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Creative soil: finding fertile flow

A friend once told me that she wanted to do something creative, but she didn’t have any ideas. She said she remembered a time when she always had inspiration for new drawings or paintings, or even entire series of works that she’d give away to people she knew. But now, when she looked for an idea for a new piece, her mind became blank.

I’d been in a similar situation, too: for several years, I struggled to write songs, constantly feeling that my ideas weren’t good enough. On the rare occasions that I had found an idea I liked, I would quickly become dissatisfied with my execution, frustrated with the way the melodies or words came out. 

I was studying music seriously then, trying to find out what made the music I admired so good. I desperately wanted to make something that I felt measured up to my heroes’ creations. 

At some point, I decided to give up a sliver of my perfectionism and commit to making something every day. I started by putting three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing on paper every morning. These led to writing how I experienced objects through my senses, then to small poems, then songs I began to be proud of.

After a few years of daily creative work, I find myself able to access a creative flow of ideas easily, and am able to appreciate the flow as valuable. The difficulty is not in finding ideas, it’s in choosing which ones to develop. 

I told my friend that for me, ideas are like dirt. Ideas are everywhere. They’re abundant. At times, I feel overwhelmed with ideas. There are far too many to think about, let alone express in a way that others can understand. New ideas are accessible any time we’re paying attention. 

Something didn’t feel right about that statement comparing ideas to dirt, though. When I reconsidered, I realized that ideas are more like seeds. They grow in the soil of the mind. They need the scarce resource of our attention and energy to nurture them as they grow into their fully realized forms.

Childlike creativity

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” — Pablo Picasso

As children, our ideas are bright and vivid, interesting and shiny. We enjoy their flow through our minds. Our expressive skills may not be able to communicate our ideas accurately to others, but we’re not aware of the inaccuracies in our expression, so we let our ideas flow into the world with beautiful simplicity. 

As we get older, we become accustomed to the flow of ideas and it becomes less interesting to us. We see some ideas recur and stop paying attention to them. Because our creative flow is constant and familiar, we begin to value it less. 

We become aware of other peoples’ opinions and begin to identify with them. Sometimes we let criticism block us. Some people advise us to stay safe and avoid creating to stay safe from getting hurt. Others are uncomfortable when they encounter creative expression because they have blocked their own creative flow. They might be quick to point out flaws in an effort to diminish a creator’s worth and save their own.

We’re told that our creativity isn’t worth sharing, or it’s dangerous to share, and we stop. We put a filter on our creative well, a tight covering. Ashamed, we stop looking. We assume that our creativity doesn’t matter, that it’s useless, that it distracts us from things that are more important, like knowledge already certified as useful by our parents, teachers, bosses, society at large. In time, we doubt that our creativity really exists.

As we explore and study the world, we encounter and appreciate other peoples’ creative ideas. We watch, listen to and read the work others share. It’s easy to place other creators on a pedestal, to think that their ideas are special and unreachable. We hold their achievements as models to strive for. We wish that their ideas were our own. We begin to think our ideas are not as valuable. It takes courage to consider that our own ideas are worth admiring.

By the time we reach adulthood, many of us have forgotten about our creative flow. We choose to ignore it, always looking out at the external world. We distract ourselves with our struggle to try to make sense of it, to fit into its structures, to bend it to our desires. 

Finding flow

Creativity is an essential part of being human. As hard as we may try to stifle or ignore the creative flow, we can’t turn it off. We can only turn away. If we pay attention, we have access to a potentially unlimited flow of thoughts.

Anyone who has started to practice meditation knows how difficult it is to stop our mind from thinking. If you haven’t tried anything like it, try to count ten breaths in which you focus entirely on the sensation of breathing. Start over if you notice a thought. 

Our minds evolved to be always alert, always synthesizing information and generating thoughts and ideas. Every one of these thoughts has a core of images, concepts and emotions. Each one is the seed of an idea that could be nurtured into a new song, a business, a vision for living and relating to others with balance and respect.

Once we notice our creative flow, we can begin to make our ideas manifest in the world. We need to capture and refine them, choosing the best ones and giving them the attention they need to grow. 

We can develop skills to give structure to our creative flow so we have a better chance of remembering the best ideas. We can develop our expressive skills in our chosen media to share our ideas in a way that makes sense to others. 

A garden of ideas

The mind is like dirt: fertile ground that can naturally support the fruitful growth of ideas. The winds of consciousness carry idea seeds that can land, take root and grow. Creativity is the tilling of the mind’s soil, the preparation for ideas to come, and the careful nurturing of those ideas as they grow toward their true forms: faithful original inspiration, expressing themselves to the world. 

The first step toward growing a creative garden that others delight in is recognizing the fertility of the mind. Then comes the work of tilling, planting, weeding, nurturing the fruit until it’s ready to share.

A colleague once told me that she wanted to do something creative, but she didn’t have any ideas. She said she remembered a time when she always had inspiration for new drawings or paintings, or even entire series of works that she’d give away to people she knew. But now, when she looked for an idea for a new piece, her mind became blank.

I’d been in a similar situation, too: for several years, I struggled to write songs, constantly feeling that my ideas weren’t good enough. On the rare occasions that I had found an idea I liked, I would quickly become dissatisfied with my execution, frustrated with the way the melodies or words came out. 

