Surviving Stressful Times 3

Section 1

One of the things that I want to continue to underline is the translation of principles into strategies. I’ve started work on a book about translation, which was actually started two years ago but then sat on the shelf for two years. Translation’s a very interesting process. One of the things we used to say in retreat is: if you want to learn something read a book. If you really want to learn it, teach the book. If you really want to learn it, translate the book—because you have to have a totally different level of understanding when you’re translating. It’s actually quite different from and much more demanding than teaching because you have to have it in one language and you’re translating it into another, so you have to know what it says in the one language and then figure out how to say something comparable in what’s called the target language.

In my own work, what I’m continually coming across is the challenge of taking what are quite deep principles in Buddhism and translating them into forms and expressions which people can relate to. One of the themes we have in the mind-training teaching which relates very, very much to this workshop is, Transform adversity into the path of awakening. Now, that sounds really nice, doesn’t it? Transform adversity into the path of awakening. You have no idea how much is being left out of that.

There are a couple of principles that I want to take a look at in terms of giving you some tools with which to work with stressful situations and stressful aspects of life. One of them we’ve already touched on, it’s back here. And in this picture of the then and now, the spectrum between. The Buddhist principle that is at work here is the Middle Way. This is a very deep theme in Buddhism, Theravadan, Zen, Tibetan, Mahayana, all across. It finds its original expression in the myth of Buddha’s life in which he is raised as a prince in the lap of luxury and doesn’t find happiness or peace in life, or however you want, and goes off and goes to the other extreme. Exactly what we’ve been talking about, which is total austerity. The total austerity in this case was one drop of water, one grain of rice and one sesame seed a day. That was his diet. You’ve got to lose a little bit of weight on that diet, and there’s some extraordinary sculptures of Buddha at this period of his life. And lo and behold, that didn’t work either. In fact, his body just became emaciated, he couldn’t think clearly, his mind wasn’t clear, and he just went, “This is not working.” And his five companions in this venture looked at him and said, “You’re a flake. You can’t hack it. We aren’t going to have anything to do with you.” What Buddha did then was to go off and take nourishment, healed his body, recovered his health and just sat down, and you know what he did? He took this instruction: How can I experience this and be at peace at the same time? And that just opened everything up.

Section 2

Now, how can you say, how do you know, that he did that? Well, if you look at the story of his awakening, one of the crucial aspects of it—expressed theologically—is that Mara, who is sort of the equivalent of Satan, comes along and tries to disturb Buddha’s equanimity using aggression, anger. Does anger disturb anybody’s equanimity here? So, all of these hordes of demons start attacking Buddha, you know, with all kinds of weapons. Some of the pictures of this are really quite dramatic. Buddha’s sitting there and you see in these pictures that all these attacks and the weapons that are raining down turn into flowers, so he’s just sitting in a shower of flowers.

Well, is this not an expression of, How can I experience this and be at peace at the same time? Here, Buddha is experiencing all this latent anger and aggression and hostility and hatred and resentment and jealousy and competitiveness and, you know, the list just goes on and on and on. All of this internal material is arising and he is completely at peace. That’s not bad! That’s exactly what we’re doing in our practice, in our meditation. How can I experience this and be at peace at the same time? So through this whole process, see that he took one from one extreme to the other and said, “No, neither of these work.” So, whenever we have two polarities there is potentially a spectrum. A lot of people interpret the middle way to mean, “Okay, here are the two polarities, there’s the spectrum and I have to find the middle way. It’s right there. That’s where I go.” How well does this work?

I had a student once and he always wanted to be first in line, all the time, he wanted to be the first one in line. He’d get to places very early so he’d be the first one. Good thing he hadn’t heard about Circuit City going bankrupt. He would have been first in line. So I said, “You know, I think you should do something different there. That’s kind of a pattern you’ve got.” You know what he did.? He made a point of being the last person in the line. I said, “Could you find something in between?” You know what he did? He had to be exactly in the middle. So, I had to give him the instruction to pick a number between one and ten. “That’s your place in line, randomly.” Because trying to find the place in the middle, it works for how long? [Unclear] Yeah, which is how long? [Unclear]

You can do this very simply—stand up on one foot and balance. And if you notice that when you’re doing this, you’re always moving. You know, you’re going back and forth but you’re always moving, you’re never absolutely still. You ride a bicycle, the bicycle is never absolutely straight up and down, it’s always going back and forth a little bit. The definition of the Middle Way is not, “Find the point in the middle and stay there.” The definition of the Middle Way is to include both extremes, include both polarities. Now, when we did this before our lunch break, a couple of people reported, I think it was Nick said, “Oh, I realize these are two polarities and neither of them are me.” I think that’s something along those lines, and I remember Melissa saying something along the lines of, “Well, as long as I was in one or the other, there were a whole bunch of words and stories. But when I just stepped out of both, all the words stopped.” Something along those lines.

