Driving Lessons

July 10, 2011

My twins turned 16 this spring, and this summer is time to begin their driving lessons. I had anticipated that their driver’s education class would do the heavy lifting, but little did I know. A student must complete 40 hours of parental supervised driving before graduating from driver’s education. In others words, at least where we live, if you are expecting driver’s education to teach the awkward first hours behind the wheel, guess again.

Thankfully my wife took charge of the first outing. This morning was my turn; and little did I know, my twins were to provide me life lessons as they each took their turn behind the wheel.

First, my son was about to drive off before fastening his seat belt. I reflected—how often do I begin an activity before fastening my own metaphorical seatbelt? How often do I transition to a new activity without setting my purpose and centering myself? It only takes a moment to buckle a “seatbelt.”

Continuing with my son, he next went through a stop sign without stopping. We were driving on Sunday, in an empty parking lot of a medical center, so no harm was possible. I don’t know where his mind was, but he was ignoring a warning from his environment. But what about me? I often joke with my wife that some days I feel like I’m working with a metaphorical check engine light on. I need to slow down, but I’m determined to plow through doing what I think needs to get done.

My son also needs to work on actually looking when he stops as opposed to just stopping and then going on his way. Ok, I’m guilty again. I often engage in a spiritual practice while not paying full attention to the practice. I may be listening to an mp3 file of a spiritual talk, for example, while pausing to check my email. Is not listening with my full attention the wiser course of action?

Both my son and daughter are at the stage of driving where they tend to over steer. It is not yet grooved into their muscles or into their minds that a car needs small turns of the wheel to stay on course. No need to constantly steer from right to left and back again.  Yes, I can drive a car without over steering, but I often over steer my life. If I react to each new bit of information with a sweeping gesture, I find myself driving off the smoothly paved road that is my life and onto the shoulder and into a ditch. My life does not depend on my steering.

And leave it to my daughter to provide the lesson of the day. Once she thought her foot was on the accelerator when it was on the brake. Once she thought she was steering right when she was turning the wheel left. Ok, rookie mistakes; but each time, her initial reaction was the same—she was doing the right thing and the car was reacting in the wrong way.

I explained to my children about sudden acceleration syndrome which occurs when a driver intends to press on the brake and instead puts their foot on the accelerator. When the car reacts as it should, the driver redoubles their efforts often with deadly consequences. Their mind does not accept the feedback that their foot is on the accelerator, and they simply press harder on the accelerator when the car does not stop.

There lies a life lesson—often when something is going “wrong,” I am doing or thinking something “wrong.” Far better for me to stop what I am doing and reflect, than to redouble my efforts in a futile attempt to prove that I am right.

Indeed, I freely admit to suffering from sudden acceleration syndrome of the mind. I have a thought, an undesirable consequence occurs as a result of my thought, and I use the undesirable consequence as evidence that I need to bear down and speed up my thinking.

After all, my ego reasons, I arrived at my thought after careful analysis. Are not my thought and the feeling that goes with the thought “correct”? Often in exact measure to the intensity of my thinking and feeling, the answer is “no.” The reality of the event and how the event is occurring to me is entirely different.

The cure for sudden acceleration syndrome of the mind is simple, and as in driving, easily deployed if we value doing so: We must consider the possibility that we are wrong, take our foot off our mind’s accelerator, and apply the brake. In our practice we must be willing see how addicted we are to defining ourselves, in part, by our misery and insisting it is someone else’s fault. In other words, the “brake” is becoming more aware of our thinking without identifying with our thinking.

I’m already looking forward to the next driving lesson with my children. In the meantime, I’ll practice taking my foot of my mind’s accelerator and applying the brake.

Projecting Charlie Sheen

March 3, 2011

This week a student observed that he can’t get enough news about Charlie Sheen. My student is not alone. Considering Sheen’s numerous appearances in the media and the avalanche of comments that each appearance generates, the world can’t get enough of Charlie Sheen. Incredibly, after opening up a Twitter account on March 1, Sheen set the record for the fastest time—just over 24 hours—to reach a million followers.  The public is fascinated with the story of Sheen’s abusive behavior towards himself and others and Sheen’s attempts to portray himself as the heroic victim.

