It’s what you don’t see…

My wife and I had the opportunity recently to be on a guided tour through a rain forest in Central America. Our guide was very personable and seemed relatively well informed…     (I wasn’t exactly going to fact check him as he spouted his fountain of information). He did caution us at the outset to not wander off the main trail and told us a brief story to make his point.

Another rain forest guide, a friend of his, was taking a group of ten on a tour. It had been a disappointing experience in that very few of the animals or insects he was mentioning were showing themselves. So he asked the group to wait on the trail while he went off in search of something that he could show them. About 15 feet into the brush, he did see and delicately coax into his hand a colorful poisonous frog. As he turned and stepped to return, he was bitten on his ankle by a Fer-de-Lance, an aggressive, venomous snake. When all was said and done, he nearly lost his foot. He told his friend, our guide, that he knew what he was looking for, but it was what he didn’t see that changed everything.

Of course thereafter, my wife and I stayed glued to the trail. Here’s what happened. We came across a caravan of leaf cutter ants traversing the trail. Thousands of them, with most of them carrying sections of vegetation many times the size of their bodies. They looked like  miniature Mardi Gras participants complete with headgear and uneven steps. As we stood there staring, sensations from my left foot finally broke into my awareness. When I looked down, I saw that it was covered with fire ants. I was wearing a modified version of a sandal with no socks and so I was being bitten. Both of my wife’s feet were also being swarmed, but she was wearing sneakers with socks. Still, she shrieked loud enough for both of us. She put her small backpack down as she brushed herself and myself off with both hands. Within a minute, we seemed to have finished with the worst of them. We laughed a little and remarked again about how it was that what we didn’t see was more impactful than what we had been looking at. That’s when we started up the trail again and I noticed that my wife’s entire back was covered with fire ants. Her backpack had also been on the nest of fire ants. More swatting and laughter, as even our guide joined in to brush her off.

We laughed and continued the tour rather than cursing and returning to the ‘safety’ of the jeep. It was a choice made without words. Everyone checked into everyone else’s eyes and  we simply proceeded. Asked and answered.

Hours later, as we all (guide, driver, wife and I) sat at a nice restaurant’s table to share a late lunch, the guide complimented us as to how we had reacted on the trail. My wife reminded him that she had shrieked initially, to which he replied, “Yes, but you did not run”.

The four of us proceeded to talk about the unexpectedness and unpredictability of life as we ate our way through some local dishes that even they were impressed with. We shared specific stories from our lives to illustrate our points…about our children, our jobs, our relationships, our selves. You would have thought we were old friends who hadn’t seen one another for a while.

Not everything you don’t see coming is bad or dangerous.

Very often, they can be blessings.

 

The Attraction of Certainty

I don’t know about you but for me there’s hardly a day that goes by wherein some well intended will think to send me a link to a website or YouTube video. I do my best to at least visit or briefly watch as many of these as my time and tolerance permit. There’s a wide range of topics directed my way and I’m grateful for the spectrum of humanity that I’m exposed to. I have to admit that I never would have found half of any of this on my own. Not only that, but I couldn’t have imagined, no matter how hard I tried, some of the stuff that people get in to.

I’m sure it’s the same for you.

A goodly percentage of the links sent to me attempt to present information in a promotional way. Whether its a nutritional system, a new exercise routine or piece of equipment, a yoga seminar, a meditation practice, or a documentary on a war or a religion, there’s one thing they all have in common: There’s an undeniable certainty, not just a confidence, but a real conviction, conveyed about the product or point of view being offered.

There’s something inherently attractive about that type of certainty. In our current world of endless possibilities, seeing or hearing someone who has an unshakeable conviction about something is remarkably appealing.

It is the art and essence of the sell.

We know this…and still we want to believe that something can and will deliver exactly what is being promised…or that the person truly does believe in what they are saying as certainly and as deeply as they appear to.

Unfortunately, for most of us today, being ‘sold’ on something has become synonymous with being ‘fooled’.

And it’s funny, whenever I’m in a conversation with someone who seems dead certain about whatever it is their talking about, even if I’m not in agreement with them, I can get to wondering if perhaps I haven’t overlooked something. Creating this moment of curiosity, of hesitation, is another necessary element of the sell.

