Never Miss A Good Crisis

We are all in crisis right now.

But depending on our safety net (health, income, community support) as well as our attitude (are we scared, bold, or wise), we have the potential to make this a positive experience.

I can say these are some of the best days of my recent life. I’ve dumped my cluttered life , valued the curtailment of business travel, opened my heart to listen to the dissent of millions, withdrawn from unproductive social relationships, and taken the opportunity to go on an inward spiritual quest. I know that I am very fortunate. I don’t have to sit in food lines for hours, apply for unemployment reimbursement, or fear for my very life.

Here’s why I view this as a good crisis.

The Voice of the Oppressed is Being Heard

The message of millions demonstrating for justice is coming across loud and clear. At least to those who have the ears to hear.

I believe this could be an “American Spring”. 

We are in the middle of a revolution that has the potential of bringing us to what true democracy means. We should take into account the voices of our millions of disenfranchised and impoverished brothers and sisters. The people on the streets and prophets like Bishop William Barber are our change agents and hope for the future. These folks, more than the politicians, are the ones who will shape a better future for all.

It is not enough that Corporations are supporting Black Lives Matter with banners and financial bequests. For instance, is Facebook willing to weed out the twisted messages that stoke violence? Are large corporations, some of whom were the recipients of bail out money, willing to hire more persons of color, fire employees who show hate and prejudice, not cut their workforce, and actively work for a change of the culture of white male privilege?

Things Will Never Be “Normal” Again

We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that our world is forever changed. The other day on a videoconference one of my clients said “Cedric do you have a plan for your consulting practice in a world where WFH and social distancing is the norm and face to face consulting becomes a thing mostly of the past”? 

This is not a stretch of the imagination. Today we have Covid-19. What virus will be the next to hit our world? And why does everyone have to go to an office building to work? Let’s not allow a failure of imagination to steal from us the magic of this moment.

We all want our lives to go back to normal, attend ball games and concerts and other large social gatherings again. But what if such “normal” activity makes us a medical danger to others and ourselves?

What if I am being realistic and we have to redefine what it means to be normal and productive? 

An Opportunity to Define a “New Normal”

When the fuselage of a plane is placed in a wind tunnel during the production process the stress test exposes cracks and weaknesses in that aircraft. The upside of the current crisis has demonstrated cracks in our lives all the way from broken social structures, overly busy lives, and our life priorities.

The recalibration of life can be a very productive experience. Instead of shrinking back in fear, we have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves as we search out new work expression and ways to serve others. Not only are “Times A Changin” . They already have. So,

Question

What could your new normal look like?

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The Way Back to Our True Nature

(A new conclusion to the previous blog “The Portrait of a Control Freak”)

At the end of every self-centered effort the person loses his/her way or soul piece by piece. The ultimate antidote for the drive to control is a twofold process.

Surrender

Here we let go of our frenetic efforts to be safe, needing more, and knowing it all. All that is the mark of a worried and divided person. We surrender to a still inner voice that is described by Thomas Merton as our True Self or authentic person. 

When we admit “I can’t” and recognize the impermanence of life, a portal opens in us where our self-emptying is greater than the ego-self. It puts us in touch with a voice that has been there all the time. It also brings us back to our true humanity that is at one with all, complete in and of itself, and is the place where true meaning is found.

Love

We have to make a decision to love long before we have the inner feeling.

At times we have to enter the eye of the storm to go through it. We walk back into a situation that perplexes us and where our every inclination is to run like hell from it. That is especially true of those who have lower levels of natural empathy. 

The story of St. Francis is a case in point. He was repulsed by leprosy and he would not even allow his gaze to settle on a person with that disease. One day he came face to face with a leper and started running from him until he had the realization “What am I doing?” He turned around and willed himself to engage the situation he feared the most until he eventually could fully embrace the man. 

In the moments when we face the fear and do it anyway something deep within us starts to be released. Our hearts begin to melt and love emerges first in a trickle and then in a rushing stream. In this way we meet the outer world with our inner world.

Introspection

What is it that you fear the most, that you desperately try to hold back with control behaviors?

How then can you walk back into that feared situation (your prejudice?) and behave like a loving person until you feel/become a loving person? 

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Portrait of a Control Freak

We know what a pain in the gluteus maximus a control freak can be. They want us to conform to their way of thinking and disregard our needs. This is the suburban community that mandates houses to be painted a certain color and professional parents who will not allow a child to pursue an interest in art because they need a “real” job.

Control freaks come in versions other than those who just tell others what to do.  Other manifestations include,

I Know it All

Certainty is the privilege of the closed mind  – Author unknown

“Of course I’m right”! is usually the prelude to a relationship fight. As one grows in wisdom, the more extensive one’s education becomes, and the more one is a SME, , the more the realization sets in that 

The way of humility is to admit “I don’t know”.

Instead of having all the answers, the person with inner freedom to doubt accepted convention searches out the questions to explore. By contrast, the “know it all” is often someone who

Constricted in spirit and infinitely insecure. 