I was studying music seriously then, trying to find out what made the music I admired so good. I desperately wanted to make something that I felt measured up to my heroes’ creations. 

At some point, I decided to give up a sliver of my perfectionism and commit to making something every day. I started by putting three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing on paper every morning. These led to writing how I experienced objects through my senses, then to small poems, then songs I began to be proud of.

After a few years of daily creative work, I find myself able to access a creative flow of ideas easily, and am able to appreciate the flow as valuable. The difficulty is not in finding ideas, it’s in choosing which ones to develop. 

I told my colleague that for me, ideas are like dirt. Ideas are everywhere. They’re abundant. At times, I feel overwhelmed with ideas. There are far too many to think about, let alone express in a way that others can understand. New ideas are accessible any time we’re paying attention. 

Something didn’t feel right about that statement comparing ideas to dirt, though. When I reconsidered, I realized that ideas are more like seeds. They grow in the soil of the mind. They need the scarce resource of our attention and energy to nurture them as they grow into their fully realized forms.

Childlike creativity

Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” 

As children, our ideas are bright and vivid, interesting and shiny. We enjoy their flow through our minds. Our expressive skills may not be able to communicate our ideas accurately to others, but we’re not aware of the inaccuracies in our expression, so we let our ideas flow into the world with beautiful simplicity. 

As we get older, we become accustomed to the flow of ideas and it becomes less interesting to us. We see some ideas recur and stop paying attention to them. Because our creative flow is constant and familiar, we begin to value it less. 

We become aware of other peoples’ opinions and begin to identify with them. Sometimes we let criticism block us. Some people advise us to stay safe and avoid creating to stay safe from getting hurt. Others are uncomfortable when they encounter creative expression because they have blocked their own creative flow. They might be quick to point out flaws in an effort to diminish a creator’s worth and save their own.

We’re told that our creativity isn’t worth sharing, or it’s dangerous to share, and we stop. We put a filter on our creative well, a tight covering. Ashamed, we stop looking. We assume that our creativity doesn’t matter, that it’s useless, that it distracts us from things that are more important, like knowledge already certified as useful by our parents, teachers, bosses, society at large. In time, we doubt that our creativity really exists.

As we explore and study the world, we encounter and appreciate other peoples’ creative ideas. We watch, listen to and read the work others share. It’s easy to place other creators on a pedestal, to think that their ideas are special and unreachable. We hold their achievements as models to strive for. We wish that their ideas were our own. We begin to think our ideas are not as valuable. It takes courage to consider that our own ideas are worth admiring.

By the time we reach adulthood, many of us have forgotten about our creative flow. We choose to ignore it, always looking out at the external world. We distract ourselves with our struggle to try to make sense of it, to fit into its structures, to bend it to our desires. 

Finding flow

Creativity is an essential part of being human. As hard as we may try to stifle or ignore the creative flow, we can’t turn it off. We can only turn away. If we pay attention, we have access to a potentially unlimited flow of thoughts.

Anyone who has started to practice meditation knows how difficult it is to stop our mind from thinking. If you haven’t tried anything like it, try to count ten breaths in which you focus entirely on the sensation of breathing. Start over if you notice a thought. 

Our minds evolved to be always alert, always synthesizing information and generating thoughts and ideas. Every one of these thoughts has a core of images, concepts and emotions. Each one is the seed of an idea that could be nurtured into a new song, a business, a vision for living and relating to others with balance and respect.

Once we notice our creative flow, we can begin to make our ideas manifest in the world. We need to capture and refine them, choosing the best ones and giving them the attention they need to grow. 

We can develop skills to give structure to our creative flow so we have a better chance of remembering the best ideas. We can develop our expressive skills in our chosen media to share our ideas in a way that makes sense to others. 

A garden of ideas

The mind is like dirt: fertile ground that can naturally support the fruitful growth of ideas. The winds of consciousness carry idea seeds that can land, take root and grow. Creativity is the tilling of the mind’s soil, the preparation for ideas to come, and the careful nurturing of those ideas as they grow toward their true forms: faithful original inspiration, expressing themselves to the world. 

The first step toward growing a creative garden that others delight in is recognizing the fertility of the mind. Then comes the work of tilling, planting, weeding, nurturing the fruit until it’s ready to share.

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Gratitude

On this Thanksgiving weekend, I remember the family gatherings from when I was growing up. We often met with aunts, uncles and cousins crowded around big tables at my Grandma’s house. Other years, we’d spend the holiday at our own home, with a special vegetarian thanksgiving meal: rich autumn squash, bright cranberries and nutty wild rice were some of my favorite dishes.

At every Thanksgiving meal, we would go around the table and tell each other what we were grateful for. We’d share everything that came to mind, from the simple and immediate blessings of family, food and shelter to more complicated and specific things: the calm light on the prairie grasses we saw on the drive to Thanksgiving, the successful healing of an illness. Some years, my birthday landed on Thanksgiving, an extra treat to be thankful for.

This year, far from family, I did a journaling exercise, creating a long but incomplete list of things I’m grateful for. I’d like to share it with you, in hopes that you make your own list in writing! Writing and sharing are each powerful in different ways. When I write the things I’m grateful for, I can linger in reflection on each item and what it means to me. When I share aloud with others, I get to see the light in their eyes, and that mirrors and affirms my thanks. 

What I’m grateful for

I’m grateful for my voice, my heart, my mind, my body. My spirit that holds all of these and is carried inside of each of them.