They teach this stuff in sales classes. They taught it at Trump U.

Whether we’re listening to a backyard opinion of a neighbor or listening to a candidate for public office, the attraction of certainty is as powerful as it is misleading. It can get decent people to wondering.

This is not a bad thing or a weakness.

I’ve come to understand that an open minded person will have those types of wondering thoughts. It is in the very nature of the open minded to entertain new and differing points of view. That’s the process through which any person can develop, deepen and wizen.

Sadly, the closed minded person is always locked down, unreachable and adamant about staying where they are. It doesn’t make them a bad person but rarely does it make them a happy person.

An open minded person isn’t necessarily confused, muddled or unclear. Nor do they lack for conviction, passion or backbone. They simply accept that life itself is a work in progress, that learning never ends and that more, indeed, will always be revealed.

 

 

Naturally, Right from the Start

Take a moment and answer this question:

How often do we want to ‘know'(or be reassured) that we’re going to be ‘good’ at doing something BEFORE we’ll ever try that something for the first time?

….to be told that we could bowl a strike before we ever released our first ball?…or be assured that we would be a good dancer before we even placed a foot onto the floor?…or that we would be a fine cook before we dared to put on an apron?…or that we would be a proper lover before we ever stepped into our first kiss?

It’s not at all unusual.

Whether it’s because of some childhood experience during which we suffered a degree of embarrassment, ridicule and other forms of criticism while we attempted something new or we merely witnessed someone else’s being made fun of, we have all learned to hesitate. This is not about our physical safety but about playing it safe emotionally, being guarded about our ‘self image’, even before we had such a thing.

In truth, many of us when we were younger wished we would discover some hidden talent that would enable us to be a ‘natural’ at something…anything really…anything that we could be remarkably good at from the very first time…because then there would be no risk, no fear of failure, no being ordinary.

More than a few were strongly encouraged to build careers and a life around something that they were ‘good at’ without anyone (even themselves) actually asking if they enjoyed doing what they were ‘good at’. But that’s a whole other blog to come.

This blog would like to remind all of us that no one has ever done their best at anything the first time they tried it. Even if we were ‘good at’ it naturally right from the start, we still all learned and improved as we continued. We developed. Everything we ever try only gets better if we continue to practice…provided we are open to feedback and guidance. On our own and by ourselves, we will be hampered and limited by the singularity of our perspective.

Now, I realize that this may seem like a blinding flash of illumination for the obvious, but it is something we so frequently and easily forget. We often stand paralyzed at the doorstep of trying something new in our lives only because we have forgotten that everything always and only gets better after our first try.

 

 

Moveable & Removable Walls

Whether you’ve had some remodeling work done in your own home or have watched one of the many home remodeling shows on the television, it’s likely you’ve had the opportunity to witness an architect or an interior designer walk into a home and “see” how the walls could be moved and the space rearranged.

The first few times I saw someone doing this, I found it fascinating. I had always looked at walls as walls…as simply something to deal with, as something permanent and just the way the house was built. I understand now that the space is permanent and the walls are all moveable, even weight bearing walls.

In a world that encourages us to compartmentalize the various aspects and functions of ourselves, we all put up a lot of walls as we were first building our understandings of ourselves. The placement of these walls were either taken from someone else’s blueprints (plans) or represented our beginner’s ideas of how we thought things should look.

Here are some examples of the usual places we put up dividing walls: between thoughts and feelings; between wants and needs; between spirituality and rationality; between the abstract and the concrete; between the possible and the impossible; between pain and pleasure; between good and bad and, of course, between right and wrong. There are plenty of other partitions or dividers we constructed along our way, but I only wanted to give you the idea of what I’m referring to.

We believe that these walls are necessary and permanent. We believe that we have put them up exactly where they belong. This may have been true at the time we put them up. They may have served a good purpose during our development…when we were younger and less experienced with ourselves. Yet, for many of us, these walls have now boxed us in, blocked our vision and restricted our maturation.

These walls are arbitrary. These walls are moveable. These walls are removable.

Sure, we’ll need a bit of help. We’ll need ideas and suggestions from those who have some experience. That’s no different than when we’re dealing with physical walls. We get help. We follow some suggestions.