Has an internal world of emotional chaos. 

Wants cut and dried answers to life’s toughest questions.

The cocksure person misses the fact that much of life is grey and filled with paradox. They are like flat earth devotees who hear that the world is round. That knowledge either shocks them out of their rigidity or sends them scurrying back to the security of their prejudice.

The trouble with all mental reductionism is that it shuts our minds down as they slip into secure and familiar grooves. 

So instead of being like a lantern that sheds light in a large perimeter, closed-minded thinking becomes like a narrow beam of light with a sharp focus on a restricted area. Unless we have the courage to see the many shades of grey in our beliefs we are caught in the crosscurrents of the many varieties of error.

I Need More

The spiritual life is more about subtraction than it is addition – Meister Eckhart

Everything in life seems to be about adding value or accumulating more. This is one core tenet of what is potentially the dark side Capitalism. Here shareholder, customer, and employee value are the crown jewels of the corporate world. 

But when does the profit motive become greed? When is enough quite sufficient? And when does one recognize other ways to find meaning than just to climb corporate ladder’s to nowhere?

A focus on growth alone can work against the wellbeing of us individuals and the planet. How many more trees in the Amazon do we have to cut down to sustain our supply of meat?  

Consider one difference between humans and animals. Humans are focused on advancement and animals look to survive. The price we pay for advancement can be the destruction of our universe, compromised health, a fragmented society, zero sum treatment of others, and the radical division between the Haves and the Have Nots.

The push for more even infects spiritual pursuits. We learn mindful meditation in order to be more productive. As one devotee of an Eastern religion in Asia wrote:

“One teaching is, you make money Monday to Friday, then on Saturday and Sunday you come to the temple and meditate and your mind will be more supple and clear so that on Monday you can make more money.”

Contrast this with a more soul-driven statement from the Dalai Lama:

“If we begin with the simple act of regularly helping others, for instance, even if we don’t feel particularly kind or caring, we may discover an inner transformation is taking place, as we gradually develop feelings of compassion. 

So more is not necessarily better. Sometimes it can be disabling. What do we have to learn to experience 

“Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free”?

For control freaks the possession of more stuff and status becomes the controlling force in life. Our possessions control us rather than the reverse. They define our value and status rather than seeing us all as one and each having infinite value.

Another controlling influence is the drive for security. 

I Want to be Safe

Have you ever noticed how many fear-based advertisements purport to keep us safe from the bogeyman. They claim to give us safety from burglars, hackers, depreciation of our assets, and even illness? Add another layer of insecurity with the current Pandemic. Here a friend or stranger could be viewed as death sentence if they come too close and infect us.

There is no place of ultimate safety. Health and wealth can be here today and gone tomorrow. In the world of Covid -19 our lives are so fragile. In the face of an impermanent life safety is an illusion. It would be better to live by the dictum

“Our short time in this world must be lived as fully as possible” – Nicos Hadjicostis

In the end, all the mental gymnastics of the control freak pander to the small self (the ego), create the impression that we are the center of the universe, keep us from finding true freedom, rob us of the joy of living in the present, lock us into rugged individualism, and blind us to the fact that we may think that we are gaining the whole world while losing our souls. 

The way back to our true nature

At the end of every self-centered effort the person loses his/her way or soul piece by piece. The ultimate antidote for the drive to control is a twofold process.

Surrender

Here we let go of our frenetic efforts to be safe, needing more, and knowing it all. All that is the mark of a worried and divided person. We surrender to a still inner voice that is described by Thomas Merton as our True Self or authentic person.

When we admit “I can’t” and recognize the impermanence of life, a portal opens in us where our self-emptying is greater than the ego-self. It puts us in touch with a voice that has been there all the time. It also brings us back to our true humanity that is at one with all, complete in and of itself, and is the place where true meaning is found.

Love

We have to make a decision to love long before we have the inner feeling. Sometimes we have to walk back into a situation the perplexes us and where our every inclination is to run like hell from the person or situation. That is especially true of those who have lower levels of natural empathy.

The story of St. Francis is a case in point. He was repulsed by leprosy and he would not even allow his gaze to settle on a person with that disease. One day he came face to face with a lepor and started running from him until he had the realization “What am I doing?” He turned around and willed himself to engage the situation he feared the most until he eventually could fully embrace the man.

In the moments when we face the fear and do it anyway something deep within us starts to be released. Our hearts begin to melt and love emerges first in a trickle and then in a rushing stream. In this way we meet the outer world with our innate inner world.

What is it that you fear the most, that you desperately try to hold back with control behaviors? How then can you walk back into that feared situation and behave like a loving person until you feel like a loving person?

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Insight – A Coaching Case Study

Nothing can be changed until it is faced – James Baldwin

What we don’t acknowledge about ourselves and our society we don’t change. Insight is the prelude to all transformational change. This is especially true in our development as leaders.

