Embodying the Ineffable


Grant Health and Fitness Center, January 28, 2014

by Daron Larson 

An imaginary woman—
a voice that communicates
the impression of female
—invites me to enter my digits

She remains inordinately polite
in word choice and tone
regardless of my ability
to fulfill her desire for my data

I'm sorry
I didn't quite get that

I sense the presence
of a sophisticated algorithm  
calculating the odds of my legitimacy 

I am at her mercy

Please try again

But she can't know
I'm assessing her for fraud
even as I'm being monitored
for virtual trespasses against her

Please stay on the line
Your call is important to us

There is much talk on screens these days
about computer programs evolving
human-like consciousness

Some predict its inevitability
based on laws governing exponential increase

We forget how difficult it remains
for us to accurately convey
the direct experience of loneliness
     of connection
         of longing
             of grief
               given the constraints of language

This is not limited to storage bandwidth or process speed
but speaks of the capacity for embodying the ineffable

I'm sorry
Please stay
You're important to me
I'm so sorry

I'm not afraid of the machines
we create in our own image

I fear our shared tendency
to overlook the intangible
sparks that signal our humanity

Would You Treat Them Differently?

If you could stand in someone else's shoes... Hear what they hear. See what they see. Feel what they feel. Would you treat them differently?

This is an effective reminder of how little we actually know about the people we peripherally encounter in our lives. It resonates with the consistent indifference I experienced when navigating the medical system after I broke my shoulder. The shortcoming of this strategy is that it implies that we would all soften our hearts if we really knew the specific details about what others are going through. But what if we can't know? What if there isn't a drama driving the disinterest? What if the grouchy person you encounter is simply bored or even a bully? 

What if we take this recommended approach a step further? Instead of needing to discover or create a backstory in order for us to erode these social and emotional walls, what if we simply remind ourselves that we can never truly know the subjective experience of another person and that regardless of what we're able to observe on the surface, we're all driven by the deep desire to be safe, happy, healthy, and comfortable.

From this perspective, we reduce the risk of accidently tipping over into pity and comparison. It's easy to shift from feeling sorry for ourselves into feeling sorry for someone else. This approach comes with a side of guilt as we feel badly for feeling bad when we discover someone who is worse off than us. It can be powerful to feel our own feelings while also acknowledging that others are busy feeling theirswhich have nothing to do with us. 

There is some liberation in not having to crack the code of other people. Each encounter with a stranger provide an opportunity to gain a bit of intimacy with how our own thoughts and feelings mingle together to create tiny fictional portraits. We have an impressive ability to project our fears and insecurities onto the canvas of strangers. And when these impression resonate—look out. We assume they are true and act accordingly. 

Intimacy with our thoughts and feelings means simply becoming more aware that the suffering we imagine others to be going throughor the evaluations of their actions at allis a little "reality show" that we produce from a private, mostly subconscious palette of emotionally-flavored sensations in our own bodies along with the verbal and visual details percolating in our minds. 

Of course, the approach I'm describing would be nearly impossible to communicate with an emotionally moving video. This is one of the challenges of sharing attentional fitness techniques. In order to illustrate them in action, we are forced to use specific examples. But any example we use carries an emotional valence. What we're really trying to communicate is the cultivation of an ability to emphasize the composition of experience in contrast to the default preoccupation we have with the narrative content—especially our evaluation or interpretation of the content. 

In this approach, the situation of the other doesn't matter. We try to relinquish the requirement of a valid story before considering our common humanity. In this way, we are trying to develop an empathy that is not dependent on a set of conditions. This might sound like indiffierence, but it feels paradoxically like a much more generous and honest version of empathy. One that isn't so fragile that it instantly collapses when in our personal opinion, the backstory doesn't justify the behavior. 

How would we treat each other if we accepted that we don't have access to every backstory and that we're all driven by the same basic desires regardless of the obervable evidence? 

Cultivating Well-Adjusted Humans

I wrote this letter of appreciation a couple of years ago when Lanning's Learning Tree Child Care Center closed in Wichita, Kansas. I am very lucky to have worked there while I was in college. It was a job that fit me better than any other I've had since then and I learned so many important lessons.

Thank You Lanning's Learning Tree
by Daron Larson 

I had personal motives for wanting to work at Lanning’s Learning Tree. I’ve been aware of a strong parenting impulse since I was a child myself, but I knew that I had many things to learn before taking on this significant responsibility. I remember taking a developmental psychology class at Wichita State and discovering that the complex task was full of paradoxes and counter-intuitive insights.

