational time in the history of humankind.

Getting into the cave is easier than getting out

We are all watching the drama in Thailand where an international team of experts works to recue 12 boys and a coach from deep inside a cave. We wish, of course, for all of them to be rescued alive, healthy, and promptly, so they can return to their families and nobody else will get hurt or worst during the rescue efforts.

But I don’ want to focus on that drama, but only in one particular aspect: entering and exiting the cave. During the ceaseless news coverage of the rescue, one of the major TV networks interviewed an expert who said that when he trains his team for cave or underwater rescues, he tells his team it is easier to get into the cave than to get out.

In fact, according to that expert, this training focuses on how to exit the cave alive, not in how to get in.

That idea got me thinking because it illustrates an obvious truth: there are countless places, activities, and habits in our lives where it is easy to get in and difficult to get. For example, if we want to be overweight, we don’t need to do too many things. But if we want to lose all that extra weight, then we are faced with a real challenge.

And what about debts? It is quite easy to have a credit card. We all receive all kinds of unsolicited applications by mail or by email. It is easy to use those cards and accumulate debts. And it is difficult to pay those debts.

A short reflection and some imagination could add many more examples about situations in our lives easy to get in, difficult to get out, including relationships and jobs.

But there is another important element in the story of the boys trapped inside the cave in Thailand. According to the expert who spoke on TV, to find your way out of the cave you need an expert. Getting out of the cave with the help of an expert led me to think on another cave, an allegorical cavern, where people are trapped until somebody “rescues” them.

But this allegorical cave presented by Plato in his Republic is different from the one in Thailand, because in Thailand the boys know they are trapped and they want to be rescued. In Plato’s cave, people are unaware they are in a cave and, therefore, they are not expecting anybody to come and free them.

Plato doesn’t provide details about how people got into the cave, but it doesn’t matter. We know it’s easy to get into the cave. The problem is to get out. And many people spend such a long time trapped inside their own caves that they forget the are trapped and they refused to be rescued.

We want all 12 boys and their coach to be rescued. And we also want for all those trapped inside caves of their own creation to one day be free and experience the fullness of life.

 

The self-deception of living inside our own echo chamber

It has been said you can’t force people to see what they don’t want to see or to hear wat they don’t want to hear. In other words, a closed will also means closed minds and closed hearts. This truth is so old that two millennia ago a wandering preacher urged those with ears to hear.

Closer to a time, Henry David Thoreau said that, “It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.”

Yet, there is nothing we can hear or see, even if we have good ears and eyes, if we refuse to see it or hear it. But, what are we frequently refuse to see and hear? In most cases, we don’t want to see or hear anything contradicting what we think or what we expect, or anything different from our own version of the world.

As Franciscan spiritual writer Richard Rohr said, we have become addicted to our own ideas and that addiction is the most powerful addiction of our time, thus being very difficult to recognize and face.

Let me share an example. I was recently at a park and, just by chance, I happened to see a little girl, probably no more than 5 years old, climbing a tree. Her father, distracted by a conversation, only saw her when she was already a couple of feet or so on the tree. He told her to climb down and she immediately did it. (By the way, she was never in any danger.)

Once on the ground, the girl turned around, “slapped” the tree and said, “Bad tree, bad tree”. It seems to me she thought the tree was some kind of “accomplice”, allowing her father to discover she was doing something she was not supposed to do. And, because of that, the tree deserved to be slapped and chastised.   

Obviously, little girls can do that because they still assume that inanimate (inanimate?) objects have their own intentions and therefore they blame those objects instead of assuming their responsibility for their own actions and for the results of those actions.

However, we see similar behaviors and attitudes in many adults, decades remove from being little boys or girls, who insist on looking for scapegoats or for the “true responsible party” of whatever is happening to them, never assuming their own responsibilities and refusing to listen to any other point of view, except theirs.

Somebody wrote that when you are a child, you act and think as a child. Then, when are an adult, you stop thinking and acting as a child. Or you should do it, I add. According to Father Rohr, we live in a society where fewer and fewer people arrive to that “second half” of their lives.

