Jan 012017
 

It’s time again for resolutions, but in this moment, it is not New Year’s resolutions I seek. I am, instead, in a quandary about New Epoch’s resolutions. What might I resolve as we enter what many geologists are calling the Anthropocene Epoch?

Anthropocene, much like Anthropology or anthropomorphic, takes its root from the Greek anthropos, a prefix meaning human, humanoid, or humanlike. The Anthropocene is proposed as an epoch dating from when human activities began their significant global impact on Earth‘s geology and ecosystems.

It’s one thing to conscript a resolution you can review in 12 months’ time. How do I even imagine some action in the coming days whose impact will play out over tens of thousands, or even millions, of years?

Two recent books add to my confusion. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert both speak of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of years, as if they are single pages in a novel. The eons, eras, periods, and epochs of the past are forever recorded in stratifications on the Earth’s crust. The history of entire species is often reduced to a mere sliver of rock or sediment.

Harari’s book was disturbing in its reconstruction of the history of the species Homo Sapiens, the humans to whom you send annual holiday greetings and birthday cards. While we like to think of ours as the only human species to have inhabited Mother Earth, some 70,000 years ago, many human species inhabited the planet, each of the genus Homo. 60,000 years later, we had managed to rid the planet of every one of our brothers and sisters in that genus. We discovered agriculture 12,000 years ago, and within a split second, at least by geologic time, we invented the iPhone…and scarred 50% of the Earth’s surface.

Kolbert’s work chronicles the massive environmental stresses that appear to be terminating untold numbers of species—many disappearing even as you read this sentence. Whether or not you accept Homo Sapiens’ role, I believe we are highly culpable.

When I imagine human history in terms of geologic split seconds, what could possibly be the meaning of a resolution to be more kind, exercise more, lose weight, or leave a smaller personal footprint on the planet? Each seems appallingly insignificant.

As a result of our species’ arrogance and greed, many geologists believe our future is no more assured than that of the other members of the genus Homo. One scientist even suggested that in a hundred million years, all that we consider the great works of man—the sculptures, libraries, monuments, museums, cities and factories—“will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper.”

Does anything I attempt, as I wander further into the Anthropocene, matter a whit, if every deed—good or bad—is destined to be lost in a layer of sediment no thicker that a cigarette paper?

In early December, I received a call from a dear friend on the staff of a nearby school district. Three days earlier, one of their students choose to end her own life. Her classmates are confused, in pain and suffering pangs of guilt. I will go there in the coming weeks to do nothing more than be with these young ambassadors to the future in their sorrow and confusion. I will try to help them see the miracle each of them is capable of being as they move into the new epoch. So, even if all human history is eventually reduced to a sliver of sediment 100 million years hence, by dint of a bit of healing and hope, we just might alter every forthcoming moment and every future layer of the Earth’s fragile skin.

In this moment, I cannot imagine anything more significant.

Aug 132015
 

The temporary nature of life exposes its most enduring value and meaning. A delicate, fragile piece of porcelain has more value because we realize the ease with which its beauty might be ripped from our lives at any moment. A vessel made virtually unbreakable would seldom etch the same splendor in our hearts.

So it is with the delicate nature of those who know us and accept us for who we are. Their value in our lives is magnified by its impermanence; the magnificence of their unquestioning, unconditional love comes, in part, from its temporary, fragile nature.

If we could, would we return to an earlier time and cast-off the love, connection, and intimacy they offered in order to escape the pain and heartache that flows from having lost them? The answer is simple, but causes many to pause momentarily, especially in those moments when the sadness is fresh and the grief raw and unrelenting. In the end, we know that deep grief, and the tears that flow from it, are the price we pay for love.

It is said that a river cannot be halted in order to study its nature. When we fall under the spell of terrifying rapids, the melodious gurgle of a brook, or the majesty of water in free fall over a cliff, it is the impermanence, transformation and change that bind us to its beauty. If the current flowed forever without unexpected turns, protruding rocks, and the pull of gravity, we would never discern its power, grace, and beauty.

