Friday, 25 February 2011

Project Update: Memorization, Alchemy and Diet

It’s almost the end of February and as a Project Manager I like to do frequent reviews of status to see where I came from, where I’m at and where I’m trying to get to (or actually heading).

Reading Project
In terms of the Project: Understanding the Merkavah User Manual in 2000 pages or less things are going well for two reasons. Firstly I’m managing not to fall asleep as often during my commute in and out of work, which has done wonders for my rate of pages read per day. Secondly the last two books were pretty short, namely:
The Hidden and Manifest God: Some Major Themes in Early Jewish Mysticism
by Peter Schafer (Author), Aubrey Pomerance (Translator)
198 pages
The Poetics of Ascent: Theories of Language in a Rabbinic Ascent Text
by Naomi Janowitz
172 pages
It could be that my comprehension of this material has got to such a point that I’ve made a breakthrough that will then be followed by another plateau but is hard to measure.

Life Hacks
Inspired as I was by Rune Soup’s posting about 11 life hacks for 2011, I made some commitments to improving certain facets of my life.

One of those was to “9. Subscribe to The Economist”. Whilst I’ve not quite got around to getting a subscription, I have been reading between 1-5 articles there per week. One that caught my attention this week that I’d like to share is on the rehabilitating the alchemists: “The twisted history of alchemy

Another goal was “11. Devote more time to your appearance”. As well as buying a new formal coat during the January sale, I’ve also lost half a stone due to taking more care in what I eat.

Sefer Yetzirah Memorization
Lastly there the update on my project to memorize the first chapter of Sefer Yetzirah is that I have completed this ahead of schedule. It took just over 5 weeks which is somewhat better than the predicted 12 weeks.Next I'll be working on researching and trying out some meditation exercises based on the first chapter of Sefer Yetzirah.

One of the risks identified: “Risk: 3. Hebrew letters from verses in chapter 1 may intrude in to thoughts at inappropriate times” did actually happen. I’d be walking around during my lunch break and have a fragment of text on a repeating loop in the same way that some tunes get stuck in my head for awhile. This was actually fortuitous as I realized that by singing some of the verses it would make memorizing them easier.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Careless Words Destroy Worlds

The Project Manager bit
OK, my apologies for the slightly headline grabbing title of this article, but as a project manager and trainee golem builder I would really like to stress the importance of choosing words carefully.

In numerous lectures that I’ve attended, books read and conversations with other project managers (PMs) communication has come up as THE most important thing that a project manager does. The most common figure for how much of a PM’s time is spent on communication is 90%.

So as you can imagine there is a LOT of literature written about communication. My apologies for the repeated use of CAPITALS in this article, but if you’re not so fussed about communication as a PM, I would seriously ask you if you’re fussed about staying employed as a PM.

The Trainee Golem Builder bit
Now that I’ve ranted about the importance as a Project Manager (PM) of the importance of communication – what has this got to do with being a trainee golem builder? Well, as discussed earlier ‘words have power’. It’s fair to say that Kabbalists are obsessed with speech. Chapter 1 of Genesis is about the ten sayings with which the Creator formed the world. Hence human speech like Divine speech is very important as by our speaking we can attempt to imitate Divine speech.

I realize that I’m not doing a great job of explaining this, so let’s turn to someone who knows a lot more what he’s talking about than this ignorant Englishman. I am referring to Rav Ariel Bar Tzadok (of KosherTorah) who wrote the excellent book “Walking in the Fire”.