Children need consistent limits in order to feel safe in the world. They need to be stimulated to develop their capacity to appreciate the world around them and to see things from the perspective of others. When freedom is so great that boundaries can’t be identified, a child can grow to feel like he’s floating in a universe that is completely random and unpredictable. When boundaries are too strict and confining, a child can become too afraid to venture outside her own limited point of view.

College is a great place to learn about theories, but where could I possibly go to find out how to put these insights to work and to develop the practical skills required for nurturing a young human being into a thriving adult? Lanning’s Learning Tree.

I learned that reading and singing to young children are like soil and water and sunshine to flowers. It literally passes on to them the gift of language which we so easily take for granted.

I learned that our expectations of children need to be based on developmental stages which are constantly changing yet generally predictable. Demanding apologies and sharing before these social skills begin to appear just frustrates all parties involved and serve no real benefit.

I learned that when a child is ready to play on a particular playground structure, she will seek it out and climb on it herself and then be able to make her way back down without assistance.

I learned that it is the responsibility of the caregiver to set up an environment where children can succeed. We find ways to gently redirect attention and increase the opportunities for responding with praise rather than raining down a steady stream of correction. It’s so much more satisfying to do your strategic work up front instead of having to constantly cook up consequences for avoidable problems.

I learned that self-esteem can’t be forced on children because we love them, but that it flows naturally in response to their individual willingness to engage in tasks that challenge them.

I learned that children tend to repeat behaviors that evoke intense reactions in adults. If the reaction is strongly negative, they will test out the behavior again to see if they get the same response. If the reaction is positive, the will test out the behavior again to see if they get the same response. Some kids go through their entire childhood getting in trouble just so they can hear their name repeated over and over again with emotion, even if the emotion is unpleasant.

I learned that children influence caregivers as much as caregivers influence children.

And I learned to review the guidelines and strategies on a regular basis to remember and clarify and reinforce what I assumed I already understood.

I cherish my memories of showing up to work while it was still dark, helping serve breakfast, walking the school-age children to elementary school, attending my college classes, waiting for the end of school bell to ring, walking the kids back to Lanning’s, and then hanging out reading and playing games until their parents came to pick them up.

I observed directly the developmental stages in constant bloom all around the various buildings and playgrounds. It felt like a laboratory for cultivating well-adjusted humans where the teachers, like scientists, were consistently challenged to actively introduce creative independent variables with the greatest likelihood of helping children thrive and blossom. All of this helped shape me into the parent that I became.

No possession or job title or award or amount of money can even approach the value of this to me. No one ever manages to do this perfectly, but I have been the best parent I could possibly have been because of my time at Lanning’s Learning Tree.

For this I am deeply, deeply grateful.

See also:

All These Years

For Samantha
by Daron Larson

As with everyone I have ever loved,
I have imagined your death too many times to count,
yet what a gulf remains between my imagination and reality.

Who would have thought to imagine such heat,
the persistent threat of rain, the pink blanket,
or the completeness of your naive trust in us.

One of the things you have taught me
is how easily and willingly I’m able to create
stories of danger and loss in the absence of either.

Let’s not pretend that you were ever a gifted meditator.
Such frequent restlessness and distraction,
even in the absence of verbal thoughts!

But you were a brilliant meditation teacher,
helping me to see that not all of nature’s sounds are pleasant,
and the danger in needing them to be.

You were able to embody focus — demonstrating how
one hundred percent of one’s attention can be trained
on eating, on greeting, on scanning the world through the glass in the door —

and joy,
multiplied by how many of us
returned home to you: 1, 2, 3.

It’s been so long since you could hear
the sound of food hitting your bowl,
or feel the thrill of the flight down the stairs to devour it.

You gave us a glimpse at the origins of language
by demanding — in pained, near-human vowels — permission
to clear the yard of harmless invaders.

We won’t ever be able to forget
how you became each day
the full expression of yearning, of savoring, of exhaustion.

The only thing you loved more than
eating and smelling and chasing
was to shadow us as often and as closely as possible.

All these years,
and leaving you has never gotten
the slightest bit easier —  

not today most of all.

Samantha White (November 11, 1996 - July 5, 2012)We can never express enough gratitude to you
for giving us more reasons to care about this world
apart from our own needs.

Thank you for living with us all these years,
for helping to make a home out of our creaky house,
for never turning down a nap,
and for insisting that it was time for life to begin again every day.

You are alive forever
in the story of our family
and in our hearts.


Who Knows?

Waiting Together
by Daron Larson

Two pairs of unhurried eyes
gaze out quietly from the bench,
alert for a bus.

The woman is young,
the boy not quite old enough
for school, yet old enough to learn,
attending to the world, open,
not insisting on attention from it.