How are we then going to escape from our echo chamber, our neurotic, narcissistic, technological version of Plato’s allegorical cavern? Obviously, it is not up to me to provide any answer. I can only say we should seriously challenge our thoughts and beliefs.

 

Who cares if the goddess Cura went for a walk near a river and created humankind?

These are the days when we discuss messages printed in the back of jackets to decide how much we care or don’t care about certain issues. However, the debate about caring or not caring is as old as humankind, specially if we are talking about other people, as it is shown in the old example of a brother asking why he should care about his own brother.

Yet, caring, in the sense of being concerned or preoccupied about something, or focusing our attention and resources on something, seems to be a key element in what it means to be human. That’s the lesson we learn from a fable (#220) shared by Hyginus, a Roman writer who live 2000 years ago.

According to the fable, one day the Roman goddess Cura (in English we call her “Care”) went for a walk near a river and, after taking a piece of clay, she decided to create humankind using that clay.

Cura then asked Jupiter to infuse his spirit in the new creature and Jupiter did it. There was then a dispute about what would be the proper name for Cura’s creation. Cura wanted her name to be used. Jupiter and Earth voted for their names because they each contributed with elements for the creation.

The gods decided to talk with Saturn, the oldest of the gods, who decided that, when a person dies, his/her spirit shall return to Jupiter, whom gave it in the first place to the new creature, and the body will return to Earth, for the same reason. And the creature, Saturn said, should be called “human” (homo, in Latin) because it was formed from the soil (humus, in Latin). But, what did Cura get?

In Latin, “cura” means caring, paying attention, feeling concern or anxiety, and even love. “Care” is its proper and usual translation. (“Sorge” is the translation in German.)

Saturn (Chronos, the god of time) decided that, because humans were formed by Cura (Care), then the new being (that is, us) should live every day possessed by Cura. In other words, according to this fable, we have been created in such a way that every day is for us a day of caring (pay attention, feeling anxious or concerned, or being preoccupied.)

Some people say fables are fables and we shouldn’t care about fables in our techno-scientific, globalized, postmodern, narcissistic 21st century world.

Yet, Hyginus’ fable is a testimony that two millennia ago people reflected about the multidimensionality of human life, the temporality of our existence, and the fact that we as long as we are alive, will always experience a level of Care (uneasiness, preoccupation, attention, love.)

Another Roman poet Ovid, contemporary of Hyginus, wrote Metamorphosis in part to explain that humans can become like gods if adopted by a deity. Almost 2000 years later, Frank Kafka wrote his Metamorphosis, this time to explain we are turning into impure monstrosities. But we already know that even without any need of proclaiming it on our backs.

The more you expand your past, the more you also expand your future

In the final chapter of his 1932 book about 18th century philosophers, American historian Carl Becker argues (and I agree with him) that the more you expand your consciousness of your own past (both personal and historical), the more you also expand your own future.

Specifically, according to Becker, “The more of the past we drag into the present, the more a hypothetical future crowds into it also”. Goethe said something similar when he suggested that if you don’t know 3000 years of history, you will be wandering in the darkness of the present.

Becker again: “If our memories of past events are short and barren, our anticipations of future events will be short and barren”. He also explains that the richness and extension of the future depends on the past having those two same characteristics.

Let’s accept what Becker proposes, that is, that the duration and depth of our past determines or at least anticipates with a high degree of probability the duration and depth of our future. What that thought means for us, citizens of the 21st century living trapped inside an ephemeral present, so ephemeral that it becomes immediately obsolete?

Perhaps it means that our future is also ephemeral and automatically obsolete. After years of researching the topic, I believe that’s exactly the case.

If everything we are aware of is the “now” and if that “now” is decontextualized and ahistorical (that is, we don’t know why what is happening today is happening today), then we are not aware either of the emerging future, which is no longer a continuation from the past.

In other words, as Becker argues, the past is not something that already happened, but the consciousness in the present of a past event. From that perspective, all past and all history are present. For that reason, the future is not something that it hasn’t happened yet, but it is something already present in the present, even if we are unaware of its presence.

