You and Me Together

You and me

we’re at the heart of the matter

we’re at the nub…the rub…the only place that can and will make a difference

if you will not, then I cannot do this alone

if I will not, then you will not want to either

it’s us or it’s nothing at all

Up until now, we have agreed to let one another sleep.

We have sheltered in glass and agreed to not throw stones.

Up until now we have clinked and clicked pebbles in a coy and polite fashion to get one another’s attention, in an attempt, though shallow, to break in and to break out. Yet, we have never actually wanted to throw anything weighty enough or with sufficient force to do either…to break through or to break out.

We kiss each other through the glass of our sheltered hearts and complain that it leaves us untouched.

The course of our lives has been misdirected. We have inherited false maps and faulty compasses.

The possibility of this being the truth, we can hardly dare to imagine.

We cannot conceive that those we have loved, respected and admired were also misled.

Generation after generation, each well intended but completely misinformed, following the circular cycle to nowhere, convincing one another that progress must be being made because look at how long we’ve been walking.

The issues of equality, freedom and cooperation are still unresolved.

In theory, we think and persuade ourselves that we are heading towards them. Yet, our choices and our actions are consistently based upon putting ourselves ahead and above others, restricting and controlling whole populations in the name of security and constantly resorting to conflict (whether it’s called it economic competition or warfare) to justify our most self-centered impulses.

Each generation, as it ages, morphs from idealism to realism to cynicism, from trying to dying, from hope to dope, from wanting to do better to praying we didn’t make things worse.

It’s you and me together.

Or it’s nothing at all.

 

 

 

Expertise

 

It’s not hard for me to take a look around wherever I happen to be and notice lots of things that I know little or nothing about.

For example, at this very moment I’m sitting on a wooden chair with a cushion at a kitchen table. The kitchen table is also made from wood which has been stained, marked and sealed to look ‘stressed’. I have no idea what type of tree the table or chairs were made from. I have no idea what materials or processes were used to fashion the cushion. I won’t even pretend to know what specific colors they might be. (If you have ever dealt with a clothes designer, interior decorator or house painter you’ll know what I’m talking about. Who knew how many types of white or black there could be?)

But let me go on. Within my immediate field of vision there’s a refrigerator, electric stove, cabinets, kitchen sink, more wood for the floor, light fixtures, windows, coffee maker, juicer, and this here darn computer. All of which I’m familiar with as an end user. None of which I have any in depth knowledge of. I know nothing about where the raw materials came from, what processes and additional materials were needed to reshape and create each, who were the people involved in that manufacturing sequence (where were they from, what were they like, was this a good job for them?) and how it all ended up here. I do have a limited and working knowledge of how to maintain and repair most of what I’m looking at. That’s about it. Beyond that, I have phone numbers of people with more expertise.

So, if I can do this at my kitchen table, imagine how I can do this in a subway car, or laying on a beach, or walking my dog in the woods. I look around and am constantly noticing things that I know little or nothing about. None of this makes me feel inadequate. I am not supposed to know everything about everything. Not knowing is quite normal. (But more on that in just a moment.)

I want to bring you back to those phone numbers that I have. They put me in contact with people that know, at the very least, more than me. That’s what I hope. They advertise themselves as ‘professional’ or ‘expert’ but we have no real way of judging that. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see a billboard or commercial with the tag line, “Bill’s Repair Service: we may not know everything, but we certainly know more than you.”? I’d hire that guy.

Anyways, here’s the thing: there are certain problems, questions or situations that can stump the first level of expertise we call upon. They don’t know or can’t figure it out either. If we’re fortunate, we get referred to the next level of expertise. At this next level, usually 9 out of 10 issues can be solved or answered. One out of ten, though, will still be a stumper. Again, if we’re persistent and lucky (stubborn and ornery) we can be referred to yet another level of expertise.

So, you get the idea, right? There’s a phone tree of experts out there for any particular subject. If we are willing to stay on the line (keep pursuing the answer), we will get transferred from ‘expert’ to ‘expert’ up the knowledge chain with the belief that we will eventually end up with the ‘one who really knows’. The expert’s expert.

I’ve done this on numerous occasions for various problems or questions.

It’s a fascinating experience.

Here’s the summary:

If my quest involved a mechanical problem, at the level of the expert’s expert, their answer has been: “I can tell you how to fix that but it would be too expensive. You’re better off just buying a new one.”

If my quest involved a medical situation or even a scientific question, at the end of the line, at the expert’s expert level, the answer has been: “We don’t know exactly. They’re are numerous theories out there. We’re still doing a lot of work on that.”