In Section Two: Meditations for Prayer, Chapter One: The Secrets of Successful Prayer – Rabbi Bar Tzadok has translated some extracts of The Book of the Ba'al Shem Tov, Parshat Noah – Amud HaTefilah (section on prayer):

20. When a person wishes to speak [about anything], he should first make sure that his thoughts are radiating through the speech. The word for thought “mahshava” also means “hashav mah” (think about a thing).
Rav Ariel Bar Tzadok’s comment: (Thought is to speech what soul is to body)

44. When one speaks without forethought is like one who improperly spills his seed. For a person's thoughts are a “complete image”. The proof of this is when, during sexual intercourse, a man's mind is not on his performance, he is unable to perform. Thought is wisdom. Speech is the “child” [born from it]. Even thought is made up of letters, for every thought is formed [of images of things with names which are spelled by] letters. When a person does not think about what he is saying, he is spilling his [spiritual] seed. For [our] speech is out life [force].
Rav Ariel Bar Tzadok’s comment: (Every word we speak is important. When we waste our words with idle speech we are wasting away our life force energy.)
Rav Ariel Bar Tzadok’s comment: (The Neshama soul is the “breath soul”. The length of our lives is numbered by how many breaths we breathe and how many words we speak. Both these use up the amount of “breath soul” that was breathed into us at birth. This concept is very familiar to those who have studied Chinese medicine. Similar lessons are taught here.)

Awhile ago in the blog Doing Magic there was a posting about being in the present. I’d like to build on the ideas in that blog and combine them with the thoughts from this article mentioned above; namely mindfulness in terms of speech.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who has been distracted by television, music or some other thing that was taking up a significant portion of their attention? Does it feel like the person was not all there with you taking part in the conversation?

Well according to the Baal Shem Tov that person is not really there; they are in fact where their thoughts are and not with you. The Baal Shem Tov illustrates this point quite graphically and Rav Ariel Bar Tzadok adds to this that waster speech is wasted life force energy.

I’m not going to explain this post what life force energy is as I’m not 100% sure myself. However, I am going to attempt to be more mindful in my conversations to ensure that I am living in the moment of the conversation, aware of each sentence in my thoughts before I speak them aloud. 

Stop, listen, respond
At a celebratory meal in the seven day period after a friend's wedding one of the guests shared an interesting idea. He blessed the newlywed couple that should receive wisdom with their ears. He explained that of course we use our ears to hear and that seems an obvious way of gaining wisdom. But he explained that what this meant is that often we start to prepare our response to another person even whilst they are speaking rather than listening to every word, then thinking about our response and then responding.

Too often we jump in to the end of another person’s sentence or even in to the middle. I’m guilty of this which is why I’m going to try to be more mindful of listening, thinking and then responding. If that means I don’t get to speak as often that’s ok, I believe quality is more important than quantity in speech and that’s backed up by what the Baal Shem Tov and Rav Ariel Bar Tzadok have written.

If you think you’d like to try this and may struggle with trying it out – then perhaps you could start by doing it with just one person, or perhaps just one day of the week. Observe the effects that it has and build on your successes.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Synthesis or Syncretism - On whose Authority?

In every community there are certain subjects that generate a lot more debate than others. Whether they are sore points, cross-roads of common interests or other reasons for sparking a lot of discussion; every so often the crop up.

In the past few days bloggers have been busy with the question of whether energy working was essential and what it meant. This morphed in to a discussion on the synthesis and syncretism.

You can find some of the latest posts linked here: Rufus Opus, Gnostic Conjure, Strategic Sorcery, Queen of Pentacles Conjure & Witchery

The question that arose in my mind whilst walking to view the Book of the Dead exhibition at the British Museum was: “Who decides what syncretism is permitted and what is not?”

It's not an original questions and something that the Rabbis have struggled with on and off throughout the centuries. Their attitudes towards magic and mysticism has varied in any case, and since there is no Pope-like figure it comes down to a consensus normative behaviour.

