Truth(?) In a Bottle

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I was sick and overheated most of the weekend, but I could still deeply appreciate Lightning in a Bottle. The grounds were sprawling and magnificent. The stages were gorgeous and awe-inspiring art was everywhere. People were happy, friendly and beautiful.

Even the shopping, the “oh-so-insidious” presence of commerce — was inspiring. The food & clothing vendors were all examples of people & companies trying to practice conscious capitalism. Much more than mere money-centric traditional transactions, it actually felt good to purchase from a leather craftsperson or to buy an organic meal from a fair trade food truck.

And there was so much to learn, as well. So much yoga, cooking classes, workshops and lectures that it took significant effort to sort through the schedule. As impressed as I was with everything, there was one critical suggestion I wanted to make. (NOTE: This is a personal observation influenced by my own preference in learning formats. It could also just be sour grapes from my desire to speak at LiB and repeatedly rejected applications.)

An example of ONE stage on ONE day

I wish there was a little more context surrounding the more fringe workshops and lectures. Some of the subject matter was rather extreme, delving into the far-edges of spiritual and pseudo-scientific beliefs. I admire that LiB gives a venue to topics like Flat Earth and Alien Abduction, even if those ideas do not resonate with my current worldview. But I worry when these ideas are presented without criticism.

I imagined a young person in their early 20’s (as the majority of the crowd seemed to be.) I pictured them discovering LiB and how liberating the experience would be. How amazing to experience the deep community love and connection — perhaps for the first time. I pictured someone experiencing psychedelics for the first time and having their head cracked open. It would feel like they were finally experiencing what life is all about. Meeting people and experiencing art & music within the safe container of LiB would be a life changing gift. But I also pictured those young minds listening to a lecture filled with ideas that some would argue were conspiracy theories. Since the teacher on stage was vetted by and endorsed by the Do-Lab, critical thought and discernment would be turned way down within the safe container of LiB.

I am not saying that a cracked-open mind should not be exposed to alternative perspectives, only that it should be clear that they ARE alternative perspectives.To accept these ideas without critique could cause damage to a person’s psyche. And I wish the very concept of critical thinking was a bigger focus of the educational tracts. Alien abduction/brainwashing presented as truth is no less troublesome than Mormonism or Scientology presented as truth.

My Senior year of college, I got some wonderful advice from my advisor Fred Rabinowitz. He saw that I was becoming interested in Humanistic Psychology and was investigating some paranormal and alternative spirituality programs of study. He encouraged me to continue, but warned me that once you cross the line into counter-culture thinking, not everyone is to be trusted. There is powerful truth in the modalities yet to be embraced by the mainstream, but not everyone who is spreading “truth” outside the realm of science is doing so with clarity or good intentions. I watched one packed presentation of alien abduction, reptiles among us, chemtrail manipulation and DNA alteration. I found it disturbing and the speaker fascinating. But in the end it did not resonate fully with me. I am not denying the speaker’s experience. But with a world filled with hundreds of spiritual frameworks and countless gods, angels, demons and deities — it is clear to me that the limitations of a human mind requires us to use mythology and stories to make sense of the unknowable.

I have friends who talk to angels. I have friends who talk to Jesus. I have friends who talk to the spirits of plant medicines. I believe them all. And I question them all. I have no doubt their experiences are real. And deep confidence that our mental stories and sensory limitations shape the way we perceive reality.

Amazing work by Miles Toland by the Temple Stage https://www.facebook.com/miles.toland

I became unsettled as I listened to the narrative of a sinister plot by aliens and illuminati. I am a 45 year old life-long seeker. I have read countless books and heard hundreds of hours of spiritual talks. I was grateful that I had such a strong foundation so that I could process the dark ideas without being overwhelmed. But I was worried about the young minds, naive and open. Like fertile petri dishes susceptible to any new idea that might take hold.

I do not mean to discourage alternate thought or breaking down the status quo worldview. Heck, my life purpose is about doing inquiry on our external scripts and questioning established realities. But the important compliment to that process is tuning in to one’s inner truth. One’s inner truth can be informed by alternate teachers and ideas, but it is not progress to go from blindly accepting a status quo idea to blindly accepting an alternative idea.

One of the huge errors of a beginner seeker is to make the mistake of “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” If I tell you that US History is filled with lies and manipulation, that doesn’t mean that the next information that I tell you is true.

It is healthy to process all ideas through a filter of doubt…or at least a recognition of the source’s perspective. Truth is personal understanding, not a concrete absolute. At best, we have a temporary understanding of the currently accessible data. It can be soothing to hear a charismatic teacher define right and wrong with confidence. But the deepest danger of any belief is in unquestioning fanaticism.

Charles Eisenstein began his talk with the Maori quote: “There are no facts, only stories.” I wish every talk began that way.

Go Down Swinging

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When I was 9 years old, my baseball coach was Coach C.

Coach C. was intimidating.

He was big, strong, deep-voiced and had a handshake that said, “I’m in control here.”

(Or, if he was in a playful mood, he would snap his hand away and brush his hair just as you extended your hand. Thus “leave you hanging.” An even harsher demonstrating of “I’m in control.”)

He was the dad of friends of mine. But he was different than my dad. Coach C. worked with his hands. He built stuff. He repaired things. And he played college baseball when he was younger.

I was intimidated by Coach C. I think everyone was.

His grown son once shared, “I never understood the saying, ‘don’t cry over spilt milk.’ In my house, if you spilled milk, there’s a good chance you’d be crying when dad was done with you.”