Not knowing seems to be the norm.

I want you to know that.

I know I’m not perfect but…

Somewhere between absolutely right and completely wrong is where we meet the reality of ourselves every day. It’s where we experience life and, in that sense, it’s where we live. The two extremes are mental and emotional fictions. One we desire, the other we dread. And it’s not always the same one. We can dread being right and desire to be wrong just as easily as the reverse.

When I state that both are fictions, that neither extreme actually exists or is possible, I say it in the same manner that True North as navigational point also doesn’t exist. Apart from local factors that can influence our compass point or directional instruments, the magnetic field of our planet itself fluctuates. True North is an abstract. As explorers will testify, having an indication of North as an orientation point is extremely useful. Without such an orientation, venturing into the unknown would only be an exercise in becoming lost. But that’s all True North (or even North) is. An orientation, not a destination.

Perfection is another fiction. I’ve asked many people to complete the thought/sentence that is the title of this blog. Here’s how every single person (thus far) has done it: “I know I’m not perfect but…I would like to be”. Now, there have been some small variations in the exact wording…’but I try to be’, ‘but I should be’, ‘but I want to be’…but the essence of the answer is the same. Perfection is the goal. Perfection is what most of us are aiming for. Being ‘absolutely right’ would be perfect.

And, actually, we’re all aiming for something that doesn’t exist. It’s easy to understand why we keep missing it.

Wanting to learn, wanting to improve, wanting to grow and develop…these are understandable and, for the most part, healthy.

However, we are not perfect. Ever. There is no such thing.

We are all works in progress. That is as perfect as it ever needs to be. We are our happiest when we are growing. Nothing is ever truly finished. Our misery and suffering begin at the precise moment we stop wanting to learn…when we think we know…when we’re ‘absolutely right’. That’s when the pain, the realization of something we overlooked, misunderstood, or never saw coming, reveals itself. Time after time after time.

The voice that drives our search for perfection is a tyrant. It is a loud voice, ripe with restless dissatisfaction. There is greed in that voice, as well as egotistical pride. When we are driven by this voice there can be no quiet appreciation, no enjoyment of the moment and no savoring of the incremental progress being made. Anything less than perfection is flawed, worthless junk.

And that’s how we come to see ourselves. Flawed. Worthless. Junk.

This is one of the most crippling voices I have ever encountered in myself. And one of the most damaging voices I deal with in others

Initially, as I struggled to not listen to the voice that demanded perfection, I felt as if I had abandoned my most noble quest, my highest calling, and settled for the mediocre.

These feelings were all a part of my delusion.

I have discovered that I do not have to be perfect in order to be loved. I do not have to be right in order to be valued and respected. I do not have to know something completely in order to be able to contribute to the conversation.

My remaining open to learning and willing to keep trying is so perfectly human, so totally lovable, that I almost missed it…

…as the voice of perfection urged me to chase the mirage.

The Need to Know

It has always amused me when I’m watching a fictional story (TV show, movie, national news) when one of the characters is asking the relevant questions and they’re told that they can’t be given those answers because that information is available only on a ‘need to know basis’.  The Truth is always Classified. The reality of a situation is above their pay grade. The character and the audience both know that whatever that something is, whatever is being kept secret, isn’t flattering (mildly phrased) to someone. Someone has something to lose. Someone is protecting someone or something. From the truth.

Of course, this is all in the fictitious arena of entertainment…and the nightly news. I include the nightly news because, on a daily basis, people in that business are making editorial decisions as to what it is they think that we, the people watching, need to know. They choose which stories to run, which to quash, which to follow up on and which to let fade away. Decisions are made that reflect their judgment as to what we need to know and what they think will drive revenue. Decisions that we will never know about. Moreover, we won’t ever know the true basis for their decisions. Even the people within that business are informed on a need to know basis. Pursuing the truth can cost you your job, perhaps your career.

I mention this because we forget sometimes. Quite often actually. We forget that when we enter a stage or movie theatre, one of the requirements of the audience is to bring “a willing suspension of disbelief “. Otherwise, we wouldn’t enjoy the show, the story, the acting and the drama. We would simply be sitting there telling ourselves and each other that none of what we’re seeing is real, that none of what they’re saying is actually true. But none of that matters. We enjoy a good story so much, we’re willing to be swept away by the fiction.

That’s understandable in a theatre.