I’m grateful for my connection to my friends and family. I’m grateful for the incredible love that they have for me. I’m grateful that they take the time and energy to remind me that they love me! 

I’m grateful for each of the people who joined the video call for my surprise birthday party! 

I’m grateful for each of my friends who has supported me when I was not feeling well. I’m grateful to have access to medical care when I know that so many people around me don’t. 

I’m grateful that my country’s government is showing signs of taking the climate crisis seriously. 

I’m grateful for art that inspires me. 

I’m grateful for my ancestors that made me who I am, as I exist in the world, and for the great range of human ancestors who passed down gifts of knowledge, experience and creativity through generations in forms as easily taken for granted as clothing and as profound as the layered traditions of spirituality and art. 

I’m grateful for the opportunity to do meaningful work with great people and for people who appreciate it. 

I’m grateful for my natural ability to increase my skills and ability to make my gifts manifest in the world. I’m grateful that growth is an intrinsic human characteristic. I’m grateful that I can grow simply by putting myself in contact with the materials and practices that really matter to me. 

I’m grateful that people care about one another. I’m grateful that humans have an inclination toward good, that we have better angels in our nature. 

I’m grateful that I trust and believe in my fellow peoples’ good intentions. I’m grateful for each person who wants to make the world a better place, deep in their hearts. 

I’m grateful that people search for ways to make the world better. I’m grateful that we remind one another that there are opportunities and needs to address. 

I’m grateful for the passion and optimism that gets me up in the morning. I’m grateful for my opportunity to define and make a difference. 

I’m grateful for the privilege I have. 

I’m grateful that I have enough to eat, that I’m comfortable and the city where I live is peaceful and calm. 

I’m grateful that I’m living in a time when I can connect with people from all around the world instantly. 

I’m grateful that I’m learning to take a measured approach to the bounty of information, needs, opportunities, problems that exist in the limited span of time and the limited space of the world. 

I’m grateful for all that I’ll never know. 

I’m grateful that I am becoming more mindful, that I want to be more kind, that I’m practicing communicating and interacting in more human ways. 

I’m grateful that I have an opportunity to collect experience and knowledge, the skills to process them, and the means to share them with others. 

I’m grateful for the people around me, who encourage me to keep going, even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard. 

Your turn

What are you grateful for? Write your own list, to reflect on by yourself, or to share with others!

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Collapse, rest and infinity

Collapse

Last Tuesday evening I left my office to walk home. I took the familiar route through the Kyiv city streets, past the Golden Gate and down the hill toward Shevchenko park. A light snowfall moistened my eyebrows. The streetlights illuminated the flakes in midair. The trace already accumulated on the ground reflected the light up to the low-hanging clouds. 

Ten minutes into the walk, I started feeling light and dizzy. I paused a few times along the way home, taking deep breaths, feeling disoriented. I felt like I was experiencing some kind of natural, drug-free high. As I crossed onto Volodymyrska Street, I started to hurry, worrying I wouldn’t be able to get home. As I entered the park, I lost control of my direction. I veered wildly off the brick paved path, feeling the soft grass under my sneakers and the slushy snow spattering my jeans. 

My next memories are vague: I found myself in the back of an ambulance, telling two medics about myself. I don’t know if I could speak coherently, but they were patient with me. A kind woman named Natasha translated. Another bystander, a man, stood behind her. 

I left the park by foot with Natasha. I was still vulnerable, dizzy and disoriented. I leaned on her arm and she repeated the story of what happened. She told me to rest and call a doctor. I’m not sure if she asked my name. I’m not sure if I was present enough to tell her. She left me at the archway leading off the street toward my building.

I still don’t know who Natasha or the man are, or how they found me. I assume they saw me fall and were concerned enough to call the ambulance. They didn’t leave their names or numbers, but they stopped on a snowy night to help a foreign stranger, and that fills me with gratitude and hope. 

I’m sure I didn’t thank them properly. I’m not sure I thanked them at all. So thank you, Natasha, for taking a stranger home on a snowy night, talking to him, making sure he was safe. Thank you.

Thanks, too, to each one of my family members and friends who has called and visited since then. Your gifts of listening and advice, offers of food and reminders to rest mean so incredibly much.

Rest

This week, I’ve been reminded of my humanity in a way that only illness and enforced rest really offers. I’ve had the opportunity to question my addiction to activity. I’ve been encouraged to examine my priorities and what they might say about my values. 

People around me encouraged me to rest, to take a sick day, to make sure I’m ok, to relax. I felt them asking me to grow and accept something essential about being alive: that no one lives forever, that everyone can fail. To acknowledge that I’m a human being, not a machine. 

I felt their compassion and recognized that they were promoting community values of mutual care. They wanted me to show compassion for myself, and accept help, and in doing so to be part of a community of care, one in which we help each other when we’re not feeling well. 

I want to contribute to a community like that, but I never really considered that I would need to receive care, as well as give it. I thought I would be able to go infinitely, that I would be able to run without stopping. I thought it would show weakness to slow down or stop, even for an instant.

Infinity

I’ve held a core belief that quality work depends partly on volume of attempts. The more I work, the better I become. Even as I recognize the need to respect natural laws of rest and limits, I feel deficient, like it’s immoral to rest or slow down before all of the problems are solved, before perfection has been attained. 

