jeff brozena

On Nurturing

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Parts of us die early on. Parts are born late.

If we could only announce births of our new selves, our new growth, with the same conviction as when a child is born. Today I celebrate Mother's Day for her new self. Hopefully someday, Father's Day for mine. Perhaps one day we even have a holiday for those who parented their parents.

If only we could understand how fluid we really are over time. If only these tiny little growths of the self could be seen in the beautiful time-lapse modes they deserve. A time-series of self.

Blooming isn't a straight line. But how gentle we grow on the vine: up the supports of parents, siblings, friends, and mentors, god-willing. How tolerant we can be to the rain. The fence that stands in the way of the tree. The tree that grows around the fence.

How resilient and complete we already are.

Tonight I put down the quantified self, the data scientist-to-be, if only for a moment. Tonight is a celebration of the qualified self who knows full well that opening and true relationship can only take place over time. The real vow is a commitment to the process of growth, of continual renewal.

Let's announce births and deaths as they occur

Harvesting Discipline

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On committing to themes, adapting to variations, and the simplicity of choice

Chögyam Trungpa writes in The Path of Individual Liberation,

discipline may seem complicated, but it is actually very simple—it is what binds your life together. Without discipline, life is made up of successive indulgences and confusions based on aggression, passion, and ignorance.

Maybe a discipline is inherently timeless because of that binding. It allows a person to become more relevant to themselves and to others, to choose something across a lifetime which of course is too heavy to do all at once.

There is that way of talking about a practice as a self-fulfilling thing - that the more practice happens, the more enjoyment in practice, so the more practice happens.

Dusty heavy things

One day I was at a coffee shop at Penn State with a friend and teacher. He told a story of a relative who was passionate about lots of things. Having abundant interests but the same amount of time as the rest of us, he would cycle from hobby to hobby and start more than he could keep up with. But along the way, attention paid to one thing required the others to collect dust.

That dust caused frustration over time. The more one pursuit developed, the more dust fell over past passions. This created tension as he attempted to develop any one of his interests. So to clean up the dust and relieve the tension, he either needed more time (nope) or to commit to less.

The moral of the story was to give permission to lead what my friend called an ordinary life.

Chase two rabbits, catch none

Leaping into Interest Monogamy

Recently at a musical gathering, a friend and teacher described the urgency of personal commitment to a traditional discipline. Although this context was musical, the message was universal: Choose it, or don't. But once chosen, don't be wishy-washy. Don't course correct without allowing enough time for it to really develop. These things require too much to not really commit. And in all seriousness past and future practitioners depend on this.

I have written previously about saying no in response to limited time. Back then it was a matter of managing expectations in the immediate term and not pissing off those who rely on you.

Commitment to a larger discipline is about saying a fearless no to other possibilities, other heavy things: Interesting things which maybe take months or years to really evolve properly, which require real commitment to grow.

But the real fearless choice is in saying yes to the chosen discipline. To cut out the habit of window shopping for possibility and realize how little time there is to evolve even one. To show up to it fully.

"No discipline is pleasant at the time, but painful." Hebrews 12:11

Healing vs. Fixing

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Leading horses to water, understanding human motivations/limitations, and building a narrative around creative possibility thinking while managing complex change.

In order of complexity, or perhaps priority: To introduce a change large or small into a self, job, organization, romance or friendship. To influence anything at all. It can be enough to strike us down with paralysis if we are not prepared to think both forwards and backwards in time, to think both immediately and on the horizon; at both 10,000 foot views and stumbling around without our glasses on. Losing momentum can overtake us like a wave.

I'm not here to write about habitual change or self-improvement. There's plenty where that comes from. These are instead a few field notes on false starts and momentum-gathering. Notes on first learning to swim against the current, then to realize it's generally better to harness the waves.

Overcoming inertia

Meet people where they are. Meet organizations where they are. It's not of much value to attempt to change things you cannot change - to control, command. It's just temporary. The moment the controller leaves the room, what happens? There's never really control anyway.

Reawaken the possibility of possibility.

People don't want to be changed, they want to change, to improve, to grow.

What does it look like to establish a clear direction while allowing people enough space to do their own thing within boundaries? The only way to be creative is to establish and work within a few well-defined constraints. Otherwise it's all movement and no action.

It has to become apparent to us that it's worth the effort to grow. We are like plants. Plants grow towards the light no matter how lazy or afraid or hesitant they feel in the morning. We can be like grapes if the right frame is there for us to grow on.

Speaking organizationally, inertia is a downward pull, depression, lethargy. Organizational inertia is reactionary in the sense that someone else has both caused and will fix our problems. Action is required to pull upward, to gather acceptance and willingness to change, to truly move forward in the right direction. Once momentum is gathered, the acceleration (read: trust) demands more action of everyone. Action begets action until we forget about where we started altogether because it's not as important.