Here are some extracts from the amazing: “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism” by Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis. These quotes are from the entry “Law and the Paranormal”:
“Jewish law (Halakhah) has had an ambivalent relationship with most magic and mysticism. The Bible itself forbids many magical, mantic and spiritualist spiritualist practises (see Ex. 22:18; and especially, Duet 18). The Talmud reconfirms many of these prohibitions (Tos. Shab. 7, 8:4-12). Still despite some controversy (M. Sanh. 10), Jewish legaists opened the door to many paranormal practises with their liberal attitude toward virtually any method for healing illness, as well as their willingness to recognise spiritual visitations, omens, and veridical dreams (Shab. 67A-b; Ber. 55b-57a).
In time, even as Jewish law continued to emphatically condemn the practise of witchcraft, it came to tolerate both sorcery and mediumship in various forms: medical theurgy. astrology, and the summoning of and consulting with spirit guides, such as an angel or a maggid. In the case of one medieval legalist, the enslavement of demons for beneficent purposes is also permitted.
Repeated attempts are made in Halakhah to draw distinction between licit and illicit paranormal practises and beliefs (the so-called Ways of the Amorites) (Shab. 61A-b, 67a-b; Rashba, Teshuvah 408, 409, 413), but in the descriptions of the various practises preserved in Jewish texts, it is evident that the boundaries between permitted and forbidden become quite blurry...”
“...Still in contrast to magicians, Kabbalists have almost universally worked within the parameters of Jewish normative practice, which Jewish mystics have sought to uphold and validate the value of Jewish practice...”

“...Often Jewish mystics have taught and practised at the boundaries of Jewish law, but rare is the example of a mystic who crossed over into full-rejection of all rules and norms of behaviour – Shabbatai Tvi and Jacob Frank being two notable exceptions...”
Another way to look at the question of who determines what syncretism is acceptable or not – is to look at the person or people engaged in such activities from a community point of view. In Project Management terms, who are the stakeholders that can influence the outcomes of attempts at synthesis or syncretism?

If someone is developing their own spiritual path outside the context of a community that is aware or cares about such – they can pretty do what they want. However, if they are working within a community that has established norms for accepting changes in spiritual practises, then they can either win over key stakeholders or try go their own way.

One example of a mystic who tried and failed in his generation to win support for his Ecstatic/Prophetic Kabbalah techniques was Abraham Abulafia. His techniques did receive acceptance by later Kabbalists in Tzefat and elsewhere but to my knowledge not in Abulafia's lifetime.

An example of a mystic who did win some measure of support was the Baal Shem Tov. He and his followers brought about a spiritual revival of the Jews in Eastern Europe but came up against fierce opposition from the Vilna Goan and his followers. It's only in this day and age that the communal fault lines caused by the birth of modern Chassidism are starting to heal (and there's still some tension).

There's lots more examples that I will not go in to at this point in time. However, the question in my mind remains whilst I have some understanding of how change is processed and accepted when it comes to syncretism in the realm of normative Rabbinic Judaism – for those of you on a path from a different belief system “on whose authority is it decided what syncretism or synthesis is acceptable or not?”

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Words, Connections and Relationship

Last Friday night the Rabbi gave a speech about the weekly Torah portion to be read the following day. The title of the portion was “Tetzaveh” which means to command. (Exodus 27:20) “You, [Moses], must command the Israelites...”

The curious thing about the section of Tetzaveh is that it does not mention Moses' name explicitly. The commentators explain that this is punishment for Moses asking G-d to wipe out his name too if the Israelites are wiped out (as found in this coming week's reading about the sin of the Golden Calf).

So the Rabbi asked the question what does Moses do in this week's reading? Last week Betzalel builds the ark of the covenant. This week Aaron is instructed about his service as High Priest, so what does Moses do?

The answer is in the quote from the opening line from Tetzaveh above: (Exodus 27:20) “You, [Moses], must command the Israelites...” In other words, it's Moses' job to command others what to do. However, for there to be a commander there needs to be someone who is commanded. This implies a relationship (connection) between the two.

As the Rabbi pointed out is happening right now, the commander of a particular country [Egypt] is not being listened to by those he supposedly commands. When the communication is not working between commander and commanded – the relationship has broken. So we can learn from this that words can be used to build or destroy a relationship.

Recently I volunteered at work to help ensure that a team that was being made redundant would still complete some work. Despite my attempts to communicate with them about the outstanding work, they did not do anything that I asked. It's only now that I realise that there was no relationship being built as they were leaving the company in less than a month.