I’m continually tempted to rush at infinity headlong. Reality reminds me that I am finite and there are limits I need to respect. I’m learning that infinity must be handled with care and delicate balance.

It’s a balance between continually striving toward an ambitious, motivating goal, and taking the time for critical nourishment and rest along the way. It’s a balance between structure and uncertainty, between community and independence, between listening and speaking, between giving and receiving.

I so deeply desire to make the greatest impact I can. I so deeply want respect and love and admiration. I’ve assumed that the best way to achieve all of these is through nonstop work. A scare like I had last Tuesday night makes me question this assumption.

I feel lucky that for the support and care I’ve received from doctors, friends and family in the last few days. I’m feeling better, and have plenty of new experiences to think about. I’m grateful for another opportunity to examine the life I’m living.

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How can we heal tensions in society? The real work is hard.

While tension and division is as old as society itself, polarization in America has become starkly visible in a new way this year. Like many others, I’m concerned about the future. Looking at the streets filled with post-election protestors, I feel surprised and confused, bewildered that the President’s supporters don’t understand that the election results will be good for the country and the world. I feel threatened by their views. But when I notice my feelings, I compare them with what the pro-Trump protestors might be experiencing. I see that their views and reactions may be grounded in opposite but very similar feelings of fear, threat, surprise and revulsion.

What do we do about these tensions? Is the gap already too wide to bridge?

Beliefs

The work starts understanding our own beliefs as clearly as possible. I ask myself, what do I really believe about the issues I encounter, and what principles do those beliefs come from? Do I really believe what I say, or have I simply adopted someone else’s slogans? Copying and repeating is easy. Finding and standing up for our true beliefs is hard, especially when we face pressure to fit in.

Expression is particular to each person, the product of that person’s social groups, circumstances and psychology. In interviews with right- and left-wing protestors, I hear mirror images of hurt and dissatisfaction. Though the problems may be similar, people express them in different ways. 

Empathy

I recognize something of myself in the Trump supporters filling the streets. Though I disagree strongly with what they seem to stand for, I see that they are frustrated and disappointed, feeling threatened in the present and fear about the future. 

When speaking to people whose political views align with mine, I feel difficulty admitting that I empathize with these people. I’m afraid that I’ll be viewed as sympathetic with their views. And feeling this difficulty, I become aware of the dehumanization that is elevating tensions on both sides.

We each have the opportunity to recognize that people on the other side are human. They have struggles. We can listen to them before judging them. We can look beyond what seems comical, crazy or invective in their speech and try to understand the hurt or fear underneath. 

We can ask why they believe what they do before reacting or arguing. We can listen for the root causes and the experiences that have shaped their expression. 

Common truths

I see that perceived lack of control and fear for the future are common on both sides. While it’s easier to shout slogans than to look for the inner source of our discontent, I wonder if we could start better conversations by using uncertainty and fear as a common starting point. 

Even if we can’t agree on anything else, perhaps we can recognize the validity of the emotions people who aren’t like us feel. It’s much easier to caricature their expressions than to admit there are real problems behind them. However, it can be scary to recognize the real problems because then they’re harder to ignore. It means we share the responsibility for addressing them.

Conversation

To discover our beliefs, we need space and permission to speak and express them. This takes trust and time. We can learn what is actually true for us by explaining our views in a logical way, possibly in the context of a debate with someone who disagrees. 

This takes patience and some mental skill. It’s much easier to clothe yourself in an argument from someone you admire and repeat it without taking time to understand it. Being patient and seeking encounters where you can help people untangle these knots that are binding our society. 

Judgment, prejudice and fear make conversation impossible. When we fear the other, we can’t listen. When we judge, we react strangely to opposing opinions. To have open minded encounters, we can enter conversations with our own strong convictions, as clearly ordered in our minds as possible, and a mind free of judgement. 

Empowerment

Once we have a shared understanding of a problem, we might be able to lay out possible solutions. Once we have options, we can engage in substantial discussion in which we compare them. In such a discussion, we might be able to pinpoint our real disagreements, understand why we disagree, and find out where there’s room for compromise. 

We can look for ways to support one another in moving beyond our fears. We can help one another learn to live with inevitable uncertainty by providing support in a way that works for us. We can help one another find agency by understanding the way the world works and seeing how we can move the levers that control change. Every one of us has power, whether we choose to use it intentionally or not. That fact makes us responsible for the hard work of creating connection that will lead to a better world.

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How music is made: the inspiration behind Shine

As a musician and creative person, I’ve always been interested in the creative process. How does creative work grow from the fertile dirt of the spinning mind? What makes it develop and polish into creations we can share? How can we catch and polish more of what comes through our precious minds?

While preparing to release the Shine EP, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the music’s inspiration and the creative process that brought it into the world. 

The creative mind

For most of my life, the music in my head has been a constant companion. Sometimes it’s wild and fantastic, a multi-genre kaleidoscope of sound. Other times, it’s an endless loop of the pop song I heard in the supermarket. Sometimes its quiet and gentle. Other times it’s so prominent it takes all my attention. If I notice it’s not there, I can find new melodies by paying close attention. This music emerges from the ambient sounds around me or comes from a deep stillness within.

When I was younger, my inner music was too complicated for me to understand. The melodies flowed through different sounds, styles and instruments, intricate and endlessly varied. Understanding it would have been like following each drop over a waterfall, or each thread through a delicate woven tapestry. 

