Podcast Launch Coming Soon!!!

Hello Everyone,
I'm about to launch my new podcast, Fractal Friends. I have some amazing people lined up, and I can't wait to share this adventure with you. You're not going to want to miss any of the episodes, so...
Sign up for updates in the column over there on the right---->>>
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Listen here to get a taste of what's coming:

In case you missed the blog post launching this whole project, you can find it here

Turning toward the light (a.k.a. The reason for the season)

Season's Greetings! Merry Christmas! Happy Solstice! Happy Hanukkah! Joyous Kwanza! and Happy New Year! I hope that everyone has been finding some degree of joy, rest and peace during this time of year. 

I simply wanted to reach out and touch on why humans have chosen throughout the centuries to mark this time of year: it is the nadir. We are at the darkest point, the closing of a phase. So why all the joy?

We celebrate, because we know that life is cyclical. This is the opportunity to celebrate that we know that things always get better. It is a time to celebrate birth, community, survival and light. The days will start to get longer now. The calendar will begin anew. And we all can rest assured in the knowledge that we have been through the darkness before, and we have prevailed every time. 

Most of the spiritual traditions have ceremonies in this season that revolve around light. My personal tradition is to light a candle at this time of year, reflect on what I am willing to leave behind and offer my wish for the world in the coming cycle. 

Regardless of your tradition, I invite everyone to take a moment to reflect on what it would take, even while in darkness, to trust that the light will return. How can you participate in that process?

Happy Cycle Everyone!

PS: I know this post is very northern hemisphere centric. I guess that is the nature of our calendar. Sorry about that. A mi me encantaría escuchar las perspectivas del hemisferio sur sobre este tema.

How to talk about ISIS...

I've been reluctant to jump into conversation about how to address ISIS and terrorism around the world. This weekend, however, I met someone who expressed the feeling that she just wanted to have some ideas about how to think and talk about it. So, in the spirit of creating a new conversation (see my introductory post), I'm going to offer up a new way to talk about this situation. 

The world has faced Islamic extremism a number of times throughout the last decades. The U.S. (and others) has regularly led a military response with the intention of using overwhelming firepower and high tech weapons, mixed with ad hoc justice systems to forcefully remove leaders and groups from power. As they claim "mission accomplished," they have also left a trail of destruction and broken families in their wake. This creates the conditions for extremists to easily recruit the afflicted people around them to bring the fight back to the west and locally and to avenge the deaths from before. As these retaliatory movements gain steam the U.S. rallies the war machine again, and the cycle continues. 

This article by Andrew Bacevich does a good job explaining why the strategy of ongoing war will not work concluding, "For a rich and powerful nation to conclude that it has no choice but to engage in quasi-permanent armed conflict in the far reaches of the planet represents the height of folly." He says that there must be a choice, so what is it?

Here is the new conversation that I propose: If we want to see a different outcome, we need to respond in a new way. This is a generational issue and we need to begin to see it that way. We need to begin to be a healing influence in the world. 

Yes, there are often serious immediate problems that need to be addressed. I won't ignore the fact that sometimes a military intervention is necessary to confront and suppress the most aggressive acts of violence, but these military interventions need to be framed in a new context. The use of force needs to be seen only a small step before the real work begins. The real work needs to be long term broad-based support for the rebuilding of the countries that are being destroyed by these wars. 

The message needs to be that the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Iranians, the Afghanis, et al. are our friends. Their dreams of peace for their families are the same as ours. The U.S. needs to use its influence to rally the world to support the health, education, and infrastructure in these countries. This support must come from a diverse community, be culturally relevant and respectful, and it must take a long-term perspective, addressing the already existing multi-generational trauma. This will be the hard work for the use, because it will require humility. We will have to face the fact that we don't have all the answers. We absolutely can't install our values, our culture, our political systems, etc. The arc of progress will need to be elicited from the actual communities that have been affected. 

In other words, the U.S. needs to stop being the primary recruiting agent for Islamist extremism. We need to figure out how to stop being the enemy that everyone loves to hate, and start leveraging our influence to be an undeniable force for good in the world. When an al Qaeda or ISIS or future terrorist group tries to rally people to join them in a new terrorist attack against the U.S. or elsewhere, the response should be "Wait, but why? Look at all the good they've done for me and my family and my country," not "Of course, all they have brought me is destruction death."  