But what do we really know about the inner-life of Charlie Sheen? Not much; my former student, now friend and professor, Warren Nilsson recently observed:

…In general people are very poor at reading and understanding each other’s inner lives. Most of us might think we are among the exceptions – that our powers of psychological insight are remarkably keen – but I think this is a grand delusion. We are experts not at comprehending each other but at projecting our own perspectives, desires, and insecurities out onto the world. We are gifted and unapologetic fantasists… We can continue deceiving ourselves that we understand perfectly what other people are experiencing.

So to be accurate, the world doesn’t care about Charlie Sheen, the world cares about their projected figure that they call Charlie Sheen. There is no shortage of opinions about what is causing Sheen’s behavior and what should be done about his behavior. Yet, since we are not a network executive, or a lawyer or judge involved in one of his cases, or one of his women, we have no real decisions to make about Sheen. Our judgments are not necessary, yet they persist. A Course in Miracles observes this about judgment:

In order to judge anything rightly, one would have to be fully aware of an inconceivably wide range of things; past, present and to come. One would have to recognize in advance all the effects of his judgments on everyone and everything involved in them in any way. And one would have to be certain there is no distortion in his perception, so that his judgment would be wholly fair to everyone on whom it rests now and in the future. Who is in a position to do this? Who except in grandiose fantasies would claim this for himself?

Remember how many times you thought you knew all the “facts” you needed for judgment, and how wrong you were! Is there anyone who has not had this experience? Would you know how many times you merely thought you were right, without ever realizing you were wrong? Why would you choose such an arbitrary basis for decision making? Wisdom is not judgment; it is the relinquishment of judgment.

So why is the public so eager to judge Sheen? If we feel a charge about Charlie Sheen’s behavior it is because we are projecting onto Charlie Sheen that which we don’t want to see within. What we deny within is seen without—the world we react to is an outward picture of our inward condition.  We are literally making up our interpretation of Charlie Sheen.

This week, I have exhibited Sheen-like behavior. I have been angry—I raised my voice to my daughter. I have exhibited compulsive behavior by spending too much time on the Internet. I have had thoughts of specialness—Why hasn’t the sales rep responded to my “important” email yet? My mind has been at war—I wouldn’t want to share the content of my mind as I thought about the behavior of some of my colleagues.

Someone might ask: Aren’t you taking this too far? How can you compare being irritated at your daughter to Sheen’s physical violence against multiple women? The two may be very different in consequence and degree, but they both come from the same wrong-minded thought system. A decision made with the ego is a decision made with the ego. When we take the hand of our ego we have relinquished our peace.

If I can observe my thinking and behavior with compassion and awareness, I free myself to make another choice. If not, I can travel the potholed road that goes nowhere. I can repress what I am doing; I can make the choice to be unaware and mindless about my own angry, compulsive, and narcissistic thinking. What is repressed is then projected out. I will find the guilty party in the world in the form of a “Charlie Sheen.” Here is the guilty party, my ego proclaims. From the standpoint of my ego, this is win-win. I proclaim my innocence and I’m entertained at the same time. Because I have now gone mindless—thinking that the problem is outside of my mind—the heavy price I pay is the inability to make another choice.

Instead of choosing the potholed road that goes nowhere, I can choose the superhighway that takes me back into my right mind where I can choose again. If I am becoming obsessed or outraged about “Charlie Sheen” that is a clue that I have projected onto Charlie Sheen something I do not want to look at it in myself.

When I can look at myself and Charlie Sheen with awareness but without judgment then I can return to my mind and make another choice to be right-minded rather than wrong-minded. My interest in “Charlie Sheen” recedes in favor of the people and the rich life in front of me. I see what really matters is whether I, not Charlie Sheen, make the choice to choose again.

Do Snowplows Cause Rage?

February 8, 2011

There is one common denominator lurking behind every bad day I have ever had—I was externalizing. The internal dialogue in my mind was persistently attributing how I was feeling to events and individuals outside of myself.  When I felt anxious, I attributed my anxiety to a problem I was facing. When I felt angry, I justified my anger by remembering something that someone had said or done. And, a bad day could turn into a bad week. When I have persistently attributed my feelings to an external event, I have shifted responsibility for my behavior onto something or someone else, and I set myself up to behave in a similar way as subsequent circumstances arise.