Making music manifest

I believed that others would enjoy this music and appreciate its beauty. I wanted to share it, so others could hear and understand. So I trained myself to notice what exists in my mind clearly enough to communicate it concretely. 

The work of expression is a continuous practice, and creators can always improve the fidelity of their creations. I haven’t yet succeeded in creating a finished product that completely matches the music in my mind. I’m not sure it’s possible to capture our thoughts exactly, given that the media we have in the physical world are different from the ones in our heads. 

When I hear music in my mind, it only has to travel from the region of the brain where it’s generated to the area where it’s processed as an audiation. To enter the outside world, the music has to go from my mind through my mouth or fingers into an external medium. Musical thought is transferred to the air passing through my vocal chords or the buzz of my lips on the trumpet mouthpiece. It flows through the coil of the trumpet or the wires of the keyboard and the air vibrates, alive with sound. When our thoughts meet the external world, they change. 

There’s magic in this change. As a creator, it’s tempting to hold onto the perfect image or sound in our minds. I’m disappointed when reality falls short of my expectations. The music as it exists in the world always seems imperfect. But it undergoes an essential transformation by entering the external world. 

Reality isn’t perfect. It holds many opposing forces in balance, each seeking their influence. There are friction and gravity, opinion and argument, resistance and misunderstanding. Creation is broken, cracked. And if our minds are part of creation, was there any perfection to start with, or have we merely normalized our brokenness so completely we don’t see it at all?

Collaboration

Other people are part of the external world, too, and the collaborative process adds another layer of beautiful complexity. To create music with others, musical thought need to pass from my mind to theirs. I communicate the sound, mood and expression of the music through demonstrations that I play and explanations in words and musical notation.

These thoughts need to live in the musicians’ minds and flow through their fingers. The musicians need instruments made by others to create the sounds. Then the sound enters an incredible web of technological collaboration: microphones captured the sounds, wires carried them, a computer mixed the sounds together and stored the file that you can listen to. All these were supported by more creative collaborations, taking place across years and decades. 

Your hearing these songs is the result of an incredible collaboration. I am so grateful to everyone else who has helped bring them to the world. 

The inspiration for Shine

Where does Shine start? With a seed of inspiration in my mind, a melody, a line of lyrics, a sound, a feeling. A sunny summer day in a cabin in the mountains, with windows looking out on a blue lake and wide sky. An idea I can’t get out of my head. The pain of slavery retold every year at Passover, the struggles of so many people in the present day, and the sweetness of finding and sharing our freedom. 

It starts as an expression of this life, the months and years of it. It’s a gift that shares how I see the world. It’s a vision of hope, of love, of a world where everyone recognizes their capacity to contribute to making it better. A world where we listen and do our best to understand one another. Where we each put our hearts into our creations, and we pay attention to what others have made. 

This music sings of a world where we learn how to shape the thoughts and give them form, to process them so others can understand. Where we give of ourselves through sounds and songs, through words of poetry or prose, through food we cook and community we create. As our creations take form, we polish them, show them to others, get feedback, take them back to our workshops for more revision, share them again, then capture new thoughts and share again with the world.

I’m excited to share this music with you. I hope you enjoy Shine.

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Taking responsibility for a better world

This year, I’ve seen vividly opposing views on display, especially in the US election season. Given the stakes, the passion was understandable. But the most extreme responses seemed to have roots deeper than the slogans and political issues on the surface.

Behind each heated individual response I saw a person who believed that their reality falls short of what they deserve. For each person, the nature of the gap and the way they think it can be resolved differs. However, I believe the underlying pain and hurt are similar across people and groups. And I believe a key contributor to the pain and hurt and the vitriol they cause is the feeling of powerlessness in the face of overwhelming problems.

Infinite problems

Society is the result of billions of human actions. In the midst of so many actions, problems inevitably arise. History, art and religion tell us that this has always been so, the result of fate and human nature. 

Thanks to modern media, we have constant, instant reminders about all of our collective and personal problems. The internet can give me a potentially infinite feed of all the suffering and pain in the world. Conversely, it can show an endless parade of shiny objects and ideas that I believe will make life perfect, if only I can acquire them. Worse yet, all of these problems feel unbelievably urgent. And with the time scale on which we expect (and quite possibly need) to act, the situation seems hopeless. 

Faced with infinity, It’s hard to react in any reasonable way. I find that problems of infinite scope trigger my fight or flight instinct. I want to take every problem fully upon myself and solve it as quickly as possible. If I can’t do that, I want to run and hide. It’s impossible for me, or anyone, to fight all the world’s problems at once. But if I flee, I am powerless.

It’s easy to try quick fixes and hope for miracles. And when these don’t work, it’s even easier to blame others. Especially when others join us, it seems logical and even invigorating to blame others. Pick any target: outsiders, insiders, liberals, conservatives, foreign powers, fate.

It’s much more difficult to take responsibility.

Taking responsibility

My impact is so close to zero when compared to the magnitude of the world’s problems. I am only one person out of close to 8 billion. Yet one is infinitely greater than zero. 

We each have the potential to create infinite impact. (Remember the butterfly flapping its wings?) If we pay close enough attention, we may recognize that our impact is already at work in the world. 

If we recognize the impact we make, we are likely to act more intentionally. With patience, we can expand our abilities and connect with others to direct our efforts toward the areas in which we hope to make a difference.