If we ignore our hurts they goes underground and pop up in some inconvenient ways. What we don’t own controls us. Here as a psychologist I round up my usual culprits like reactivity, racism, anxiety, or addictions. Each some history of past hurt. Here we do well to heed the words of Richard Rohr

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it

Know it, heal it, and stop acting it out. That’s the healing journey towards positively impactful leadership.

Case Study

John’s negative emotions sabotaged his leadership effectiveness. His manager described him as an emotional accident waiting to happen. In response to the manager’s direct and forceful communication style John would either clam up with a “blank face” stare or react with off the wall comments. The same was true with team members who had strong opinions of their own. John was a top performer in the Marketing department and his manager did not want to lose him to the team. My mandate as his coach was to help him regulate his disruptive responses.

My read on John was that there were some unresolved emotional hurts beyond his level of consciousness. These sabotaged his work relationships. His inner conflicts were unconscious because despite frequent feedback about his reactive behavior John had failed to make the necessary changes.

 It was if he was attempting to swim while a huge undertow pulled him out to sea

His manager had coached him to emulate the more mature behavior of a trusted mentor, take communication classes, and denied him the promotion he wanted to a Director position. None of these coaching interventions had worked. There were deeper issues at stake that needed John to delve into his past.

 He needed insight-oriented coaching to deal with his emotional undercurrents.

One theme that became apparent was that John wanted to be to be in control at all times. It had to be his way or the highway. He tended to dominate conversations.

John’s History

John’s grew up with authoritarian father who demanded submission to his wishes or opinions. He never felt heard in his family. Early on John had learned to either clam up or act out. And since he had not transformed the pain of his past he was now transmitting it in unproductive ways. He was reenacting a childhood drama with team members who seemed to simulate the behavior of his father.

Components of John’s need for insight touched five areas of life; his emotions, body, cognition, interpersonal relationships, and meaning.

Emotions. At times John’s emotions were like a runaway truck. Through coaching he gained a plausible explanation (insight) for his/her current hot button issues. The uncontrolled welling up of his feelings connected to childhood conflict with his father. As he relived and validated the painful past experiences in the safety of an empathic coaching relationship he began to normalize his feelings. Each emotional reaction was a signal that something important needed attention. As a result he learned to hit a hold button and evaluate the situation more carefully.

Body. John was taught to identify bodily triggers that signaled out of control feelings. For instance, he noted that he clenched his fists, tensed his shoulders, and felt a knot in his stomach when he perceived he was being “resisted” in team meetings. Here relaxation exercises and the regulation of his breathing helped him deescalate his emotional responses.

 Cognition. Often in the middle of an emotional incident John found himself thinking, “They always reject my ideas. That’s because they don’t respect and like me”. In coaching he gained insight as to the irrationality of these thoughts, view the word “always” as a wild generalization, and learn to suspend judgement before either withdrawing or reacting. After practice he learned a more realistic response like “Conflict can be normal and helpful in making decisions”. He learned to sort out fact from fiction. 

Relationships. John was was a chronic mind reader. His big change was to discern the true intentions of others eg. Seeking the best solution for the customer. Like Abraham Lincoln who said, “I don’t like that person I need to get to know him better” John took time to develop friendships with individual team members. Over a period he became less inclined to demonize push back from others but saw these as healthy devil’s advocate behaviors. He also learned to view conflict as productive and not a reenactment of his relationship with his father.

Meaning. The pivotal insight for John was when he examined the most important factors in his work and family life. Making a contribution to the lives of others and his organization and aiming for very high standards were two of his true-North values. The coaching process reminded him to get a lazar focus on what was important to him. In so doing, he was transported beyond his personal pain.

In these five areas John transformed his pain into productive responses. What had once been an unconscious reactivity now became conscious healthy behaviors. Insight into the shadow of his pain, owning and normalizing his feelings, practicing healthy responses, and reminding him of what was important to him became a transformational experience.

Obviously insight is not the only component of leadership behavior change. However, it is a necessary but not sufficient prelude to transformation.

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What Really Matters to You?

When I look at what is happening in our world and then observe its impact on our lives I cannot resist asking 

“What matters, really matters to us right now?” 

Sometimes at the commencement of my coaching engagements I ask my clients that question. At first they are somewhat startled and respond with,“You don’t start with the easy stuff do you?” or “Yes, that’s what I have been thinking about lately”.

This Covid-19 crisis has knocked us off our pedestals of self-sufficiency, dislocated and devastated millions, made us rethink how we want our lives to be, and unfortunately made us fearful to the point that we sometimes forget what is important in life

We live in one of the most tranquil and beautiful places I have ever had the privilege of calling home. People who visit us call it “a piece of paradise” or a “little bit of heaven”. Set high in the hills in a sheltered valley surrounded by hundreds of Cottonwoods and, to boot, a river running through our property, no wonder when we found this place we thought that we had died and gone to heaven.