Notice, I wrote persistently attributed; because it takes persistence to keep a mistaken thought in place. Neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor has demonstrated that when we activate our conditioning to trigger a thought or feeling, that reaction lingers for only 90 seconds. In other words, we must rehearse our mistaken interpretation over and over again; otherwise our thoughts will fade away. Yes, we are always mistaken. Even in the unlikely event that a troubling event did occur exactly as we remember it, and even in the unlikely event that our interpretation of the event is correct—“He did this because…”—we are still wrong. If we are angry, it’s because we chose to be angry.

A simple technique will increase your personal effectiveness and increase your happiness: Simply notice how your internal dialogue attributes how you are feeling to events and individuals outside of your own mind.  Notice too, how common it is for all of us to fall into this trap. Every day, media coverage of events reinforces our choice to make these false attributions.

Consider this recent news story:

Snow plows have been out in full force in Wayne, N.J. since the storm hit. But some people who are digging out claim, some operators are plowing them right back in.

It’s causing snow plow rage.

[Ms. Y’s] husband is a public works employee. She says an angry resident attacked him with a bucket of salt.

“He sees the red face. He sees the anger in the resident. He sees the swinging bucket. And he even says, ‘Roll down that window or I’m going to bust you in the head with it.’ And boom,” she says.

She says the bucket missed her husband but shattered the passenger side window and dented the door of his plow truck.

[Mr. X] allegedly threw the bucket.

[Mr. X] says, “I wasn’t happy for my actions for that day. I was really annoyed at him and coming and plowing me straight in.”

Note: I have redacted names because they are not public figures.

Can the actions of somebody else really cause us to feel anger? To many of us, it certainly seems that way. The event (a careless act of an uncaring snowplow driver) occurs and then our feelings follow. Cause and effect seems certain to us and to most of our allies with whom we share our story. We are the hero of the story, the innocent victim; and even though we may have personally behaved foolishly, our actions were justified.

Clearly we are not responsible for the behavior of the snowplow driver. Indeed, there may be better ways to remove snow from the streets. That being said, we are always 100% responsible for how we choose to react to the events we experience.

We have all been in situations similar to Mr. X where it seemed to us as though we were merely reacting to external events. Yet, as we train our mind, we begin to see that there is a moment of choice, like the moment in which we choose to swing at a baseball pitch thrown to us. In other words, we make the choice to swing; we are not innocent victims.

A colleague says something to you. You watch your mind as it begins to put a negative meaning on what was said. You are now a choice point. From the standpoint of your ego, you have been thrown a fat, juicy pitch; and you are ready to take your best swing: “I’m sick of Joe—he is always talking to me in a hostile tone.” You now can react with what seems to you justifiable harshness or anger—or, you could choose another way. Watching your mind react, you could drop your interpretation of the event.

Going down this latter path, you don’t swing at the pitch. You choose to be happy rather than right. You release your reaction; and within seconds, the incident is over and you are smiling with your colleague. Now, I’m not advising you to stuff your emotions. Stuffing emotions means that you continue to identify with your emotions. Stuffing emotions, you continue to feel like an innocent victim, even when you do not escalate the situation by saying something.

Releasing emotions means you look at what is arising without judgment and you choose to not identify with what is arising. The part of your mind that can make this choice is the part of your mind that brings you peace, love, happiness, and insightful reactions.

Just last week, while digging out my car, I saw the snowplow driver coming down the road to make another pass. I chose to smile internally and wave cheerfully as he pushed back some more snow towards the car. He was doing the job he was paid to do; and given his constraints, he was doing it pretty well.

Yet, I can remember times when I would feel anger at the behavior of snowplow drivers. Looking back, I now understand their behavior didn’t magically reach into my mind to cause my angry thoughts. Oh no, on the days I was angered by their behavior, I was really looking for a scapegoat on which to project the anger that already existed in me. It seemed otherwise to me at the time, but I was simply not ready to accept responsibility for my angry feelings.

The cure was very simple—I had to understand what really was the cause and what really was the effect. Again, the snowplow driver didn’t magically reach into my mind and steal my peace. On the contrary, my restless mind reached into the world to find the guilty party for my decision to not be peaceful. In other words, in my mind, I made a decision to be angry. That decision was the cause of my interpretation of the behavior of the driver; my interpretation and the feelings that accompanied it were the effects of my decision to be angry.