Life itself is much like the ever-changing, impermanent flow of a river, but in life, we find ourselves unable to witness its power and magnificence from afar. If we could, we might see the glory and majesty in a whole new way. Might the unexpected turns, the obstacles that rudely and harshly change our course, the free falls into an unknown abyss, contain a majesty we simply cannot comprehend as we are buffeted and battered by life?

With the perspective of time–more than ten years after his passing–I see the confluence and influence of my father’s life with so much gratitude and love. I see him for the gracious, kind, caring person he strove to be, and forgive him for the times he was so very human…and fallible.

Regardless of our beliefs about what transpires after this time on Earth, each of us is granted a kind of immortality here, in this place. Neil Postman once said “Children are the messages we send to a time we will not see.” By living the messages of those who have come before us, we alter the flow of human history in their name. Even when life is punctuated with turns, boulders and freefalls, with perspective, we witness the river of life as a thing of true beauty, understand that impermanence imbues it with majesty, and know that those we have loved and lost helped make it so.

Feb 052015
 

Note: This article will appear in the March/April issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

You don’t have to agree with my premise, however, if I propose a thought experiment, would you play along for just a moment?

Starting right now, suppose you knew for a fact that a significant portion—perhaps 30 or 40 percent—of everything you thought, felt and believed was wrong, or at least considerably askew. Further, what if everyone else had the same awareness of their own thoughts and feelings? How might you enter the world differently? I have been asking this question in recent presentations, and the conclusions vary wildly.

Some find the idea horrifying: “I’d never be able to make a decision.” “I would be frightened to say anything.” “I think I would be paralyzed.” “We’d never get anything done!”

Many find it reassuring: “I’d be more curious, less dogmatic.” “I would ask more questions.” “I would enter the world more gently.” “I’d be more open to learning.”

Admittedly, I fall into this latter category.

Too often, in today’s public discourse, the retort to an opposing view often sounds like “You’re an idiot, and let me tell you why.” We have public hearings in which, I fear, no one is listening. Attend one sometime and see if you can discern any question marks hiding out amongst the very large and forceful periods that end most sentences. Of course you’ll have to discount “questions” the likes of “Are you nuts?”

The world would be a better place if each of us opened ourselves first to the possibility of our own rational shortcomings, rather than clawing desperately for the flaw in the logic of others. If I was truly interested in listening for my shortcomings, rather than yours, might it become a more thoughtful, sympathetic world imbued with greater understanding? But then, attention to my own failings would require courage…and a less tenacious ego.

Having read a great deal about our current understanding of the human brain, there are overwhelming reasons to accept the premise that a significant percent of a human’s thoughts are misguided. I previously documented many[1], so I won’t repeat them here. But consider a few more.

Human memory is imprecise and capricious. Your brain dissects experiences and stores them in disparate parts of your cortex. When memories are recalled, these pieces are reassembled, not accurately, but in a “good-enough” fashion that is easily distorted. Eyewitness accounts in a court of law, we now know, are among the least reliable pieces of evidence. Once a supposed culprit is identified in a sketchbook or lineup, that image replaces the one real one formed in the cortex at the moment of the offense.

Have you ever jumped to conclusions about another human being based on how they dress, a bumper sticker on their car, a sound bite or rumor…only to discover you pre-judged them erroneously?

How much of what you believe today is identical with what you believed 10 or 20 years ago? While some new thinking is based on adding to your store of knowledge, haven’t you discovered many ways in which your thinking in years past was inaccurate?

How much of what humankind believes today is the same as we believed, say, 500 years ago? I dare say very little. Is it possible what we believe 500 years from now will be equally distant from what we “know” is true today? I think it is possible.

So is it conceivable that 10 or 20 years from now, each of us will, in fact, discover that some large portion of our beliefs today are limited, misguided or flat out wrong? I hope so! Put another way: in 10 years, if I am destined to think exactly as I do today…just shoot me now!