Okay, so this business of just including both changes the name of the game, changes the whole way things are working. That’s a very, very deep principle, the Middle Way. It also links up to something else that was raised this morning and that—going back to here—I drew this picture about conflict with the red and the black arrows here, but when we enlarge the whole picture, or we enlarge our perspective, we get a very different picture. We see the whole history and how everything is interconnected and this just happens to be how things are right now. But there’s been all kinds of cooperation, intention and interaction and running parallel and all kinds of things that have gone on before. In the same way, when we expand our attention to include both, then we start experiencing things a different way. There’s a higher level of attention—that’s what we say tactically. And because of that higher level of attention, we’re able to see possibilities that weren’t there before—and that’s the purpose. So that’s one very deep principle.

On a strategic level, one of the ways that you can approach this is as a page out of Alice in Wonderland. I think it’s the White Queen—maybe it’s the Red Queen, I can’t remember. It’s Through the Looking Glass, I think. She says to Alice, something like along the lines, “Oh, you think that’s a hill? I’ve seen hills compared to which that hill is a valley.” And Alice says, “That’s impossible, I can’t imagine that!” And the Queen says, “Well, that’s ridiculous. I imagine at least four impossible things before breakfast every day.” [Laughter]

Section 3

So, you recall this morning, we had the then belief system—how did things look to us five, six months ago, and now how do we believe things look? Well, you know, a year ago, it was getting a little dubious, but flipping condos and flipping real estate still looked like a good idea—not to certain real estate agents and people who were more in touch with things, but to the rank and file. People were still buying condos with the expectation they would take out an interest-only mortgage and, you know, somewhere between zero- and five-per-cent down payment and keep it for four or five years. Prices would appreciate, they’d sell, make a nice profit, etc, etc. It looked perfectly reasonable. How does that look now? Like completely nuts! And nobody could believe house prices were going to decline anywhere from 10 to 30 per cent, though I think in some areas it’s even more than that. These people were incapable of believing anything impossible. As we said this morning, now we’re in the other situation. You can’t possibly be trustworthy. I can’t possibly lend you money. And the only way out of this is to believe a few impossible things. So, how we get out of this bind is by including both extremes—raising our level of attention so that we can actually see more. More possibilities open up, we see all of the possibilities in between and more things become possible. More appropriate action, because we have that higher level of attention. That’s one principle.

There’s another one. How many of you are familiar with the four noble truths. Okay, the four noble truths in Buddhism are: [writes on board] suffering, origin, cessation and path. Now to those of you who are not familiar with this, this seems a little obscure. Buddhism doesn’t say, “Life is suffering.” Buddhism says that there issuffering, which is quite different. However, if I ask how many of you suffer? [Show of hands] It took a little while. Now let me ask you in a slightly different way: How many of you struggle? [Show of hands] Okay. That’s really what the word refers to. This is another instance of translation. Suffering doesn’t have the sense, but struggle does, because you can struggle with little things, you can struggle with big things, that’s exactly the word, the meaning behind dukkha in Sanskrit. It can be little stuff, you know like, just a little itch here which you can’t make go away. Or it can be torture or devastation, terminal illnesses, loss, the kind of havoc that’s been taking place in the Gaza Strip recently and so forth. That’s dukkha. That’s present in our lives. Our lives aren’t totally that way—it’s present.

Section 4

Then there’s the origin. Where does it come from? From the Buddhist point of view, our struggles in life come from our emotional reactions, and our emotional reactions in turn come from a sense of who we are and identity, which doesn’t fit with the situation. Cessation is to see things somewhat differently like, “Oh, it doesn’t have to be this way. If I let go of who I think I am in the situation, so many more things become possible—I don’t have to struggle.” And this is the part I want to go into this afternoon.

And then there’s what we do, there’s the path, and the path is one of attention. I bring attention to how I speak, I bring attention to how I live, I bring attention to how I interact with other people, I bring attention to how I look at the world—the whole eightfold path. Now, this is actually an old Vedic medical model—goes back way, way beyond Buddha. [Writes on board]. There’s the disease. What’s its genesis? Because just treating the symptoms doesn’t work. What’s the solution; what’s the cure, if you wish, and what treatment comes out of that, does that cure involve? But you can put this into a problem-solving structure, too—which is the way I like to look at it. There’s a problem. [Writes on board] What’s the genesis of the problem? And by this I mean, what are the circumstances which actually cause that problem to arise? What’s the solution or what’s a solution; and what’s the implementation of that solution? That’s a translation of these principles into a strategy and this is something I use in many, many areas of my own life. You have a problem. Okay. You need to define that and amplify on this and give a little more detail to each of these steps. And I want you to pay attention to this because I’m going to ask you to do this in a minute.