If this feels outlandish, or utopian, remember that we've been in this cycle before. World War I created the conditions for World War II by leaving the Germans disgraced and destroyed. We broke that cycle with the Marshall Plan, where the U.S. took on the costs of supporting the rebuilding of the European countries broken by war. We simply need a new way of responding. 

Three Rules of Conflict

While working on a series of border conflicts in Ecuador I came up with the "three rules of conflict and conflict resolution." Yes, I know that conflict is too complex to be reduced to three rules. Nonetheless, these keep coming up, so I thought I'd share (explanations to follow):

1. The conflict is never about what the conflict is about. 

2. Whoever is not involved in the resolution of a conflict will find a way to involve themselves on their own terms.

3. The process of managing a conflict and the outcome are the same.  

Okay, what am I talking about?

 Thanks to my friends and heroes Ken Cloke and Joan Goldsmith for the iconic "Iceberg of Conflict" model. This graphic version is taken from  this website .

Thanks to my friends and heroes Ken Cloke and Joan Goldsmith for the iconic "Iceberg of Conflict" model. This graphic version is taken from this website.

1. Conflicts tend to be about an issue, defined by the different positions of the conflicting parties. This is an objective understanding of conflict, and it is tempting to try to resolve things at this level through logic, negotiation and legal precedence. This is the level of conflict at which the legal system operates. Actually, this it the level that most people try to operate. The catch is that this approach rarely leads to a satisfactory solution. Usually it leads to someone having an "irrational" response, another feeling resentful about the outcome or a total collapse of the process and dissolution of the relationships. This is, because the conflict is never about what the conflict is about.  

By focusing on the objective issues we miss the fact that conflict is an emotional experience. The fact that conflict can be a source of great intensity is a reflection of how it touches deep chords in our hearts. This means that discovering the underlying source of a conflict requires great vulnerability. In Mediating Dangerously Kenneth Cloke says, "Every honest communication poses a risk that something will challenge or change us." (p. 4) As we look at the sources of conflict we can't help but encounter what is most intimate in ourselves and in one another. If we ignore the tender and wounded subjective aspects of conflict by focusing on the objective positions and issues we will never be able to find peace or resolution. If we are able to face these vulnerable and profound places with safety and respect we may be able find connection and intimacy like we have never known. 

2. Given that conflict arises from our deepest and most intimate selves, it is not something that we can easily let go of. This means that we can't resolve a conflict by getting rid of or ignoring the people that we are in conflict with. These are common strategies with many variations and they never work, at least not in the long run. Whoever is not involved in the resolution of a conflict will find a way to involve themselves on their own terms. The reason is that once a person, community or culture is living the deep emotional wound that arose from a conflict situation, they can't let it go and move on. The only way to resolve it is by bringing them close, addressing the underlying needs and finding ways to heal the aspects of the relationship/system that spawned the conflict in the first place. 

Sometimes it doesn't seem convenient, comfortable or even possible to engage with the folk we are in conflict with, so it is tempting to opt for oppression, suppression, rejection or neglect to create a temporary sort of "peace." But this can only be temporary. When an individual or a group feels like their needs have not been acknowledged they will find a new way to express their interests, usually in a way that is more disruptive. If ignored again, the common strategy is to continue escalating. One quickly (or slowly) finds themselves is a conflict system that feeds on itself until someone in the conflict finds the courage or maturity to break the cycle, which becomes harder and harder. In short, the costs of engaging directly early on is far easier than trying to avoid or get rid of the problem.

3. So, how do we engage with people in conflict? Well, we have engage with them in the same way that we want to be with them out of conflict. This is because the process of managing a conflict and the outcome are the same. The moment we decide to engage directly with a conflict and transform the root causes, the solution is already being formed. If the process is inclusive from the beginning, the outcome will be inclusive. If the process is rational and evidence-based from the beginning, the outcome will be rational and evidence-based. If the process is honors diversity from the beginning, the outcome will be one that honors diversity. If the process is focuses on sustainability from the beginning, the outcome will be sustainable. Whatmore, if the process is exclusive of certain groups from the beginning, the outcome will be exclusive of certain groups. If the process is violent from the beginning, the outcome will be violent. This pattern is true for all variations. 

So, we need to consider this as we design our processes. There is an opportunity here for us to dream about the future we want, beyond our current conflicts. The way we do things now sets the stage for what comes next. How do we want our life and relationships to be in the future?

Furthermore, given that conflict is an inevitable side effect of diversity, if we are able to improve the outcomes of our current conflicts by facing them with integrity now, we will have a much better base for the conflicts of the future. We can always be more inclusive of our inner worlds and of each other. In other words, we can keep getting better at this. 