Your experience of a situation can be transformed instantly when you understand what is really the cause and what is really the effect.  If a cause no longer exists because it is dropped, the effects must disappear. Often a smile will cross your face; immediately, you will be able to release your emotions as you realize that you are not upset for the reason you think.

No Empathy, No Profits

February 1, 2011

A friend recently called to ask the name of the shovel we use to remove snow. It looks like a sled pushed by a bar, and it moves tremendous amounts of snow quickly.

Years ago I may have been stumped by the question. I may have gone to look at the shovel and found, as in this case, that its name was not stamped on the handle. I may have tried to remember the name of product and the store at which I purchased it. Even if we could remember that information, our friend may have found the product no longer available at a store near her.

But, this is not years ago; and we were able to find the answer very quickly. Why? I had purchased the product—the Suncast Big Scoop—at Amazon. As a consequence, within minutes, I was able to provide our friend the link to the shovel at Amazon; and she was able to order the product that same day without doing hours of her own research.

Indeed, if I am asked, I can tell you the date of my very first purchase at Amazon. It was March 6, 1997; I purchased four books for $57.01. How do I know? Amazon keeps the records for me and makes them readily accessible.

The same week, I needed to retrieve information for taxes. When I went online to my bank account, I found that the bank maintains only six months of my banking records. The cost of server space to maintain records is basically the same for the bank as it is for Amazon—zero.  Amazon chooses to make my shopping experience almost always delightful, and my bank choose otherwise.

During the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, my brother visited. He works in a technology field, and my wife remembers that he and I had a heated discussion about the commercial viability of Amazon. Amazon had sold its first books online in 1995, and my brother was certain they were doomed for failure. I thought otherwise; but unfortunately, when Amazon went public in May 1997, it didn’t register with me to begin to accumulate their stock.

In his seminal monograph Profit and Loss, Ludwig von Mises observes, “If all people were to correctly anticipate the future state of the market, the entrepreneurs would neither earn any profits nor suffer any losses.” Of course, it is literally impossible for that to happen; and that’s why there are disagreements about the viability of emerging companies.

Von Mises goes on to point out in Profit and Loss, “Profit and loss are generated by success or failure in adjusting the course of production activities to the most urgent demand of the consumers.” Yet, if you asked the management of my bank, they would tell you that they are as interested as Amazon is in meeting my most urgent needs. My bank, like almost any organization, would explain how they are committed to customer service. They would be blind to the fact that they don’t deliver.

So that brings up a question: How are Mises’s observations on profit and loss, which are admittedly written in the realm of economics, helpful to managerial decision-making? A recent book helps to bridge the gap. Author Dev Patnaik has probably never read Mises; but in his book Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy he writes, “If you want to create products and services that other people care about, you should put aside your problems and start caring about other people’s lives.”

This statement is operationally meaningful. Would a bank that cares about the lives of its customers post just six months of banking statements in order to save pennies in online storage space expense? The answer is of course not.

Patnaik gives the example of Harley-Davidson, a company that mandates “that leaders throughout the organization spend measureable amounts of times out with motorcycle riders.” No, they don’t mandate that their leaders ride a motorcycle—just that they take steps to increase their empathy for their customers.

There is no formula for how an organization creates a culture of empathy for their customers. But genuine willingness to be empathetic begins with a willingness to give before receiving. Most organizations cannot even get to the starting gate for a culture of empathy because there is no willingness to do the inner-work necessary to examine the dysfunctional beliefs that prevent empathetic behavior.

What are these dysfunctional beliefs? At their core is the belief in a static, win-lose world. In a static, win-lose world, receiving must come before giving, or at best, business is conducted like a hostage trade off—We’ll give you something, if give us something of the exact same or greater value. The individuals who work in such organizations battle with their colleagues to get ahead. What about me? is the mantra repeated silently throughout the day.

Why aren’t more organizations empathetic with customers? One could easily ask why aren’t more people empathetic with other people? The answer is very clear: When one chooses their ego for guidance, the world is evaluated through the ego’s lens whose central concern is What about me? The guidance that follows from that question is sure to be stingy and uncaring.

In my book The Inner-Work of Leadership I provide specific guidance for recognizing our ego and turning away from our ego. Importantly, I cover the specific ingredients that are necessary for an organizational culture to evolve to support the inner-work journeys of their employees. In a declining economy and an increasingly competitive global marketplace, an organizational culture of empathy with the customer is no longer optional: no empathy, no profits.

