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Being Human : We Don't Have a Blueprint


SAN FRANCISCO -- I wake up from a dream about President Obama, brush my teeth, and sit zazen. It's a rainy day, so I do my walking meditation indoors. Routine matters. But then I'm to be present for a rare encounter: a gathering of people called Being Human. 

I have no idea what it will prove to be. One never does. But it's just conference retreats such as this where vital seeds can be planted, can germinate and sprout — seeds that can change consciousness, across the boards. And, these days,  what better, more crucial game is there, in town?

I tote my bag, and set forth for the Palace. Meanwhile, so too are some of our species top researchers and thinkers.  Ordinarily, they work across a relative distance from each other, but soon will be face-to-face (text: f2f).  In so doing, they'll provide a lens for the powerful lamp of a thousand human beings coming to see and hear them, coming from a broad spectrum, for a day together.  I call it a retreat, but sometimes to advance, we need to retreat.

The streets are wet with rain, lending them a beautiful quality of unsubstantiality, a magical transformation, the colors of lights reflecting on their shiny slick black surfaces like enlarged details of bright impressionist sketches. We all converge a stone's throw from an inlet of the ocean we call home: the Bay.

I'm reminded of author Lewis Thomas' image of science as a tidepool. Waves break against boulders, and life clambers up and about. Cloaks of green and brown and orange algae cling to the rocks. Small fish and crustaceans dwell in corners, feeding on the algae. Birds roost on some crags, and occasionally feed on the fish. One fine day, a scientist comes on the scene, records and reports on the various doings, and, Aha!, something comes together in the mind, putting the scene into a new frame. Later, after months and years of intensive labor, in relative isolation from the rest of humanity — a new scientific theory is unveiled to the public. Maybe even one which can change the ecology of consciousness.

Today, we're all given an opportunity to explore the Ah!s of the tide pool — of what it means to be human — and each come away with our own Aha! 

As I check in and mill around in the lobby, with 999 others, waiting for the doors to the seats to open, I give the room the seasoned Journalist Scan (also known as "casing the house.") A pleasant buzz of conversation wafts over the calmiing electronic muzak. Maybe only two or three suits and ties, at best. Much basic black, plus some purple; casual; parkas, jeans, etc. A full spectrum of generations, ⅓ young people, many possibly students at co-sponsor California Institute of Integral Studies. Rule of thumb, attendees for contemplative arts events are usually predominantly women, but there's an ample mix of guys here. Various sexes. While diverse, it's mostly white, middle class.

From time to time, I notice my well-trained media eye instinctively zooming in on a few faces: Jack Kornfield, James Baraz, and Scoop Nisker, of Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center; Joan Halifax Roshi, of Upaya Zen Center and also on the Board of the Mind and Life Institute; Amy Hertz, legendary Manhattan book editor, now CEO of Tangerine Ink; Chade-Meng Teng, Google fellow who's now author of the really wonder-full new book Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace); Rick Hanson, author of Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neurosicence of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Well, you get the idea.

I stop. Pause. Take three breaths. Feel my consciousness register the phenomenal sense of so much other consciousness.  Similar consciousness.

It's a wonderful feeling. The stuff of poetry. And awe. 

Though I may be the only one to stop and quietly sense the crowd this way, everyone here clearly has a sense of each other's dignity. Shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, people give ground as others move past to zero in on cookies and tea. A few minutes later, we're all sitting together, about to mutually discover Being Human.

Photo by Darren Eskandari


Jeffrey Klein, Executive Director of the Baumann Foundation, was a perfect emcee. And the human being behind the conference Being Human, Peter Baumann, proved an excellent lightning rod, on stage, for what would unfold throughout the remarkable day.  Here's my outline paraphrasing and quoting his brief but provocative, contextual warm-up, which you can view for yourself online, along with all the other conference segments. [Please let me know if I've made any errors in transcription.]

Peter Baumann first acknowledged the phenomenon called "us": the fact of there being 1,000 different perspectives present in the hall — and many more online (and, thus, you, yourself, Dear Reader, reading this, right now)  — different yet all human beings. Being human was different in some ways for hunter gatherers, who didn't have to worry about heart attacks. But —

“ —  it doesn't matter into what culture or time we are born, nor the color of our skin. What we do have in common connects us: our aspirations, our emotions joys and sorrows. We all have experienced delight and disappointment, and sometimes we take them too seriously. [¿Who hasn't been there, done that?] We have all the capacity to love — and to laugh.

Increasingly, we're aware we live in an interdependent environment. The old notion of doing it on your own doesn't cut it anymore. We might be seeing the old notion of "doing it by yourself" being supplanted by a new revolution. 300 years ago, we were burning women at the stake. Today, we wonder, "What were they thinking?" A little bit down the road, our descendants might at look at us and wonder how we could enact the death penalty.

To mature as a species, we need to know what we are: the good, the bad, the ugly, as well as our capacity for altruism, care, and compassion. For thousands of years, we were centered on ourselves, but now new fields of enquires have arisen. William James introduced us to psychology 100 years ago. EEG and FMRI [monitoring brain activity] are just a couple decades old.

Today some of the brightest minds, sharing their insights and knowledge about being human,  represent a modest step ... scratching the surface ... the tip of iceberg ... ... ... but with many points of view and perspective, together, we might be able to see a more comprehensive picture.

As we take this in, perhaps we might each reflect how this plays out in our own lives. And the shift to a more interconnected world involves our hearts as much as our lives.

We dont have a blueprint. As human beings, we don't get an owner's manual. Basically, we're raising ourselves. If we're all interested in a more enlightened future for our species, then we would want to know as much as we can about our species.

The fact of 1,000 people present together speaks to how curious we are. So we can feel at home in this mystery, in our curiosity. ”

The conference has a Facebook page. On Twitter, @beinghuman ; follow the hashtag #beinghuman2012.

Upcoming in our BEING HUMAN series:


  • Perception & Sensation
  • Mental + Self Representations & Decision-Maklng
  • Poetry • Cinema
  • Individual + Society • Morals + Culture
  • Conscious Experience
  • Reflections



Gary Gach is author of The Complete Idiot's to Buddhism, third edition (Nautilus Book Award), and editor of What Book!? ~ Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop (American Book Award). His work has also appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The Atlantic, BuddhaDharmaHarvard Divinity ReviewLanguage for a New CenturyThe New YorkerTechnicians of the SacredTricycle, and Yoga Journal. He teaches mindfulness and creativity in San Francisco (Aquatic Park Community Center, Buddhist Church of San Francisco, and Dragon's Leap zendo). Visit http://word.to.

Copyright © 2012, Gary Gach















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