"I help those who hold a noble aspiration (leaders primarily) answer life’s two most important questions: What’s going on, and what’s the healthiest action I can take in this moment?"
In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?
~ Gabrielle Roth
A friend of mine recently surprised me with the news that he was what’s known as trans-gender. I don’t know if he exactly considers himself a woman in a man’s body, but it’s in that neighborhood. At the very least he is a male with rather strong female sensibilities. If you were to meet him, unless you were especially sensitive to such things (which I am not), I’m pretty sure you’d consider him just a regular guy, though smart, insightful, visionary even, and kind. At least that’s how I think of him, in addition to being one of the strongest leaders I know. Anyway, I shared this news with my bride, who smiled at me and said, “A man after your own heart. Who the heck knows what you are?”
I considered it a lovely compliment.
He composed, edited and revised some 700 poems without committing a single one to paper. All were stored in his head. Because he was a poet. Because he had nothing to write with or write on. Because for nearly three decades he was in prison and labor camps.
What is your heart’s instant response to this image? This isn’t a trick question. There’s no right answer. What do you feel?
The question was: How would you know a mature person if you met one? Forget about old, prosperous, well-educated, professionally accomplished, socially admired and whatnot. We’re talking maturity of the heart.
What matters isn’t how well you play when you’re playing well. What matters is how well you play when you’re playing badly.
~ Martina Navratilova
My beloved and I are the friends we dreamed of being when we were married 35 years ago. Of course at the time we knew nothing about the many deaths it would take to be such friends––beginning with the death of any belief about what it means to love, the death of any notion of who we are...and the death of our marriage itself.
I’m a great fan of despair, the reality felt in every cell of our being that where we are is profoundly contrary to our heart’s desire, and that if we don’t change our relationship with the person in the mirror we will know nothing but untold misery. Life doesn’t get much better than that, truth be told, because it can lead to a commitment to go to any lengths to live love.
That my beloved and I each encountered such a dark night of the soul some 25 years ago and allowed it to serve us is among the great joys of our life.
We look at each other today and what we feel most isn’t pride or some sense of accomplishment, or even love, as present as that is. What we feel most is gratitude. And not gratitude for this or that so much, but gratitude for everything.
Like taking a shower while wearing a raincoat, it’s hard to fulfill our heart’s desire if we’re attached to avoiding conflict. Few actions are more contrary to the passionate pursuit of anything really special––like, say, having a peaceful heart, or being a good parent, or growing professional chops, or creating an organization that responds well to anything.
Would I kill my wife, the love of my life? Is it possible that I would consider such an act an expression of my depthless devotion to her? I doubt I’m the only person entertaining such questions, not in the wake of the recent demise of Charles and Adrienne Snelling.
Imagine being able to cause a packed auditorium of adolescents to sit stark still with their mouth open for an hour. My friend Odds Bodkin can do that. Odds is a master storyteller, able to mesmerize just about anybody whose imagination is open to even a little adventure.
At heart, a good storyteller is someone who helps us explore life’s most important questions. Stuff like what’s going on, who am I, and how would I know a healthy life if I saw one? Artists with blazing gifts like Odds Bodkin, along with our favorite teachers, saints and those random screwballs who seem to drop by from outer space to light up our heart, help us engage those questions from a distinct and memorable perspective. But the most important storyteller in our life, the only one who really matters, is us. Ultimately, we create the stories that answer those questions for ourselves, and thus define our life, our happiness, our sense of place in the world.
My grandson, Sam, 14, lives in upstate New York. Like countless other adolescent lacrosse players in his part of the world, he dreams of the day his blood turns orange as he takes the field for Syracuse. This past week, at a local indoor sports complex, Sam was waiting for a game to wrap up so his team’s contest could begin. A boy on one of the teams playing in that preceding game, a boy from a neighboring town whom Sam had competed against any number of times, was struck by the lacrosse ball on the chest in the perfect spot at the perfect moment in the heart’s rhythm to cause his heart to stop. It is a rare, freakish event with the medical name of “commotio cordis.” As almost always happens, apparently, resuscitation was unsuccessful.
You have to reject one expression of the band before you can have another. And in between you have nothing. You have to risk it all.