But with all that beauty, the outside world with all its horrors, sadness, challenges, and politics of ignorance and manipulation disturbing thoughts still intrude on this sacred space. For the sake of our personal sanity we have to, 

Not allow the outside to invade our inner being

We are also in the hospitality business. The other night I welcomed new guests who came here with their family as a respite from their months long “shelter in place” in another State. As I reflected on how I greeted them on their arrival I was alarmed at my fearful state of mind. 

“Be cautious when you go to the river because the raging waters from the spring runoff can be quite dangerous.” 

“Please don’t come too close in case one of us infects the other.” 

Quite a welcome to paradise! Is that what our world has come to? How could my mind be so filled with fear?

We cannot control the chaos in the outside world. But we can discipline our mental state through detachment, meditation, kindness, gratitude, and celebrating the beauty around us.

Don’t spend unnecessary energy focusing on political antics

All of life seems political right now. I don’t mean protests against injustice but silly antics over who wears a mask and who does not. Nor do I mean the politics of hope but those that divide us.

Such antics sometimes displaces science, allow fantasy to engulf facts, and the view where profit is more important than human life (sorry, old folks are not dispensable “warriors”, anyway I am now one of those old folks), self-interest takes precedence over community need, and nationalism trumps (excuse the pun) our being part of humanity as a whole. Also when we reflect on how our country as we know it is fast becoming a “failed state”, that thought alone can drive us up the wall. Just read Timothy Egan’s article in a recent NY Times “The World is Taking Pity on Us” and you will get my point. So, 

Ration TV News time. Restrict political discussions. Focus on hope and working for the cause of justice

And then focus on the deeper issues that make life worthwhile.

What really matters to you?

I woke up from a dream this morning with that recurring question ringing in my mind. That is quite the opposite of what we were told after 9/11 by our President, “Go shopping!” In the midst of such rampant materialism, the focus on the individual rather than the community and a life that neglects deeper values we need to find ways to challenge the status quo and reimagine the future.

We are now in the middle of one of those existential crises where we feel that the sky is falling down. But in all this we forget that with questions of meaning and significance the sky is not the limit, our imagination can be unbounded, and the best in the human spirit can emerge.

This could well be the dawning of a new day. I heard a speech by a politician recently that declared that although current events appeared to be days of darkness, she said

It is the darkness of the womb not the tomb.

Our world is suffering from birth pangs not a death rattle

I am being reborn when I return to the question of meaning or purpose. And that meaning is based on the hope that

There is light in the world that darkness cannot extinguish

So what brings meaning and light into your life?

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Sometimes Love Goes Nowhere Fast

Let’s examine love in the time of Covid-19. How do we experience this elusive and exquisite elixir of life? And what inhibits its expression?

Someone once said that people wrapped up in themselves make small and miserable parcels. That self-preoccupied state is the exact opposite of a robust and deep love that gets us through the worst of days like those we find ourselves in today.

However, love is so hard to pull off on a consistent basis. It waxes and wanes depending on our moods and the person we encounter. Sometimes you feel it. Sometimes you don’t. On bad hair days I can decide to love but a slight perturbation sometimes can bounce me back to my cranky self. I am reminded of Mary Karr’s comment about our difficulty with forgiveness (a derivative of love),

“The problem started when he hit me back”

How does one stay in a protracted loving state through thick and thin and when folks hit us back and life comes at us hard? Surely that’s only happens to enlightened ones or saints?

Here’s the road map to love. First we have to

Get the “i” out of dodge

Love always lives in the shadow of that “false self” the ego (the little “i”).

Here we are caught in a script of our own creation centered on performance, the opinion of others, and the illusion that we are in control (How quickly the virus smashes the illusion that we are in the driver’s seat in life). Regarding the illusion of control this morning my wife Kris wrote this Haiku

We wake up to death

Monkeys in our swimming pool

Who is in control?

The control fantasy of the ego-mind is a dream we choose to live by. It morphs into magical thinking and plain down and dirty denial. In so doing it unnecessarily sustains a personal and national nightmare. It prevents us from getting real and speaking the truth.

There is good news and bad news about ways we manage or overcome “little” i. 

The downside is that the ego does not exit easily from center stage.  It is deeply engrained in our culture and lodged in our psyche. It fights like hell to stay in control.

But dying to the ego-self is a necessary part of living from the True self. But this is easier said than done. We are literally prisoners to our dominant paradigm of life that renders much of life a bad dream.

Few achieve this enlightened state of a deceased ego. The way out of our self-imposed dilemma involves literally rebooting our conditioned thoughts and freeing our hearts to love. 

The other, better self/soul (Presence), is our permanent essence that we get partial glimpses of through our lives. But unfortunately for us it has to co-exist with its evil twin.

Finding Love in the Right Place

Here lies our most profound quest in life. 

But first, how exactly does one divest oneself of this contaminating ego?

Step One. Awareness

The worst thing I can do when my ego rears its ugly head is to deny its presence or try and push it out of my life. Saying, “go away” makes it come at one more forcefully. Any denial strategy becomes like the arcade game of Whackamo. Here one hits mechanical moles with a mallet as they pop up from their holes. The more you knock them down the more they pop up. A better way of managing the ego is to start by saying, “I see you. There you go again!”