Anyone would call him well behaved.

I wonder what could be more important to her
than the silence surrounding them,
sleepy cars,
humming houses, chirping trees,
their own breathing.

Who knows what comforts other people's earbuds
are singing to them? Whispering?

Who knows where and what
others are coming from this morning,
or where they are headed?

Maybe isolation is exactly what they need right now.
Maybe they want something more.

All these questions marks floating above silent faces,
begging to be answered.

Differences of Degrees

Columbus Commons, December 16, 2011

by Daron Larson  

An organism capable of generating its own heat
will still move in the direction of warmth
when it gets cold.

Coffee. Campfire. Conversation.

A process of natural selections
fueled by differences of degrees.

Hands. Arms. Bodies.

An icy heart will seek the heat of story,
and even a dicey start will not necessarily kill hope.

Ask a preacher.
Ask a nurse.

Ask yourself, 
if even a botched plot can come to a boil,
whether talking about the weather 
brings more comfort,
at times,
than not speaking at all. 

Outside the Network

by Daron Larson

It makes me feel alone
to answer to a name
I've never used.

What we say to each other
contracts space or expands it.

They keep saying the new system lets
all the departments communicate better,
but I live outside the network.

Explosives seem to be lurking in the forms,
so I step gently and imagine
relying on one leg or one eye
for the rest of my life, simply
because I am too timid to ask for clarification.

I am single in this world, alone on paper,
because our relationship is not one of the options.
After all this time, we're still just friends.
This is not personal, it's just a field,
in the same way that a name is a field.

I'm not sure what to remove
and struggle to take off my ring
wishing I'd left it at home where it means something.

I play along
and promise not to move,
not to breath too deeply,
to avoid painting a picture
that distorts the way things really are.

The machine bangs through my ear plugs,
but drowns out the comfort of human voices
warning me about what will happen next.

Another body reclined here just before mine,
and soon there will be another.

The machine will reveal esoteric details
about my bones and muscles,
but who will warn the caregivers
when their hidden hearts have atrophied
beyond their capacity to feel?

The Surprising Interplay of Basic Forces

A collection of direct quotes from reading today.

Found Poem March 13, 2011

I hold the cigarette in my mouth the entire time,
and with the feather boa involved,
there's a sense of danger.

Architects all want to be
philosophers or artists now.
I think they love to hate me.

It was an emotional catastrophe at the time,
being conceived from the inside out,
the fashion industry's disdain for
the great, unwashed masses,
enabling clients to buy shadows of shadows,
sixteen shades of gray.

Over and over complexity from the simplest of rules,
beauty from the surprising interplay of basic forces.
Those are the kinds of patterns that catch my attention.
That turned out to be a fatal miscalculation.

Why are you suddenly awake?

The kind of conversations that
I want to be having
occur best in daytime,
This is a little more challenging —   
and a lot better.

Different Paths


Jitish Kallat's “Public Notice 3” uses phrases from a speech delivered by Swami Vivekananda at the First World’s Parliament of Religions held in The Art Institute of Chicago's Fullerton Hall on September 11, 1893. Words from the address line the steps of the Woman’s Board Grand Staircase in LED lights using the colors from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s alert system. The installation is on display through May 1, 2011. 

Excerpt from the speech delivered by Vivekananda on September 11, 1893:

I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: "As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."

The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me." Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.


Pinned to the Cushion


I was completely surprised to discover that Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is much deeper than just a movie about someone who has to cut his arm off to survive. It’s also a brilliant account of being pinned to a de facto meditation cushion for an involuntary 5-day mindfulness intensive on the nature of thinking, feeling, the self, loving-kindness, and the liberation that can come from yielding to impersonal forces. The boulder deserves an Oscar nomination for a supporting role as both antagonist and teacher. I expected to feel uneasy, but instead I was completely absorbed in the clever depiction of an excruciating subjective experience of one person's suffering.

Aron Ralston said in one interview, "The entrapment created such an appreciation for the frolicking I had been doing until it happened and there was the euphoric feeling of being free and getting my life back again. Because of what happened, I understand what life is. I'm hopeful that people will see something inside of themselves, as well. I was in an extraordinary circumstance and it fundamentally came down to wanting to live and get back to my family. It is about survival, love and freedom — and those things are common in all of us."

The good news is that the profound yet practical insights Ralston carried out of Blue John Canyon can also be gradually cultivated through the consistent development of attentional skills over time. I enthusiastically recommend both the film and the effort required to experience high levels of concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity without waiting for the conditions to become so extreme.

