Jun 252018
 

Even at the quantum level, as separate and distinct, a single particle has little value. It is only when they are in relationship to other quantum entities that they form the universe.

So too for humanity. Absent our intimate relationship to all things, we are nothing.

As I write, since I feel my fingers on the keyboard, I imagine the computer and me as separate and distinct. However, if I were to pick up a writing instrument to pen these same words, the experience and result would be different. The computer and I co-create. The world is altered by my relationship to even the most inanimate of objects.

As I trek through the woods, a tree ahead appears distinct from me. I know where my body “ends” and the leaves, branches and trunk “begin.” But do I? There is a symbiotic relationship between us. The oxygen I inhale in this moment was likely “exhaled” by that living organism moments ago. The carbon dioxide I release into the atmosphere is vital to the tree’s future. Each season, a tree will take thousands of gallons of water from the soil and release it into the air as water vapor. Those molecules return to Earth as rain, and to me through the foods I eat and the water I drink. The tree and I are in deep relationship; I am biologically part of that tree, and it a part of me.

Even thoughts originating in my cerebral cortex, which my ego insists make me distinct from others, are proof of relationship not separation. Virtually every neural pathway in my brain has been formed through experience with, and mental formulations that originate in, the world outside of me. Every sound I hear, article I touch, morsel I taste and object I see, alters my relationship with the world and changes the entity I thought myself to be.

My emotional being, as well, is intimately related to, and formed by, the world around me. Every story of pain and heartache I encounter in the lives of friends, or from a call to the suicide hotline, alters my emotional sense of the world.

There is little we own…little for which we can take credit. Every word, every thought, every feeling, emerges from ideas and experiences gifted to us by others. Nor is our ability to hold, synthesize and retell them ours to own. They, too, are gifts we have learned from others.

If I search deeply for the “I” I believe is me, I soon discover there isn’t one. The harder I look, the more intense my gaze, the more I discover that everything I think of as me, was formed through an infinity of relationships. I am nothing more than a confluence of influences—simply the intersection of the fields through which this collection of human cells has traveled. I am, simply put, the result of trillions of quantum particles in relationship.

Western culture moves in harmony with the sacredness and importance of the individual. We go to any lengths, and put many in jeopardy, to save one. But the moment I drift from the sacredness of life to the importance of my own, I excise myself from humanity. I allow myself to become isolated, distinct and apart. My thoughts and ideas are wrenched from their rightful place within the ecosystem where they were formed, and where they can be challenged, debated, refined and potentially discarded. Ego takes over and I elevate my ideas to a place of superiority and rightness.

The Sufi mystic and poet Hafitz once said “I am a hole in the flute through which God’s breath flows.” At best, the confluence of thoughts, ideas, and experiences I refer to as myself is no more than a capacity through which the Universe itself is trying to be seen. If I can remain true to simply being the hole, and refrain from imagining myself to be the breath, or the player of the flute, only then is there hope.

Jan 122016
 

Try to get over the narrow idea that surrender is abject defeat. Surrender, in spirituality, is total acceptance.
                                               From the Bhagavad Gita, as translated by Jack Hawley

When he finished playing, we embraced and I told him how he and his music have taught me a great deal about life.

Jeff McLean has filled our house with music many times in the ten years since he and my daughter became friends. Typically, night has overtaken us as he sits gently on the piano bench. He asks if it’s okay to turn down the lights; he prefers to play in near darkness. Within moments, he, the instrument and the music become one. I often wonder if he places his fingers on the keyboard, or if the keys reach upward to find him. In those moments, it seems music, piano, and musician relinquish individual identities and surrender to what is being called from them collectively. Jeff’s hands and fingers move effortlessly, called into position by the music and the instrument that will declare it to the world. The experience often brings tears to my eyes.

I have a sense that if Jeff tried to rein in the music and piano, forcing them to do his bidding—failing to accept the latent invitation into the communal creation—the room would become infused with notes borne of conflict and control, rather than music that emanates from generosity, love and relationship.