 

Freedom + Limits = Dance/Play/Life

I just had the fortune of rediscovering contra dancing this week. I was introduced to it years ago in Seattle, and I totally forgot how much fun it is during the last five years of tango and salsa dancing in Latin America. For those who don't know, contra dance is a folk dance, similar to square dancing, that is danced in lines of partners. There is a caller who calls out patterns of multiple figures (see right) with 64 beats. I'm impressed that even with all that structure it is both fun and liberating. What more, there always seems to be great live music. If you're curious I suggest you go check out your local scene. If you just want to understand a bit more: here are some examples of figures, here are some examples of patterns, and here's a video of the whole thing in action

But this post is not about contra dancing. The reference to dancing is a not-so-subtle way for me to talk about one of my favorite philosophical themes: the interplay of freedom and limits.

These two forms of organizing life are familiar to all of us. We usually recognize them as being in direct opposition of one another. We clearly know when we are moving towards more freedom and we know when things are becoming increasingly limited. We may even feel a preference towards one or the other, as in: "Throw off the shackles we need more freedom in the world," or "What we need now is to reign in the various forces that are out of control in our world." 

The first thing to recognize is that this "preference" is situational and contextual. As an exercise, I invite you to consider the provocative themes listed below, and as you read them pay attention to whether you believe there needs to be more freedom or more limits for each subject:

  • Migration
  • Banking System
  • Religion
  • Carbon Emissions
  • Drug Policy 
  • International Trade

I anticipate that each point provokes a real reaction, perhaps a clear and practiced one. I also imagine that your feelings about freedom and limits become quickly mixed.

So we know these are real concepts and we also recognize that there is not a clear winner here. Both freedom and limits have their place in human society and they are here to stay. 

A second thing we can learn about freedom and limits is that in their extremes they become destructive forces. Freedom in its extreme could lead to total dispersion of energy, chaos or war. Limits in their extreme lead us to control so absolute that life becomes static, absent of individuality and diversity. In both cases life verges on meaninglessness.

The third thing we can recognize is that the choice between freedom and limits is an illusion. They are part of one interdependent system, always defining and co-creating each other. This is similar to the fact that we can't have light without dark, mountains without valleys or joy without suffering. Recognizing the mutuality of the poles is a big leap in thinking in a society obsessed with being right or being the best. I call this paradigmatic shift from "either/or" thinking to "both/and" thinking, taking the third perspective. With the third perspective we see that we are not making a choice, but that situational and contextual shifts back and forth between the two is what makes it all interesting. It's not about which side is right or wrong, it's about how do we manage the tension between the two in the way that is more beneficial and less painful to everyone involved.

Let's bring this home by returning to dancing and play. When we look at contra dancing, tango or salsa (or soccer or football or chess for that matter) we see that it is the freedom to operate within a clearly defined set of limits that is the genesis of creativity. Every game played out between two teams is new story. There are more possible chess games than there are atoms in the known universe. Those adept at tango and salsa know that there are infinite possible dances. And the folk writing new 64 beat patterns for contra dance have been innovating constantly since the social barn dances of old. 

If we look at life, we will see the same forces at play. The natural limits of the physical world and the chosen limits of culture are so prevalent that they are nearly invisible in our day-to-day lives, nonetheless it is the freedom that we find within these limits that make life rich and beautiful. 

I'll conclude for now with a reminder that neither freedom nor limits are good nor bad, and neither one will ever "win." It is the unresolvable question itself that gives us dance, play and life. Let's not try to find an answer quite yet. 

 Photo by Chris Chin. Available at  flickr.com .

Photo by Chris Chin. Available at flickr.com.

Imagining a Humble Universe

I've been sitting on the concept behind this post for a week. Everyday it feels more and more urgent as I hear people talk to each other in real life and in the media. I've hesitated because it brings light to a problem, and I have no answer. Somehow, listening to this On Being podcast with Mary Oliver helped me realize that I just need to get this one out there. Creativity is impatient. 

 The pillars of creation. photo taken by the hubble telescope. It can be be found  here .

The pillars of creation. photo taken by the hubble telescope. It can be be found here.

For a number of fascinating reasons, scientists and mathematicians are coming to believe that while we live in an infinite universe, our universe is likely one of many, if not infinite, universes: the multiverse. (Check out this Radiolab podcast if you have no idea what I'm talking about.) Our universe was born 13.82 billion years ago in a flash of light, heat and potential and we now sit here at the precipice of time as it's ultimate creation. <-- This is science. 