To You is the Song

December 22, 2010

A few years ago Dan Forrest (music) and Eileen Berry (lyrics) wrote a new, gorgeous, and moving Christmas song. Below, the combined choirs of the University of Utah perform “Carol of Joy.”

Forrest and Berry are professors at Bob Jones University; and quite naturally, their carol uses traditional Christian language and metaphors with which they are at home. Yet, I believe there is universal appeal in Forrest and Berry’s creation.

Green leaves all fallen, withered and dry;
Brief sunset fading, dim winter sky.
Lengthening shadows,
Dark closing in…

Then, through the stillness, carols begin!

Oh fallen world, to you is the song…

I live in a rural area, surrounded by the forest. When the very first leaves begin to fall in mid-August, the days are already noticeably shorter; and the poignancy of nature’s rhythms are experienced on a very visceral level. I find it a very helpful practice to allow myself to feel the fragility and rhythm of life without resistance.

“Oh fallen world”—one need not be religious to be aware of the utter madness rampant in the world. In the 20th century alone hundreds of millions of individuals were slaughtered in useless wars and by power-mad despots who enslaved and starved their people.

“To you is the song”— the Love that we did not create plays no favorites. The song of God, Wholeness, Universal Intelligence, or whatever words we are comfortable using, is available to each of us at any time. Our choice is to pivot, or not to pivot, in its direction. We can exercise our freedom of choice at any time.

This past weekend, my daughter, a sophomore in high school, came to me with a problem. I listened but then turned away from the specifics of her problem to ask her a question. I described four seemingly very different situations and then asked her what the situations had in common. She instantly saw that in all the situations the choice was to turn towards her ego or away from her ego. There was little to say after that.

In my experience, my ego is always there if I turn towards it and look for it. My decision moment-by-moment is turning towards my ego or towards “the song.”  I use the word ego often, and I find that few people do not immediately know what I mean. We all have much experience with the incessant voice in our head offering its dysfunctional interpretations and guidance. The ego resists life in a futile attempt to control its world.  We all have suffered as we have followed its bad advice.

Pale moon ascending, solemn and slow;
Cold barren hillside, shrouded in snow;
Deep, empty valley veiled by the night;
Hear angel music—hopeful and bright!

Oh fearful world, to you is the song–
Peace with your God, and pardon for wrong!
Tidings for sinners, burdened and bound–

A carol of joy! A Saviour is found!

Earth wrapped in sorrow, lift up your eyes!
Thrill to the chorus filling the skies!
Look up sad hearted—witness God’s love!
Join in the carol swelling above!

“Oh fearful world”—we cannot help but be fearful when we choose to rely on our ego, the part of us that is separated from the unity of life. In her wonderful book Coming to Life, Polly Berends uses the term Fundamental Mind for God. She writes:

To start the day or go from any situation to another without prayerfully acknowledging one’s reliance on Fundamental Mind is like trying to drive your car without starting it. If you have a hole in the floor and very strong legs, maybe you can walk your car around like a kiddie car and make it look as if it is really running. But you won’t get anywhere, except to the hospital with a hernia.

Yesterday I was at the dentist with my wife, son, and daughter for our semiannual checkups. As is often the case, my wife and two children had perfect teeth; I learned I needed still more expensive dental work.  Before our long drive home, we stopped at Panera Bread to eat. As I got out of the car, I was lost in my lifelong story of victimization concerning my less than desirable dental health.  So lost in my story was I, that my wife had to shout at me twice as I walked right into the path of oncoming traffic. As she shouted, I glanced at the driver of a car of which I was previously unaware.  He was looking right at me in a focused way, while I had let my ego completely occupy my mind. The results were almost disastrous.

“A Saviour is found— for some who are not religious this statement may be off-putting. Yet there is universality here too.  If we are lost listening to the voice of our ego we must choose to turn away from its guidance.  In the Western world, Jesus is a symbol of one who choose not to accept as truth the falsehoods of the ego.  No matter how persistently we choose our ego, Love waits on our welcome.  To each of us the “song” is given. We don’t have to earn the song, we don’t have to deserve the song, we just have to value it above the misery that comes from choosing to be separated from it. A Course in Miracles uses the metaphor of remembering the song in this beautiful way:

Listen,–perhaps  you catch a hint of an ancient state not quite forgotten; dim, perhaps, and yet not altogether unfamiliar. Like a song whose name is long forgotten, and the circumstances in which you heard completely unremembered. Not the whole song has stayed with you, but just a little wisp of melody, attached not to a person or a place, or anything particular. But you remember, from just this little part, how lovely was the song, how wonderful the setting where you heard it, and how you loved those who were there, and listened with you… Listen, and see if you remember an ancient song you knew so long ago and held more dear than any melody you taught yourself to cherish since.