In the general awareness arena, the ideas of connection and flow have been rediscovered.

There is a blossoming realization that all growth involves change and that change isn’t a rejection of the past but an expansion upon what has come before with fuller perspectives, fresh lines of sight and an openness that is both natural and healthy.

Yet, some will consider change and growth as somehow being disloyal to what they had been handed down or taking the risk that the whole house might come crashing down.

If all you’re working with is your own ideas and a sledge hammer, that might be possible.

But when you’re open to asking for and using the help that’s available, moving or removing those interior walls that interfere and block ourselves from connecting with ourselves (and others) is neither dangerous nor daunting.

It’s actually freeing and fun.

 

 

 

 

 

Life was never meant to be ‘Safe’

I’ve had many conversations over the years (some quite recently, hence this blog) with parents whose major concern in life was with keeping their children (or child) safe. It’s an issue that is confronting every parent daily and that can transform simple decisions into debilitating quandaries.

As a parent of three, I am no idle spectator in this emotional arena.

These conversations, along with my own personal soul searching, have lead me to conclude and to admit that complete safety is impossible and that even relative safety is more of an act of trust than of an assurance of well being.

This is no easy thing to admit. And this is what leads so many of us to become stuck in fear and anxiety.

Life is simply a risky enterprise. That’s the truth of the matter.

Even if we had unlimited financial resources, the attempt on our part to eliminate all possible opportunities for injury or illness to our children would, in and of itself, be injurious and harmful to their natural and healthy development. Being overly protective does as much damage as does being reckless or negligent.

It is glaringly apparent from our own childhood experiences that we, as human beings, were designed to bump, bruise, bounce and break ourselves quite a bit. And we survived, grew and learned from those experiences…just as our children will. They deserve the chances to fall, to scrape, to cry and to get up and get at it again.

Life in a bubble, life without risks, is like a Nascar race run entirely under the yellow caution flag…staying in line…going in circles…not really a race…not really a life….

Now I know that Nascar, or any sport for that matter, cannot be a perfect analogy, but our craving for ‘safety’ is in contradiction to and defies our own experience; namely, that we feel most alive when the outcome is uncertain, when we have to take a chance, when we push ourselves beyond our comfort and convenience zones.

Sure, we will fail. Sure, we will fall. What we do then is what matters most.

The risks we take may be physical, emotional or intellectual, but we reveal ourselves to ourselves in those types of decision making moments when the outcome is far from certain. In those moments we are unthinkingly and profoundly aware of the raw possibilities that life presents us with.

I could or would no more wish to deprive my children of these experiences under the banner of keeping them safe than I could or would wish to undo my own missteps and batterings that I have experienced along my way.

It’s just life.

 

Personally, I blame Thomas Jefferson

It will take me a moment to get to TJ, otherwise known as The Pen of the Revolution, while I set the stage.

Setting the stage is what many of us do with our time. We do what we are doing in our present circumstances with the idea or intention that at some point, down the road of life, we’re going to be able to have all the pieces in place that will allow us to be able to relax and enjoy ourselves. We tell ourselves routinely what needs to be taken care of first before we’ll stop worrying or before we can relax. I call them the ifs and whens of our peace of heart. We put conditions on our circumstances that must be fulfilled prior to our feeling ok… whether it’s a certain type of house, a certain amount of money in the bank, a certain type of relationship, or car or job…we tell ourselves that we’ll feel much better if… or be much happier when

The reality of our lives, however, tells us that these goal posts are extremely moveable. No sooner do we cross (or even begin to get close) to meeting whatever condition it was that we had placed upon our joy, then we’re pushing that goal and ourselves out even further. For many, the goal has now been pushed into retirement. We’ll be able to stop worrying and enjoy when we’ve retired. It’s a dream we still cling on to. But it’s a mirage.

That’s the truth.

This time period of relaxed enjoyment doesn’t really happen when we get the good job (because we could lose it),  or the good relationship partner (because shit happens), or have children (if we want them),  or the nice house or any or all of this. We fooled ourselves into believing that our life would be different if and when, but it wasn’t. We all tend to simply raise the bar or move the goal, keeping our happiness out of reach.