But if we are not even aware of ourselves, if we live in a perpetual state of self-alienation and oblivion, if we fight against our own metamorphosis thinking, as the caterpillar does, it is a disease, then we will never be able to connect with the source of our being. For that reason, we won’t be able to connect with our best future version to bring that version of ourselves to the present.

That situation doesn’t mean we are living or miserable lives, or that we are bad people (or good people, for that matter.) It means we have adopted a self-limiting pattern of events.

As Becker said, “Memory of the past and anticipation of future events work together, without disputing over priority or leadership”. From that perspective, the awareness of the present is a pattern of thought where there is an interconnection between memories and anticipations.

In other words, if we don’t remember our gran parents (our ancestors), we won’t be able to think about our grandchildren (our descendants.)

“We are still slaves”, the woman said during the community meeting

I was recently invited to a gathering of community leaders representing different organizations and groups wanting to have a project in common. During the second hour of the meeting and with no warning, one of the participants stood up and said, “We are still slaves!”, surprising all the participants and even herself.

The woman, a well-known local African-American leader, said that when she was a child, her grandparents cultivated fruits and vegetables in their backyard. Their home was then in the outskirts of the city. Then, when she was a teen, the city grew, and backyard gardening was not allowed, so a community garden was created.

A few weeks ago, that community garden was closed for good. The owner of the place and the local municipality were not able to agree about water for the plants.

Reflecting about the lost garden, the woman said that her people (and not only her people, I add) act assuming they are free when, in fact, they can’t even produce their own food or decide what they want to eat. And when you lose your traditional food, she explained, you also lose the traditions that were part of every meal you shared with yours.

Once the memory of your community is gone, your own memory is gone. It’s not that you don’t know what you are eating. It’s that you don’t even know who you are. You feel free. You have opportunities, but, for all purposes, you are a slave.

The veteran leader spoke then about the slavery of African and African Americans in the United States, but then she immediately moved back to the present, saying that “our slavery” (her words) is worst than the previous one, because in the past slaves knew they were slaves, but we live assuming we are free.

That thought reminded me of an article I read last February about South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han (who lives in Germany.) Han said that “No we exploit ourselves and we call that self-development.”

Specifically, Han said that the society presented by Orwell in 1984 was “a society aware of being dominated”, while in our society, according to Han, “we don’t have any awareness of being dominated.”

Han said that we live at a time of “self-explotation” and of “horror of the other”. For that reason, we live “in the desert, the hell of the same”. So, we are slaves and we don’t know it.

Why? Because we can’t even try to be different because being different means being the same as everybody else who wants to be different. Even worst, “being different” now means “marketable differences”. You are different only if you can “sell” your differences.

How do we move beyond that situation where reality is being abolished? Han proposes a simple solution: cultivate your own garden so you can reconnect with the reality of “colors, aromas, and feelings”, that is, with the other and the different.

Intuitively, the African American leader already knew it. And that’s true, undeniable wisdom.

Are you aware of the excuses you use to hide from the new future?

I recently had the privilege of making a presentation about the emerging future to a community group. The presentation was an opportunity to listen again to a long list of excuses we (I include myself in the “we”) use to hide from the new future and to remain hidden inside a past which exists only inside a nostalgic imagination.

“I understand nothing about Artificial Intelligence (AI)”, told one of the participants. I asked him what he has read or heard about AI. He told me, “I read nothing, and I understand nothing. What’s the point of reading?”

In other words, he understood nothing about AI because he had no enough information about the topic and, at the same time, he didn’t have information because he understood nothing. An interesting vicious circle of excuses which with each repetition becomes more solid and less visible.

Another participant told me, “I can’t save money because I don’t have enough money”. Obviously, he doesn’t have enough money because he is not saving money, but that second half of the equation was never mentioned by him.

In addition, others expressed excuses I have heard many times, excuses using to rationalize why our mind, heart, and hands should remain closed. “That’s not what my grandma told me”, said one person. “My pastor/priest said it’s not so”, added another one. “My son told me that’s not the case”, added a third person.

