Archive for category Reflections

Mental Cross-Training

I love to learn. I consume information ravenously. My normal mode of operation is to go on six-week deep dives into specific subjects, one or two subjects at a time, and then move on to another deep dive shortly after I complete the current one.

My general approach is to first survey the landscape and get a general sense of the subject’s natural outline. I try to identify the best sources to represent the two largest viewpoints on the subject, along with some quirky “third way” point of view. I tend to think of these as McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s. Or Windows, MacOS and Unix. You can pick for yourself which is which; I’m not interested in a holy war at this point in time. Another way of thinking of it is in brand terms. In most markets, there is a dominant brand (like a Coke) that far far outsells any other brand, and tends to present itself on its own terms. Then there is almost always a single “top competitor” number two brand (like a Pepsi), that is easily identified by the fact that their advertising tends to focus on comparisons with the number one brand. These two brands usually dominate more than fifty percent of the market, or at least more than fifty percent of the “mind share” of the market. Then there is often a clear number three (like a Dr. Pepper) that tends in its advertising to present itself as “other”, “quirky”, and for people not interested in the traditional competition between one and two. Anyway, I often find that in fields of knowledge, you can find a similar division among theories/opinions/schools of thought/etc. And I like to simplify while still getting a balanced picture. Thus my approach.

In addition to trying to identify the major schools of thought on a subject, I also will look for some sort of natural taxonomy to describe the major categories of the subject. This divides the subject study into a matrix, if you will, with subcategories on one axis and schools of opinion on the other. From there, I go to town.

Now, it’s not actually as formal and deliberate as all that. Rather, the above is merely a description of what I observe myself doing when I study how I study. I actually do it in a much more organic fashion, feeling my way around, working from the outside in, until I learn whatever it is I can learn before I get distracted by some new pursuit.

And I do this from subject to subject, bouncing around, all the time. Sometimes one subject will lead naturally into another, like cooking into baking into food science. Or like the history of jazz music to playing jazz piano to music theory. But sometimes the jumps are completely incongruous, like game theory to Russian history to number sequences. And sometimes I get stuck on something longer than six weeks. Sometimes a lot longer. I also occasionally return to previously visited subjects. But one way or another, I am always doing this.

But I’m not doing it with any specific purpose in mind. For me, it’s mostly about entertainment. It’s just something I find joy in. I am just a very curious person, I suppose.

That said, it would be incorrect to assume that this habit serves no purpose. I may not intend a purpose, but I have found plenty of purpose, after the fact, in my various random explorations of knowledge.

For instance, my deep dive into serious chess (which lasted a lot longer than six weeks, and which I still return to now and then) taught me ways of ordering my thinking process when analyzing the position on the board before selecting a strategy for the next phase of a game. I have found that that same thinking process is easily repurposed when faced with some structured, non-chess problem. Likewise, understanding Joseph Campbell’s concept of the “Hero’s Journey” has provided me insight when trying to figure out how to structure a sermon. And getting into the science of baking using ratios has given me new insight into different ways of organizing any given process-oriented field of study.

I call this “mental cross-training”. When an athlete cross-trains, they participate in a second sport or athletic activity besides their “official” sport, in order to improve the health and performance of particular muscles, general endurance, or other traits important to their “main” activity. Mental cross-training is the same for me. Except I very rarely have any idea what benefit I will get from any particular subject when I first start. But I almost always find an application after I have finished.

I suppose this is one way of understanding what colleges mean by a “well-rounded” education. I know, what they are mostly saying is that there are no major gaps in their curriculum. But you can also pursue the idea of “well-roundedness” in terms of trying to expose yourself to as many different ideas as possible, because the cross-pollination¬†of those ideas in your fermenting mind will produce wholly new things that cannot be planned for but that will most surely enrich your life.

I credit my father to a great degree for teaching me this. He regularly advocated “keeping your options open” when it came to education. He encouraged people to explore as many different things and to be exposed to as many different ideas as possible, so as to have access to as many different tools, paths, options, as possible when contemplating your future. And from what I could tell, that’s how he lived his life. That’s how he stumbled into a job interview he wasn’t supposed to be in, that nevertheless led to a life-long career in a company that he loved and that treated him well. That’s how he met Malcolm X somewhat randomly one afternoon while at college. And I can look back and see that’s how he often found new ways of thinking that he could then take to his consulting clients in order to help them find unique solutions to age-old problems.

And I guess it was only just today that I realized this about him. Thanks, Dad!


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Just Curious?

What questions are hardest for you to face? Why? Practice some loving curiosity so you can better understand other people. And yourself.

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Alien Me


Keeping it Real

At New Way Church we are in the midst of a series about the final week of Jesus’ time on earth. The four part series is called Potential. We started on Easter with the story of the resurrection of Jesus, and over the following three weeks are “flashing back” to the days that led up to that event. Today we discussed the famous “Palm Sunday”.