Believe in yourself

We can each define the difference we wish to make and look for what actions are most likely to make it real. When we see faults in the world, we can seek to understand them. Are they really problems? We can look within ourselves for solutions before we ask others to solve the problems for us. We can each ask what is the best action for us to make a meaningful difference. What brokenness do we feel called to fix? What is causing the brokenness? Where is the balance of power, and how can we put a finger on the scale?

Believe in others

When we see others are behave in a way we don’t like, we can try to understand why they behave that way. We should consider that they probably have good intentions. What actions are they actually taking and why are they taking them? 

Slow down

Though we need urgent action, we also need patience. Urgency creates fear and haste. It raises the stakes, makes us less likely to listen, makes us closed to dialog and compromise, makes us ignore the problems or turn to blame. 

Move toward action

Responsibility enables action. Understanding based on facts enables us to identify the problem and define the outcome we want. Once we’ve identified our goal, we can move toward it. 

Responsibility is hard. It means absorbing some of the pain that exists in the world and acknowledging our part in creating it. It means acknowledging that not every problem can be completely solved, especially not as quickly as we hope. 

There will always be brokenness and differences of opinion. But responsibility unlocks action. We can choose the world we want to live in by the way we define our relationship to it. If we believe that we are powerless, we surrender our agency and powerlessness becomes our reality. 

If we recognize our capacity to take action and move toward a clearly defined goal, we can start to use our inevitable influence. If we join with others, our efforts can go even further. We can each make a difference, as individuals and communities, empowering one another to create the world we wish to live in. 

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How do we form habits for a better world?

Though the world is uncertain, we can each take small actions to make it better. We may have an opportunity to talk with someone who is lonely or show kindness to some who feels unsettled. We can enrich others’ lives with the delightful things we create, as simple as a smile or as complex as a symphony. But we can’t do something once and move on. To build a better world, we need sustainable practices for the months and years ahead. How do we form habits that lead to a better world?

How we form habits

Two of my favorite books on habits are The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and Start at the End by Matt Wallaert. They look at the way we form habits, and how we can choose behaviors more consciously. 

Duhigg writes about the habit loop, where a trigger makes us take an action, which leads to a reward. If we receive a reward, then the behavior is reinforced and we’re likely to repeat it next time we encounter the same trigger. Because the action worked before, our energy-saving brain assumes it will work again.

Wallaert looks at promoting and inhibiting factors that make a behavior more or less likely. We may or may not be fully aware of these factors for any given behavior. 

To make a behavior more likely we might promote it by increasing the quantity of a known reward, or reduce inhibitions by removing an obstacle to the behavior. We’re often inhibited by the perceived size of an action: it takes too much time or energy. If we decrease the minimum commitment, we become more likely to perform the action.

Long-term habits

If building a better world is a long-term project, then it’s important to make the habits around it durable. While Duhigg focuses on one reward per habit, I’ve found that my most long-lived habits have multiple rewards and meet several needs.

I think this is because I’m different every day. My mood, state of mind and other activities vary and evolve over the course of days, months and years. If there are many positive reasons to take an action, it’s more likely that I’ll find one that’s relevant to me considering my circumstances on any given day.

Here are some of our deep human needs, identified by Marshall Rosenberg in his work on Nonviolent Communication.

  • Connection
  • Physical well-being
  • Honesty
  • Play
  • Peace
  • Meaning
  • Autonomy

Music practice as a long term habit

My music practice is one of my oldest habits. I’ve been practicing trumpet or piano or singing every day since I was 9 years old, and performing for others for almost as long!

  • Connection: music is best when shared. While I’m missing much musical community during the pandemic times, music has given me lasting friendships, regular opportunities to meet and play together with people I care about, spiritual teachers, and the great reward of seeing a room filled with bright smiles and inspired eyes after finishing a performance.
  • Physical well-being: Music provides a motivation to take care of myself. It’s hard to perform on a beat up instrument, and the human body and mind are my most important tools for making music. I’ve also been lucky to have music provide food and shelter for me, whether in the form of a pre-show potluck, a couch to crash on after in a new city, or money from generous audience members who came to see a concert.
  • Honesty: admittedly, it hasn’t always been easy to express myself honestly in music. Impostor syndrome was a constant companion for years! Yet even while striving for greater expressive abilities, I’ve always put my heart into every note.
  • Play: there’s no greater thrill than taking the creative flight of improvisation, and no greater lift than supporting and feeling supported by those who I fly with.
  • Peace: even in the wildness of performance, there’s stillness and calm, motionlessness in the heart of flow.
  • Meaning: sharing what I care most about and experiencing how it touches others is an experience that fills me with meaning.
  • Autonomy: as a musician and songwriter, I have my own sphere of influence, even as it connects and overlaps with my collaborators and audience. 

Habits of compassion and community

After we’ve identified the values we want to optimize for (a compassionate, connected world, for example), we can look for specific activities that will lead to this outcome. 

There are many actions that can lead to this outcome. It’s important that we each choose the ones that we’d truly enjoy most. The ones that spark our interest and seem enjoyable. Then we can start to build habits around them.

We can find as many positive factors as possible. We can learn to anticipate the rewards. When we plan the activity in our day, we can think ahead to the good outcomes more than the bad ones. And we each need to find the ones that work for us. 