I asked them, “So, what do you think?” They repeated the same excuses they just expressed a minute ago. And here they were, here we were, trapped inside the cave of our own thoughts such as those unlucky persons trapped inside Plato’s cave (in the Republic).

Somebody once said that the biggest addiction in our time is not the addiction to drugs or to horrible vices, but the addition to our own thoughts. It’s true. We are addicted to our own ideas and thoughts and the addiction is so strong we don’t even know how addicted we are.

We move in circles inside our own echo chamber to listen again and again only to our thoughts. Paradoxically, the unthought thoughts, the acritically accepted thoughts, are the thoughts we accept because they match our needs and desires. And we call them “reality” and “truth”.

Yet, the new future challenge us to challenge our own thoughts (and beliefs, actions, behaviors, hopes, and assumptions.) Without that challenge, the future would not be neither new nor future, but a mere extended repetition of the past and an infinite repetition of the present.

“You think the future”, said Enrique Santín. So, if we don’t think the future, we are not part of the future. And that’s exactly what is happening to us. We are so obsessed about learning about the past that we are unable to learn from the future.

How do we exit the cavern? Many mysteries in the universe and in life are solved as soon as we boldly accept we all are multidimensional beings living one-dimensional lives.

Don’t teach me how to spell “banana”, but let’s spell “future” together

I recently went to a well-known supermarket chain to but a certain fruit. Since that was the only thing I bought, I decided not to go to the human cashier (there was a long line) and I went to the automatic payment station. I put the fruit on the scale to weight it and, at that very moment, I was interrupted by a store employee.

With no previous interaction, the man (white, old) told me he could help me to spell “banana”. I thought it was a joke and I laughed. I thought the conversation was over, but then he told me again that if I couldn’t spell “banana” he will do it for me.

I wanted to ask him if he was planning to write “banana” in English or in Spanish and if he knew if “banana” had an “h” somewhere in the word. I didn’t ask anything, of course. I asked him (in English), What’s seems to be the problem? Is there any problem with me?

As soon as he heard me speaking English, this employee of a well-known supermarket chain did something unexpected: he ran away from me as fast as he could. He went behind a counter and stayed there.

I was upset with the incident, but not just because somebody who is unaware of reality assumes that if a person doesn’t look like him the other person is illiterate and he “must help” the other person. Unfortunately, many people live according to their prejudices (we, of course, do the same thing.)

As somebody once cleverly said, we don’t see things as they are, but as we are.

I was upset about the incident because a certain level of existential urgency. While some people treat us as illiterate, uneducated persons, the world is moving in a different direction where the knowledge the “learned” people assume to have will not be enough for them to enter the new future.

I say that based on the many reports published just a few days ago during and after the C2 Forum in Montreal, where the main topics were Artificial Intelligence and blockchain. Basically, experts from all over the world said that very soon industries and organizations will be radically transformed.

In fact, during the forum experts presented examples of Artificial Intelligence helping humanitarian and charitable projects, as well as initiatives of global change. In addition, now we have a new technology, bioprinters, able to print human organs.

Also, MIT developed a new material that can be program to assemble itself (think about metal turning into a car by itself.) In 2020, Artificial Intelligence will dominate all aspects of worldwide economy and finances, with unknown consequences for humans. And all that change is speeding up.

As experts said during the forum in Montreal, the future is a present reality.

I know how to spell “banana”. But, sir, do you know how to spell “future”? (By the way, it is spell “powerful innovation for global transformation”.) Can we spell “future” together?

Should we deny the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial octopi living on earth?

Just a few days ago (May 13, 2018), an international group of more than 30 scientists from different universities published a paper together analyzing the cause of the “Cambrian explosion” an “explosion” of life that happened on earth around 500 million years ago. They conclude the “explosion” probably had a “cosmic” cause (that is, extraterrestrial.)

The research, led by Dr. Edward Steele and his many colleagues, was published at the Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology magazine. According to Steele, a virus from outer space could be linked to the “evolutionary diversification” of life on earth. Even more amazing, it is possible that intelligent octopi (cephalopods) also have a cosmic origin.

In other words, octopi are intelligent because they got their intelligence from other space. Otherwise, it would be very difficult to explain their evolution of the “complex intelligence” of those animals.