We live in a world that would have me believe, with enough effort—more force and control—I can fill the future with music of my own making. I can rein in the world and make it do my bidding. Should I fail to align the world with my vision, it’s solely due to a lack of effort and diligence. Jeff, the music, and the piano invite me to see the world in a new way: divine my path through surrender rather than diligence. In this world, I relinquish my individuality, accept the invitation to be found, and give of myself without reservation. When I find the courage required by surrender, the future arises from generosity, love and relationship…and is infinitely more beautiful than anything I could even imagine on my own.

The world of surrender, for me, is a brave new world…a truly foreign, oft frightening, land. But in a book I read recently, the author suggested, in those moments when life offers comfort or fear, we should choose fear. Comfort confirms that which we already know. Fear offers the possibility of learning and wisdom. My real life exists in that brave new world, so here’s to surrender, fear and courage.

Thank you Jeff for this exquisite lesson.

Oct 052015
 

It was an unexpectedly tender moment. On a recent Sunday morning, as I sat at a local coffee shop, a friend approached. “Roger, I know you advise people on occasion. I was wondering if we might chat for a moment.” I’m not a counselor, but as a friend, I readily agreed to explore her obvious pain. Tears began to fill her eyes. “I discovered my daughter snuck out of the house late last night to be with her friends. She has never done such a thing. I don’t know what to do.” 

 Moments of vulnerability, when two people face our unknowingness with honesty and courage, are rare, but so pregnant with possibility. When we choose to inhabit those moments raw and childlike, they offer miraculous opportunities to learn together. All I know of parenting and adolescent psychology are random, often misguided, thoughts gleaned from being a parent. Since I know little more, if anything, than she, perhaps we could allow our experiences and wisdom to collide, and then simply be open to what we might discover together. 

 Seeing the pain in her eyes, I asked if she could let everything drop away and discern the deepest emotion prompting the tears. She paused, thought, and said she really didn’t know. I asked if I could suggest one—I knew what would be at the heart of my tears if I was living her life in this moment. “Are you frightened? Afraid? I suspect you love your daughter more than life itself. You feel yourself losing control, and are simply frightened something will happen to interrupt her life in some horrific way.”  

 With that, fresh tears appeared. In that moment, I knew we were touching on emotions all parents share and understand in much the same way. 

 She went on to explain she and her daughter had an argument several weeks earlier, and it was never truly resolved. “Our relationship is changing in ways I simply do not understand. I know it must change as she becomes an adult, but this feels so frightening.” 

 I asked how she discovered the conceit of the previous evening. She revealed she had surreptitiously taken her daughter’s cell phone and looked at the previous night’s texts. “She’ll be angry when she finds out I looked at her phone.” 

 The relationship between parents and children is complex and often confusing. There is little I know for sure, but I have a fundamental belief: love and honesty must gird the foundation of the relationship. But honesty is so very difficult when we forget to take the time to search deep inside, and show up stark naked and deeply vulnerable. 

 Fear, misunderstood, turns quickly into anger. The reptilian remnants of our brain flood the cortex with neurotransmitters that disable our ability to think. In those moments, we allow anger to throw us unbidden into the craggy terrain called retribution. “How dare she discount my wisdom as a parent? I’ll show her who’s boss!” In the short term, retribution can feel good. In the longer term it annihilates relationships; fractures the foundation built of honesty and love, and replaces them with compost made of distrust and disrespect. I know this dysfunctional path all too well. 

 There is an alternative to retribution. For thousands of generations in native cultures, humans believed in reconciliation rather than retribution. How can victim and perpetrator face one another to simply understand the pain and heartache that allows sometimes horrific actions to emerge? So often, just being heard is enough. We simply want others to see us, and acknowledge and honor our pain. 

 In the end, there is no painless path into relationships, especially with those we love. If there was, what value would they truly hold in our lives? Pain, and the often unfathomable heartache that comes when we fear the loss of those who mean the most to us, is the price we pay for love. 

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…
Feb 292012
 

I’m Still Standing: How One Woman’s Brushes with Death Taught Her How To Live by Kelly Standing.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I know Kelly Standing…at least in small measure. She and I were cohorts at Speaker University, a wonderful series produced by the Illinois Chapter of the National Speakers Association. For that, the keen observer will note my name in Kelly’s acknowledgement of “Supportive Colleagues” near the end of the book. I was surprised and humbled by the undeserved citation.