Moving forward

Through small actions, we can make a difference in the world. When we make habits around these actions, they become sustainable. It takes consistent work to create anything worthwhile, and surely community, patience, kindness, vulnerability and empathy are not exceptions. 

What habits are you most proud of? What do you wish to sustain in the coming months and days? What do you wish to create?

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A pre-election view of America from abroad

In the last few weeks, several people have asked my opinion about how current social and political moment in the US looks to me as an American living abroad. Here are some thoughts and observations.

I grew up in Colorado and lived there until three years ago, when I moved to Kyiv, Ukraine. I came for an adventurous life change, to grow as a person while learning about a culture I knew very little about. 

While living here, I’ve developed close friendships and collaborations while working on an original music project and contributing to a tech startup as a UX writer. Most of my conversations and interactions are with young, educated, internationally-minded people.

How I saw America before

Growing up in America, I knew our country was important in the world, but I didn’t know what people in other countries thought about our government and people. 

When I was a teenager, I was embarrassed about America’s power. We were at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, what seemed the latest in a long history of meddling in other countries’ affairs. I was uncomfortable with the way our consumption-fuelled economy contributed to climate change, environmental degradation and sweatshop conditions in developing countries.

Before I moved abroad, I didn’t think much about the positive aspects of American power and culture on the world stage. I never knew how much people value and respect our exports of culture, expertise and the ideals of democracy.

I never knew that people in other countries know so much more about America than Americans know about other countries. America’s media exports show American life to the world while mostly showing Americans their own country. This creates a kind of one-way mirror, an American myopia.

A view from abroad

The current political and social turmoil in America is troubling to many people I speak with. They see a strong America as broadly good for the world. 

However, the problems we’re facing are all too familiar to them. In Ukraine, they’ve had no shortage of corrupt politicians who do everything they can to keep their power, including lying and using the country’s institutions to maintain it. 

As they speak, I hear recognition and empathy. They’ve been through this, but they thought America was above this kind of disfunction. They idealized America, with its promise of a better life, its inevitable democracy and march toward expanded rights and prosperity around the world. Now, it seems that America, while still exceptional, is exposed to the same human flaws that lead to dangerous, unstable situations everywhere.

They are hopeful that this moment will resolve peacefully, in a way that protects the world that America has helped build. Yet it no longer seems certain. Now it’s clear that democracy cannot be taken for granted. It needs constant attention and nurturing, protection from those who would rather gather and hold power at all costs. 

My view of democracy

When I talk to my Ukranian friends about this election, I tell them that I believe in our democracy. I tell them about my experience engaging in it: how I lobbied my congressional delegation, using discourse and building relationships to push for legislation on climate change. I tell them about how the citizens of my hometown voted to form their own municipal power company after the state-sanctioned company refused to meet the city’s goals for using renewable energy. 

Even now the American democratic system still has promise and power, and I hope it can heal what is stressed and broken now. I hope we will continue to expand access to our democracy and ensure that everyone can use their voice if they choose to. 

Recent years have shown us that this system isn’t perfect, and it’s certainly not inevitable. It takes constant work to protect it, to spread the values of truth, respect and communication that allow it to function. It takes strong, fair frameworks and passionate people using their voices to improve the institutions and create change within them. 

While many Ukrainians I talk to believe in a better future, many are frustrated with the ineffectiveness they see in their own political system. I remind them to look for the ways they can use their voice. As Ukraine showed during 2014 Euromaidan revolution People always have a voice, even in the worst situations.

Regardless of what happens in the US elections on Tuesday, I hope we can remember to use our voices wisely, to communicate, to seek justice, to pursue truth. The work of creating democracy is never finished. We’ll need everyone’s voice and continuous contribution to ensure that it continues.

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3 steps to balance concern and action

Every time I look at the news, it seems like we are closer to a major catastrophe. There is no shortage of suffering in the world, and it’s often caused by negligent or bad decisions. 

Through interactions with people and media, I have access to an unlimited amount of problems. When I engage with them, I expose myself to potentially infinite worry, stress and concern.

Considering that there is so much genuinely wrong in the world, how do I live a productive and happy life? It’s an important question, because my attention is finite and I want to spend it on things that really matter.

3 steps to balance

I try to keep my concern grounded in an accurate understanding of the world and in proportion to my power to create change. I seek a balance of:

  • Understanding why the world is the way it is and identifying how I fit 
  • Focusing on a specific problem and opportunity for influence 
  • Acting in the most effective way I can to create the change I envision

1. Understand

Start by understanding why the situation is what it is. Research the issue in a detached manner. Look at it from an outside perspective. Look at it from the other point of view. 

Trying to create change before coming to a well thought out understanding of the causes, both in yourself and in the world is usually ineffective or has unintended consequences. How can you develop better understanding? 

Understand the world

There are almost 8 billion people on earth. Each person’s mind is made to solve problems. Tensions arise when we solve them in contradictory ways. We’re all imperfect, and we each have the potential to improve. We can each be better tomorrow than we are today. 

I don’t assume that people who don’t share my views are bad people, or stupid, or barbarians. It’s highly unlikely that they see themselves in any of these ways. I believe they have their own interests, hopes and fears. Their lives shape their worldviews. I look for the past events that might have caused them to believe and say what they do. Though it can be hard, I try to understand before I react, to listen before I judge. 