Step Two. Compassion

When I judge myself for my small-minded ego responses, the result is that I make myself miserable. But when I laugh with (not at) the ego, the more likely I set myself on course towards an authentic soulful response. I am not good at self-compassion because the ego rightfully tells me “You are better than this” or “You will give others an advantage over you”. My usual response is “tell me something I don’t know!“.

Stage Three. Be ruthlessly honest 

A typical response to a wounded ego is self-pampering and wining. Typically we minimize or deny its presence or impact. We don’t usually say, “this is my ego and it needs to die”. That may seem harsh and contradict the self-compassion mentioned above. In a similar vein an aggressive response to our ego is aligned with the statement “speaking the truth in love”. It is difficult at times for me to admit that it is my ego controlling my life. But such an approach is always a prelude to the breakthrough of love.

Stage Four. Look for love in the right place

Deep with each of us is a love center that bubbles to the surface usually in times of either great joy or suffering.

This energizing force lies deep within and is hidden in the shadow of the ego. If we believe that this loving Presence is there and its nature is infinite love, then our inward journey takes us home to our True selves.

However, we just don’t will ourselves into loving. 

When we affirm that inner Presence even gnarly characters becomes lovable. What’s there not to love about the essence of a person? The trick though is to access it and to respond to our crazy broken world from that place. Here’s the final step.

Stage Five. Surrender

We don’t search or smoke out that love. It comes to us through its own initiative. It has always been there at the center of our being. Nothing can separate us from that infinite love. Some name its pursuit of us Grace. I love what poet John Philip Newall writes about this inner essence

“Do we know that within each one of us is the unspeakably beautiful beat of the Sacred? Do we know that we can honor that Sacredness in one another and in everything that has being? “

When we reach the end of all our resources and all our efforts seem to fail we come to the point of surrender. Here from the depths of our frustration and darkest life experiences we cry out “help”. When we confess,  “I can’t, Presence can” we get glimpses of that inner infinite love.

As we go deep into our hearts and experience this love we are better equipped and inclined to reach out to others in this time of the Covid-19 crisis.

In these challenging days “all we need is love”. It makes all the difference.

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Terrible Realities and Amazing Possibilities

There is a fine line between the terrible reality of Covid-19 and the opportunity it presents for growing renewal.

What are our choices on how we navigate this crisis?

Certainly not by minimizing its impact on millions of lives.

Nor by dispensing answers that produce false hope like unsubstantiated cures. 

Nor by only assuming a stoic attitude that bites the bullet. 

Hope lies in the realization that the darkness around us is not the end of the story.

During this time when the terrible realities of human suffering assault us on a daily basis we have the opportunity of going inward and realizing a number of life-affirming options. We can

  1. Move away from our individualism and become other-oriented in our thinking/actions
  2. Realize our solidarity with all of humankind. One astronaut commented that the view of planet earth from space revealed no borders.
  3. Emulate, where we can, organizations like Patagonia who take care of their workers by paying their full salary while they are either laid off and/or are in social isolation.
  4. Recognize how small and frail we are and go inward to nurture our spiritual selves.
  5. Look to the needs of our community and customers and ask “What’s in us for them?”
  6. Reach out on social media and other creative ways to as many people that come to mind.
  7. Ask “What new opportunities for growth and service are staring us in the face that we can leverage?”
  8. Simplify our lives, care for our planet, work for the rebirth of a just society, and see ourselves as custodians of the gift of life.

In the religious calendar many have just come through Easter. Here the message is that death is always followed by resurrection. That’s difficult to grasp if you have just lost a loved one to Covid-19, saw your income or business disappear, or hear the heartbreak stories from around the world. However, I find my consolation and strength in the Easter Message of Fr. Richard Rohr

The pattern of transformation is always death transformed, not death avoided. The universal spiritual pattern is death and resurrection, or loss and renewal, if you prefer”.

Today devastation. Tomorrow renewal.  

Signs of Spring are all around us even though right now we may be in the middle of our winter of discontent. No amount of darkness can extinguish the light in our hearts and in our world.

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A Broken Heart – Prelude to a New Life

In this age of Covid-19 suffering takes us to the heart of everything – our heart and that of all of humankind. And in the crucible of our pain we have the opportunity to be transformed.

Artist Manuel Reyes in Oaxaca Mexico through his poignant sculpture reflects on the aftermath of a heartbreaking experience.

The new person can emerge from the old as a result of trauma. The artist lovingly cradles his heart in his hand as he undergoes his metamorphosis. Sometimes a broken heart opens our heart. This can lead to all manner of spiritual epiphanies.


Most of the productive change in our lives grows out of deeply painful experiences. The key is to find ways of breaking through this experience rather that breaking down. Sure we all have wobbly moments when we lose sleep, feel the sheer terror for ourselves and others, and find it a challenge to restructure our lives. But at the same time we learn new lessons around simplifying our lives, practicing gratitude, and becoming more other rather than self-oriented.