Section 5

One is problem. It’s very important to define the problem the right way. If your definition of the problem doesn’t point to a solution, it’s the wrong definition. Let me give you a couple of examples. Francis, you’ve mentioned about depression. I’m also familiar somewhat with depression. How does depression define the problem? “I can’t do it.” Fair enough? That’s the problem: “I can’t do it.” This is a very, very good definition if you want to stay depressed. It’s an extremely effective definition if you want to stay depressed because somebody says: “Well, why don’t you go to a movie?” “I can’t do that.” “Well, what would you like for dinner tonight?” “I can’t decide.” “Well, why don’t you just get some exercise—that makes you feel better.” “I can’t bring myself to do that.” You see how it works? Now, if any of you have any familiarity with depression, you recognize this is exactly what goes on, you know. So the definition of depression as, “I can’t do this,” is perfect for perpetuating it, but it’s totally the wrong definition. The way that I like to look at it, which is more helpful, is that depression is a sense of immobilization that has physical, emotional and cognitive aspects.

Okay? It’s a sense of immobilization which expresses itself physically; i.e.,can’t move, can’t get out of bed; emotionally— you’re stuck in certain emotional states, can’t move, can’t get out of them, and cognitively; you’re stuck in certain ways of thinking. But this definition leads in a very, very different direction because it’s a sense of immobilization. What’s the solution? Move. And it doesn’t matter, when you’re dealing with depression, it really doesn’t matter how you move, as long as you move. Walk every morning. You know you’re stuck, feeling sorry for yourself. Go to a movie. You’ll feel differently because when you go to a movie, somebody is telling you a story. You always feel differently when somebody is telling you a story. There’s a lovely Portuguese expression, Guests always bring pleasure—if not in the arrival then in the departure. [Laughter] So invite somebody over, you may hate them while they’re there, but when they leave you’ll feel better. Okay? And think differently. You know just start thinking things differently, so that definition points to a solution.

I was contracted to do a workshop for a legal department at one company, and I’d done a lot of work for them and they’re running pretty well, except I had to deliver this workshop. I went, “Okay, team building? No, they’re a good team—they’re a real functioning team. Hmm, can’t do that.” I went through leadership—“Hmm, can’t do that. No, I’ve worked with the head of the department, he’s doing fine, everything’s in place there.” I had no idea what to do. And one day, as I was stepping out of my shower—I always have the best ideas when I’m stepping out of my shower, and there’s no place to write them down so I lose them. I realized that the thing that everybody in the department had said to me was, “There’s too much work and not enough time. There’s too much work and not enough time.” And I went, “There’s my workshop, yay!” Because when you say, “There’s too much work and there’s not enough time,” what solution does this point to? When you’re in a corporate environment, can you do anything about the amount of work that is coming? No. Can you do anything about creating more time? No, there’s not enough time. Okay, there’s 24 hours in a day. Anybody figured out a way to get 25 in there? Anybody figured out a way to get 63 minutes into an hour? No. Can’t create more time, can’t do anything about the work. It’s a complete dead end. So I went in and met with everybody and said, “Okay, we’re going to divide up into groups of five. I want you to come up with three alternative formulations of the problem here, none of which use either the words ‘work’ or ’time.’” One of them said, “Well, we don’t have enough people.” And I said, “Okay, that’s the department head’s problem. He can go and talk to HR and figure out what he can do.” But one of the other groups came up with this definition: We don’t know how to prioritize tasks in the face of conflicting demands. That’s another description of the same problem. lt’s lots of work—they don’t know how to prioritize. That points to a solution, so now we had a really good three hours discussing how to prioritize work.

Those are two examples of where your definition is crucial to your ability to solve the problem. If I can refer to my mathematics background very briefly here, there’s a Hungarian mathematician, quite brilliant actually—I was able to hear one lecture by him— but he wrote a little book on problem-solving and the one principle that he had: In every problem that you can’t solve there is a smaller problem that you can solve. Find the smaller problem. I’d give you a mathematical examples of that but I’m not going to bore you with that. Valerie you had a question. The mic’s right here.

Valerie: My question started out, “Is there a test I can use to help me see if my framing of the problem is not open enough?” And I’m sensing somewhat that it’s circular, it keeps leading you to…

Ken:That’s very good, that’s one thing: if it’s circular, if just keeps you staying around in the same thing, it’s the wrong definition.

Valerie: So all the terms are like, “This can’t change, and this can’t change.” Just like you said, there can’t be more time and there can’t be less work.

Ken: So it just doesn’t get you anywhere.

Valerie: Right.

Ken: So, this is problem-definition. Definition, points to, in the direction of—you may not be able to see it—but it points in the direction, like some kind of opening. Let’s change that. Definition points to an opening,, which incorporates just what you said, Valerie.

Valerie: So do you have any methods for breaking open?

Ken: Ah, you see I’m just doing the strategies—you do the tactics. [Laughter] I mean, this is where you’re going to come down to nitty-gritty stuff and each of us are going to have to find our way. It’s the kind of thing that I work on with people individually a lot, on that tactical level. It’s a little difficult to give tactics here because there’s 20 people in the room. When you find yourself in a definition and it’s not leading to an opening, you feel that, you feel that in your body. You know what that feels like. Anybody here have to deal with addiction in relationships at all? Yeah—do you know how circular that gets? Just goes around self-feeding thing. It’s exactly the same thing. So when you find yourself dealing with that, then just remember this and say, “Okay is there another way that I can think about this?”