Anyway, back to the main point about words either building or destroying a relationship. When a person prays [or learns a sacred text] they are building their relationship with the Creator. Every time you pray is an opportunity to enhance this relationship, but words said without emotion or only paying lip service cause the relationship to go in the other direction.

In closing two other reasons why this idea had such an impact on me this week.
  1. It explained why memorizing the first chapter of Sefer Yetzirah is making me feel more connected to the book. Repeating the words of the text aloud to memorize it is itself creating a connection and relationship with Sefer Yetzirah. 
  2. Seemingly by chance I watched Inkheart last week – a film about a man whose relationship with books was such that reading them aloud brought the characters from the stories to life.

Friday, 11 February 2011

“I need an Exit”

Work has been pretty toxic as of late, not the people or the projects under development – but due to the constant uncertainty about the future of the organization within which I am employed. Each time I hear a piece of news the tower of my motivation crumbles a little bit and today I find myself standing amidst the ruins. I’d previously decided not to stay in a recent re-organization, but then got talked in to staying on.

Today my plan for a better future begins.
 Problem is… I don’t have much of plan yet apart from wanting to do something new. Well, OK not something entirely new and hopefully something that builds on my current skill-set. Recently I’ve been considering doing something a little more technical again and my current boss has hinted that I could take up such a role. For the moment thought I’ll leave that option open whilst I build a plan that I’m willing to sign my name against.

Following the Plan-Do-Check-Act simple process, it would make sense to make a plan. However, before I get started with that I find it helpful to do a stock check of where I’m at before moving off to where I want to be.

Current status:

  • Project Manager with 6 years experience in multinational company
  • Previous to that had a technical background and have experience of full project lifecycle from technical as well as management perspectives
  • Trainee Golem Builder with some (largely theoretical) knowledge of Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism
  • Weakness include only project managed in one company, plus lack of practical experience of Kabbalah

Future desirable status:
  • Project Manager (or similar role) at a higher salary in a different organization
  • Some revival of technical skills whether needed for work or for personal use
  • Mastery of Hebrew, proven by ability to pick up most books & manuscripts and be able to translate and understand their contents.
  • A kick-ass skill-set on my CV as a Trainee Golem Builder including knowledge of:
    • Elazar of Worms’ instructions on golem building
    • How to adjure an angel
    • Writing an amulet
    • At least 25 segulot (an action that is expected to lead to an alteration of one’s natural fortune)
    • Translation of at least one book by Abraham Abulafia
In the short term, when I get back to work next week I’ll be re-invigorating my efforts in my current role. This will enable me to get the most out of the experience and skills that I can gain each day and build up momentum for the future. The step after that is to come up with a time-line of when I’d like changes to happen and what steps need to take place to make it happen. Let the planning and praying commence!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Listening to Professor Moshe Idel in person!

I met one of my heroes last night. His name is Professor Moshe Idel, currently the Max Cooper Professor of Jewish Thought at Hebrew University in Jerusalem

Yesterday afternoon in Oxford at the Faculty of History Professor Idel gave a lecture on:
Lecture 1:
"Sefer Yetzirah and its Commentaries: A major source for ars combinatoria"
Tuesday 8 February 2011, 5 pm, at the Faculty of History, University of Oxford. In collaboration with MHRC and the Oxford Centre for Jewish and Hebrew Studies.
as part of the Cantemir 3-part lecture. See the following PDF for information about the Cantemir lecture series that continues lecture tonight and tomorrow night.

Faculty of History, University of Oxford

I will upload my lecture notes either later this week or at the start of next week. The lectures will be uploaded as podcasts by the people from the Berendel Foundation in 1-2 weeks which I’m really looking forward to as I am unable to attend the 2nd and 3rd lectures:
Lecture 2:
"Ars Combinatoria in Modern Times: Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, and Ioan P. Culianu"
Wednesday 9 February 2011, 8pm, at the David Patterson Seminar at Yarnton Manor. In collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
Lecture 3:
"The Transition of Ars Combinatoria from Kabbalah to European Culture:
Ramon Llull, Pseudo-Llull, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola"
Thursday 10 February 2011, 5 pm, at Merton College.
In collaboration with the Centre for Early Modern Studies.