When I think back on the myriad difficult relationships that populate portions of my personal history, it pains me to realize, had I had the wisdom to end more of my sentences with question marks rather than periods, life could have been so much sweeter…and I so much the wiser for having been less certain and more curious.

But, then again, maybe I am wrong about this whole idea.

[1] See my April 7, 2013 blog post, “Majesty and Radiance.”

May 072014
 

Note: The Following was published in January 2011 in Neighbors of Batavia Magazine. I recently realized it never made it to my blog.

As I approach 60, the moment of turning the calendar from one year to the next gives me pause. I wonder if I will have left a legacy. Will I have helped moved humanity forward, or might my life have been, as a dear friend once fretted, a throw-away line? I ponder the best way to spend the 365 days I gently step into on January 1.

In those moments, an image painted by Hendrik Willem van Loon in his wonderful book, The Story of Mankind, comes to mind:

High up in the North in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred miles high and a hundred miles wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by.
We live under the shadow of a gigantic question mark.
Who are we? Where do we come from? Whither are we bound?
Slowly, but with persistent courage, we have been pushing this question mark further and further towards that distant line, beyond the horizon, where we hope to find our answer.
We have not gone very far.”

I find this image of a single day of eternity compelling. In the face of an eternity this unimaginable, I feel small and insignificant.

I recall standing in the presence of the Giant Sequoias in California and marveling that many have lived thousands of years. Many were alive through the entirety of the Current Era. They lived through the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the Middle Ages and the rise and fall of the Divine Right of Kings. To them, the ink on our Declaration of Independence has yet to dry. American representative governance, the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War happened moments ago. And yet, even to them, van Loon’s “single day of eternity” is unimaginable.

Then I imagine living the life of a mayfly—often a single day. As you begin to mature by mid-morning, you wonder about the species’ evolution. You see so many ways in which it falls short of the enlightened state of which you dream. By midday you are working tirelessly for the betterment of your fellow mayflies. Within hours, as you age, you become distraught because, in spite of your lifetime of dedication and effort, little has changed. The species is no less selfish…its lifespan hasn’t increased…there is no less violence between you and those with which you compete for resources. You wonder if there is any hope for the future. I imagine that species is awed that a human such as myself has witnessed tens of thousands of their generations.

We might witness the mayfly and smile. How silly to imagine, that in such a short lifetime, an insect could hope to actually witness evolution! Then I wonder if the Sequoia looks at us with the same mix of wonder, whimsy and pity.

And yet, as humans, we live with the hubris to imagine that in our lifetime, or certainly within a few generations, we will experience the advancement of our species into something significantly new and wonderful. Not only do we expect to have witnessed advances in evolution, we believe we will have personally contributed to forward movement so significant we can actually witness growth. Then, as we age, we become distraught because, in spite of a lifetime of dedication and effort, little has changed. The species is no less selfish…its lifespan hasn’t increased…there is no less violence between us and those with whom we compete for resources. We wonder if there is any hope for the future.

If it is naive to expect my life will make a noticeable difference in the course of human history, what then? How should I decide what to do, how shall I spend the moments I am given in the year ahead?

One answer to that question, and there are many, rests in the flapping of the wings of butterflies. The Butterfly Effect tells us that a minute air disturbance in one part of the world can, through a complex and unpredictable chain of events, foster a tornado halfway around the globe. And the butterfly that set the future in motion has no idea of its impact thousands of miles away and months or years later.

The future unfolds based on “initial conditions.” An infinitesimally small change in this moment, can, as a “single day of eternity” transpires, allow an entirely new, dramatically different future to blossom.