Section 6

Now, the next thing is the genesis. What’s important here is to distinguish between what we ordinarily think of as cause and effect and the Buddhist principle, which is genesis and conditions. Let me give you an example. I have a brick here and I throw it through one of these windows, okay? Most people would say I broke the window, right? I’m the cause. Buddhism would take issue with that. The window wasn’t strong enough; the brick material, if it had been softer, would have crumbled; I shouldn’t have taken my vitamins this morning—too much strength in my arm. There are all kinds of conditions which actually made that possible. And when you look at situations, you’ll see that there are many, many other conditions. The tendency to ascribe it to one cause is reductionist thinking and it often leads us into cul-de-sacs and blind alleys. You follow? So, you look at all of the conditions. Within those conditions there may be something which makes the whole thing possible—that’s what we’re looking at as the genesis.

Now, again, Buddhism is an example. The genesis of spiritual practice in Buddhism is buddha nature. That’s what makes it possible for us to wake up: this quality—don’t know how to describe it, but there’s that intangible quality of being aware, being awake, which is part of our human heritage. That’s what makes the whole thing possible. It’s not meditation, per se, or this, per se, or that, per se. You get the picture? If you look in terms of disease, the genesis—and this is one of the great advances of scientific technology—was when Louis Pasteur and some of the other French researchers saw that the genesis of many diseases were germs, bacteria. This was brought home in the cholera epidemic in London where they actually saw that it was the water, and eventually the germs in the water that was transmitting cholera, and because it was associated with certain pumping stations. So, being able to discern the genesis of a problem is very much dependent on the ability to see things clearly. And that’s the connection there. If you can, then you treat the genesis of the problem. Then the problem goes away. If not, then you’re going to have to work on the conditions, because in some situations, like if we go back to disease theory, there can be germs present, but if certain conditions aren’t present, then that disease will never develop. So, if you can, see and address the genesis. If not, then you have to alter the conditions and create the conditions in which that problem can’t manifest. For instance, relationship. What is the one thing that is necessary for relationship to evolve and thrive?

Student: Communication?

Ken: That’s very important but what do you need for communication?

Student: Trust.

Ken: Yes, trust is very important.

Student: Interest.

Ken: Interest, yes, but that may actually be a little deeper than what I’m thinking of. I was thinking something very pragmatic here: time. You need to spend time together. How many relationships thrive when you don’t actually have time for interaction: business relationships, marital relationships, love relationships etc.? Relationships involve time. Good things have to happen in that time. But if you don’t actually have the time for it, nothing’s going to happen. One of the remedies for people who are having communication difficulties—a lot of therapists do this—they instruct the couple, or whatever, to spend more time together. Simply, that’s it. Just spend more time together. And they get together and they rediscover that there are lots of things that they like to do together, but it just comes about investing the time. That may be a bit simplistic, but I’m trying to get inside the idea of looking at the really, really deep factors in situations; so genesis and conditions.

Now, since meditation after lunch always involves flirting with toxic narcolepsy, [laughter] we’re not going to do that. What I want you to do now…how many are we? One, two [counts]…twenty-four. Boy, I really can’t count. Okay, what I’d like you to do is to count up to three. No, sorry, count up to seven. [Counts again]. I’d like all the ones to get together. Of course, you’ve all forgotten your numbers by now. All the twos to get together; all the threes to get together; all the fours to get together, all the fives, all the sixes, all the sevens. And I want you to divide up in groups and disperse around this room—there’s a bit more space back there. And take a few minutes, just sitting quietly together. Each of you decide which aspect of your life you’d like to take a deeper look at. In fact, you can do that right now before you go into groups. Just take a few minutes and think, because there’s been a lot of changes. You’re here with stressful conditions, surviving in stressful times. What is one aspect of your life you’d like to take a look at with a view to working through this progression: problem, genesis, solution and implementation? Okay? So just take a few minutes right now and think about that.

Section 7

Okay, everybody got something? How many are overwhelmed by choice? [Laughter] Okay, how many choices do you have? Ten, okay. So, what’s the first one that comes to mind?


Ken: There you go—there’s yours. Anybody else need some help?

Student: I have several, but they all end up in the same thing: anxiety.

Ken: But I would actually encourage you to take a concrete problem, and anxiety may be something that is common to all of them. But as someone once said to me, “Anxiety is to emotion like froth is to beer.” So, if you’re saying, “Oh, I’m anxious all the time,” or something like that, there’s an emotion that is consistently being avoided and that’s where you want to go. You’re just tasting the froth—you want to get into the beer. Randye.

Randye: I have a problem that’s got a multitude of conditions that have joined together.