What has become increasingly confused, however, is the distinction between entertainment and information. Most of us will sit in front of the television to receive both. It was only a matter of time before we, ourselves, were no longer demanding a clear separation between the two. We, through our viewing preferences, indicated that we wanted our information to be more entertaining and our entertainment to contain more factual information. The people in that business were only too willing to oblige. After all, they’re in business to make money.

This is not an indictment. This was not a conspiracy.

But we have incrementally, and now systematically, neutralized what used to be one of the most forceful checks on the wrongdoing of institutions, governments agencies and big business. We have neutralized the outrage of an informed public because we no longer know what to believe from the primary sources of our information. They have been compromised. They do not seek to level the playing field with accurate information and full disclosure. They do not let the chips fall where they will. They are in the business of selectively steering the chips into their pockets.

Again, I must state that this is not an attack on anyone or the news media in particular. This unhealthy progression took place within the course of normal human events and situations. We, ourselves, fell asleep in front of the whole process.

All I’m asking is for you consider that, not only do we have the need to know, we have the right to know.

Our collective well being depends upon it.

 

 

 

 

The Smile Reflex

There’s something about this experience called life that makes taking ourselves too seriously impossible.

We smile as a reflex response. It’s no different than our eye blinking when an object suddenly comes close, or our leg jerking when the doctor taps it with the rubber mallet, or our flinching at a loud noise nearby. Reflex responses. We can smile at something that just crossed our minds, at the sight of someone who walked through the door, at the soft play of candlelight on our lover’s face, at a child chasing a puppy…and so much more. There’s no need to think about smiling before we do it. In fact, the common way to refer to these instances is to say that ‘we caught ourselves smiling’. We realized we were smiling after we had smiled.

These are moments of appreciation…unscripted…unedited…uncensored…undeniable. They occur frequently and randomly everyday and everywhere. That’s part of their charm. And we smile. And, if we’re paying attention, we notice that we smiled.

A coworker brings you a cup of coffee made just right without you asking, there’s a tap on your shoulder and a stranger hands you the phone you had unknowingly left on the counter, a friend you’ve been wondering about happens to send you an email with a goofy picture that captures what you’ve always liked about them, the repair person tells you that everything is still covered under warranty, the song in the elevator reminds you of that time in Jamaica.

None of these moments can be planned or predicted. They simply show up. This is so obvious that it could be a bumper sticker:

The unexpected. It’s not what you saw coming.

Here’s what’s not so obvious: we love these moments. We feel most alive in those few seconds…before our brains kick in…before we cover up emotionally and guard ourselves again. We love surprises. We enjoy the non ordinary, the break in the routine, and the opportunity to improvise. We smile during these moments and we smile when we remember them. We tell stories about them. We enjoy them at a level that our thinking doesn’t understand. That our thinking won’t allow.

I’ve delved into this in greater detail in my book but the essence is: life itself is a risky business. When we strive to take the risk out of life, we take the life out of ourselves. We deaden ourselves with caution and control, with being rational at the exclusion of all else, with being consistent at the expense of being creative.

There’s a line from a song, “I want to live, not merely survive.”

In the moment of a reflex smile, we feel alive.

Awakening to ourselves can begin with these. We would do well to linger and not rush by those feelings, to savor them, to explore them without explaining them, to pay attention to what it was that we felt. It’s in those moments that we can discover who we truly are.

And smile.

 

 

 

 

 

The Forces of Habit, Part 5

Day after day, as I randomly and repeatedly continued to alter small personal habits, two benefits emerged. The first was intentional: I did, in fact, make friends with change and the feelings/thoughts surrounding it. It was a bit of a game, a touch of whimsy, an element of playfulness I had long lost with life. In short, it was fun.

The second benefit was unexpected. I didn’t even know it existed. I didn’t have a name for it and had to search the web. It was there I met two concepts that somewhat matched or described my experience: ‘mindfulness’ and ‘present moment awareness’. You, yourself, may be already quite familiar with and practiced at living this way. So, I’ll be brief and try not to bore you.

From childhood I knew what ‘mind your manners’, ‘mind their feelings’, ‘mind their own business’ and ‘never mind’ all sort of meant. From these phrases and others, I had the idea that being mindful was directed towards and always involved interactions with other people. In private, in my own personal space, I didn’t need to mind anything really. I didn’t mind if I didn’t clean the sheets for weeks, or shower for days, or if I picked at my nose or bum, or left dirty dishes forever. I only minded any of that stuff if I had to go out or if someone was coming over.

