The joyous cosmology of conferences

I was thrilled to finally find and enroll in an Aikido class in my neighborhood this weekend. Check out the instructor’s blog. Years ago, college Aikido course sent me on a journey to find a correct balance between the physical, conceptual, and spiritual world.

The timing was right because last week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the chairman of my company Tony Steele, and have a conversation about the U.S. version of his flagship conference Happiness and Its Causes. Tony is a Buddhist and Terrapinn’s founder. I was excited to be work for a company with a Buddhist foundation because for years I have been interested in the practical and philosophical foundations of world religions. I have found that many of the underpinnings of religions support principles that make for a better life. The concept of non-attachment is one area I’ve striven to study.

Building and running a conference – my chosen profession – embodies my understanding of non-attachment. After all, spirituality is not about chaos, but about the natural mechanisms that bring order to the universe.

A conference is an ordered event. There is a procedure and basic structural components, including panel discussions among industry professionals and keynote presentations from high profile individuals. Ideally, these speakers address practical examples and concerns. This structure is essential for the success of a conference. But the results are unpredictable. If you consider the number of combinations of potential partners for conversation in such a room, the possible ideas that can result are uncountable. Each person in the room brings their own ideas – themselves the result of countless conversations they’ve had before – to each conversation they have, and thus the potential relationships or ideas that result from a single conference are immeasurable, and potential groundbreaking. These are people with a history of making things happen.

Bringing ideas into reality is a spiritual endeavor to me. “Spiritual” is a bit of a tricky concept to define, but I think of it as non-material. I often employ the term “conceptual” to refer to matters of the mind. Surely, conferences are of the mind.

My own interest in spirituality began when I took an Aikido course at Syracuse to fulfill some requirement or other. Being that it was for college credit, the course had an academic bent. It was my first introduction to eastern philosophy. The textbook was called “The Dynamic Sphere.” and the illustrations showed how movements in Aikido were circular in motion. I remember taking away important lessons on centering and grounding. I found it easy to abstract the concept of the center to other areas of life.  I imagine a string tied to some sort of anchor, say a nail. On the other side of the string is a weight. If the string is not tied tightly to the nail, the weight will go flying off if thrown or pulled. If it is tied tightly to the nail, it will form a circle. In fact, the more force applied when pulling the weight away from the center, the more perfect the circle. The nail illustrates the power of being firmly centered. Without a firm center, applying energy will lead to chaos – you have no idea where the weight will end up. With a firm center, you can apply energy to any task you want, and it will only enhance the identity represented by the center. At Terrapinn, we embrace the conceptual center by employing a method of note taking and brainstorming called Mind Mapping, in which notes are written around a central idea. We encourage the delegates who attend our conferences to use Mind Maps as well.

After taking Aikido in college, I gradually encountered other explorations of spirituality from writers such as Alan Watts or Dan Millman.  (Interestingly, these writers have followed me throughout my career.  My first newspaper assignment was to write a profile on jazz musician Perry Robinson, who was also influenced by Watts, and once called me a “Cosmic Psychologist.” When I first became a conference producer, I had a mentor who was a fan of Millman.) What I got from my reading was that the road to spiritual empowerment was to shed attachments to material things. We cannot escape from the physical needs of our bodies, but we are given great freedom if our happiness is not dependent on too many conditions.

In life, we are surrounded by demands and exhortations for us to need specific things, creating conditions for our own happiness. The world of marketing and politics is filled with people or organizations reminding us that if things are not within the parameters of how they suggest they should be (based on what they can do for us) we cannot be happy.  Most worryingly, often there is no agent for these demands – it’s based on social norms or expectations of some group where the beneficiary is hidden behind the name of some amorphous group or collective of people. Often there is no beneficiary, and the social demands can change with the wind. It is the engine of the rat race.

Trying to keep up is fruitless, as the whim of the crowd is unpredictable and insatiable. To find satisfaction, we must focus on our own center.  Interestingly, one way of describing a strongly centered individual is “grounded.” A grounded individual is seemingly impervious to the chaotic energy of crowds. I call the undirected energy of society “the mire” because it’s easy to get stuck in it.  One of the jobs of a conference is to bring together similarly grounded individuals to converse in absence of the mire, creating a master mind for future achievements.

In Aikido, the support of a strong, grounded center is literally the foundation of strength, and that was the focus of much of this weekend’s instruction.

Every movement focused our balance downwards.  Shifting downward weight from one leg to the other created a powerful force in the opposite arm – far more powerful than moving the arm itself. In fact, in order to perform a similar movement using the arm’s muscles instead of the hips would have required a shift of concentration and consequently balance from the ground to the arm, making the entire body vulnerable.

The grounding motion strikes me as natural – not instinctive, but more accurately “of nature.” The human mind gives us the capacity to separate from nature, and I think this is a good thing – the entirety of human society is based on confounding the natural order of things. For example, we do things to block the natural flow of cold air, or wind, or rain from entering our abode.

The word “blocking” is not entirely accurate, though. While we may block the rain or wind, we only redirect the energy behind their movements. The first law of thermodynamics dictates that energy may not be created or destroyed, so blocking energy only redirects it. But different objects can absorb energy.

In Aikido, it seems the goal is to have this energy leave your body quickly and with minimum damage. By focusing our center of energy on the ground, we pass the energy through our body and into the earth, which can absorb the blow of one man with quite a bit of ease (the Earth is quite a large object). If we try to block the energy of the attack, we end up absorbing it, either by requiring a new movement and energy expenditure on our part, or simply by taking the blow.  This most often results in our being knocked off balance, or worse, pain.  What we want is the energy to travel through us without stopping. This way, it is as though our attacker is attacking the earth. There are very few ways an unarmed person can attack nature that will leave him or her unscathed for the effort.

The energy must go somewhere, so if the attacker is lucky it goes into the earth. If he’s less so, it goes right back where it came from through the self defense techniques of Aikido. Personally I’m more interested in acclimating my body to the grounding/centering effects so I can work my mind to more strongly follow suit in the social and professional realm.

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