Breaking Apart

One, One, Eleven
by Daron Larson

Midnight is inherently unstable,
so it breaks apart into a new year.
Fireworks explode and set the trees ablaze
with the echoing choir of peafowl wails.
The lights of the grid pulse
like ancient campfire embers in the breeze.

On the first day,
a man squats in prayer
by the side of the road,
his car idles beside him,
music spilling out through an open door.
Eyes closed, he directs his pleas
or his grief or his gratitude
toward the ocean, the source of all life.

In the beginning there was nothing,
as you may have heard,
but it keeps breaking apart and coming back together,
grinding down every skeleton and exoskeleton
into smooth sand
for future generations to walk upon
as they gaze outward and inward with wonder.

My skin is ice.
My heart is molten.
My body rings with the joy of all joys
and aches with the ache of all aches.

Every tear has the taste of all tears.
Every smile has the taste of all smiles.
There is no escape, nor any need to keep trying.

May we all give up the fight against
the coils and recoils
along our journey back home.

Del Cerro Park, December 31, 2010


"Transience is the force of time that makes a ghost of every experience. There was never a dawn, regardless how beautiful or promising, that did not grow into a noontime. There was never a noon that did not fall into afternoon. There was never an afternoon that did not fade toward evening. There never was a day yet that did not get buried in the graveyard of the night."

~ John O'Donohue

"Círculo" by Joaquín Turina performed by Trio Suleika. Movements: Amanecer (Dawn)-Mediodía (Noon)-Crepúsculo (Twilight). Live from the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, excerpt from the Dutch television programme "VPRO's Vrije Geluiden", February 2006. Trio Suleika consists of pianist Maurice Lammerts van Bueren, violinist Sanne Hunfeld and cellist Pepijn Meeuws.


A Complete Experience of Listening
by Daron Larson

We tend to respect and admire the development of musical performance skills while overlooking the benefits of cultivating a bit of discipline and training of our ability to listen. By default, most of us have developed a stunning and sophisticated repertoire for blocking out the world around us. We allocate the bulk of our attention inwardly toward the stories playing out in our minds.

Instead of seeing this as a flaw to obsess about, we can instead begin to explore the elements of this personal narrative. With consistent practice over time, we can become intimately familiar with its various component parts. We can even gain insight into the process working to edit it all together and making it seem so dramatic and difficult to ignore. We can become fascinated with the composition of this narrative and less caught up in its content. Paradoxically, the more familiar we become with the flow of our thoughts and feelings, the more directly and completely we experience the objective world around us.

At any given moment, we have a limited amount of attention to spend. Just being clear about what we are noticing can begin to change ordinary experience in simple yet profound ways. Listening to music offers a compelling doorway into this perspective. When we focus on one or more aspects of listening, we strengthen our ability to concentrate. When we explore music as an opportunity to cultivate attention, we also strengthen the ability to hear the musicality within the ordinary sounds we encounter in daily life. With consistent practice over time, we can even begin to experience the sense of wonder which sparks the human impulse to create music in the first place.

Explore this strategy from the beginning to end of a piece of music:

Restrict the main focus of your attention to listening to sounds around you and to verbal thinking.

There will almost certainly be additional stimulus in the background (visual activity, mental images, pleasant or unpleasant physical sensations, and sensations in the body that seem to be emotional in nature). There is no need to wrestle with any of these or to try to suppress them in any way. To the best of your ability, allow them to operate in the background while your primary attention rests on external or internal sounds.

Whenever you become aware that your primary attention has become focused on one of these background activities, gently bring it back to listening.

Let your attention drift and wander freely within the acoustic space around you as well as in the space where verbal thinking seems to be take place. This internal space varies for each individual. Not being completely sure if you are identifying it properly is a significant part of the process of becoming more familiar with it. We give musicians time to find their way into virtuosity, right? Give yourself time to become more intimately familiar with where verbal (and visual) thinking occurs.

Every few seconds, try to be as clear as possible whether you are listening to external sounds or internal sounds. Then just hang out with the activity of sound that you’ve noticed. Savor it. External sounds and verbal thinking count equally in this exercise. Try not to prefer one over the other. There is no need to try to suppress thinking. Get acquainted with it as internal sound. What matters is that you bring some effort to noticing where your attention is and whether it is focused externally (out) or inwardly (in).

You can support this process by using mental labels to help clarify and aim your attention. If you notice that your attention is resting on the activity of sounds around you, you can say to yourself in a soft, mentally whispered voice: OUT. If you notice that your attention is resting on the activity of internal conversations, you can say to yourself in a soft, mentally whispered voice: IN.

That’s it! Just keep going until the end of the song and enjoy. Take breaks between practice periods as needed then try again. You might also want to explore some of these alternative strategies.