In the end, through suffering we are forever being changed. This can be a deep lasting change. Not to be sustained by empty statements like “This too shall pass” but by deepened love for others, letting go of old hurts and resentments, and a renewed sense of what gives meaning to our lives. And if we are not changed, or moved to compassion, or believe politically infected thinking like American exceptionalism then we join the living dead.

Another lesson we learn is our solidarity with all of humankind. The song “We are the world” has more and more relevance today. We can identify with the reflection of astronaut Edgar Mitchell as he observed our planet earth from space

“What I experienced during that three-day trip home was nothing short of an overwhelming sense of universal human connectedness”

How have you changed, at some deeper inner level, through this profound physical and existential crisis?

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Transformed Through Suffering

Mural, St. Sulprice, Price

Suffering can set the stage for a personal/national transformation. The ancient story of Jacob is one such episode that speaks to such a change.

Family conflicts don’t have to drag on unresolved for generations. If we allow that to happen we go through life unconsciously bouncing off the walls with unresolved emotions. This contaminates all of our relationships.

We all have secret struggles with those darker, hurt, and more pesky emotions that gurgle up from our family of origin like resentment, envy, and (name you pet). The tragedy is when we cling to this dark matter like some prized heirloom.

Consider the enigmatic and ancient struggle myth in the Torah, the saga of Jacob and the conflict with his twin brother Esau. It also represents at some level the battle between what’s best about us and our less desirable parts.

What dredges such emotions to the surface is often a deep unmet need. Jacob craved his father’s approval. Like any child, each brother wanted to matter to his parents. And this led to Jacob to seek a less than noble solution. In so doing he betrayed his best self.

We don’t know why Isaac favored Esau over Jacob and how this contributed to the rivalry between the brothers. But, as the story goes, they were tussling with each other way back in Rebecca’s womb. After birth the family lore about the brothers became hardwired. Jacob was viewed as a bookish introvert who spent hours in the family tent studying. Esau, rough around the edges, was an outdoorsman and hunter with an impulsive and explosive personality. Like many siblings they could not have been more different.

Esau, the first-born, had the inside track to the place of privilege in the family. That fact alone galled Jacob who longed for similar affirmation. For years he plotted for ways to usurp his elder brother’s position of priority.

The sibling rivalry came to a boil when Jacob used guile to ultimately worm his way into being the rightful heir. Here was his plan. Knowing that his aging and semi-blind father had problems recognizing people, Jacob raided Esau’s closet and donned his outdoor clothes that still had the smell and feel of the wild.  Jacob then impersonated Esau. He approached his father and requested the parental blessing which he had no problem receiving.

Esau, enraged at how his brother had taken what by tradition was rightfully his, let Jacob know that he was toast. Rebecca got wind of this plan and warned Jacob “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you”.

Jacob rounded up his family and possessions and fled for his life. After hours of frenetic travel at nightfall he encountered a stream that he needed to ford. After he sent his family ahead he stayed behind for reasons that were not immediately apparent.

Transformed through Suffering

On that dark night Jacob underwent a radical change as he met the match of his life. Amidst the struggle he underwent a transformation from

“A self-referential boy to a generative, compassionate man” – Fr Richard Rohr

An unnamed man (or part of himself) approached out of the night*.  The two of them engaged is a vigorous nightlong physical tussle.

At the break of day

the man asks Jacob his name (which means that which supplants, undermines),

refuses to give his (an encounter with mystery)

hears Jacob’s plea for a blessing (another craving for approval), and as a parting gesture

injures Jacob’s thigh as he bestows on him the name Israel (gave him a new identity and mission).

Sometimes we have to take on extra pain to transform our lives. The stolen blessing cost Jacob a limitation in his physical mobility (a limp). He had to flee his family home. But in the process it also gave him the opportunity to move in a new life-affirming direction to become the father of a nation.

In the midst of today’s epic and universal suffering what could your new mission become? What transformation are we being called to make?

My interpretation of this multi-layered story speaks to the continual battle deep within. It also could find parallels in our national and international divisions. The good struggles with the less than stellar. Not that Jacob was an angel and Esau more devilish. Spirituality is not that simplistic. We are all a mix of the two. At that point we quarrel with ourselves. We have “family” quarrels within our nation/world. We all reach for heaven with one part and grovel in the dirt with the other self.

In some way Jacob’s struggle is the story of our world. As it is in our horrific current life and death struggle with the virus.

There is no get out of jail free card for the wounded ego or a divided world. Nor do we rush to volunteer to deal with our more troublesome and at times deeply buried emotions. We put them in a lockbox sometimes for ever.

At times there are few options to resolve conflicts. Parents may have passed away. They may not have had the tools to deal with unresolved feelings. They lived in the “stiff upper lip” era and not the “tell it all” Oprah culture. However with some psychological savvy through self-awareness and forgiveness we can move on. We don’t have to keep living out the drama the hurt child. We can overcome the tendency to react rather than respond, forgive and forget, and choose to live by the better angels of our nature than to indulge all the gnarly ghosts of the past. In so doing we move from a wounded ego to a more soul-filled life.