Best wishes for a joyous and peaceful Holiday and New Year.

Hugh Prather: A Master Teacher Returns Home

December 2, 2010

In mid-November, author and minister, Hugh Prather unexpectedly passed.  Although I never met him, he has been one of the most important teachers in my life. His book, Notes to Myself, has sold over 5 million copies. For a non-fiction book to sell over 100,000 copies is very unusual; to sell over a million copies is an exceptionally rare feat. Hugh was a prolific writer. I have at least fifteen of his books on my shelves. Through Hugh’s openness and authenticity, he invited us to enter into a conversation with his words.

Hugh was the first author who helped me begin to realize that when I choose my ego as a guide, the world is not to blame for my decision. Recognizing that the real choice is in my mind, and not in the world, I have the power to go back to my mind and choose again.

Hugh was a keen observer of how often we try to escape from responsibility by blaming our ego, as if the ego were an entity outside of ourselves that has “possessed” us. Yes, we are not really our ego. But, if in this moment we have chosen to be guided by our ego, we have chosen it; it has not chosen us. Hugh writes pointedly:

The ego part of us does not act independently of our wishes, because it is us… If we are still judgmental of our teenager; then we still want to be judgmental of our teenager. If we are still confused about what our partner wants from us, then we still want to be confused.

I was visiting Philadelphia about thirty years ago when I first met Hugh’s books. I purchased the now classic, but then just published, Love is Letting Go of Fear by Dr. Jerry Jampolsky. Jerry’s brief book introduced me to another book, A Course in Miracles, which became a major inspiration on my spiritual journey. I was drawn to the Course yet frightened of its premises. I needed an intermediary to reduce my fear and that intermediary was Hugh Prather with his trilogy of books based on A Course in Miracles: There is a Place Where You Are Not Alone, The Quiet Answer, and A Book of Games. I read and reread these books for several years until I was ready to begin my study of A Course in Miracles.

Hugh’s teachings often returned to a premise of A Course in Miracles: The world we see is an “outside picture of an inward condition.” To be a little bit more specific, the world we react to is an outside picture. So, for example, if we react to (as opposed to discern) the coercive and arbitrary procedures of TSA agents, we can ask ourselves a question: Have I ever exercised power in a coercive and arbitrary fashion? Asking this question isn’t meant to justify TSA policy. But asking the question helps us release our anger and helps us respond more effectively. In There is a Place Where You Are Not Alone, Hugh explains that every person we meet has something to teach us about ourselves:

Today, as every day, you are studying under a great spiritual teacher. He has in his service assistants whom he has trained to read thoughts and, through pantomime, voice and behavior, to act out the thoughts they read in perfect symbolism. Whenever one of these assistants stands before you, you will immediately recognize the basic content of your thinking. You can safely make this assumption: Everyone you meet today will be one of these assistants.

In Notes to Each Other, a book co-written with his wife Gayle, Hugh and Gayle remind us that our ego continually asks useless questions, distracting us from our only real choice which is to choose our state of mind:

What should I say? What should I do? When I am centered on these questions I am attempting to change the form of my relating without changing its content. Behavior follows attitude. I want to aim for consistent attitude, not consistent behavior. There can never really be a question of what to do, of how of how to treat each other, because the starting point is a loving state of mind.

For several years, I took walks listening to audio cassette tapes of Hugh’s melodic and gentle voice delivering sermons to the congregation at his Dispensable Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. One of his sermons has stayed with me for over twenty years. “People,” he said gently but firmly, if you were in your car and had an attack of diarrhea, you would pull over and take care of the problem. Yet, moment by moment, you allow your mind to attack, to be angry, and to hold grievances, without doing anything about it. He was pointing out how tolerant we are of attack thoughts and unhappy wanderings of our mind.