So what I think about, as I step into the 365 days that begin on the first of January, is what initial conditions am I creating in this moment? Is the wisp of air I am disturbing filled with joy, kindness and generosity, or anger and hate? Am I aware of the pain and heartache in the face of the stranger next to me, or am I focused on me and my needs? What can I do in this moment to give the future the very best foundation on which to begin its next “day of eternity”? My stay on this Earth is far too short to witness the impact of the initial conditions I set, so all I can do is have faith that the future will best be served if I serve this moment in the most loving and attentive way I can.

So for me, life is a constant struggle to meet, and negotiate with, each and every moment. As I approach the next, I hope to serve it the best I can as I inhabit it, and it inhabits me. And then, perhaps, I must simply trust that the “single day of eternity” that that moment and I become part of will take care of itself.

Apr 022014
 

Note: The following will appear in the May/June Issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine.

If I asked, would you tell me of your gifts—the unique, stunning aspects of your humanity and journey that make you like no other human ever born? Even if you were able, would you be willing? Or would you, like so many, feel anxious and find yourself filled with unknowing and confusion? Even worse, would you feel compelled to say there is nothing stunning about you?

A friend, Michael Jones, is an exceptional improvisational pianist and elder. When Michael’s fingertips fall upon a keyboard, he and the piano become one, and glorious melodies emerge from them unbidden.Michael Jones Pianoscapes - Transforming Leadership, Awakening the Commons of the Imagination

Michael bared his soul to me in 1998 when we recorded, and subsequently published, a marvelous interview. We sat next to his magnificent Bosendorfer grand piano as he spoke of his journey, and how his inner flame was nearly extinguished when he was very young. I asked how such a gift could be lost. “It came in bringing a piece of my music to a piano lesson. My teacher, a very kindly person, expressed relatively little real interest. The real work was to play the masters. This creation of mine wasn’t going to measure up. I felt embarrassed and self-conscious.”

Michael’s journey was altered many years later when an elderly stranger caught him playing what appeared to be a secluded piano in a quiet hotel lobby. When Michael tried to disavow the splendor and uniqueness of his musical gifts, this unexpected guide asked him “Who is going to play your music if you don’t play it yourself?”

Michael has since shared his music on more than a dozen CDs with millions sold around the world. “To think,” Michael confided in me, “there was that much music I was carrying inside and had no sense was there. We have no perception of what is waiting to be made manifest.”

What would Michael say to that elderly gentleman today? “I would thank all those people who—in that moment of perception and courage—have been able to see into the essence of the other and give it voice. That’s how we can best serve one another…to see in the other what they cannot safely see in themselves.”

Michael went on to say, “We don’t get help in our culture to understand what it means to belong to ourselves and the world. There are many cultures where musicians would never think of playing anybody else’s music! In the West we play almost exclusively other people’s music— as a metaphor, but also literally. We feel embarrassed to bring something that is our own.”

We see the gifts that come to us most naturally as nothing special. “That’s easy,” we say to ourselves and the world, “anyone could do that!”

“More people are becoming aware there is deeper music in their life…sensing the call to let their lives and work be a reflection of that music,” Michael suggested. “The challenge is, we have to put aside the script…the musical score. When that gentleman spoke to me, I felt absolute clarity in terms of what was significant in my life, but I was totally lost in terms of what to do with it. Being lost is part of the journey. There is something we need to access within ourselves that only arises when we feel lost, confused or uncertain. There is the tradition that says, if you can see the path clearly laid in front of you, chances are you’ve stumbled onto someone else’s path!”

As I have struggled to discern my path in this world, I have asked those who know me and care for me to help me see what I cannot safely see in myself. Then, when a friend leans in close and points me in the direction of my music, I struggle to quiet the voice that screams in dissent, “Anyone could do that!

So, when you find yourself lost, confused and uncertain, take comfort in knowing that this just may be your rightful path for now. Then consider seeking out guides who know and love you. Listen, and seek the courage to believe what they tell you. Finally, thank them for their willingness to see into the essence of the other and give it voice.

You can hear Michael’s glorious melodies, and tap into more of his wisdom, at pianoscapes.com.