The key lesson is that one does not just get rid of painful emotions. You don’t will them away. Nor do you whitewash them with cheap explanations. You sit with them as they become your teacher. You walk through them rather than around.

The instructor (your suffering) redirects you away from the craving for redress and the inclination to see yourself as different and separated from others. Pain has the potential of transporting us towards a more compassionate engagement with life and view of others.

*The ancients had no problem believing that the gods became incarnate and communed with them.

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Got Faith?

I thought that I was going to have a traditional life. And, somewhere along the line the mold broke – Trisha Brown, choreographer and dancer

My journey towards faith has seemed like I’ve been hopscotching around many spiritual disciplines. There has been a lot of Christianity (* Evangelical brand) here, a bit if Buddhism there, and exposure to World Religious Traditions everywhere. But it goes deeper than a religion de jour. In fact it has become a central quest in my life. 

Years ago the mold of my childhood religion cracked and finally broke apart. What came after that? Leaving what we learn at our mother’s knee makes for a life-changing saga. In my case I did not land up in the wilderness of apostasy. Rather I migrated from belief to faith, the head to the heart, and eventually to the feet. I will never entirely to where I began. But my aspiration is to live a religion of my own.

Being a former Evangelical Christian, or in fact former anything, does not imply that one is without a solid center, devoid of a moral convictions, or has lost the ability to live a meaningful life. For example, secular Jews, Muslims, and lapsed Jack Mormons still carry vestiges of their ethnic culture without much of a religious overlay. Like everyone else they have in them the seeds of a new and vibrant life that when nurtured bloom into the flower of faith.

As a leaver I am in solidarity with millions. The winds of change are blowing in people’s religious lives today. Folks are divorcing their childhood religion in droves or are morphing into a “none” self-designation.  The tradition of these migrants may go back many generations. However, they cannot tolerate the view that such a set of beliefs is the one and only true religion. Nor can they leave their brains or hearts at the door of their house of worship. They are so weary of hearing that their fundamental nature is flawed. They seek a more powerful and authentic experience of the self and one aligned with every human. 

If faith is defined as that which we set our heart on, then what gets us out of our heads into our heart and off our behinds to serve a world of need takes a whole new religion. It takes a daily experience of the Eternal Presence where we are deeply loved and infinitely valued. That is our North Star. (In future blogs I will address the topic “What’s god (Presence) got to do with faith?”)

Consider that he word religion is derived from the Latin “Re-Ligare” which means “to bind” or to “connect”. Something deep within everyone, like ligaments in our body, binds everything together. When this is not the case we are unmoored, lost amidst our beliefs, ready for the mental Marriott, and alienated from others and ourselves.

Humans are innately religious and need to tie their philosophy of life together whether they practice a specific religion or not. As Timothy Eagan writes in “A Pilgrimage to Eternity”, “ We are spiritual beings. But for many of us, malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life”.

Here is where my heart is set and my soul nurtured and fed.

From belief to faith

Belief is where religion starts getting us in trouble. Here my way becomes the right way becomes the only way.  

With exclusive beliefs we neglect to see how they are shaped by our personality, cultural and political biases, and at times our downright ego preoccupations. A lot of these filters are unconscious and act like clouds that obscure the sun. 

With belief the ego (what Thomas Merton calls the false self seeking to impersonate the substantial self) loves to take sides, and the longer and more vigorously it justifies its side, the more it feels like this is surely the final truth. As Fr. Richard Rohr writes 

We end up not with orthodoxy but with egocentricity.

When a person claims, “I believe in god” he/she is mostly making an intellectual assertion (i.e. god is an intellectual fact that can be grasped and proven by rational thought). They are less likely to be claiming to have had a direct experience with the divine that would be more mystical and beyond language, have a strong emotional component, and be more soul-driven. 

From the head to the heart

Every world religion that I have encountered (I taught World Religious Traditions at the university level for many years) contains seeds of truth based on direct experience. Many an adherent has had a heart-encounter with ultimate reality. The prophet Mohammed had a passionate and at times agonizing encounter with the “other” world during the revelation of the Koran. Moses had his encounter at the burning bush. Neither was sitting in some library dispassionately thinking about god. Not to minimize the power of great books and critical thinking. The latter is especially necessary to compensate for our own ego, cultural, and personality filters. We all have our own pet biases that can muddy the waters on any path to faith.

Thoughts and firsthand experience are like two oars on a rowboat. When only rowing on one side of the boat folks go in circles. An intellectual only religion turns into blind tribalism and cannot be baptized as the orthodoxy de jour. And a religion purely from the gut can be contaminated by our whims and fancies.

However, there is so much distrust for inner experience by organized religion. Fr. Richard Rohr writes in this regard,

Most of organized religion, without meaning to, has actually discouraged us from taking the mystical path by telling us almost exclusively to trust outer authority—in the form of Scripture, tradition, or various kinds of experts—instead of telling us the value and importance of inner experience.