Hugh exuded authenticity; you knew he was walking the talk. He had not relinquished his ego but there was never a moment that he was not committed to turning away from his ego and towards God. Yet, he never played a holier than thou card. Indeed, in a reflective essay, he allowed that “spiritual” individuals often don’t walk the talk:

It’s ironic that individuals with strong spiritual beliefs often have larger egos, are more rigid, are more unconsciously judgmental, and are more uncomfortable to be around than people who have little interest in pursuing mystical, religious, or metaphysical teachings. Those who value the concept of oneness often lack the desire to feel oneness and equality with anyone.

Of his many books, Hugh’s personal favorite was Morning Notes. In this selection, Hugh shows us that when we judge we “surrender self-control”:

When I decide to judge, I also decide to shift my power to the object of my attack. And although I may start by judging one thing only, by believing that even a single judgment is justified, I affirm the validity of the entire process of judging. In that instant I become a keyboard upon which any individual event can sound out the notes of my personal history. Now I am a passive instrument through which anyone and anything can play my preprogrammed tune—even though no one else can hear it.

In The Quiet Answer, Hugh shows that by judging we surrender more than self-control; we keep happiness away:

There is no fear greater than the fear of being happy. There is no reluctance more deeply seated in the unwillingness to see all faults and sins are simply mistakes. Who could honestly denounce another if it was admitted that all he had done was make a mistake? Instead, the other is seen as selfish and internally dark, a thing unworthy of life, to be attacked and weakened. To have any hope of happiness, we must first recognize those times we are afraid of the innocence of others. They are the same moments as when we ourselves resist feeling gentle and free. We mistakenly believe that our sense of self-worth comes from how we compare to others, and that to see them as innocent would reflect badly on us. So we remain hard and exacting in order not to allow any evidence of guilt to go unnoticed. But our fear of the sinlessness of what God has created also leaves no possibility of recognizing our own inherent worthiness. Let us therefore practice genuine self-interest. Let us renounce anxiety and try in its place an experiment in kindness.

Although the Saturday Night Live spoof “Deep Thoughts” was inspired by Hugh’s journal type books, Hugh’s numerous short aphorisms were anything but superficial; on the contrary, they cut to the heart of the matter by reminding us we can always make another choice. Here is an example from Spiritual Notes to Myself: “When I’ve lost all interest in controlling outcomes, I finally will be free to love everyone my mind rests upon.” Sadly, giving up control is too big a price of admission for most of us. Hugh reflected, “I find that in most counseling sessions, those seeking help don’t really want God. They want their partner, their child, their health, their personality, or the circumstances of their lives changed… We want God to turn to us but we do not want to turn to God.”

In How to Live in the World and Still Be Happy, Hugh wrote that the one thought he hoped he wouldn’t say on his deathbed was: “I haven’t even started. Where did my life go?” He didn’t want ask the question because the answer would be, “You don’t know because you never loved your life enough to notice what controls its direction. You never noticed the part your mind played in every step you ever took. And since you didn’t notice, your life wandered aimlessly and went nowhere.”

“All we will have left at the end of our lives is how we have treated each other and ourselves.”—Hugh Prather

Reelecting Our Ego

October 5, 2010

Many Americans believe next month’s midterm elections matter a great deal. Republicans are hopeful they can regain the House and Senate. Democrats are hoping their losses are not as severe as some predict. The Tea Party is hoping they will emerge as an important new voice in politics.

Unfortunately, despite who is elected this November, before things get better, they will probably get a lot worse. And no, it is not the fault of the politicians. This is because the candidate that is running virtually unopposed is the ego-based decision-maker in our own mind. This election day, and most days, we will choose to reelect our ego.

Once we pull the lever for our ego, we become very good at blaming. Egos are very good at finding an external cause for their predicament. We are angry, our ego tells us, because we are caught in a traffic jam. We are anxious, our ego tells us, because we have a difficult phone call to make later in the day. We are unhappy, our ego tells us, because we are not making enough money.

Having blamed external circumstances for our predicament, our ego then tells us we need more of this and less of that to solve our problems. We have not only identified the problem where it is not, but we spend more time complaining about our perceived problems than doing anything to solve them. As we complain, as we share our tedious stories, we seek our witnesses that will agree with us that our view of the world is correct.

This morning on MSNBC, Donald Trump revealed that he is “absolutely thinking about” running for president in 2012. As you might expect from Trump, he was not short on glib and, at their core, nonsensical sound bites packed with blame.