Ken: Okay, I have a question for you: Is the complexity with which you are defining it part of the problem or part of the solution?

Randye: I think it’s part of the problem.

Ken: Good.

Maya: But it’s an interaction with another person, so…

Ken: That’s fine, take that. Because we can make problems very, very complex, but that’s often a way of avoiding looking at the genesis. I’m not saying that you can always reduce things down to one thing, but it’s a different way of looking at things. Okay? Anybody else need some help? Everybody got a focus now?


Here you go, Maya a real problem in your life.

Maya: Not an abstract…

Ken: Not an abstract one, no—we want to do some real work here.

Maya: Like, for instance saying something like, “I want to stop being insecure,” is too general, as opposed to…

Ken: I would encourage you in that. That’s a very good example, but rather than say, “I want to stop being insecure,” say, pick a particular situation where where insecurity gets in your way on a regular basis.

Maya: Okay.

Ken: Okay, and so you’re going to work in the context of that situation. It may affect other things later on and that’s fine but that way it’s really sharply defined and concrete. Okay? So does everybody have something? Sophie…microphone please.

Sophie: I was just curious—does it need to be defined as a negative?

Ken: What were you thinking?

Sophie: Well, I was thinking of how to spend time more effectively.

Ken: Again, that’s a very general thing—more effectively doing what? This needs to be sharply defined. When a problem is very loosely defined, you can slide all over the place and you never come to grips with it. So, in the area of effectiveness, what’s one thing in your life you would change?

Sophie: How to deepen my practice.

Ken: Again, more specific. And—thank you for volunteering this—this is very good because a lot of people think in general terms.

Sophie: How to feel more connected—is that still too general?

Ken: See, this is very interesting, because as I pushed you, it’s gone in a completely different direction. The problem, first there, was being effective, then there was how to deepen your practice, now it’s about feeling connected. So, what I would suggest is look at where don’t you feel connected and then pick one instance of that. It could be connected with your partner, connected with your job, connected with your handling of money, connected with an old passion where you don’t feel that connection. You know, something you enjoy doing—a hobby or something like that. You pick something very, very specific like that. Okay, has everybody got something? So what I want you to do…Terry.

Terry: What if it’s something, but it’s pervasive in a number of areas?

Ken: That’s a very good question. Pick one of the areas. What we’re doing here is making it concrete so that it’s definable. Otherwise, if it’s too general, then we end up floating all over the place. This way you may end up defining a course of action in this one area. Maybe it will only be effective in that one area; maybe it will have widespread ramifications. Very difficult to tell, but at least it will have real application, somewhere. You follow? So what I want you to do—in your groups of three and the ones with four, they’ll need a little extra time—I want you to describe to the three other, two other people, what your problem is, and they’re going to give you feedback. In this first stage, this is not about solving their problem. You’re to give them feedback on how well the problem is defined: i.e., do you get it or not? And if you don’t, that’s the feedback that you give. So, you’re not trying to help them solve the problem, not getting into the self-help thing here. This is, do you understand their problem? Does it make sense? Do you get a picture of it? And if you don’t then you throw that back at them.

We’ll do this quite quickly—we’re going to take probably a total of 20 minutes with this, and probably less. You’ll probably only need about a minute to describe you problem, right? So you’re going to have one minute to describe your problem. The two other people will have two minutes to clarify and then you’re gonna have another minute to describe your problem again, based on that feedback. And then it’ll rotate to the next person, rotate to the next person. Okay? So it’ll be one, two, one. As I say, when you’re in the feedback role, this is not about helping them solve the problem, this is about helping them get their best definition of the problem: it’s clear, points to an opening etc. Okay? Is everybody totally confused? Excellent! Okay, divide up into your groups and I will start timing.

Section 8


You’re only going to have one minute to give feedback, because you’ve got three people giving feedback, so you’re going to have to be really focused. Now, to do this, of course, you have to decide who is A, who is B, and who is C. So, can you do that first? Who is A who is B, who is C? Okay, so person A, you’re going to have one minute to describe your problem: go.


Okay, give them feedback now. And in this feedback period, the person who just defined their problem, all you’re going to do is listen. You can take notes if you want, but these people are here to help give feedback on your ability to define your problem. So, they may ask you questions. You don’t really have to answer, you aren’t into discussion. They’re going to tell you the parts that weren’t clear for them. This isn’t about having a discussion about the problem; this is you giving them feedback about how well that problem was defined—did you get it or not? You’re going to give that feedback to them in two minutes—we’ll work it out so that everybody gets a turn somehow or other over here. So, two minutes to do this; go.


Ken: Okay, you’ve communicated. It’s a broad problem.

Student: Can I ask a question?

Ken: Is it your problem?

Student: Yeah.

Ken: Okay, now you just listen, you don’t ask questions, just give her advice.

Student: You said you could ask questions.

