Jun 212014
 

I recall a video game, Tetrisphere, which was a variation of Tetris. In the game the player confronted a sphere covered by three-dimensional shapes. The game provided the player with a series of objects similar in shape to those covering the sphere. When you matched a piece with one on the outermost layer of the sphere, it would disappear and reveal a small portion of a level nearer the sphere’s core. The object was to eliminate enough pieces to open the core and release a friendly little robot.

One challenging aspect of the game is the sphere grows with time, making it more difficult for the player to reach the core before time runs out.

From the beginning, Tetrisphere struck me as a powerful metaphor for life. We are continually given experiences of life in the form of challenges, joys, suffering, love and confusion. Each piece of life—a different size, shape and color—is an invitation to fit it into our knowing, or unknowing. When we live these experiences with authenticity and vulnerability, the wisdom we gain tears away a small piece of who we may have thought we were to expose a slightly deeper level of our true selves. The goal of life, perhaps, is to tear away enough of the layers to release into the world the essence of who we are.

If, on the other hand, we allow the experiences of life, especially those that are painful and difficult, to add to the layers that separate us from the core of who we are, it becomes more difficult to discover who we were meant to be.

A call came from a young man who, in that moment, knew little of his self-worth. He had made a decision some months earlier that had extremely unpleasant consequences for loved ones in his life. Because of the pain he had caused, he felt himself a horrible, selfish person—new layers making it more difficult to see himself for who he truly is.

We know that even “poor” decisions are usually made in the best way we know how at the moment of choice. I asked, early in the conversation, if that was true for him. “No!” he insisted. “I knew better…I should never have made that choice.” He told me his heart felt dirty, sullen and hidden.

In the midst of the call, I began to wonder silently why we find it so difficult to offer ourselves the generosity and understanding we offer others. As our relationship developed I began to grasp the overpowering anxiety pervading his life at the time of his fateful decision. It was so strong it clouded his view of life and pointed him to the decision he eventually made. When I asked him about his panic and apprehension, he reluctantly admitted he did, indeed, feel a loss of control over his life. So I asked, if he were to show himself the kindness he would show another, would he be willing to admit that he was indeed a good and kind person, who, in a moment of confusion, made a choice he now rejected. There was a moment of silence after which he said quietly, “Maybe so.” He paused for a moment longer, and then he asked, “Do you think the pain I am feeling is my heart trying to find its way back into the world?”

Even as I write these words, tears well up. I could do nothing in the moments that followed but be in awe of the profundity of his insight. It was one more of life’s experience pointing him to the magnificence of who he is behind the layers of who he is not.

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.

Aug 092011
 

 

At Operation Snowball, the teens call the exercise “Sex in a Fishbowl,” but it’s not some weird, erotic game. They divide the room sending males to one side with females facing them from the other. Everyone scribbles questions they would like their counterparts of the opposite sex to answer, and places them into a fishbowl to be withdrawn randomly and anonymously.
Anxiety fills the room as the questions emerge, and becomes especially ubiquitous when they migrate from the mundane to those that swirl around relationships and how we can test them for validity and legitimacy. “How do you know when a girl likes you?” “How do you tell the guy you are dating that you like them?” These are among the questions that cause the most squirming…and elicit the most embarrassed answers. On the surface, simple questions in search of straightforward answers.
But, I wonder if the answers sought are themselves in search of far deeper questions. I wonder if the unasked questions that lurk in background are not about how acceptance bounces from one to another, but how acceptance resounds within me. Could it be that the real questions are “Do I like and value myself, and how do I know?”
Perhaps I am unusual, but, for most of my life, and certainly as I raced through puberty, I have been in search of a self worthy of my respect. Can I tease from my being a self deserving of the resources it consumes, a self that leaves behind greater value than it finds, and most frighteningly, a self that someone might love. To this very day, it is possible, often easy, for me to fall into a place of deep questioning of self-worth and value…and let’s not even get into questions of lovability.
The need to be loved and valued is, I believe, deeply rooted in the human psyche. I know many people who are responsible for meaningful change in the human condition and they still question the meaning of their lives. One dear friend I grew to love and admire for her lifetime of work said, as she approached the end of her time on Earth, “I don’t want my life to have been a throw away line.” Another of my teachers reflected that, “When you ask people about their gifts and you get platitudes…ask about their faults and you get poetry!”
Each of us has gifts and an inner beauty; each of us has value and is lovable. But those qualities can be difficult to see in good times. In our darker moments, they can become impossible to touch. Or feel.
In the Zen Buddhist tradition there are cautions against this kind of attachment to “self.” The Buddha suggested that the root of all suffering is attachment. Nirvana is that place where we free ourselves from wishes that we, and the world around us, could be different. Freedom is the complete acceptance of what is. But I wonder if the path to Nirvana requires us to traverse the valley of doubt. Could it be that it is only after we discover a valuable self that we can finally let it go and end the search?
Human relationships are complex, difficult and often break our hearts; but if they were otherwise—easy to understand and incapable of touching our hearts—of what value would they be? They are the gateways into the valley of doubt and self questioning.
So, as you ask me about the validity of our relationship—whether I like you and you like me—I ask for your understanding if I squirm. To entertain those questions is to invite you into a deeply personal, and sometimes frightening, introspective dialogue. The answers to those seemingly simple questions are waiting for me to answer the larger question of how much I care for myself—questions that emerged long before a fishbowl appeared in the middle of the room. And those deeper answers are nearly sixty years in the making.