Coach C. definitely knew baseball, but he was gruff. And he had all sorts of rules that I found to be maddening. One of them was about watching your third strike. If you were batting, and you watched your 3rd strike without swinging at it, you had to clean up the bats at the end of the game. This seemed crazy to me. “Good eye! Good eye!” was one of the most common things we would shout from the dugout. Why would we be punished for practicing discernment?!

I can remember cleaning up bats after one game and just SEETHING with anger at the coach. And from then on, whenever the count was at 2 strikes, I would blindly swing at the next pitch…out of SPITE.

It took me many years to appreciate Coach C’s rule.

He wasn’t trying to teach some skill in baseball.

He wasn’t trying to educate us on some aspect of sports strategy.

He wasn’t even trying to win the game.

He was trying to teach us about life.

To SWING at opportunities.

To take risks.

To PLAY THE GAME.

That it is better to get knocked down on the field than to watch from the sidelines.

Life is about ACTIVELY giving it your best shot, not PASSIVELY waiting for the optimal opportunity.

There is no shame in striking out.

And there is little glory in getting walked.

Don’t spend your whole life waiting.

Thank you, Coach C.

Spiritual Corruption

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I have no issue with spending money on a spiritual practice. On the contrary, for years I’ve had a monthly “Joy” budget to purchase books, lectures, and classes. And I expect other people to spend money on my spiritual teaching/speaking/writing/whatever.

But it is important to remember that the core elements of a spiritual practice cannot be purchased. They are priceless and personal. That being said, there are all sorts of tools, trainings, teachers and venues that can be helpful and definitely have value.

Capitalism is a communication system. Every dollar spent is a vote saying, “More of this, please.” So spending money on spiritual tools and teachers is a great thing. And it is reasonable for a spiritual expert to charge for their time and skills just like an expert craftsman or lawyer would.

But the commodifying of a spiritual path is a delicate thing.

Due to the vulnerable and trusting nature of a teacher/student relationship, the commercial aspect needs to be scrutinized to ensure there is no exploitation. If a student trusts a teacher to give advice and guidance, is it ethical for the teacher to suggest products and services that the teacher makes money from?

(I’ll use the terms “teacher” and “student.” But it could be “devotee” and “guru,” “client” and “coach,” “seeker” and “guide,” “budding entrepreneur” and “mastermind leader,” etc.)

Consumer Reports (The magazine) knows that keeping a distinct line between advice and commerce is critical for them to maintain integrity. Unfortunately, this line is not as clean in many teacher/student relationships. Is it ethical for a teacher to recommend a training when that teacher gets a commission for every sale? I think so, if it is disclosed that the teacher is an affiliate. I have no doubt that Marie Forleos’s B School is a valuable training. And I know several happy graduates. But when I see so many respected leaders encouraging their fans and students to sign up for the $2000 program, I wonder why they don’t disclose that they are affiliates? If you make $1000 by me signing up from your link, how can that NOT affect your review or endorsement? At the very least, disclose you are getting a commission. I would think that a fan/follower would *want* to support a teacher.

And to their credit, many leaders make a point to disclose their affiliate relationships. In a recent newsletter from Tim Ferris, he recommended 10 products. At the end of every product review it had a link to the product with his affiliate link attached, and then next to it a “non-affiliate link.” The reader could choose if they wanted to support Tim when they purchased and make their own judgement if Tim was being influenced by his desire to sell. (And in being transparent, he earned my trust.)

A different example is Dave Asprey, the Bulletproof Exec. I love Bulletproof Coffee and find value in tons of Dave’s articles. But he is an expert who recommends products that he also sells. Maybe they all work as well as he says, but it is difficult to ignore the inherent motivation. It is like a drug dealer saying, “This stuff is pure, man.”

The influence of financial benefit is pretty obvious. The book “Freakonomics” is full of examples of how, even with our best intentions, people are influenced by incentives. Who hasn’t had the experience of a car mechanic or dentist recommending questionable (and expensive) work?

(I know there are tons of people who sell their own products because they truly believe in what they sell. But I also know there are tons of people who are caught in the BS of a Multi Level Marketing Program.)

It is essentially the same core issue with our political system right now. How can a politician not be influenced by the money they receive? Maybe they recommend a bridge be built in a specific district or support a change in legal wording that benefits certain types of corporations. Those may actually be good actions…but the system’s inherent incentives cause inevitable corruption.

And I fear that there is corruption in the world of coaches, entrepreneurs, and spiritual teachers, too.

Not everywhere. Not everyone. And not even with ill-intent. But without transparency, I find it difficult to trust.

And in the spirit of full disclosure, maybe it is my own issues about charging for my services that is fueling my mistrust. Hmmm…can anyone recommend a good coach? (Affiliate links accepted.)

For related writing that inspired this post, Jesse Gros has been posting brave essays about the coaching industry on his Facebook page

Review of MOPS 2016

“Listening to John Halcyon talk. In addition to flow arts madness, there were speakers at the event, a memorable one being John Halcyon Styn, an 18-year Burning Man veteran who founded HugNation and outreach programs in San Diego, among other ventures. John’s talk on giving, gifting, finding purpose, and facing our deepest emotions truly resonated with the MOPS community. His powerful words gave meaning to our fun-filled weekend, drawing the focus in this tight-knit community towards how we can extend this positivity to the world around us. I was impressed by his ability to connect his stories and wisdom with the experiences of the crowd, and thankful that festival organizers had spiced up the program with an interesting speaker as the sun set Friday evening.”

from Review of MOPS 2016

The Unofficial Blog of John Halcyon Styn