In other places I write about my inner direct experience. You might want to read my blog “The Night I Came Home to Grace” written earlier this year.

So how did I arrive at a religion of my own?

The Journey of Faith

The faith journey requires a radical rearrangement of our internal hardware. It involves a migration from the false (ego) to the True self (soul). It is a shift from doing to being. Above all, it is the recognition that the spiritual part of the self has been there all the time. As the Apostle John writes

“I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, I am writing to you here because you know it already”! 

There is a resting in our acceptance by Eternal Presence rather than continual self-rejection. It is not something that I do to myself in the form of self-improvement (the True Self is complete and cannot be improved). Faith is something that comes to me as a gift of Grace and is something that is aroused by a loving Source in me.

We usually identify faith by what we set our heart on like faith in god, in an institution, a hero or role model, or in the Constitution of the United States. The focus of faith can be something ineffable outside of our skin. It is also something at the core of our being. It can be both abstract as well as concrete. One of the best descriptions of faith is by the writer to the Hebrews in the Christian Scriptures

Faith provides evidence for things not seen

This connects faith to both hope as well as something intangible. And in a world filled with hopelessness, uncertainty, and fear hope is cash in the bank.

We often speak of a person of faith. For me that person was my mother. She lived her whole life subject to what she called the “will of god”. Her focus was to “set her heart on things above and not things below”. She trusted in something that was as real to her as the back of her hand. I was often reminded of her long after her death when we lived in Mexico. Here the locals base their faith and all plans for the future on “primeramente Dios” or god’s will. In Arabic the equivalent phrase is “In Sha Allah” (If that’s what god wants). These perspectives put faith solidly on some external agent or transcendent Source that determines our fate. However, faith can also be viewed as something imminent, deep within us, or as the god, Source, Buddha, or soul within. 

One of my deepest aspirations is to trust and be guided by this inner GPS. My challenge now is to open myself to this Ultimate Reality or the Source to empower me in these sunset years of my life. It’s what I go back to amidst the uncertainty and fear in the times of the Coronavirus.

Getting faith into my feet

However, faith is not some esoteric human aspiration or quality. It is very pragmatic and involves action. I find it of interest that some parts of Judaism is not just based on a set of beliefs. Sure “doctrines” are present but not front and center. Judaism is more aligned with how a person behaves. It is connected with one’s character, lived ethical standards, and even gets more granular reflecting what a person eats. It gets our feet moving in an other-centered not self-centered way. By definition then a good Jew is a good person.  

The Christian scriptures focus on “walking the walk”. The writer to the book James states that, “Faith without works is dead”. We have been reminded of this ethical and behavioral imperative by some of our leaders in the past. President Jimmy Carter quoted the following words from the ancient Hebrew prophet Micah in his inaugural address. 

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”

My spiritual mentors

My sacred journey towards faith certainly was not a solo quest. The big difference between the now of my spiritual journey is that I am the co-designer of this religion and not a follower. But what I am designing today today is built on the shoulders of others. Many teachers came my way over the years from Thomas Merton to Richard Rohr, from Thomas Moore to Karen Armstrong, from my mother to my wife Kris, and to my dog that I joke is my spiritual director. The list can go on and on. Many times such persons seem to come my way by means of a lucky chance event. At other times a book jumps out at me pleading to be read. The older I get the more I start to view this serendipity as a part of the order of the universe or a gift from Presence. I don’t always catch these connections. However, I am more likely to benefit from these “chance” happenings when I look out for them. My compass of faith (what my heart is set on) is a way of reassuring myself, “This is where I am” or “This is where I still need to go”or “Listen to this person/event”. 

The markers of this religion of my own show up when I dare to travel beyond the bounds of traditional religious beliefs and practice. One cannot have such a religion without being an iconoclast. I’ve had to break old molds of thought and seek to live the truth that has always existed within others and myself. In so doing there is the possibility of experiencing a religion that engages my head, heart, and feet.

Each practice involve risk taking on my part. The credo of the adventure of faith is “Jump, and the safety net will appear”. 

And as I jump I begin to find my way home. The place that so many have discovered on the road less travelled. The road that bypasses some forms of traditional religion. At other times it comes from the very heart of true religion that sets our hearts on things above but keeps our feet on the ground at the same time.

  • Evangelicals are not a monolithic entity. There is diversity of thought and a spectrum of beliefs in that religious camp. There is a growing group of “new” evangelicals that has moved beyond xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, and anti-science. Thought leaders in this group include Jim Wallis from the Soujourner movement. All religions evolve to some degree or another. Cross-fertilization occurs at the confluence of religion and culture. A pure representation of the past seldom is seen despite the thrust of the older generations to keep it the same. There are many good people in any religion. No matter where they are on the religious spectrum they are not to be despised as “deplorables”.

Faith is about love not judgment.

Request

I would love for your to share some thoughts about your own journey of faith.

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