Perhaps (my words), octopi are the long-lost intelligent extraterrestrial beings we were looking for, and they are here on earth.

Obviously, as soon as the hypothesis was announced, scientists, experts, and reports quickly dismissed it. Many said the otherworldly origin of octopi is simply unacceptable. Others said the hypothesis is pure nonsense. After all, who in his/her right mind would ever dare to say that octopi are intelligent beings from outer space?

I have no idea where octopi came from. That one of the millions of things I don’t know. I do know, however, that “experts” and “scientists” once said earth was flat. And when it was time to accept earth was round, those same “experts” and “scientists” insisted earth the center of the universe.

Eventually, centuries later, earth lost its privilege place in the universe. But then it was said (even until 70 years ago or so) that the Milky Was encompassed the whole universe.

It took decades of many experiments and observations to reluctantly accept the Milky Way was but one among countless galaxies in the universe. At first, of course, it was believed that the Milky Way was the bigger of the galaxies. That’s not the case. And perhaps our universe is but one among a countless plurality of universes.

Just a couple of centuries ago, “experts” and “scientists” rejected the idea of meteorites coming from space. They said heavy “stone” can’t fly high enough to then fall from the sky. And even if that could happen, stones don’t burn. So, they were sure people who saw meteorites falling down were simply mistaken.

Also, the idea of the continental drift was finally accepted just last century. The hypothesis was presented a long time before that. Yet, when it was proposed, it was ridiculed in the same way that the ideas of meteorites from space and of octopi from space were ridiculed.

So, we need to be careful about saying “That’s wrong and it can’t be true”. In saying so, we are reveling more about our loyalty to a certain dogma and people than about our openness of heart and mind to a new mysterious reality.

 

Which word or idea makes you stumble?

Francisco Miraval

I recently had the good fortune of meeting an educator, now retired, who shared with me anecdotes about his long career. I asked him what “education” meant for him and he immediately said that education is the process of detecting the words that create obstacles for a student and then helping the student to overcome those obstacles.

Talking about elementary school students, this educator provided many examples of students who, facing a word they never saw before, simply stop reading and, in many cases, they don’t even ask for help.

However, he said, those cases are easy to resolve because the student acknowledges that he/she found a word he/she doesn’t understand. With help and the proper methodology, the student will learn the meaning of the “new” word and, more importantly, will incorporate the word to his/her vocabulary.

There is, however, a more complex situation. Sometimes, a student finds a word, be it at school or at home, and, because he/she knows one meaning of that word, the student assumes he/she understand what that word means in that particular context. Consequently, the student arrives to a wrong conclusion of the meaning of the word, sometimes with absurd and hilarious results.

Those cases are more challenging because the student believes he/she understood what he/she read or heard, when in fact that’s not the case. In the case of students in elementary school, they also have the challenge of accepting new meanings for words they already know. For example, how many meanings the word “one” has. One can only guess.

The educator I met, clearly a wise person (and, by the way, with degrees in several fields, from medicine to AI), told me there is a case even more difficult to solve, perhaps the hardest one to solve, even harder than a student not knowing a word or knowing only one meaning of the word. And that’s the case of adults and, more precisely, professional adults finding a “new” word.

Why? Because, contrary to what children do (they stop reading), adults don’t stop and, even worse, they create their own meaning for the word or idea they don’t understand. Among professionals, the problem is even worse because they can’t admit, to themselves or to others, that they don’t know.

According to the educator, instead of acknowledging they stumble upon a case of their own ignorance, professionals keep going, traveling farther and farther in the path of ignorance, being certain they know when, in fact, they don’t.

The educator told me about a lawyer who, not knowing the meaning of “alas”, thought it was similar to “at last” and, therefore, used “alas” to indicate the conclusion of his arguments.

Perhaps they were never taught how to stop and reflect if they find a “small mystery”, such as a new word or idea. Or perhaps they were taught, but they never learned to “look inside” and recognize they don’t know.

Each word or idea that causes you to stumble is an excellent opportunity for self-discovery.

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