This is where Thomas Jefferson enters the picture. He wrote (with the input of others) the Declaration of Independence. Here’s the beginning of the second paragraph (for those of you who may be unfamiliar):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (underlining mine and NOT in the original text.)

I think that the choice of the word ‘pursuit’ was unfortunate. He could have used any number of other words…the exploration of Happiness, or the fulfillment of Happiness, or the enhancement of Happiness, or the expansion of Happiness.

But no.

He opted for the word ‘pursuit’ and we have been set up for the ‘chase’ ever since…It’s as if our happiness were a wood nymph teasing us in the distance, taunting and daring us to run after it hither and yonder. The idea that he planted and that we’ve accepted is that our happiness is ‘out there’ somewhere and it’s our inalienable right to get on after it. We’ve been chasing it ever since.

But what if that’s incorrect?

What if our happiness is an inside job?

What if there never was a need to postpone our peace of heart and our enjoyment of life until some pre-conditions were satisfied?

What if our happiness isn’t out there somewhere in the future but has always been right here, available to us right now?

Wouldn’t that be worth exploring?

 

 

In the Audience

The speaker himself kept referring to how his life (and ours too) was far more fluid than he’d initially thought. Whether you considered your rhythms cyclical like seasons (blossoming, producing, declining and reviewing) or more like chapters or stages, our lives were subject to changing conditions that were both unpredictable and uncontrollable. This was one of his primary points, that we each were able to and were responsible for creating a path for ourselves that was fulfilling.

I went to sit in the audience not because he was expressing new or foreign concepts but to witness this aspect of his journey up close, first hand and to gather a sense of how he was being received from the people surrounding him.

He used to be a preacher. It was his calling from early on. He studied, started his ministry, was effective and, by most standards, popularly successful. In that phase or stage of his life, he focused on making the stories or journeys found in the Old and New testament relevant to his congregation. While he was doing that, he also continued to grow in his own awareness of his relationship with and his perception of the message.

Two things happened as he did: 1)His congregation grew so large as to overwhelm his physical ability to minister as personally as he so desperately wanted to and 2) he grew so far spiritually in his understanding of the ultimate message that some in his congregation balked. They wouldn’t follow. The two occurred in proximity and in parallel; he was burning out and people in the congregation (most? some?) were concluding that he had gone too far and had strayed from the truth. Understandably, there was a parting of the ways. It wasn’t especially amicable but it was necessary…if he were to be true to himself.

That was courage.

For him, as he expressed it, it felt like desperation.

It’s funny how that is.

Whenever we find ourselves at that moment of choice when we don’t know what the final outcome might be or what the endgame is but what we do know is that doing nothing or staying where we are would be unbearable, we’ll step out and try something different or new. From the outside, our action has all the indications of courage. Within ourselves, we’re desperate but willing.

These moments, and they occur everyday, do not involve living up to an outside duty or code of honor or someone else’s expectations. These are the moments wherein we step up and step out because we have chosen to be true to ourselves.

I’ve come to understand these moments as grace.

They involve me but they always feels like they’re more than only me. The situation and my life won’t unfold the same way without my participation but making honest, awakening choices and taking action doesn’t involve taking control or knowing the results. There is indeed a fluidity and a flexibility that feels spiritually athletic, graceful…somewhat effortless and still quite focused.

The speaker once a preacher talked about creating a space within ourselves and with one another that would allow and support these moments to be recognized, appreciated and gently explored.

He acknowledged the need for such spaces, the need for connection (he termed it solidarity) and that his intention with these small venue talks was to do his part. He couldn’t say where it would all lead, but he was enthusiastic about the possibilities ahead.

We share that in common.

 

The Set Up

I went to small social mingling. It was a low key, artsy sort of thing. Casual chilling in a large backyard on a beautiful Spring afternoon. The invitation was rather last minute and off the cuff as well. It was one of those, ‘Oh by the way’ mentions that expanded to include me.

Personal bucket lists being personal, I decided to attend and to put a check mark next to this one.

Besides, being surrounded by strangers doesn’t bother me. I’m stranger than most, but still safe to play with, so I just tell myself that I’m among friends I haven’t met yet.