Eating Carrots, Holding Sticks

Once it becomes apparent that inertia is a poor choice to continue making, we must begin to see ahead farther. We must articulate where we are going, why we are going there at all, and what it will take to be there. What it will take to remain there.

Beautiful Anne Barton quote

Again to speak organizationally: It is simply not quite enough to become frustrated when others do not see the way forward. That is a leadership problem, a problem of two-way communication. It is a chance to reframe in terms of whatever possibilities lay ahead.

Possibility thinking is about seeing things coherently. It's wonderful to realize that the forest we are in is actually blooming if we can get past these rotting trees.

Forgotten Time

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I spent an early Sunday morning with Pt. Ravi Shankar's The Master Drummers of India for the first time in roughly six years since I first started with tabla.

Master Drummers of India

"7 beats, cycle, called rupak taal"

"It's good that you are listening to this," my serendipitous teacher Quamar said in 2008. "You will need to keep playing after the initial excitement of beginning wears off."

"DhatrkadheteTe ghenadha ghenadhadha ghenadha ghenadhate ghenatina ghen"

The initial excitement has worn, of course. After six years? How many times hearing: "Are those bongos?" Late night practices. Growth via mostly-friendly competition. Encounters with beautiful pianists, guitarists, violinists, vocalists, thereminists and guzheng-ists always listening for where it might fit.

It can be a path easily lost to begin studying an instrument many are unfamiliar with. I have had to become very defined in my own goal: To become a present, honest and articulate accompanist of Hindustani classical music.

It's an earthy sort of simplicity to hear this album again. I still have my timestamped notes penciled onto post-its in a journal from a first listen. I had no idea what any of it meant or where the hell the one was. And six years have passed in a moment.

For the record it has been driven strictly by love. All of it has been. I never felt I had a choice in whether to keep going with this music, although obviously there is one every day. The transition from fear of quitting to passionately challenging forth towards an unlimited horizon has been slow and sometimes delicate. And deliciously worthwhile.

Cleaning A Beautiful Mess

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Cross-posting from Human Parts on Medium.

It was 2008 and a most beautiful spring evening. Penn State’s University Park bloom had taken full effect. Classes were well underway, likely just past midterms. I was out for a walk. I had not slept in nearly a week.

I walked past a public art display of window panes suspended from metal posts. Windows hanging in thin air. I saw my reflection and immediately realized several profound truths, none of which I can remember. I took the most beautiful picture I had ever seen. I began crying hard.

It took a few months to get to that point.

At first it was a subtle increase in social stamina. I became more confident. I talked to more people. I became more interested and felt much more interesting. I felt old habits of shyness quickly fading away.

I found myself immersed in the psychology of Maslow and Carl Rogers. I would later tell a counselor that I was attempting to tip Maslow’s pyramid of needs on its side, bypassing the terribly boring base physical needs — sleeping, eating — and heading straight to self-actualization. I felt like the life of the party no matter where I happened to be. Maybe I was.

It can be difficult to explain the depth or intensity of a manic episode if one is unfamiliar. If so imagine a strong weather pattern as seen from a mountain top. The most beautiful sunrise you have ever seen. Clouds flowing at speed. Now like a time-lapse video recording. The fastest wind you have felt. The rain pouring now. The changes coming too fast to track. A dreadful combination of unpredictability and haste. And the most potent desire for more of it.

The truth of a manic episode is that it rarely stays in this sort of exalted, revelatory state. It can slip between delusion and depression, sometimes quite rapidly. This is exhausting. But the irony of manic exhaustion is how much more apparent it can be to others than to the self. Delusion is funny like that. It strips even the most self-aware of their sight. And it becomes totally exhausting to others.

I did not finish that semester. The summer was spent at home. I slept a lot. I took a small job. I formed a tiny routine.

It took a long time to really get myself back. And that part is not very interesting, but it is necessary. Go to a therapist. Take the medicine if that’s your thing. What I can pass on is that you have to want it. You really have to want to get better.

In the brilliant documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Stephen Fry interviews a number of people who have been dealt this illness, this so-called dis-ease. In the process, he asks all of them
whether they would trade all these experiences — all the great insights, risks, pain and extremities — for a “neurotypical” life.

Only a small handful in the film would have wished it away. I found myself aligned with the majority. If I were given the ability to return my experiences in exchange for pure emotional stability, I would not. It is much too valuable to know emotional extremes which bring with them gifts of empathy. But it also became apparent in time what an impact the siren song of madness had on loved ones. A costly negative mental externality.

There is not much elegance in this type of intrapersonal breaking. But the hidden upside to falling at such a profound level is if you are given the chance to entirely rebuild. It may require reforming trust in relationships or creating new patterns of work and play. And hopefully without being too idealistic — this is a long haul we’re talking about—it is in the recovery, the next act, where there is beauty and meaning.

