May 282012


If I am open to the road less traveled, life lies in wait to take me on extraordinary journeys. A recent such escapade began in the most unlikely of places—with an obscure comment in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Isaacson mentions, in passing, a book Jobs reportedly reread every year. It wasn’t a book on technology, or one that explored business, economics, product design, politics, movies or music. It was an autobiography written by a Hindu spiritual figure first published in 1946. Just before departing for our recent vacation to Hawai’i, I purchased Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. I turned the final page as the plane hit the tarmac in Honolulu. It was clear the road forward was about to take a radical turn—as I caught sight of the ancient volcanoes that formed the beautiful island of O’ahu, Yogananda’s work pointed me to three ancient texts: The Bhagavad Gita,  The Upanishads and The Way of the Bodhisattva.
These volumes are wonderfully disturbing. Wonderful, because, if I am open to the messages they offer, the Universe becomes a larger and more interesting place. Yogananda recounts times in which spiritual teachers would accurately foretell the future, live for months or years without eating or drinking, spontaneously heal those who were ill, levitate their bodies many feet off the ground and simultaneously appear in more than one place. I find these books disturbing because every neuron in my brain fights back, having been wired and rewired by western science. They collectively scream, “You cannot believe any of this…and even if you do, you better not admit it to anyone!”  The culture in which I was raised would have me pass these texts and ideas off as fantasy, fiction, witchcraft or perhaps even psychoses.
It might be possible to put the books of Indian & Tibetan Hinduism aside as a collection of wayward thought. But then I recall a surprise discovery in my Father-in-law’s library shortly after he died in 1999. There, amongst his books, lay many that recounted the spiritual traditions of the ancient Hawai’ians. Their spiritual leaders and healers were called kahuna. The kahuna, like the swamis and yogis of Hinduism, also performed many clearly impossible acts. There are those in Hawai’i who, to this day, will talk, for example, of witnessing spontaneous healing of human ailments.
Should you choose to set aside both Hawai’ian and Hindu spiritual tradition in order to hold sacred the wisdom of Western science and technology, then be prepared to set aside the ancient traditions of many of the indigenous peoples of the world—Africa, South America, Australia and others. It’s safe and easy to set all this “witchcraft” aside, and reflect exclusively upon the enlightenment heralded by the coming of Aristotle and western logic, science and analysis. I, on the other hand, wonder if I should be more open to rewiring my neural connections to allow the possibility of perception in radically new ways.
On a long walk up the ancient, expired volcanoes of Hawai’i, I recounted some of the stories I was reading to my daughter, Kathryn. “Do you believe them?” she asked. “At this moment,” I told her, “I am choosing not to disbelieve…to remain uncertain.” Because if the certainty of western knowledge has left me blind to—unable or unwilling to see—the reality of wisdom traditions that are broader, more complex, mysterious and infinitely more interesting, I want the possibility of being a witness to those traditions in the few years I have left in this life.
I wonder if, that too, was the road Steve Jobs wandered.
May 122012
If it was that easy, we would all do it, and put an end to much of human misery.
The world can be frightening for any of us, but for teens who are struggling to awaken to who they are in the world, it’s especially difficult. Recently, a courageous young man led a conversation with thirty or more of his peers. He invited them to put pen to paper and anonymously suggest topics for discussion. While the ensuing conversation ranged widely, it spent some time wandering the treacherous terrain of drug addiction, depression, bullying, and the pain that often flows from failed relationships and young love.
As the teens shared the challenges they face, it became clear that elevated self-esteem and self-worth might remedy, or at least assuage, some of their misery. It is, after all, difficult to destroy, or even harm, a human who enjoys a strong sense of worth. Most of us know well the childhood aphorism, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But a name can hurt, maim or even kill, when hurled viciously at a human in doubt of their value.
There were several adults stung by the awareness that these wonderful young people were in pain, and lacked the personal armor to protect them against the “Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune.” Few of us knew how to respond other than to offer reassurances. “You have to know you are valuable,” “You are all amazing” or “Don’t ever doubt yourself.” We utter these words with kindness and generosity, even though we know full-well that when we are beaten and battered by the world, unable to glimpse our self-worth, being told we should not turn a blind eye to our inner value is of little help. A typical private reaction to such a command might begin “If only they knew…”
While teens are particularly vulnerable to the poison arrows that can pierce their fragile self-worth, most of us find ourselves wandering the darkness sometime during our lives. I know I have been brought to my knees any number of times when I failed as a spouse, parent or friend. Few things claw at my self-worth more ferociously than the fear that I may have damaged the worth of those I love.
And yet, even in those moments we are least able to glimpse our own value, most of us can look at others and be witness to, and blessed by, theirs. There is a Buddhist tradition that suggests that if we could see deeply into the soul of those in front of us we would never accomplish anything…we would be too busy bowing to one another.
Why is it we can have such clarity in discerning the value of others, and be so blind to our own? Many years ago, I was given a hint when visiting with improvisational pianist, Michael Jones. He suggested that our true gifts come to us so naturally, we believe they are nothing special. When another holds up a mirror so we can see our gifts reflected back to us, we are as likely as not to disavow their uniqueness. “Oh that! That’s easy,” we argue. “Anyone could do that.” Michael, himself, denied his rare ability to spontaneously tease melodies from the ivorys of his piano until he was more than 30. He subsequently sold several million CDs worldwide.
So, if someday you find yourself wondering the darkness, certain your life is, as a friend once feared, a “throwaway line,” look courageously into the world and find those willing to bow in your direction. Allow yourself to look into the mirror they hold up and see yourself as they see you. Instead of immediately denying the gifts they see in you, try this instead: take a moment to sincerely absorb their wisdom and generosity, and then say “Thank you, I am honored.”
It can be very difficult, but if it was that easy…