Having said that, I am often biased against books written by people I know. The reasons for that vary, but I had no difficulty overcoming my negative tendencies the moment I opened Kelly’s work and entered her world. Her writing is engaging and playful, her stories are well-told and extraordinary, and her wisdom is deep and thought-provoking. I cannot imagine what more I might demand from such a work of love.

The phrase “consider the source” comes to mind as I contemplate ways to describe this volume. We often use that phrase to dismiss insights and wisdom that make us uncomfortable, or those with which we disagree. But, because our worldviews emerge so intimately from whence we have come, I often long for deeper insight into an author than a few cryptic sentences crammed on the back flap of a book’s cover.

While any autobiography should offer such an “inside-out” view, I thought—or rather felt—that Kelly let us into her world in as unblemished a way as any author could. She is funny and self-deprecating. She is loving towards those in her life when they are deserving and brutally honest in those moments her relationships fell short. She accepts responsibility for her shortfalls and gently requests others in her life to examine theirs.

As for insights and wisdom…they are embedded in every page, paragraph and sentence. If her work made me uncomfortable, it was when I had the courage to allow her wisdom to call into question my life, and how I often fall short of the bars she raises by which I might measure my own struggles.

And while her wisdom and insights are everywhere in this work, my world shifted most dramatically near the end. Kelly tells of a young girl in Guatemala who became a beacon for her life, and she challenges us to find such a source of inspiration in our own. As I read those words, I recalled many young people who have inspired me. But one in particular came immediately to mind; one whose light was, as was the beacon in Kelly’s life, extinguished far too soon.

Thank you, Kelly, for your wisdom, insights and profound challenge. And thank you for allowing me to “consider the source.”

Dec 312011
 

 

He sat alone, with his head buried in his hands. One of the other adults on the Snowball weekend turned to me and suggested he didn’t look good. I offered to speak with him. As I approached, he looked up and I asked if he was okay. With sad, averted eyes he told me he was.
As I turned to leave, something inside begged me not to walk away; I knew he was not telling me the truth of his life. I returned as he stood up, looked into his eyes and said, “Here is what your words and body language just spoke to me. ‘I am really not okay, but you are not the person I would talk with about it.’ You don’t need to talk with me; I just want to know you have someone you can talk with.” In that instant, his body language, and our relationship, changed. He looked directly into my eyes and said, “Thank you, I’m just going through some tough times, but I’ll be okay…and yes, I do have people I can talk with.” I offered him a hug and left. I still didn’t even know his name.
At the end of the weekend, intermixed with numerous “warm fuzzies” written to me by participants, was one that said, in part, “You’ve shown that some people really do care. You’ve given me a reason to carry on.” The note was signed, “Love, Dakota”. It was several days before I could confirm that this kind and generous note was from the young man with whom I had the brief exchange the Saturday before.
For the next two years, I saw Dakota Lewis on Snowball weekends and at occasional Thursday night meetings. We shared many emotionally horrific times, including the suicide of his father. Dakota continued to affirm—through sincere embraces and many kind, generous words—the beautiful person he saw in me; even if I was often unable to see it in myself. I too, spoke to him of the beautiful young man he had become—a person able to instantly see, and speak to, the beauty in others.
After he graduated from high school, our opportunity to see, or speak with, one another became more and more rare. A graduation gift, and several text and voice messages, went unanswered.
The year 2010 ended quietly in my life, but I awoke early New Year’s morning to learn that the young man who so often pointed to my inner beauty had taken his life in the moments before the new year emerged. As hard as so many of us tried, Dakota was never able to see the extraordinary gifts we could see shining from within him.
On this, the first anniversary of his suicide, I sit with tears welling up inside…tears that represent a mix of sadness over losing him, and guilt for not being there one more time to draw him back into his life…a life that touched and changed many others.
As the New Year begins a few hours from now, I will continue to try to help others see the beauty that exists within them. But I will try to remain cognizant that the only one who I can truly help see inner beauty is me. If I cannot learn to witness mine, I remain a hypocrite when I try to point others towards theirs. As is so often noted, changing the world truly is an inside job.
I love you Dakota. I miss you terribly. And I will be forever grateful you remain one of my most profound teachers.