I know everyone is on a journey of personal growth. I assume others have their own visions that are shaped by their values. I look for the principles by which they live their lives. Those principles have root causes, too, events of the past that continue to echo now. We’re each continually shaped by our circumstances and choices. Everyone can change, and everyone does. Change is inevitable. 

Understand the self

When I encounter a situation in the world, I find it helpful to look at my reaction to it. If I’m worried or afraid, I try to pause and ask why. What am I really worried about? What aspect of the situation causes fear? 

What do I think would be better? If I could wave a magic wand and create change instantly, what would it look like? Would that change really solve the problem? 

When I notice myself worrying, I try to understand what the worry is telling me, and what it’s accomplishing. Is it pushing me to act? Is it pushing me to understand more about the world? Or does it come from shame or guilt, self-punishment for my perceived flaws, or judgmental seeking of flaws in others?

2. Focus

Identify areas of influence

After seeking an understanding of the world and my relationship to it, I narrow the field of problems to find the one where my motivation and interest lead me to contribute. I know it takes endurance to create change, and I’ll be likely to continue the work when I’m passionate about it. I focus my concern on a limited amount of problems where I believe I’ll have the greatest impact.

Find your greatest potential impact

When I am concerned about something in the world, I look at where the power resides and consider what kind of actions are likely to create the change I believe would improve the situation. Then I think about how I am situated to influence those actions. Do I have skills I can contribute directly? Can I contribute money to enable others to contribute their skills? How can I use my voice? Can I join with others to make a greater impact?

3. Act

Here’s what I’m working on: 

Giving the world music that:

  • Gives people energy, insight and inspiration to follow their dreams and make the change they wish to see in the world
  • Creates a space for people to connect with other like minded people through the music experience
  • Connects with human emotions and experiences in a way that makes people feel seen and understood

I do this through a unique mixture of qualities:

  • Positive, optimistic worldview
  • Poetic, philosophical lyrics
  • Indie pop/chamber pop style. Voices, trumpet, synthesizers, live instruments, modern, distressed sound.

Create change together

It’s very difficult for any one person to make a large scale on their own. Everyone needs help to make change. We can make change as contributors or leaders of a group. As leaders, we can lead groups that exist already or create new ones. 

Trust others

As I offer my gifts boldly to the world, I trust that others are doing the same. I trust that others are competent in their fields, just as I am competent in mine. I trust that others have worked hard to do accumulate their skills and reach their positions, and they will do their best to carry out their roles. I trust that the great sweep of history, including my contribution, tends toward nature’s great balance. 

In conclusion

There is truly no shortage of problems or worry for any of us. The world’s problems are both vast and detailed. It’s important to realize that we are each 1 person out of a vast number. We can each see the entirety of the world’s problems, yet it’s impossible for any one person to influence them all. 

We each have influence over something. A practical approach to concern seeks to balance understanding as much as possible of the whole, with the greatest specific impact of the individual: identifying, acting, and expanding our potential to shape the world.

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Equality 1

Are we born equal? We’re each sequels of history, each made of the same materials, living soil, air, water, spark. We each come from darkness, from the heartbeat of the womb, from secrets and sacredness. We’re each born the same way and each experience the world through our senses. We each have the potential to give something unique the world. 

We each have a sticky ego that likes to hold onto credit for the thoughts and random occurrences that happen to flow through our minds. We each want to grab onto the resources that flow through our fingers. We’re each attached to the bodies that carry us through this life and the materials that sustain these bodies. 

We’re equal in our randomness. Each one of us is a random occurrance, and everything that happens to us is chance. We’re each parts of a messy universe, each ultimately small and ultimately significant at the same time. Wouldn’t we be able to live better together if we recognized these as true challenges to be addressed?

None of us are special and yet we all are. We all have something unique to give the world, a specific color, a specific arrangement of DNA molecules and facial features and thoughts and musical speech. We each have our own ways of dancing. Many of our dances are good. Some are harmful. What do we do with the harm that emerges in our divine randomness? How do we resolve it in a way that doesn’t inflict pain?

How do we compete in a way that takes this randomness into account and holds us in balance? We can’t reward small randomness with enormous differences, and yet we can’t say it doesn’t matter, because it does. Most work hard and try and strive. Some do it more effectively than others. Is the difference random? And what can we do with the differences? 

We can recognize that we’re all dancing together, and that our dance is the same as that of the planets and asteroids, of gravity and time, of matter in space coalescing into stars and stars dying and expelling their breath across galaxies to form life. We aren’t necessarily the natural culmination of this process. There is no culmination, is no attachment to past, present or future. There’s only this moment. 

And yet we can’t accept the present as the best possible outcome. We can do better and we must try. We must each dance and enable and encourage each others’ dances. We must see and seek the special and beautiful in every dance. Everyone needs to be seen. When we’re seen we grow. Connection is nurturance. We need our circles of sight and communication to open up and involve all. We need to penetrate the silent places and turn all into beauty and light. For all is beautiful if we seek beauty.

Yes, there are things we each detest. Yes, there are ways we disagree. Yes, there are dissonances that create rifts, and rifts naturally cleave along the fault lines of differences. It’s all too easy for each of us to hold ourselves up as the ultimate, the right, the best. We each need to dedicate ourselves to developing to our fullest potential and to seeing others. That’s the only way we can hope reach a more harmonious and equal state on this tiny, fast-moving planet.