My introduction to the study of Kabbalah began by reading a couple of books by the late Professor Gershom Scholem. It took quite awhile to learn to read such academic literature, but having persevered for a year – a new understanding of Kabbalah dawned on me.

Some of the ideas displaced preconceptions that I’d had from my childhood, some of those pre-conceptions were not easy to let go off – but once I’d taken the plunge my mind became a blank sheet ready to receive new knowledge with as few filters as possible.

Then whilst browsing on Amazon I saw that others had recommended reading Professor Moshe Idel. This caught my interest and after another large spending spree on books by Professor Idel – I had managed to complete both reading of his book on Abraham Abulafia, Golems and part of “Kabbalah: New Perspectives”.

Prof. Moshe Idel
 Having established my academic knowledge based on Professor Scholem – I now found myself in the position of having some of that hard-earned knowledge overturned by Professor Idel. Again I had to learn to let go of some ideas and consider new ways of looking at concepts in Kabbalah. By now this process of re-looking at ideas in a new light has become what we can in business “institutionalized” and it’s a lot easier now than it was 5 years ago.

So when I heard via a friend on Facebook that Professor Idel would be speaking in Oxford yesterday afternoon – I was both excited and a little alarmed. After all – a good Project Manager would plan for such a visit, but I’d had about 7 hours notice.

A few quick emails to my wife, boss and contact at the Berendel institute confirmed that I could go; it was free and did not require registration. I arrived in Oxford at 4pm, confirmed where the venue was and went for a quick stroll around the city. Then at 4:45pm I returned to the lecture hall and together with around 50 or so other people waited eagerly for Professor Idel’s lecture.

He did not disappoint.

After the 45 minute lecture I asked the lady sitting next to me if she’d enjoyed the talk and she answered that she had – although she expressed some disappointment in not getting more information about the ecstatic experiences associated with letter combination from Sefer Yetzirah. I filled her in on some small bits of information that I could remember from Professor Idel’s book on Abraham Abulafia.

It was then that I realized that all those hours, days, weeks and months of reading up on academic literature of Kabbalah had finally paid off – as it gave me a deeper understanding of the lecture than I would have had if I’d only read half as much or not at all.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Big Magic and Statistics

Rob’s Magic Blog has a very interesting post about “Probability Magic(k), Possible Magic(k), and the Big Magics”. This got me thinking about what lessons I’ve learnt from the world of Project Management that could provide additional insight and why I believe too much focus a narrow set of metrics.

Indicators of Success

A term that I have been using more and more recently in my work has been “success criteria”. It’s my way of challenging the listener to define what their vision of success looks/feels/smells/sounds/tastes like. Another phrase that attempts to achieve something similar is “definition of done” (from Agile).

To work out whether success criteria are met or whether a product or service is complete enough to be used – indicators, metrics and measurements are used. In Project Management speak, work is assessed using:
  • Quality assurance – is the work being done in the right way?
  • Quality control – has the right product or service been produced?
In magic speak the first (Quality assurance) refers to whether for example the right steps in a grimoire have been followed. See Aaron Leitch’s recent article about different camps in the grimoire interest group about whether grimoires should be followed to the letter or not.

Too Narrow a Definition of Success

But how do you measure if the right thing is produced? This comes back to the question of what is your definition of success. OK, so as not to go around in circles let’s assume we have a working definition of success. Your and my expectations have been set about what success will be like.

Now let’s focus on the measurements to achieving success. Here’s an example list of potential measurements:
  1. Percentage change of success
  2. Major milestones on road to success
  3. Tolerable range of number of issues and problems
  4. Customer feedback
As Rob points out in his article Chaos magic focuses a lot on improving the chance of success. I agree with Rob that this is not the only indicator of progress towards success especially if success is not a win / lose game. In other words, unlike winning the lottery not every endeavour has a clear win or no win outcome.