This is fantasy --> What if the universe wonders if it is good enough? What if it is wondering if has really lived up to its potential? Maybe it is concerned that its galaxies are not the perfect spirals that it had hoped for. Maybe it is worried that it is expanding too fast or too slowly. What if it looks at the emergence of life and intelligence, and is afraid that it may have been a mistake? Our universe might be worried that when compared to other universes it is just not perfect nor elegant enough. 

Is that too far out? Imagine if our planet was thinking the same. What if Earth was looking at the purity of color and sterility of the other 7 planets and felt inadequate, like an imposter?*

These questions come to mind because I have been experiencing an inundation of self-deprecating thoughts among my friends, colleagues and myself lately. In each case they (I) seem to look at the people around them (me) and feel a sense of total amazement with the company they (I) hold and begin to think,  "I must be an imposter here. Soon they'll figure out that I'm a mess, nowhere near their level. They will kick me out of this group once they see how flawed I am. I am not worthy of this." 

When I see people saying things like this, I am always struck by how beautiful and amazing THEY are and how tragic it is to hear them voice their concerns, unbelievable really. When I feel this voice in myself I struggle to imagine how it can't be true, even as I rationally know that it isn't. How can we trust our worthiness in the face of such incredible beauty and skill that we witness around us?

Taoism advises us to be valley, to see the power of lying low and letting the world flow towards us.

With fractals, it is the slight imperfections, and their iteration, that make things beautiful. As Benoit Mandelbrot reminds us, "Mountains are not cones, clouds are not spheres, trees are not cylinders, neither does lightning travel in a straight line."

We all are acutely aware of our imperfections. In the face of the amazing world we live in it is hard to see our place, but here's the trick: we're amazing too, even with our shortcomings.

So here's what I want to say: Don't be afraid to find "your place in family of things." Come humbly, but come. You fit right in, and we need you. This needs to be a team effort.


*Yes, I understand that anthropomorphizing a universe or a planet is fraught with complications. I'm claiming agnosticism on this one. I can't say if it's possible for the universe (planet) to be conscious or not. I believe that it's impossible to know, so for now it's just fun to think about. 

In Remembrance

Today I wish everyone a thoughtful Veterans Day. 

Personally, I am trying to hold in my heart all of those that have fought and are fighting in wars throughout the world and throughout time, on all sides of the battlefield, "enemies and friends." I am trying to hold in my heart the soldiers who have killed and/or died in humanity's wars. I can't imagine either of these fates. I am trying to hold in my heart those lives that were lost training for war. (Thanks Dad for the reminder to remember these oft forgotten veterans.) I am trying to hold in my heart the civilians (those sympathetic to war, those wishing for peace and those who don't even understand what's happening) who have been caught up in the war machines of today and in generations past.

It is a lot to try to hold, so much anger and sadness, so much pride and power. 

I want to offer an apology to the veterans on behalf of all of us:

I am sorry that you had to get caught up in our collective disfunction. I'm sorry that we haven't figured out how to get out of the cycle of trauma. I'm sorry that we will continue to send you to war, because we don't know how to stop yet. 

I don't think we will stop going war anytime soon, so in honor of those who have suffered so I want to see if we can collectively promise to shift this experience with war a little bit.

Can we make a promise to try to resolve our disagreements every way possible before choosing war? This might include the very uncomfortable situation of talking to and engaging with people with whom we have fundamental disagreements. 

In the case that we do need to go to war, can we make a promise to approach it with the requisite levels of nuance and precision? In no case is it a good idea to go to war with an entire nation of people. It is simply racist and ignorant to pretend that any culture or nationality is a monolith of malevolence, and it's just not strategic. Short of absolute genocide (God forbid), the outcome of every war needs to be peaceful friendship with the survivors. Any other approach seems misguided. Let's try to remember that the diversity of life is everywhere. 

Finally, can we promise to at least to try to begin to think about opening our hearts to the possibility of facing all of the differences in the world with love, not violence? What would it take to further develop this spirit of service for brave souls to follow?

Thank you to everyone who has responded to the call to sacrifice life and limb. I am grateful for your courage, and I promise that I'll do all I can (tiny as that may be) to make sure that your efforts have not been in vain.

This one's dedicated to my father, my uncles, my step grandfather (Papa), my sister-in-law's grandfather, their colleagues and friends. 

