100 Men Who Care, the Wilmington Chapter

One by one men amble up. Many run late. Not even close to a hundred of us. It’s not clear this is actually the official group and not just a bunch of random dudes chatting, comparing the craft beers on tap at Pour.

At this high-tech, self-service taproom in the Murchison building downtown, whose owner Brian Ballard donated the event space and the appetizers for this evening, there are dozens of taps, walls of them on two floors, each with its own little screen full of information. To get a beer, you choose, wave your rubber wristband near the screen, and pour. The space is crowded and comfortable. It’s social. Ironically, the automation gets people clumping together around the taps or the couches, striking up conversations.

The group of men does seem a bit random. That’s part of what seems so winning about the 100 Men Who Care organization starting up in Wilmington. We are just a bunch of dudes. Different kinds, different walks. At this inaugural November meeting, we are told, we are forming the only chapter of 100 Men Who Care in North Carolina at present, which feels pretty good. Take that RTP! There have been others in the state at different times—and there are hundreds of similar organizations across the country: There are 100 Black Men Who Care organizations. 100 Women Who Care is a common configuration—there’s a very successful one of these in Charlotte. There’s rumors of a 100 Children Who Care. Though all share a common mission, these organizations are different, separate, and evolving. Organizations like 100 Men Who Care are not legal entities, or tax shelters. They’re more like networks–networks of members who are interested in outcomes, collaboration, camaraderie, and the success of the region as a whole. These members bring this same sensibility to their professions, to their hiring, to their other organizations and community service.

Aaron Rovner, one of the organizers of this Wilmington chapter, says the idea was so compelling that he and his partners got the plan off the ground in minutes, got the website going a little bit later than that. When you hear about it, it just sort of makes sense, and this makes it work well—especially for people who want to contribute but want the support of a structure, who are busy, who want a way to vet their giving. It’s all not quite finished, and not quite official, not written into bylaws, not centrally managed. Instead, it’s agile, and it may be just the sort of lean, light, social structure that can channel giving the best. And be a boon for the area.

The way it works is this: Every quarter, members of 100MWC gather in places like Pour. Three members present their candidate charities to the others, describing the organization, the particular need. They answer questions. The emphasis here is not on selling the charities but on plain talk, real needs, and consensus. Once the discussion winds up and the votes have been tallied, all the members cut 100 dollar checks to the winner. That’s it. It can amount to as much as 10,000 dollars to the selected recipient (100 men x 100 dollars), and it happens every quarter.

This last meeting the three candidates were:

CFVC won handily with 40% of the votes, and is using our money to buy a box truck for shuttling volunteers and building materials to different sites affected by the hurricane. With so much need and so many pitching in to help for Florence, we voted for something infrastructural, a charity that makes other charities work better. The group raised about 2500 dollars that night (We were about twenty five Men Who Cared), and a member who couldn’t make it that night, Ross Hamilton from Connected Investors, rounded the total up to 5000 dollars!

Possibly winter Nor’easters and damaging freezes will be the focus of the next quarterly meeting in February. But there’s always need, and if you’re like me you want to figure out how to help wisely, and in the company of others who feel the same and can help make sense of it. 100MWC Wilmington is perfect for this.

As I got more into it over the course of the evening–and got close to the pour quota on my wristband–I kept asking what I came to learn were the wrong questions about 100MWC, and making the types of suggestions that I won’t anymore: We should have Powerpoints and one of these big screens, I said to Adam Fox, Rovner’s co-founder (with Jason Ashby) and the unofficial leader of the group, who goes by Fox and brought the idea from Knoxville. No no, he said, shaking his head like a giant bearded sensei, that would distract the process with visuals and fanciness, with things extrinsic from the actual need. Well, can we have the organizations themselves here, I asked? No, he said again, shaking his head almost sadly. In that case we’d be distracted from our purpose by their personalities, or their Powerpoints, or their charm, or size. You just have to get together, talk it out with a trusted group, and decide. I’m learning.

For more information on the 100 Men Who Care (Wilmington) organization, visit http://100menwilmington.org/

Meditation for Non-Dummies: The Sam Harris brand of mindfulness

I have “meditated” and failed at meditation and actually meditated or done something like it, in fits and starts, for many years. I haven’t ever been “good” at it. My mind is too easily prone to distraction. But I feel like I’ve been doing something calming and productive, something that generally makes me feel better and may have some more durable effects on my state of mind.

But right now I am using Sam Harris’s meditation app, Waking Up, going through its daily practices almost daily, and I’m getting intimations of a different, wider, and in some ways more difficult kind of practice, and it makes me wonder what I was doing before.

A real orthodoxy has formed around the basic practices for mindfulness meditation: You pay attention to your breath, you gently but firmly dismiss thoughts that form, you pay attention to the sounds around you, also the sensations in your body. Breath, sound, sensation—these are the three things that can guide you into an awareness of the present and evict your errant thoughts. Every approach to mindfulness meditation I know of uses some combination of them.

Waking Up uses these as well. But about this and every other received truth around mindfulness, Harris is more…I don’t know…more methodical, discerning, and illuminative than anyone I’ve heard on the subject. Meditation is “easy” but it’s hard! There is a real method here, based on real insights about how the brain works, how it conceives of the world and its self. You can’t simply barge into meditative states by having someone say in your earphones, over ambient music, and with a reverbed-out voice, “pay attention to your breath”. Or at least I couldn’t. And I tried a bunch.

Waking Up builds. It instructs. The daily lessons and practices are meant to subtly introduce, then accustom, and then educate your brain to the work of mindfulness, in a particular order, and at a slow steady rate, as Harris himself says. It’s a little strenuous! And very, very gradual. But for me the combination of practice and lesson, of feeling and knowing, is perfect.

Just as one example of an area where Harris’s method builds some real support for the meditator, consider the practice of opening your eyes during meditation. To broaden your awareness, you may very well want to include sight, to be mindful about what you see as well as the other contents of your mind. But blithe recommendations about this practice—or no guidance at all—pretty much insures that you’re going to get lost–in these bright objects, or thoughts about them, or the screen near by. For Harris, opening your eyes is a discreet, mapped milestone in your practice (maybe around day 10?), for which he has experiential, practical and even neurophysiological advice to share—during the practice itself. Other areas: The difference between attention and consciousness. The problem(s) of free will. It’s weird. You’d think that his practical, rational, and repeated inputs would distract, but for me they deepen awareness. And reform it.

I was already a super-fan of Sam Harris’s, so maybe I’m biased. Maybe I’m seeing things. I’ve thought of his work in neuroscience, political thought, debate, atheism, spirituality and meditation as separate, distinguished contributions. But on Day Fifteen or so in Waking Up, which is the name of the meditation app discussed here, and his neuroscience-inflected in-app lessons and his podcast interviews, all of which I support through his Patreon, I think you can see a synthesis of a lot of these separate projects, a fusion of rationality, spirituality, and the science of mind that really works.