Ken: No, they may pose questions but you just take note of the questions—don’t get into a discussion. Don’t get into a discussion, just listen. Is it your problem? Now you get to define your problem again, based, for one minute based on that feedback, Okay? Ready. Go.


Okay, the person who was stating the problem now has another minute to restate their problem based on the feedback they received.


Okay, two minutes to present feedback.


Okay, now you get to define your problem again, based…for one minute based on that feedback. Okay? Ready. Go.


Okay, so just take about 30 seconds and discuss what that was like for you. Just discuss what that experience was like for you—just take 30 seconds.


Okay person B—you’ve got one minute to present your problem. Ready. Go. Person B, don’t ask them any questions, just listen. [Laughter] You’re there just to listen, Randye.


Okay, now what I’d like you to do is take a few minutes to talk about your experience. What was this like? Among the three of you, what was it like, all right? Don’t have to solve the problem, just talk about what this exchange was like.

Okay, now the two of you, B and C in this case, you give feedback on this person, on the definition. Was the problem clear? What didn’t you understand about it? You just give them straight feedback for two minutes. Pardon?

Student: She said she wants to stop being late and that sounded clear to me and before I said [unclear]…

Ken: You’re moving into solution. Not yet. So, you got a clearer sense of her problem. Does it point you in a direction of a solution? Can you see a direction to go in? Okay well, make a note of that. What about you Martha?


Ken: Okay, the person who was stating the problem now has another minute to restate their problem based on the feedback they received.

Okay, Person C, it’s your turn. Person C is going to describe your problem, the other two people listen and you’ll have two minutes to give them feedback on how clear the problem was, the way they articulated it. Okay, go.


Right now they’re just in the problem-definition phase.


Okay, okay. Two minutes to present feedback.

That’s good—boiled it down to: mismanaging my finances. Can you sharpen that? Can you sharpen that? What areas are you mismanaging your finances etc.? So that’s good, those are the kind of questions to ask.


If you’ve finished, then go. Sandy, so it’s your turn. One minute, One minute. You come out about the same as the others. Okay, so person C now has one minutes to reformulate their problem.


Okay, now what I’d like you to do is take a few minutes to talk about your experience. What was this like? Among the three of you, what was it like, all right? Don’t have to solve the problem, just talk about what this exchange was like.


Did you find it? Is it sharp? Okay. good. Take a breath.


So you guys just got a minute to go. Okay, go ahead.


Section 9

Okay, can I have everybody’s attention please. This didn’t take very long—it’s between 15 and 20 minutes. Let’s talk about when you were in the problem-presenting role. Okay? When you were presenting a problem…what was this like for you? Microphone up here.

Randye: It was hard.

Ken: It was hard. What was hard about it, Randye?

Randye: Trying to define it in a way that was A: comprehensible to the listener and B: pointed toward some movement.

Ken: Okay, so, hard making it comprehensible and pointing to an opening or movement, as you said. Okay, what was it like getting feedback, Randye?

Randye: Its was very good. It was very helpful.

Ken: What was good about that?

Randye: It helped me hear how I was sounding, because it was getting reflected back and brought out more of my own confusion about what the clarification of the problem is.

Ken: So getting the feedback was clarifying for you.

Randye: Yep.

Ken: Excellent,

Randye: Very much.

Ken: Anybody else? Cara and then Sophie.

Cara: It’s hard, I think, to be concise because sometimes when you open the gates of complaint, the water runneth and runneth some more.

Ken: The water floweth without end.

Cara: It floweth so freely [laughter]. And then are the two like, just deal-breaker words in my vocabulary, as my boyfriend sits here and rubs his temples and crown. Can I get an Amen?

Student: And then? [Laughter]

Ken: What was it like getting feedback?

Cara: It was nice, because I felt like the people in my group, you know, they have no prior experience with me unless they listen to the podcast and so they’re not going to sit there and roll there eyes at me and say, “Really? Still? Really! Aren’t we done with that?” So it was nice to say it with some precision to fresh ears who weren’t quick to judge.

Ken: Okay, Sophie.

Sophie: I had trouble finding the problem because my tendency is to make it so diffuse to define the problem. The feedback helped me to recognize that I’m not defining the problem, I’m, like, somewhere else.

Ken: Okay, anybody else?

Student: It was embarrassing cause I didn’t want to admit that I had the problem. [Laughter]

Ken: Okay, what was it like getting feedback on your definition?

Student: Well, surprisingly, they thought I was pretty clear in presenting it.

Ken: So, what could that do for you?

Student: Well, actually just having admitted it I felt better.

Section 10

Ken: Okay, very good. Anybody else? A whole bunch of people in the middle here, saying nothing very loudly. [Laughter] I set that one up, didn’t I? Anybody else, when you’re in the problem-presenting mode, role? Maya, what was your experience? [Writing on board] Comprehensive, making it—pointing to an opening, concise, specific, embarrassing. These are all the difficulties people had in this exercise. I’m just taking note of this.