The project for constructing the Scottish Parliament building was massively over budget and also completed late. You might expect that the project was considered a failure, but in fact because it met the criteria of being a historic looking building. The fact that it cost much more than expected and that the roof leaked did not matter as much in comparison.

Life is not always Win / Lose

Coming back to Rob’s posting about “Probability Magic(k), Possible Magic(k), and the Big Magics”. If you take away zero sum thinking from Chaos magic and widen the indicators of success, big magics still remain unlikely but not outside the scope of possibility all together. I’d like to re-iterate Rob’s point that by focusing on too narrow a set of indicators towards success – that your worldview gets impacted by what you now consider to be and not be within the realm of possibility.

On a personal note I’ve avoided reading too much about probability magic (apart from Gordon’s excellent Rune Soup blog). Instead I’ve been researching mystics living in antiquity doing angelic adjurations and heavenly ascents to shift my worldview more towards theirs. To live in a world where mystics can achieve such things, where it is possible to build a golem, transmute lead to gold and develop powers of telepathy and telekinesis.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

7 Steps on Riding the Beast of Change

You are an Agent of Change

Project managers, like magic practitioners, are agents of change.

A project is a temporary endeavour in order to achieve a product or service. Projects are often understood as means by which buildings, software, advertising campaigns and other things of substance are created.

However, a project can also be run to change the tools or processes (ways of working) used by an organization (or person). For example, switching over an office from using Windows on PCs to Mac Books would be a change project, it would likely affect both the tools used (computers) and the processes (format of reports, etc).

So what are the key points to managing a change project?

The book that I would recommend on this topic is called: “The Essentials Of Managing Change And Transition” from the Harvard Business School.

In chapter 3 of this book it outlines the 7 steps to change that I have successfully used on a change project in a large multinational organization.

Step 1: Mobilize Energy and Commitment through joint Identification of Business Problems and Their Solutions
Step 2: Develop a Shared Vision of How to Organize and Manage for Competitiveness
Step 3: Identify the Leadership
Step 4: Focus on Results, Not on Activities
Step 5: Start Change at the Periphery, Then Let It Spread to Other Units without Pushing It from the Top
Step 6: Institutionalize Success through Formal Policies, Systems and Structures
Step 7: Monitor ad Adjust Strategies in Response to Problems in the Change Process

How to use this information

OK, so let’s say that you’re not a project manager in a large organization undergoing change – why is the above information useful? Well, hopefully you’re following a path of self-development that is either professional focused, magical or mystical, or a combination of all of the above.

The steps mentioned in the “The Essentials Of Managing Change And Transition” outline a strategy for implementing changes in your life and/or circle of influence.

Here is my commentary on how to use the 7-steps to make change happen:

Step 0: decide what needs to change as an unfocused change project is unlikely to succeed. If you only know what you want to change "from" and not what you want to change "to" – then you leave the "to" part to the Universe to fill in this blank. This in my opinion is not a winning strategy.

Step 1: Create a sense of urgency about needing the change
Step 2: Create a compelling, realistic vision of what the change will achieve
Step 3: Find the Will to drive the change, if you’re changing an organization get a capable sponsor.
Step 4: Track progress according to results. Activities can be a smoke screen for resistance to change – hence you need to call their bluff by drilling down until you can see results.
Step 5: Success speaks for itself. Once you see results in one area, it’s easier to transport that success to another area.
Step 6: Once resistance to change is overcome, make it a continuous process to break down resistance in other areas and create continuous improvements.
Step 7: Learn as you go and use those lessons right away. Make time to check progress and reflect. Small course corrections done frequently are much easier to handle than larger course corrections done once in awhile.

There’s much more that can be said on change management, for example how to overcome resistance in others and yourself. However, those topics will have to wait for a post at a later date.