Specifically, we read about two events that took place on that day. First, Jesus entered Jerusalem being hailed as a King. Then, immediately following this, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus went into the temple and cast out the people who had turned it from a house of prayer into one of profit.

Now, there’s a lot going on in this story, but I suggest that one thing to learn here is the importance of “getting real” with yourself at the beginning of a spiritual struggle. The arrest and execution of Jesus–and therefore his resurrection–came about in part because his actions on Palm Sunday both openly declared war on the religious power structure operating in the temple in Jerusalem, and also represented an act of treason against the civil authority of the Emperor of Rome. Likewise, true spiritual battle doesn’t really happen until we acknowledge the authority of the Lord in our lives and also admit that there are things in our mind–evil and false things–that hold us back from fully accepting all the goodness God is trying to do for and through us. Attaining the spiritual potential he sees in each of us requires that we first “get real” and objectively observe the good and the bad within us.

So my challenge to everyone today was to take stock of life, and find some quiet time to consider the thoughts and affections of their minds and the actions that flow from them. And to make a list of all the good that is from the Lord. And then to acknowledge just one bad desire–a selfish tendency, a greedy attitude, an unloving habit, etc. And for the rest of the week, to just be mindful. See what comes up. Be aware.

So I thought I’d share my own results from this process of self examination. You don’t have to share your results out loud, but sometimes it can be helpful. Sometimes, though, what you find in yourself is hard to share. Don’t worry about that. You don’t have to completely follow my example to learn from it.

So here goes…

First, I see God in my life. How? I love my job. My calling. My church. My wife. Each of my children. These are all gifts from the Lord that I have done nothing to earn. I cherish them.

But going deeper, I realize that my very ability to love each of these is itself from the Lord. It is the Lord in me. My capacity to cherish, my desire to serve, and the joy I get from doing so, are also pure gifts, the result of God’s infinite grace and mercy.

Going further, I realize that the Lord has given me skills, talents, dispositions, resources, connections and experiences that make my life what it is and that have allowed me to achieve all that I have achieved. And I can’t take credit for any of them! For instance, I’m a reasonably smart person, and that has helped me accomplish some things, but I would be (and at times have been!) a total fool to even begin to think that was something I had anything to do with. If anything I have dishonored the gift over the years by slacking off in school, by using it for lazy purposes, and even at times using it for purely selfish–even petty–purposes.

And the same is true for any other trait or talent or ability I might ever accept a compliment for or be proud of or whatever. If it’s good, it’s from God. So, thank you, Lord, for all of these things!

Now, I could say a lot about what I might repent of. Already my mind is being drawn to selfish, arrogant and lazy ways I have misused whatever I have been given for selfish ends, but this week I just want to focus, laser-like, on one very specific thing. In fact, it is a thing that I have been aware of for a few weeks now, and I’m tired of it holding me back, and tripping me up.

Lately I have become increasingly aware of the fact that I sometimes struggle with trust. Part of it is just the result of having been hurt in the distant past; we all know what it’s like to have our trust shaken, right?

But I’ve come to believe there’s more to it in what’s going on with me these days. I’ve observed in myself a voice that seems to want to dwell in mistrust. If I’m being completely honest with myself–and that IS the point of this spiritual practice, after all–I have to acknowledge that some small, broken part of me actually enjoys the worry and fear that comes from not trusting.

And this is a very subtle thing. I mean, my difficulty with trusting isn’t something that plays out on the stage of my life much; it’s almost entirely an inner thing. I don’t much act on it, but in the depth of my mind it’s there, breeding quiet worries that I barely notice but that nevertheless undermine my connection with the Lord. I didn’t see them at all until something small prompted me to look deeper into my own motivations a little while back.

And now, thinking further on it, I have come to believe that part of what is going on is that hell is using the perfectly natural instinct to avoid being hurt by misplaced trust to stir up in me a desire to control that which I have no right to control. Thus a subtle insecurity can, over time, be turned into a selfishness that could some day poison relationships, the greatest of which being my relationship with the Lord. If I let it.

Now, there are other things in my life that don’t belong, either. But this subtle thing is actually a serious potential threat to my spiritual health and I’d like to get it under watch now, before it does major damage. And, frankly, this is one of the things I struggle with that I am actually (somewhat) comfortable sharing in such a public way. Like you, I have many things about me that need a little work, but many of them are things I only share with the very closest of my confidants, if with anyone at all. I’m sure you understand.

So for this week, for the sake of this public exercise of what is often a very private spiritual practice, I’m choosing to work on how a subtle difficulty with trust can undermined relationships by stirring up a selfish need for control.

That’s my suspicion, at least. I am going to spend this week mindful of my feelings, and of the thoughts those feelings generate. I’m on the lookout for worry and distrust, but more particularly for any controlling desires that get excited by my fears. And if it turns out that my theory is right, I’m going to take the next step.

But that’s a topic for another post.

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