Feb 102014
 

Note: The following will appear in the March/April edition of Neighbors of Batavia magazine. It serves as my transition from Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce to…well, that remains uncertain.

     Years ago, Ram Das wrote a book entitled Still Here. In spite of having left the Chamber of Commerce, I am still here in Neighbors of Batavia magazine. Publishers Tim and Kate Sullivan have graciously asked me to continue. Showing up in this place, authentically and emotionally, has become an integral part of my life, and I am profoundly grateful for this sanctuary. This work serves as a bridge on my path from the past to an uncertain and indistinct future. To anyone who has expressed appreciation for these words, thank you as well. Your affirmations help me discern my path.
     My decision to leave the Chamber arrived unexpectedly late last year, but the clarity with which I reached that crossroad was undeniable. I simply could no longer remain the community’s chief spokesperson for business. In leaving, one of the first questions I face is, “So, what’s next?” The fact that I don’t know surprises many. Why leave a position, without an alternate landing pad on my flight plan? I’m not sure.
     From the start, I was the most unlikely of Chamber executives. Truth be known, I don’t care about the measures of success typically saddled upon such a position. Did we, in 10 years, brighten the economic environment? Did we sell more…make more money? Are there more businesses in Batavia…fewer empty store fronts? These would be measures of success for the traditional economic development professional, but in ten years, I never knew, nor did I care about, the answers to such inquiries. Centuries hence, it will not have mattered that we sold one more trinket, or put one more dollar into the bank.
    What will matter to our progeny hundreds of years in the future? I don’t know that either, but here are some thoughts…
     Are we better human beings today than we were yesterday? Do we care more…love more…discern more…respect more? Are we wiser and more insightful? Do we act with honesty, integrity and authenticity? Have we learned to ask questions that truly matter? Have we found our rightful place here in this place? I don’t know if we have made progress on these measures of our humanness, but of these I care deeply. In my ten years as head of the Chamber, I was always far more concerned about the business of people’s lives than I was about the lives of their businesses.
     The human species, as well, faces many crossroads. In my heart-of-hearts I believe we are staring over a precipice. As we move into the future it is not what we do…it is who we are that will determine if we fall precipitously from the heights, or take flight into a humane future in which we will come to discover prosperity that is stunning in its simplicity, yet beneficent beyond our imagination. It is to that quest to which I hope to turn my attention. What will be the manner and mode of my journey? Of that I am uncertain.

     In the journey of life, we face unexpected crossroads. They can be a time of fear and confusion…when prosperity seems elusive and uncertain. Nevertheless, we sometimes need to leap, build our wings on the way down and trust that prosperity is abundant if we are willing to recognize it.
     The subtitle of Ram Das’ book is Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying. While I am thankful for my continued good health, I am aging and changing. More decades are behind me than ahead. But perhaps, if I pay attention and live with evermore honesty, integrity and authenticity, I can discover my vocation and an even more prosperous life on the path ahead than the one I have already traversed.
    Over the years, I ended many Chamber events by wishing those in attendance “Godspeed on your journey,” without knowing its origins and meaning. The word Godspeed comes from the Middle English phrase God spede…“May God prosper you.” For perhaps the very first time, with humility and gratitude, I am wishing myself Godspeed on my journey…and I invite you to do the same for yourself.
Dec 292012
 

Note: I wrote the following essay ten years ago. It has become the heart of a new website: The-Dream.us. An accompanying post on this blog, “The Invitation,” explains more.

Imagine for a moment you have returned to your childhood. In your infancy, at an age that precedes memory, you were given a blanket, which, in the intervening years, became your constant companion. You ran to find it every time the world came at you in a way far more complex than your innocence could understand. It comforted you every evening as you prepared to enter, with great trepidation, the world of dreams. It protected you throughout the night and greeted you every morning. Some mornings you found it looking up at you from the floor, carefully positioned to keep the monsters at bay…under the bed and in the closet!