Holding Lightly

Our beliefs, our paradigms, our hopes and fears are hard earned. We have all worked super hard to get to where we are, each of us. Our visions for how we want things to be, how we want ourselves to be, are the product of both our suffering and our joy. Consequently, there seems like there can be nothing more important than to grab on hard and to struggle to make things happen. It feels so important to honor and preserve our traditions and identities (cultural and individual). It also feels vital to push hard for sweeping changes in our lives, our communities and the world. We can build our whole identity around our hopes and fears. And you know what? Kudos to all us for the effort. Good job folk.

Hmm, but something is not quite right about this strategy. 

In the four noble truths the Buddha points us to the concept that the suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) that is inherent to the human condition is directly tied to our clinging onto things we want and rejecting the things we don't. Everything in life is impermanent, so if we hold on too hard we will be sorely disappointed over and over again. The river of life is flowing and if we cling to the banks we will get torn apart. So the advice we hear again and again is to let go. It sounds so nice, elegant, almost simple. 

Hmm, but something is not quite right about this strategy either. 

Tara Brach tells this joke in one of her dharma teachings: A man is walking through the jungle when he comes upon a ferocious and hungry tiger. The man runs and he is chased to the edge of precipice. He climbs over the edge to relative safety, just out of reach of the snarling teeth and slashing claws of the tiger. He looks below to see that there are not only sharp rocks below, but that another tiger approaches waiting for a feast to fall into its grasp. The man then realizes that the plant he is tenuously hanging onto is coming unrooted. At this point the man cries out to God pleading for salvation, "Help!" 

To his surprise God actually responds, a booming voice from the clouds, "I am God and I am here." 

"Help me!" cries the man. "What can I do?"

"Let go," replies God. 

"Is there anyone else?" asks the man. 

I just feels so unsatisfactory and impossible to let go. How are we going to save ourselves, our families, our planet if we just let go. It almost sounds nihilistic. It gets even more surreal when we start clinging to letting go and then start beating ourselves up about how we can't let go of all the things we love and love to hate. 

If we cling we will suffer. If we let go it seems like we might lose our sense of meaning. So what do we do? 

The practice that I am finding useful is to hold things lightly. I am allowing myself to have direction and purpose, to let myself enjoy all the earthly wonders of life and to love the people around me so hard, while at the same time just holding them lightly. If I lose them I'll be ready to let go, but in the meantime I'm leaning in.

It is this attitude that created the space for me begin this project of making a blog and a podcast. I'm accepting that I can't control the outcome, that it won't be perfect, that I haven't figured it all out yet. The truth is that I have no idea what will happen here. Nonetheless, I'm letting myself grab onto this dream and ride it into the future, and I'm going to hold it lightly just in case it proves to be ill advised. 

I offer this strategy to everyone who joins me in this journey. I'm planning to record conversation with all sorts of amazing people with interesting ways of seeing the world. Some of them you will love, and some of them will piss you off.

Let's just try to hold them lightly.

Don't forget to sign up for updates over here on the right. -->

Thanks y'all.

Welcome to Fractal Friends

Hello Friends,

I am delighted to welcome y'all to my blog and podcast: Fractal Friends. 

I am opening a space here to shift our global conversation. We are leaving behind the question of right vs. wrong. We are abandoning the age old question of us vs. them.

Here is the new plan: 
We are accepting that we are all in this together, like it or not.
The new question I offer to the world is "How are we going to get through this together?" 

There is no other option. Spaceship earth is spiraling through space and we have to figure out how to work together. 

How can we even imagine such an idea? Well first of all, we don't all have to agree with one another. That would be antithetical to the brilliant diversity of humanity. What we need to realize is that we can't get rid of our enemies. At best we can recognize them as necessary collaborators in the human drama. They are part of our network of relationships. 

Furthermore, we need to recognize that this is true at all scales. All nations depend on one another to define themselves. The panorama of cultures constitutes one fabulous kaleidoscopic fabric. Political divisions are not real; the diversity of opinions exist on a spectrum. We are interdependent with our communities, our neighbors, our families and our friends. And if we look closely we will find that the line that divides good and evil can be found within our own hearts and minds. 

Alexander Solzhenitsyn said it well while he was imprisoned in Siberia: 

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” 
- The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

So, I invite y'all to join me in a journey. I am going to make a space here for us to meet each other, to find the wisdom in one another, to share our light and maybe help us find our common humanity. Come be part of the Fractal Friends. 

I love y'all. 

peace, 
duncan