Fear of Heights

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Please

don't forget the flight
of sweetness and sorrow
terrible lightness and silence
into the widest deepest line

curves and contours and outlines
remain where only colors burned
so bright others turned away
but we are so brave

make only meaning where there is loss
depth where there is sadness
We are the bittersweet giants
who taste the gifts of god

Seeing and Suffering

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If you are a hammer, all you see is nails.

Seeing is the art of cleaning up a worldview. It is the act of generating raw material to act on. It is awareness, attitude, perspective, and sentiment. I believe to see more accurately we need to see with greater care. To see clearly we can expand our personal sphere of empathy. What we see shapes how we think and how we act. It shapes who and how we love. The more clearly we see, the better our chances of really healing ourselves and connecting to another.

I have been thinking that certain root / causal actions can actually create a loop of suffering or a loop of healing. In other words, the consequences of what you do this moment can fundamentally alter the trajectory you are following. These trajectories can be changing slowly or rapidly - even exponentially.

These causal actions can take place at any given moment given the right insight. This means no matter what direction we are presently headed we have the capacity to clean our way of seeing and move on to something else. The sooner we really see, the sooner we can act.

The suffering stops growing when it is seen.

As soon as we become aware of the suffering-object its growth becomes a choice. But the longer we deny the existence of suffering the larger this object becomes. Denial lets it grow like a silent cancer. Denial is based in fear. And it eats self-respect alive.

To create more of this raw material - to see more clearly - is to create more opportunity to slow the growth of suffering, and then to create chances to live a positive life full of meaning.

An Open Letter to the Stigma of Mental Health

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Allow me to introduce myself to the blog's readership as the co-founder of Brozena, Inc., a shadowy organization spiritually seated deep in Virginia's farmland. I have been invited to share the ways of our wild successes. We are not the type that keeps score by number of employees or market cap, because we have neither. We vary in our abilities and pursuits. Our definitions of success are in all likelihood vastly different, and our motivations are probably dissimilar at best. But do set the table, because we have a tendency to bring a lot to it.

I would like the chance to tell you a story.

While I was in undergrad at Penn State, I learned that I had a bit more emotional variance than most of the neurotypical population. Bipolarity, a relatively common diagnosis at present, routinely
involves a set of seriously life-altering, widespread experiences. Its happenings leave much to be cleaned up, dealt with and understood among the self and others. Moods for those with bipolarity can be best understood like the weather: Strong and stormy at times, hopefully with the chance for prediction and understanding.

I eventually grew to a point of frustration feeling victimized by my diagnosis. So in 2010 I founded Penn State's chapter of Active Minds, a national not-for-profit organization whose stated goal is to
"empower students to change the perception about mental health on college campuses." Perfect antidote! I began by registering myself a table at the school's involvement fair and passing out flyers inviting people to talk about mental health. I still didn't really understand quite what we should be saying about it, but I knew intuitively that to be silent about it hurt a lot of people. So we began meeting now and then.

In our first year of existence, we brought the organization's flagship suicide awareness campaign, Send Silence Packing, to the freshmen dorms during a big parent visitation. We were quickly recognized by the national non-profit office as a 5-star ranking chapter. I was awarded two scholarships to pursue work on a design project that would allow for discovery of mental health resources in the community. And I was interviewed by the Associated Press. We had momentum within a year. And two years later, the group is still continuing to grow and reach out to the student population.

I started the group knowing that approximately a quarter of all 18-24 year olds could be diagnosed with a mental illness. The math was easy. There were tens of thousands of students at Penn State with thousands potentially affected. And no student organization to give them a voice.

All this to say: Take meaning from suffering, and purpose from meaning. Here's to really knowing what we are here for.

Actions Speak

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Or, on beginning to know the personal limits of effectiveness

I have come to know a valuable metric for calculating personal effectiveness over time: Accountability.

Viewed from the eyes of another person it can help form deeper relationships of love, friendship or business. And turned inward, the act of holding oneself accountable can lay a strong foundation for self-respect.

I was exposed tonight via the blog Boxes and Arrows to the Say/Do Ratio, made up of two lists: What has been agreed to do and what has been done. This juicy little secret forms the basis for our own accountability (and relevance) to others.

The invaluable numerator - the Say of Say/Do which our character is truly built on - is a choice. The list of things we say we will do is protected by a single filter - our ability to say no. To say
no
is to experiment with discipline, focus and commitment. If we can say a true "no" to an invite, a concept or a person, we have become inherently aware of the boundaries of what we are really doing here.

Saying no is not spreading an insult. The act of saying no does not need to be insensitive. You are only genuinely stating, "there is not enough time."