One evening, as you lie in bed caressing it, you note with alarm and sadness your faithful companion is aging, and with an increasing lack of grace. Its stained and fraying body seems somehow no longer up to the task of fending off the evils of the night. With a feeling of emptiness, you carefully set it beside you, afraid you will soon have to say goodbye to your friend and face the world alone.

That night, you are visited by a dream of incredible proportions. Lying next to you, where you set your worn blanket, is an exquisite piece of cloth that appears to extend as far as you can see in every direction. The patterns and colors, which moments earlier seemed dull and lifeless, are more beautiful than anything you have ever seen…or even imagined. As you examine it closely, its magnificence continues to emerge. The patterns are in a continuous state of flux. And as beautiful as the colors and patterns were when you first saw them, they become even more beautiful by the moment—the colors are more vibrant, the patterns ever more complex and interesting. The longer you stare, the more extraordinary is the sight in front of you.

As you examine the changing patterns more closely, you notice millions of small bits of color emerging from the interaction of the threads. Most dissipate quickly, with others emerging to replace them. But a few seem to remain longer and grow larger than the others.

Suddenly, you see a vile color emerge and, instead of fading into a pattern, it grows, seemingly out of control. Without warning this blood-red stain is spreading across a large portion of the cloth. Momentarily you wonder how you might stop its desecration of so many beautiful colors. Unexpectedly, you witness an amazing transformation. The blood-red stain is not destroying the other colors! They interact over time—blend to create a new ever more extraordinary palette. Crimson edged in gold. Infinite shades of amber. Purples and oranges like you never thought possible. You notice some of the original vibrant colors emerge unchanged, and for a split second, rather than rejoicing at their salvation, you are disappointed they too did not discover a new beauty by blending with the original stain.

You run for a magnifying glass to study the unfolding detail of the intricate patterns. You are amazed to discover that the patterns that look so magnificent from a distance contain millions of fibers and colors you truly dislike. You notice one particularly stiff, coarse fiber damaging those around it, and, without warning, the fibers let go of their mutual embrace and a tear races across the fabric threatening to rend the piece in two. Once again, to your amazement, the tragedy is instantly reversed as the cloth “heals” itself before your very eyes. And, even though you have no way to know for sure, it is clear the way in which the fibers reconnect adds flexibility and strength greater than had existed previously.

Then you are awake—back in your bed, as the morning sun streaks across the room. Almost magically, it caresses your blanket. With the sunlight streaming down on your old friend, you see it anew. Every shared adventure is written there in the folds. Every tear you shed for a lost toy…every hug you shared with your parents…every experience of sadness, joy, loneliness, love and pain…is there. Suddenly you see a brilliance arise from your very life itself. The worn blanket actually represents the millions of experiences that are now woven into those worn threads. And while they looked dull and faded, when you look closely you discover the colors that came from your life experience are actually complex, vibrant and extraordinary.

Then you notice a bloodstain from the time you skinned your knee and you remember the dream. And you wonder…

Dec 022012
 

 