Maya: I think for me it was more being able to know when I heard a problem expressed specifically. In other words, it wasn’t so much in my expression of the problem but my ability to hear it from others in a way that I knew whether or not it was specific enough.

Ken: Okay. Anybody else in the problem-presenting mode? Mary.

Mary: You helped me with the words because I was saying, “I need to,” and it had more emotion in it. I changed it to, “I am not.” I took responsibility for the financial situation I want to change. I wanted to make it emotional. As soon as I took the emotion out of it and put it into an active verb, then I saw.

Ken: And that was what? Somebody gave you feedback to do?

Mary: Yes.

Ken: That’s a very good point and we’re going to touch on that in a few minutes. Thank you. Okay, when you were in the feedback role what was that like?

Cara: [Unclear]

Ken: It’s okay—you got a whole fan club out there.

Cara: Don’t follow me. It’s hard not to jump to advice. It’s difficult to not want to give suggestions.

Ken: Suggestions, solutions. How many had difficulty staying out of the problem-solving thing? Just giving feedback on the definition. Very important, because when you present a problem to somebody and they solve it for you, how do you feel when they give you suggestions? Like they didn’t hear you. Yeah. Okay.


Ken: Go ahead then.

Student: Well, I felt pretty flummoxed trying to give…

Ken: You felt flummoxed giving feedback.

Student: Because it’s very difficult to pinpoint a problem succinctly. I’ve noticed in other parts of my life, that’s the key to solving a problem. It’s always figuring out exactly what it is that is at the crux of something and it’s often really difficult. And you can think that you’ve got it only to explore that and realize that no, there’s a whole other facet to it. So I felt a little overwhelmed trying to really break down a problem, you know. [Unclear]

Ken: Sophie?

Sophie: Well for me it was so much easier to hear what their problem is than to understand what mine is.

Section 11

Ken: This is a very interesting point. It has a lot to do with brain functioning. When we’re hearing somebody else’s problem we’re actually using a different part of our brain. It’s free of a lot of the emotional entanglements of things. So, when we’re discussing our own problem, our own emotional stuff is getting in the way all the time. It’s very interesting. We have to develop the ability to be able to work with our own problems the way that we would work with somebody else’s. It’s a good point. When you’re in the feedback role, any other comments? A lot of people haven’t said anything so I’m just going to sit here and wait for a while. Nick what about you?

Nick: Bloody hell!

Ken: Pardon? Bloody hell?

Nick: That’s what I said. I think there’s a clarity you get from the perspective of being outside, emotionally, disentangled from somebody else’s situation, but I personally found myself playing altruist and wanting to solve the problem rather than define the problem. So, that was my own experience. It got better as soon as one or other of us called each other out on the fact that we weren’t doing what we were assigned to do and that helped redefine what we were trying to do, so…

Ken: Okay

Nick: Tended to get us back to where we started, but understanding the path.

Ken: Right, okay, Anybody else? Sanders, what about you? [Laughter] We won’t tell you how much those mics cost!

Sanders: A little less now! [Laughter] For me, I liked giving the feedback better because of course that deflects from whatever your own problem, your own issue is. So, the experience of being able to not look inside but go outside was a very comfortable feeling.

Ken: A comfortable place to be. Yes, let me solve other people’s problems, forget about mine.

Sanders: Exactly! Obviously a pattern that I’ve had a long time and continue with great vigor. [Laughter]

Ken: Okay. So general comments. In one word, what was your experience of these little triads? So let’s just go around. One word. Melissa? [Writes on board as students call out] Helpful, specific, difficult, difficult—challenging? Difficult. Sanders. Awkward, Pardon? Good. Mary. Supportive. Maya. Anxiety-provoking. That was what you took away from it?

Maya: I don’t know if that was what I took away from it, but that’s what I felt during…

Ken: Okay, what did you take away from it? Good, so we get a little check mark there.

Sandy: Productive

Ken: Clarifying. Randye: grounding. I didn’t know there were so many words in the English language. By the way, somewhere towards the end of April, English will have one million words in the language. [Continues writing] .Uncomfortable. That’s what you took away? Confused, compassionate, connected, clarifying, reassuring, clarifying, interesting, engaging,

Ken: And what do you take away?

Student: Confused.

Ken: Okay, Anna.

Anna: Compassionate.

Ken: Okay.

Nick: Connected.

Ken: Connected. Start filling in here. Art.

Art: Clarifying.

Ken: Clarifying gets a little check.


Ken: Oh, you had to put something different, didn’t you. Monica

Monica: [Unclear]

Ken: Uh-huh, two checks. Reassuring. Ben?

Ben: [Unclear]

Ken: Martha?

Martha: Interesting

Ken: Okay

Student: Engaging.

Ken: Engaging, okay. Okay, this is a 20-minute exercise. What’s the score of positives to negatives on that? Yep.

Student: Pretty positive.

