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Letters to the Fortune 100 - life lessons from enlightened chairmen

The Forms and the Formless

In the early days of Palantir, I was asked to recruit chairmen of the world’s most successful companies to build a new kind of software.  Over the years, these conversations took on a surprising and profound nature about how we organize and analyze our personal lives.


Between our attachments there is freedom


In the world of form, I fly a small plane between the Big Sur coast and the Sawtooth Mountains.  In the world of form, I have a career.  I appear to have freedom and protection. I have stories.  Such as, I hunt spies.  Or that I am the son of a professional smuggler.  In the world of form, these also appear true.  I could say that I am a father, a friend, and a farmer.  I could relate that I like to collect old land rovers or that I make my own luggage.  In the world of form, I look to have figured out so much.


But there’s the ice, then there’s the iceberg.


In the formless, I am you and we are truly free.  We are, simply, energy.  Expanding and contracting.  Yet, we know and understand so little.  So we vow to let go of all worries and anxiety.  We agree to connect.  


“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.”


― Rumi


Forms versus The Formless

Most live in a world of form, preferring the known to the unknown.  Forms are things, and things fail.  Everything has a lifespan.  


Forms are religions, houses, jobs, candy bars.  To orient around forms, is to orient around wanting.  To be incomplete.  Forms are wonderful: who doesn’t remember their first bicycle, or their first love or first job?  As we get better at accumulating these things, they start to hide the very thing we sought–freedom–by quietly offering refuge from the present moment.  They become things.  And things buttress us from chaos.  We run back to form.  


We can delight in thrills, and soon beauty becomes distraction.  


Form, according to definition, is a shape, a visual appearance, or configuration of an object.  In a wider sense, form is the way something appears to happen.  Form also refers to a rap sheet in slang -a criminal record- and according to the last line in the dictionary, form is “a shallow depression of grass used by a hare”.


The Formless

The Formless is where we came from, where we are going, and everything in between.  It’s the Sunday afternoon of a three day weekend.  It’s an open air car, it’s falling asleep in a naked dog pile of limbs, it’s the moan of a dog for its master.  It’s connection, to each other, to something greater than ourselves.  Most art, music, love and tequila are made from or are induced by it.  The Formless is that which never changes, that which has been experiencing, before the experiencer took form.  “Before Abraham was, I am”. John 8:48-59


The Formless is a void state preceding the creation of the universe in Greek creation myths, a noncorporeal realm, a rebirth destination.  It’s the 2nd album from the progressive metal band Aghora, or “the creature void of form” by Bob Dylan and Thomas Merton’s “true self” in his journal at the Abby of Gethsemani.  


Formlessness says the world is a beautiful place and that I am no longer afraid to die.  The Formless both owns and lacks form.  It’s a hare with a criminal record.


Attachments as Form

Between our attachments there is freedom.  John Conway, the British mathematician who is credited with one of the first early computer games “Birds”, said that between constraints, life flourishes.  What happens between the constraints of birth, and death, is freedom.  It’s life unfolding, unimaginably wild and beautiful.  Chaos hemmed in by structure.  


Attachments are forms.  I have an attachment to being a father.  To being a friend, or even a good person.  The formless sees beyond this, to what Pema Chodron calls our fundamental goodness.  That which exists before we apply even a name to it.  And that which sticks around to the end of the party; the constant observer.  The eye behind the I.


As phenomena arises, we have but two choices.  To judge it.  Or celebrate it.  That’s it.

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