Note: I beg your indulgence for this particularly long post. I have pulled it from a book I am trying to birth. It speaks to the confusion I face as I try to discern how humanity might find its way home.
The more I learn, the more the explanations I grew up with are being called into question—like mental and emotional rugs being yanked out from under me. For every book or article that proposes one worldview, there is another equally well-documented volume to propose another, often contradictory, view. I wonder if reality exists, or which author’s reality makes the most sense. Then I wonder if sense-making is even what I should be seeking. I wonder if I know anything at all. Are there really any pillars of truth on which I can build my belief systems?
I grew up in a world composed of atoms and molecules that were substantial, measurable particles. I grew into a Universe of quantum entities that zip in and out of existence at a whim, and show up as particles or waves depending on how we observe them.
I grew up in a world of answers and certainty—a world frightened by questions and confusion. I grew into a Universe in which Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle guarantees that I can never have all the answers. Knowledge of one aspect of the Universe makes another unknowable. I have come to learn that answers have a way of ending discovery and learning—while captivating questions open possibilities.
I grew up in a world in which my existence was primarily biological. My soul had a clean slate and one shot, using this body only, to make or break its infinite future in either heaven or hell. I grew into a Universe with legitimate discussion of my soul’s journey through many lifetimes to continue its growth in wisdom and enlightenment.
I grew up in a world where nature versus nurture was the only disagreement about how I came to be the person I am. I grew into a Universe in which some, like psychologist James Hillman and author Gary Zukav, suggest that my soul chose this life, with its possibilities for both joy and pain, because of the work it had to do in order to continue its journey.
I grew up in a world in which dreams were the random firings of 100 billion neurons that yielded meaningless images to be ignored, laughed at or forgotten. I grew into a Universe in which dreams might contain information about what I am called to do, or messages with deep meaning for my life’s journey. My children used Native American dream catchers to keep bad dreams out of their lives, rather than for their original purpose—to capture the meaning of dreams for insight about one’s life and calling.
I grew up in a world that actually had an “other side.” I grew into a Universe where communication technology, especially the Internet, invites the entire world into my living room. The “other side” is now on this side.
I grew up in a world where the American way of life was the envy of all. Consumerism and our market economy were great gifts that had the potential to make every human wealthy. I grew into a Universe in which it is increasingly clear there aren’t nearly enough resources to raise the world’s living standards to those of the United States. Our wasteful ways are raising the global temperature and destroying large portions of the biosphere and may eventually bankrupt the species—financially and emotionally.
I grew up in a world in which every theory, supposition, and belief had, at its heart, the fundamental importance, intelligence and superiority of humanity. Our extraordinary talents and abilities would eventually, I was led to believe, enable us to remake this place into a safe, risk-free and stable home for humans. We either were, or soon would be, the masters of all we surveyed. I grew into a Universe in which order is inherent—order that contains chaos as an integral component—and this orderliness does not require humanity to hold it together or build on it. Not only are we not required, we may be superfluous!
I grew up in a world where lives could be planned and made predictable. It was my job as a youth to find the right career so I could support a certain and stable family. Middle age was for amassing wealth because money was the only route to a bright and happy retirement. I grew into a Universe where the wisest, most deeply spiritual people I know live lives that show up in unexpected ways because they listen carefully to what they are called to do. Their lives are unpredictable and unplanned—filled with terrifying uncertainty, profound confusion…and deep satisfaction. They live lives with unimaginable wealth—sometimes they even have money.
I am slipping from youth to old age with the fear that somewhere along the way, I was supposed to have found wisdom—answers to life’s deep and imponderable questions. What I have learned is that the answers become more elusive with age and the questions grow in number and complexity.
I am a man with significant formal education who knows that his most precious and profound learning was uncovered outside the classroom.
I am a former teacher who discovered that it was not the content, but the context of my relationships with young people that had the greatest impact. And it was they who were the teachers and I the reluctant student.
I am a former manager from a Fortune 500 company who left because there seemed little room for humanity…little time in between sales calls, business meetings and strategy sessions for us to discover who we are as human beings or what we long for. Too much of the conversation was about a bigger bottom line and higher ROI, and not enough about building a spiritual legacy for future generations. There was too much of the masculine voice of decision-making and action planning and not enough of the feminine voice calling us to meaning through relationship.
It is a deeply confusing time. I have many “answers” for the challenges I face. The irony is that most of those answers only work in the world in which I grew up. They are often useless in the Universe into which I grew. The confusion is often so intense I find myself on early-morning walks moving moment-to-moment from despair to joy, terror to ecstasy, sadness to deep gratitude, with tears running down my face to signify any and all of these emotions. I wonder what I am called to think…to believe…to do. While the world offers many “answers” to each of my myriad questions, I know that few will work. I must find my own. I know where I have been—or at least I think I do—but I am profoundly confused about where I am headed.
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…