Section 12

Ken: Pretty positive, okay. If you go down this list, some people were a little uncomfortable—or anxiety-provoking and so forth, or awkward—but compassion, helpfulness, connected,specific, reassuring, challenging, illuminating, good, supportive, productive insightful, clarifying. Several people mentioned that. Grounding, interesting, responsible, engaging, etc. Isn’t this what you look for in a community? Okay? In stressful times, if you go to here: Problem: the stressful times. Its genesis, we’ve talked about possibilities there. You can look at it in terms of the outer world, we can look at it in terms of the inner world, our reactions to it.

One of the things I wanted to suggest through this program is that one of the most effective solutions for surviving in stressful times is to build circles of support. And this was kind of a mini-circle. Twenty minutes and you generated all of this stuff. Now, we could—it may take a little more time—actually look toward developing some strategies this afternoon. But the main thing is how quickly it’s possible to create a circle of support. It’s simply a case of reaching out to a few other people and asking for their input. And as I said, this was a 20-minute exercise. But that was for three people. How long does it take for you to get some support for another person? Five or 10 minutes, max—that’s all it needs. But there’s another thing. What was it like for you to be called upon to help another person? Let’s just have one word about that. Melissa.

Melissa: Thought-provoking. [Laughter]

Ken: Thanks. Maya.

Maya: Anxiety-provoking. [Laughter]

Ken: Exactly. I’m beginning to wonder how you negotiate life. Sandy.

Sandy: [Unclear]

Ken: Right. Art?

Student: Easy.

Section 13

Ken: Easy, okay. There’s a very good book called Better Together, which you don’t have to buy. If you get it out of the library, the only chapter you have to read, I think, is the ninth chapter, one of the last chapters. It’s by the same guys who did Bowling Alone in America. The title of the book comes from their observation that all of the bowling leagues, the office bowling leagues, completely disappeared and one of the consequences is that a whole bunch of circles of support, or what they call social capital, just disappeared with that. And it was replaced by a high degree of polarization in the country because people were no longer socializing, crossing political parties and things like that. Because in a bowling league, you’d have Republicans and Democrats, and a few independents, and they would all just sit and yell at each other while they were bowling, but they would have a good time at it, so something happened there. So Bowling Alone in America was about the erosion of what they call social capital, which is a term I don’t like, but that’s another side story.

Better Together is an exploration of about six or seven or eight, I can’t remember, studies of what makes vibrant communities. And it ranges from the union at Harvard—at Harvard, if you can imagine— to a block organization in Boston, to something in one of the slums of El Paso, to a group of sixth graders who manage to get a bike path built in a city park. Just very varied. There were three things that make a vibrant community: one is face-to-face meeting—not over the internet, not over the telephone, not through email—face-to-face meetings. Second: opportunities for people to move into leadership positions. That is, there wasn’t a preordained structure and that was it, but there was movement. And I think it was in the Boston one, whoever was organizing this was very astute. Because you know how they picked the leaders? They would give the group a task, like, set up chairs. And they would watch for somebody saying, “Jane, how should we arrange these?” And then they would pick Jane to be the leader. It was who the group called upon, not who wanted to be the leader, etc., but who the group actually called upon. The fact that rank and file people can move into leadership positions is one of the things that makes a vibrant community. The third one—and I’m not giving these in any particular order—is, the group makes demands on the individuals. This goes straight back to Kennedy’s inauguration: Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country. And in stressful times, if you are building a circle of support, you ask things of each other, because that’s what’s going to make it vibrant. Don’t be shy about asking, because just as you heard everybody say, being asked to do something, asked to help—people actually like to do it. It’s one of the really great things about American society. I’m from Canada. I come here and one of the things that I have consistently found is that people are extraordinarily generous with their time and advice.

Recently a colleague of mine was trying to revitalize an old dharma website. And in the conversations I had with him, it’s clear that he had a very, very clear vision but couldn’t translate it down to a specific strategy. I said, “Would you like some help with this?” He said, “Yes I’d love some.” So I called up three people I know. One of them a very successful turn-around management person, is paid hundreds of millions of dollars, literally; another’s a retired professor of strategy, and the third is a prof of sociology. I called them up and all of them had some connection with me and with the dharma. I said, “Would you be willing to help,” and these three people came over. We spent five hours together at my place one day and had just a fantastic meeting. It was just a lot of fun and it was extremely productive. Now, in consultation fees, that was a 10-thousand-dollar meeting. It was free. I provided lunch and that was it. This is the kind of generosity which permeates this culture. And so, one of the things I would like you to take away from this, and why I wanted to give this mini-demonstration, is you create circles of support and you make demands on each other and something really vibrant goes. Do this to the extent that you can with face-to-face meetings and let things evolve in terms of leadership and guidance quite naturally—things like that. Those are one of the things you want to take away.

Time for a break . We’ll take a 15-minute break. Be back here at 25-to, going to our last section, okay?

Creative Commons LicenseThis transcript by Ken McLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. This transcript has been edited to make it more readable. There may be minor differences between the audio file and the transcript.