After greeting the hosts and receiving the brief, polite introductions to the few people nearby, I sauntered off to graze and gaze.

Friendly canines wag their tails when they meet a stranger. Friendly people make eye contact, smile ever so slightly and nod.

It wasn’t long before curiosity or sympathy overcame a couple nearby and they walked towards me with all the signs of being nice. Which they were, of course…curious, sympathetic and nice.

The weather, the garden, the food and the generosity of the hosts to pull this all together were all discussed in turn and without incident.

It is at this juncture that someone usually makes the decision to either end the exchange  or to venture further. There are two stock questions when the decision is to talk a little further: 1) So, what brings you here? or 2) So, what do you do?

I love that they both begin with ‘So’. It’s such a clear indication of a transition past the initial phase of civility. It’s like we’re getting down to business.

I do not love, however, either of those two questions, not so much for the questions themselves but for what my honest answers have always been. Answer 1: “I don’t know really. For all I know, it could be to meet you.”  Answer 2: “I try to experience life in all its fullness.”

I never feel awkward in the silence that follows but I can’t say the same for the people who asked the question.

I set them up. I’m still wagging my tell (eye contact, slight smile) but I’m waiting.

My plain honesty set them up with an unexpected opportunity to be spontaneous and genuine. They were given an invitation to get real and a choice. This is not a right or wrong, good or bad choice. This is a ‘what would you like to do?’…step in or step away?

I don’t keep the hard data on these instances but my overall recollection is that this isn’t a coin toss moment. It’s not a 50/50 split in how it goes. It’s about a 75/25 split with the 75% being the people who step in and the 25% being those who step away.

I cannot tell you how heartening that is.

Most people really do want to connect, want to move beyond the sanitized and boring, and into something genuine…this moment, right here.

It’s not a challenge that they’re responding to because this isn’t a fight and there is no winning. It’s an invitation they’re accepting into an exchange that we’re all hungry for…an opportunity to be and to share ourselves.

 

 

Center of the Universe

Without going into great detail, I’d like to begin with a reminder: For a very long time, the earth was considered to be the center of the universe. Everything, including the sun, revolved around the earth… (except those things that seemed stationary or fixed, the most distant specks of light. These were thought to comprise a ceiling of sorts around the universe). How quaint.

Depending on who wants to pick a fight with me, I’ll just say that in 1543 (Western culture time) a guy named Copernicus wrote his book proposing a heliocentric (sun at the center) view of things. Reportedly, he died on the same day that he held its printed copy for the first time. Make of that what you will.

In the absence of social media, it took nearly 70 years for the theological and psychological implications of his theory to reach full controversial levels. The excrement and the fan, while they were slow to hit, created quite the storm which involved the full weight of the Catholic Church (in particular) on one hand and Galileo (as notable figurehead) along with the fledgling scientific community on the other.

Looking back at it all with the luxury of 400 or so years, it’s not hard to understand how this all played out rather necessarily and somewhat naturally. As advanced they considered themselves back then, and they did, I have little doubt we will also be looked upon 400 years from hence as being rather youngish and ill informed.

Remember how it was when we were infants? Life did indeed begin with us (as far as we were concerned) and everything did revolve around us. We were the center of our own universe. If something wasn’t directly in front of us, it didn’t exist. If something wasn’t directly affecting us, it didn’t mean anything to us. We were raw stimulus and response, sensation and reaction. We were also quite demanding, made frequent messes of everything and often had to be restrained to prevent us from hurting ourselves. As my mother used to say, ‘If you hadn’t have been so adorable at times, you never would have made it past three.’ (she had nine children by the way, telling us each the same thing)

Necessarily and naturally, we must each individually develop and outgrow our self-centeredness. Otherwise we will always be demanding, always be making messes out of things and not always have someone around to prevent us from hurting ourselves.

I am speaking from personal experience.

There was a period in my life during which I was the king in the kingdom of me. Nothing mattered unless and until it directly related to me. The sun rose and set as I wanted by the simple drawing of the windows curtains. I did what I wanted when I wanted and how I wanted to.

What I believed was that I was being true to me.

What I discovered was that I was being trapped by me.

Being the center of my universe nearly killed me.

Being centered in the universe is what has brought me back into life.