So, when I began to ‘mind’ myself, notice my routines and my habits and, with a conscious choice, began to alter them slightly and randomly, I found my true ‘mindfulness’ expanding. I couldn’t ‘zone out’ and change at the same time. I couldn’t time travel mentally and still focus on the matter at hand. I couldn’t be asleep and awake in the same moment.

Without knowing it, I was choosing to wake up. I thought I had merely wanted to not be so predictable, so stale, so very boring in my own opinion of myself. Small, intentional  variations were the opening to profound possibilities. By being ‘mindfully present’, I wasn’t directing or orchestrating my growth. I was allowing it. When I washed the dishes and noticed the warmth of the water, the smell of the soap, the sound of the glass the instant it became squeaky clean and so on, my appreciation for my hands, my health, my dexterity and my life subtly expanded. And I would reflexively smile. And I noticed that too.

Whatever it was that I had intentionally changed, I noticed particularly.

When I noticed particularly, I was being mindful and in the present moment.

When I was mindfully in the present, I was never bored. I was able to notice far more aspects of the present than simply the one thing I had altered. My awareness was expanding. It wasn’t expanding because of the force of my will. It was expanding because I had opened myself to it.

For this, I am and always will be grateful.

I was no longer living on autopilot.

I was owning myself.

 

 

 

 

The Forces of Habit, Part 3

Take a moment with me now and let’s do some imagining. I want you to imagine doing any or all of these things every day for at least one year:

  • reading or reciting your favorite poem (the same poem) when you wake up
  • listening to your favorite song every time you start your car
  • reciting the same prayer every night before you go to sleep
  • staring at your favorite picture for ten minutes
  • dancing your most graceful steps to your favorite beat for 5 minutes straight
  • watching the movie Frozen with your 5 year old daughter until she turns 6

So, with all of that imagination activated, imagine how long it would take for your favorite poem to loose its ability to stir you, or your favorite song to become that last thing you’d ever want to hear again, or your favorite prayer to go stale and mechanical, your favorite picture no longer really touching your heart, or your dancing becoming a drag, or Frozen becoming a nightmare in your sleep?

So I’ll repeat: habits are not benign. Habitually doing anything will quickly drain away whatever enjoyment or appreciation we had felt for that thing, person or activity. It happens every time. Doing anything the same way all the time is unnatural.

There is no such thing as a good habit.

(Discipline and dedication are not to be confused or compared with habits. With discipline and dedication there can be learning and growth. With habits, there is only repetition and stagnation.)

When I began the practice of noticing myself (as explained in Owning Ourselves), the number of habits I discovered startled me. I had routine ways of doing almost everything.

Having speculated to myself that one of the underlying rationales for the formation of habits in general might be to ‘free’ up mental time and energy for more important matters, I put that theory to an informal test in myself. I simply tried to pay attention to where my thoughts went while I was doing routine tasks like showering, eating, washing the dishes or even watching television. You know, normal stuff. I soon realized that my mind, my thinking aspect, didn’t really have more profound or pressing concerns to attend to. Most often it was just time traveling…off into the future with some imaginary conversation, job or relationship or back into the past with either a rewrite or a pang of nostalgia or regret. There was little that was helpful or relevant, nothing pressing or pertinent.

It seems as though my mind, my thinking aspect, gets bored quite easily. Once it determines that the current situation is familiar, it doesn’t want to be here. It’s behaves like a spoiled 16 year old at a family gathering. It checks out. Here’s what I mean:

It was more than a little curious for me to notice myself mowing the lawn while mentally speculating who might win the US Open Tennis tournament that year and should I get new tennis shoes for myself, now that these are getting grass stains on them, and how come my wife buys so many new shoes anyways, does she have a problem and won’t it be nice when the weather starts to cool down this September and shouldn’t I get a decent shovel this year, at long last, in case we actually get a real snow here in North Carolina?

And all of this passes through my mind in about 20 seconds…while I continue to push the mower and pay no attention to the smell of the grass, the breeze on my face, the healthy energy in my legs and all of the insects scattering for dear life in front of this death trap.

I noticed and eventually concluded that, for myself, my personal habits were not a way of ‘freeing’ my mind at all. Doing things habitually was, in truth, a way of trapping me and keeping me in the virtual world of my ‘mind’.

It was, perhaps, the most powerful force of all behind my habit forming.

My fascination with my own thinking.

 

 

 

 

The Forces of Habit, Part 2

Habits are hard to change. There are forces at work that encourage us to form them and there are payoffs in place that reinforce their use.