~ Bono (of the band U2), in the documentary “From the Sky Down”.
The rest of us may not be able to jump underwater on a pogo stick in the Amazon for three hours and forty minutes, but we recognize that what it takes to do so is no more than what it takes to meet each moment of our day with love.
Imagine being 50 and fabulously successful on society’s terms at every step of your life. You were probably valedictorian of your pre-school class, and the playground kids always voted you captain. Today you’re CEO of a prosperous organization populated by wonderful colleagues who, for good reason, think you’re pretty terrific.
Now imagine discovering that all that has brought you to this point in your life is not enough to take you where you want to go.
Since birth, it seems somebody’s been whispering in my ear, “Look outside yourself for reflections of God, but for the experience of God, look within.”
The universe has a great sense of irony. I find the inner depths fathomless. I know nothing, really. And yet, the more nothing I know, the happier I am.
Thomas Merton, speaking to God 70 Christmases ago, said this better than I can:
"Your brightness is my darkness.
I know nothing of You and, by myself,
I cannot even imagine how to go about knowing You.
If I imagine You, I am mistaken.
If I understand You, I am deluded.
If I am conscious and certain I know You, I am crazy.
The darkness is enough."
~ Thomas Merton, prayer before midnight mass at Christmas, 1941 [Thank you Parabola magazine.]
In my childhood, I used to get angry at injustices. One day I saw how foolish it was: I could not change the world in a minute by a display of wrath. I raised my hands and vowed: “I will never be angry again.” Since then, I have never been angry within, though I can be outwardly fiery when necessary.
Just as by the power of thought you can change yourself to be whatever you want to be, so most importantly, you will be able to change your consciousness from that of a mortal to a divine being.
~ Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952)
Hurricane Irene beat the snot out of Vermont this past August, 2011. The most destructive natural disaster in the state’s history, they say. A few lost their lives. More than a few lost everything else. Everybody lost something, if only their attachment to what is and isn’t possible in their own backyard.
Some smartypants, who heard me pontificate that how we define our world creates our world, recently asked if I could define myself.
If I’d thought about it, I would have said what my beloved Yogananda once remarked: I’m a tiny bubble of laughter in the sea of mirth. Thankfully, instead of searching for poetry, I simply opened my heart and found myself blurting, “I am a very gifted person.” By that I didn’t mean talented, as many do when they use that adjective. I meant, literally, a person who has been given gifts––in my case, beaucoup.
An eccentrically spiritual zillionaire of my imagination once asked me to design a “golf experience” on his private nine-hole course that comprised the backyard of his Adirondack summer cottage.
The only direction I received can be summed up by his remark: “Anyone who thinks this course is about golf will think naked skydiving is about transportation.”
Disappointment is anger. Anger is fear. Holding on to fear is a choice. Therefore, disappointment is a choice. People and events don’t disappoint us. We impose disappointment on ourselves by how we choose to see. Love or fear is the only choice we make...because it’s the only real choice there is. And the fun part is: love and fear can’t exist simultaneously. It’s either one or the other...moment by moment. We humans have so much power it should take your breath away.
9/11 has been one of the most life-affirming events in our nation’s history––unimaginably painful, to be sure, but inspiringly beautiful nonetheless.
I’m speaking specifically of the countless stories of how individual people (from those who perished that morning to those born since) have chosen to respond to the trauma initiated at 8:46 A.M ten years ago.
The stories are everywhere on this 10th anniversary, one more poignant than the next, so I have nothing to add on that score. What can be useful to remember, I find, is a lesson the stories offer us. At the core of every circumstance, beyond good and evil, is the opportunity to grow love.
Furthermore, love is a choice...as is our every response to life.
Arresting, emotionally powerful, meaningful, memorable––those four terms may define effective communication, but they don’t mean much until we’ve decided that the idea in our noggin is actually worth banging our gums on. So how do we do that? What filter, if any, might we wish to place between the phantasmagoric smorgasbord within our cranial vault and each sound that pops out of our mouth?
