Feb 202014
 

Note: The following essay first appeared on Tikkun Daily at www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily. I appreciate their work and am thankful for their generous support of mine.

Years ago, my brother-in-law, a retired geophysicist, invited us to join him on a trek across the lava on the island of Hawai’i so we could see red-hot flows making their trek toward the ocean—nature’s way of making the Big Island even bigger.

The hike was several miles without the aid of a trail. Having spent many hours on the flows, my brother-in-law had many words of advice as we prepared, but it was his final admonition, as we came within a few feet of the blazing river of lava, which lodged itself in some deep crevice in my brain. Since even the “cooled” lava had been molten not long before our visit, he warned, “If your feet get warm, move to a different rock.” There’s wise but useless counsel, I thought. Who would stand motionless in life as the soles of their shoes begin to burn?2010-04-10 07.42.11

I wonder if the same is true for humans as a species. To believe we can continue on our current path is folly. Our collective feet are getting warm—as is the global environment. How long can we keep from being scorched by an economic system based on digging up resources we turn into temporary trinkets to use briefly, discard and bury? How will we continue to feed 7 billion people, even as we become 12 billion, as farmland is increasingly turned into strip malls and housing developments? But then, to save corporate mega-farms is to preserve a different kind of ecological disaster. How long will Mother Nature—Pachamama—put up with a species that shows so little regard for the delicate balance required to support all life? At what point might she call a halt to our self-centeredness?

Our current thinking, and what flows from our thoughts, is in profound misalignment with the natural cycles of life. To continue thinking in Newtonian ways about how to “fix” Pachamama will further heat the rocks on which we stand. Our future depends on our willingness to be in, and of, this world—partner with Pachamama—in ways that are far more than adaptations of our current ways of thinking and doing. Our Newtonian infused minds want to plan, organize and manipulate—forge a future we believe is knowable and predictable. What if, we must instead, allow new visions of the world, and humankind’s role in it, to emerge slowly, and in unpredictable ways?

An image returns from my trip to Hawai’i. As I stood amid the endless black landscape, I beheld a tiny green shoot that found its way through the lava. It was there not because it planned, manipulated and organized, but simply by being there to rebuild the tropical paradise.

Humanity has always known how to be in the world; perhaps we have simply forgotten. The biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, in studying living systems, learned that health can be restored to an ailing system only by reconnecting it with more of itself. What would it mean for us to reconnect with other parts of the living system known as Gaia? Can we learn to listen more deeply for what is trying to be born? Can we hear what life is asking of us rather than telling life what we expect from it? Is it time we remembered ways of listening that transcend the rational mind; ways that penetrate our hearts as well as our minds? What if returning home means we need to stop, listen and allow the Universe to find us. Do we have that much courage?

The next moments in human history offer a boundless opportunity for learning and wisdom. We are standing upon a welcome mat, inviting us to co-create with Pachamama the next epoch of her future—not a future separate from humanity, and not a future for humanity separate from her. We are poised to rediscover our place as an important, but far-from-dominant species, and help create a future for a global life force, fully integrated, and intimately intertwined.

On a walk up the steep volcanic slopes of Oahu, I struggled to navigate a narrow, craggy, roadside path to avoid trampling a beautiful, carefully cultivated yard on the other side of the road. An elder tending to the lush beauty, called to me; “Please, walk here; it is safer.” If, collectively, we can find that voice of welcoming, generosity, grace and wisdom—and if that should become the dominant song of our species—perhaps, in the end, there is hope.

Dec 182013
 
Note:The following will appear in the January/February Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
 