As Habits Part 1 described, forming habits is one way we have learned that appears to allow us to get things done without having to pay much attention to them during the doing. For sure, certain complicated situations do require most of our attention, even our checklists (going into space, flying an airplane, opening a Broadway show, getting Valentine’s Day right) but we seem to presume, feel and then proceed to act as if the simpler stuff of life can be relegated to and handled by forming habits around them. (I’ve hinted that this may be a false and misleading presumption.)

In America, habits are bottled and sold as some sort of magical elixir. There doesn’t seem to be a month that passes without there being a new book or seminar being offered which list the habits of “successful” people for us to adopt and then, presumably…abra ca dabra…, become “successful” too. Habits are promoted as a fool proof method of duplicating someone else’s results. Well, we all know that nothing is fool proof. We fools are too ingenious. But the idea of “habits” being the key to our “success” has been firmly implanted. This is the powerful force of persuasion.

Another force at work is the perceived payoff of a habit, namely, that a habit allows us to lock into place what we consider to be a successful way of doing something. In other words, if we have found/discovered a way of doing something that ‘works’ for us, we make a habit out of it because it’s one less thing we’ll have to think about again. It doesn’t matter one bit to us if no one else does it the same way, this is the way that we’ve decided works for us and, by golly, we’re sticking to it. Our habits then become our way of exercising some control in our lives.

And we will adamantly fight to maintain this sense of control, our way of doing things, our right not to have to rethink or to pay that much attention.

Which may be fine, one could imagine, if someone lived or worked completely alone.

Everyday, in households around the world, relationships that do reasonably well when addressing bigger issues are falling apart over the refusal to reexamine or adjust some simple habits. Personal flags are planted on mole hills, battle lines are drawn and the resulting emotional carnage kills whatever goodness the relationship once shared.

The forces behind our habits are not benign.

This is the primary reason to shed some light into this area of our behavior.

If we’re going to choose to fight, we might just want to look honestly at what we’re fighting for.

What Matters

I’ve been receiving many kind comments and thanks for Owning Ourselves, the book I’ve written which describes a practical path to personal awakening. I am grateful that the book is being helpful.

I have also been contacted by individuals who have expressed their interest in and professed their ability to help me. I referring to the nice people who would like to help me in the marketing of my message. SEOs anyone? (Search Engine Optimization) (I only know that because I asked). Much like I would treat a Jehovah Witness’s person at my front door, I entertain their fervor politely but briefly. They’re doing what they believe to be their best. I respect that. It’s never about them as a person.

The witnesses will often begin with the question: “Have you been saved?” The consistent lead off question from the marketeers is: “Who is your target audience?” My internal reaction to both queries is bemused confusion and my facial expression must be some sort of dead give-away in that moment because before I can ever begin to reply, they rephrase. The witnesses: “Have you accepted Jesus as your lord and savior?” The marketeers: “Who are you trying to reach?”

I will confess that, once or twice, I have playfully toyed and teased in both these situations in my responses. Not that I was demeaning or cruel. I was, however, less than sincere and candid. I’m not doing that anymore. It doesn’t feel as clean as I’d like to feel.

So here’s my experience: when I answer sincerely and candidly, it’s their turn to have a bemused confused look on their faces. With that, I consider I’ve returned the favor and politely end the conversation. They never protest the ending. They seem to welcome it.

Now, I won’t go into my truthful answer to the witnesses because that’s between me and them.

However, you…yes you, dear reader…are someone I am reaching. I don’t know how, really…the logistics and specifics of how you’ve found this page…whether it was through an internet search, intentional or accidental…or through a friend…or through my book…or…or…but the fact is we are here on this page together. And that, in itself, can be a moment of awe and wonder. Geographically you can be anywhere. As you are reading in this moment, we are here. I couldn’t have charted a course to here but I can be grateful for the gift of your presence.

My answer to the marketeer’s question is: “Anyone and everyone who is seeking.”

Age doesn’t matter. Country of origin or culture doesn’t matter. Language doesn’t matter thanks to instant internet translators. Gender doesn’t matter. Nothing that usually matters between people, matters here. Seeking is what matters. Not wanting to live in the blind darkness of repetition matters. Not wanting to feel constantly misheard or misunderstood when you question something more deeply…that matters. Not knowing if you’re the only one on the whole planet wrestling with profound shit matters. Wanting to grow and to continue to care and to flourish wherever you are…well, all of that truly matters.

You matter. I matter. We matter. We owe it to ourselves to never forget that nor to give up in our seeking.