Forty years ago my pop dropped dead while playing golf one glorious October Saturday morning on his home course overlooking the oddest of New York’s Finger Lakes, the one shaped like a Y. At 65, it was a fitting exit for a guy who’d lived a charmed life. That today I, too, enjoy no shortage of wild-ass blessings amidst the many pains of ignorance, reminds me how much my dad is part of me.
I can’t count how many times my own unmanaged fear prompted me to wish that the elders in my life with Alzheimer’s would die. Still, it wasn’t anywhere near the number of times I’ve been grateful for all they’ve taught me about how to love.
[This essay, offered in May 2011 upon the announcement of Osama bin Laden's death, was first published in February 2007]
I’d food fight the Dalai Lama on the back of a crocodile (prime time on ESPN, of course) if I felt the world’s love quotient would rise a tick. So if Osama bin Laden were to ring me here at the farm and ask would I consider taking him on as a client, I’d say sure, I’d consider it. In my imagination, the rest of our conversation might go something like this:
One hundred fifty years ago this month (1861) our nation’s Civil War began. More than 600,000 participants died because those with the influence to bring about such devastation trusted that they understood the mind of God––at least enough to create enemies and kill them.
Seventy years ago this month (1941) in Annapolis, Maryland (according to John McPhee in his essay “Spin Right Shoot Left”), the lacrosse team of the United States Naval Academy refused to take the field if Lucien Alexis, Jr., of Harvard did, too. Alexis was black. Harvard sent him home. Of course, both institutions, I’m sure, were convinced they represented the noblest ideals of our nation, and indeed of humankind.
Surely we can all think of examples today of how such ignorance manifests itself...maybe even in ourselves, if you can believe it.
Maybe someday our moments will include a unique, in-the-flesh, relationship with a being whose consciousness and God’s are one. And won’t that be wonderful. But Buddha sitting across the breakfast table, and our days guided by a host of angels doesn’t change the reality that our spiritual journey is our responsibility—choosing love, breath by breath.
~ Mirror Man
I’ve been privileged to help a rather special CEO bring forward a vision for his company that is among the most powerful statements of common intention I’m aware of. Should you, dear reader, have an interest in such things, I would gladly mail you a copy of the foundational brochure we produced. It’s titled, The Seed: Essence of a Noble Aspiration.
I’m writing this on 2/22 (2011), which happens to be my 22nd anniversary as a recovering alcoholic. Serendipitously, the day of the week is Twosday. Other than amusement, the cosmic significance of that numerology is lost on me. But not the significance of being an alcoholic, a blessing of the highest order.
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
~ Maya Angelou
You’ve probably heard of Irish Alzheimer’s: “You forget everything but resentments.” Much as I love the joke (being born with Guinness in my DNA), it’s hard to imagine that any tribe, even those from the isle of saints and scholars, has the corner on resentments. The way many of us behave, you'd think we couldn't live without them.
The push to change the words “nigger” and “injun” in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, because the so-called offensive nature of those terms might limit today’s readership and appreciation of that literary classic, is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how we avoid taking responsibility for our feelings––and therefore miss the chance to become more awake, more whole, more useful friends to one another.
My niece Elizabeth, a high school senior applying to colleges, represents the very best in humankind because, when asked on the admissions form what idea challenges her most, answers, “How to be happy.” At least that’s what her heart says.
I actually saw a guy ask that in a presentation he was giving on happiness.
His point was that while, in the short-term, the answer is no doubt obvious, long-term it’s a bit trickier....
Goofball land, where the only certainty is the anguish of unfulfilled desires, is created by those of us who link our happiness to things we cannot control. Stuff like a mosquito bite, or that our daughter’s sweetheart is female, or the election of “their” moron rather than “our” champion of righteousness. Actually, I have a sneaking suspicion that the banner titled “Things We Cannot Control” covers every single option imaginable except one: where we choose to place our attention––love or fear.
A story of fresh juicy blueberry pie, even when told by the likes of Shakespeare or Beethoven or Picasso, is a long haul from the experience of actually smooshing our face into one, noshing away to our tummy’s content.
My bet is that even the most articulate among us––beginning with whatever fabulous communicator you admire most––lives with the cool understanding that there is a grand canyon between what’s in their mind and heart and their ability to express it.