For more reasons than I can recount, I chose well the day I proposed to my bride. Not only is she from Hawai’i and “forces” me to visit her immediate family in Honolulu, but she has family in Thailand and Malaysia as well. We recently embarked on a long-delayed journey to meet them for the first time.
I have loved my in-laws for many years. Now that I have met the extended family in the Far East, I have many more to love…and admire. Being in the presence of a warm and generous family can leave you in awe, but that is an insufficient descriptor for the depth of my love and respect.
I learned of their generosity and acceptance our first night in Malaysia. In a wonderful seafood restaurant, I struggled with chopsticks to extract crabmeat from a tenacious shell and claws. I was the only one with seafood and sauce strewn across the tablecloth. When one last bit of crabmeat escaped the death-grip with which my fingers juggled those two tiny pieces of wood—and splashed another puddle of sauce across the tablecloth—I was mortified and did my best to hide the mayhem with my napkin. One young nephew sitting next to me, with the most understanding gaze, turned to me and said “It’s okay…don’t worry.” It was a generous moment of acceptance I will not soon forget.
The Saturday night we spent in their home, more than 50 family members gathered for an evening of food, fun and festivities. I have seldom seen such a well-orchestrated feast as the family unveiled a cornucopia of cultural treats…and more joy and love than one could imagine.
The final night we were there, after far too many glasses of scotch, they even coaxed yours truly to take to the microphone for karaoke.
If you could choose a family to call your own, it would be difficult to find one more life-affirming. And yet, this family was nearly ripped apart many years ago. When the patriarch, Ivan, was just 19, both his parents departed this earth, leaving him to care for four younger siblings.
I have only the most rudimentary sense of the anguish of leaving a young family to fend for themselves. Many years ago, on a weekend retreat with my daughter, a teen recounted the death of her father when she was in eighth grade. She described the unfathomable grief and heartache that gets only marginally easier as the years pass. In the ensuing moments, I realized, in a way I had not prior, that I will likely depart this earth leaving my children behind to face the world alone. The separation, loneliness and grief brought me to my knees. That night I literally cried myself to sleep. How could I possibly say goodbye to the children who so animate my life and give it meaning?
Before we left Malaysia, I thanked Ivan and his wife for fulfilling his parents’ deepest longings. “I can only imagine,” I told them, “that your parents would be grateful to know their children are well, happy, and loved.” Ivan looked at me with a gentle smile that spoke of his humility and gratitude and said, “I hope so.”
As I sit here, I can easily be brought to my knees again at the thought of leaving my children alone and vulnerable to the vagaries of life. But now, the pain eases just a bit. Ivan reminded me of the indomitable human spirit and our ability to survive and thrive even in the face of unbearable loss.

 

And I am grateful to my bride and her family whose love, support and encouragement make all these experiences, thoughts and words possible.
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.
Apr 192010
 

It is a common aphorism in Buddhism: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. But being ready, and recognizing the teacher in your midst, is often difficult—especially when you are blinded by emotion, and it takes humility and forgiveness to restore your sight.

Recently, Judi and I attended a week long Hawaiian music festival on the island of Hawaii. The hulas, music, chanting and dress were nothing short of stunning. But it was in the midst of the magic that events conspired—and an unlikely teacher was sent—to teach me how the world is so often different than I first perceive it.
Just before the festival began, I left my seat to purchase a program. When I tried to return to my seat, moments after the opening ceremony commenced, a stern-looking, Hawaiian security guard tied a rope across the stairway and told me the stairs were closed. When I asked how I could get back to my seat to see the show, I’m sure my frustration was apparent. In the pidgin-English so common in Hawaii, he said “When it ova” and his gaze and posture showed he was not about to be intimidated. Twenty minutes later, when the opening ceremony was “ova,” they lowered the rope at the stairway to my left. The guard, who stood eye-to-eye with me, indicated his stairway was for exiting only by pointing me to the other set of stairs. I rolled my eyes and begrudgingly followed his directions…but I was more than a little upset.
My Hawaiian partner in this dance of power had a graying ponytail, leather hat and leather vest…I was certain his motorcycle sat waiting for him out back. Judging from the look on his face, he seldom smiled and, I surmised, had been granted little in the way of a sense of humor. He was certainly not someone with whom I would want to spend any protracted period of time. Part of my frustration stemmed from my being intimidated…it was clear he could win any power struggle and I felt inferior.
I spent much of that first night angry. He certainly did not treat me in the spirit of “Aloha,” the Hawaiian approach to welcome and hospitality. I made a mental list of the ways he could have better responded to my needs as I stood as the guest in his presence.
The second evening I had overcome my anger and began to realize the festival was correct to honor the opening ceremony by not allowing the disruption of people entering late. Nonetheless, I was happy to discover the guards changed stations and I did not have to face my nemesis.
The third night, he was back, but I managed to get to my seat without being noticed. But, as I sat in the bleachers awaiting the final hours of the festival, I realized I was in pain—my frustration and unwillingness to view the world through his eyes had left a wound in the human family. Then I recalled a phrase from the book, Effective Apology by John Kador: “When the relationship is more important than being right.” In that moment, even though my relationship with the guard was temporary, unless I acted, it would remain with me as an emotional scar. Repairing it became more important than finding a way to extract some amount of emotional compensation. I left my seat to search out the man who was to become, in the next moment, my teacher. He recognized me immediately. He looked at me, not knowing what to expect. I held out my hand, looked him in the eye and said, “I was frustrated the other night, and treated you badly. You did not deserve it and I am sorry.” In the next moment, the brightest smile broke across his face. This very stern Hawaiian was smiling and shyly looking at the floor…he suddenly found it difficult to face me. “It’s no problem!” he said as he warmly shook my hand.
So what did he arrive to teach? I learned much from this simple teacher, but the lesson that feels most humbling was about my prejudices. Prejudice simply means to pre-judge. On that third night, when he looked at me with that very genuine, gentle smile I realized that I had not allowed this very human of beings to fully show up in my world. I had placed him in a box into which he certainly did not belong. I also learned that generosity and kindness are sincerely returned, often when you least expect it.