He proclaimed that “outside forces are destroying this country” and that “we are treated unfairly” by countries like China. He professed to share insider stories that unnamed people in China have said to him “we can’t believe what we are getting away with” in China’s relationship with the United States.

Of course, you don’t have to be a Freudian psychiatrist to analyze that in reality Donald Trump can’t believe what he is getting away with. Despite multiple bankruptcies and lawsuits against his organizations, lenders still lend him money. Despite having nothing but blame in his arsenal of rhetoric, any talk show in America would be glad to have him make a guest appearance. And no doubt in contemporary America, if he was to run for president, his populist chord would resonate.

What exactly is China getting away with? In his words, China has “a false currency,” presumably because Trump has proclaimed that the yuan is undervalued. While this makes a good blaming sound bite and is sweet music to the ears of every ego, not every economist agrees this is true.

And suppose the yuan is undervalued, then what? Should we shoot ourselves in the foot and start a trade war, as Congress threatened to do last week? Should we, as Trump suggests, send “ten brutal killers (killer is Trump’s word for negotiator) that are smarter than anyone” to make China do our bidding? Presumably those smart but brutal killers will somehow force China to increase the value of their currency. Sounds like Donald has been watching too many Hollywood movies and spending too much quality time with his ego. If he could force China to increase the value of their currency then what? Domestic prices in the United States will increase and perhaps our exports to China might even fall. Why? Rising interest rates are one method by which China would increase the value of its currency. Rising interest rates would slow down the Chinese economy and reduce foreign trade.

“Here’s a thought test” Mish Shedlock recently wrote: “What would happen if China raised prices 20% across the board via an export tax or reevaluation of the Yuan, starting tomorrow?” Mish continues,

For starters, the Chinese economy would implode overnight along with collapsing exports. US importers such as Walmart, Target, Best Buy, and Kohls would seek new supply chains from Vietnam, Korea, Singapore, or India, but that would take time. In the meantime, US stores would run out of some goods. US consumers would go on strike until the supply chains were restored. Hundreds of small businesses would go bankrupt. Finally, businesses going bankrupt would pressure the banking system.

It is an iron-clad law of human relationships that blame escalates into conflict. In the realm of interpersonal relationships, this conflict often takes the form of simmering hostilities. Sometimes outright hostilities result and two people part company. However, when countries get involved in the blame game, war is often the result. Any action that reduces trade makes both parties worse off. Given enough reduction in trade, impoverishment is a result. For example, think about what would happen if for all your goods and services you had to depend on just those businesses and individuals within a one-mile radius of your home. Life would be very hard.

As we explained last week, as suffering increases it is easier to get the masses to agree on a negative program such as blaming China, then to agree on a positive program such as returning to the principles and values that help generate American prosperity.

But let’s be clear, the Donald Trumps of the world are not the problem; they arise because we keep reelecting the ego in our own mind to analyze the world and make decisions for us. Our ego, like Donald Trump, promises us it will keep us safe by controlling the world and defending us from our external enemies. Trump was espousing nonsense this morning, but every day we all listen to nonsense broadcast by our ego 24/7.

Fortunately there is an alternative. We can first become aware that there is another candidate that we can elect to be the decision-maker in our own mind. If we become aware of this other candidate, we can vote against our ego; the ego doesn’t really run unopposed.  This other candidate, which I call our True Self, does not speak in sound bites. It does not blame external circumstances.

Our True Self speaks quietly, and we hear its voice only when we are still enough to listen. For our real problems, it offers real solutions—solutions grounded in timeless principles and timeless values. It does not view others as objects; others are not evaluated by how well they are meeting the needs of our ego. Instead, it recognizes a community of life of which we are a part.

When we reelect our ego, we choose to separate ourselves from our True Self; with that choice we block our source of inspired ideas, wisdom, and love. Believing we are separate from our True Self and from everyone else, we have nothing but the dysfunctional thinking generated by our ego to fall back on to solve our perceived problems. The popularity of Donald Trump is simply a manifestation of our internal decision. As within, so without.

24-Hour Larry

July 15, 2010

In season seven of Curb Your Enthusiasm Larry David is trying to reunite with his estranged wife Cheryl. Cheryl explains that Larry was easier to be around when he was out of the house working on the Seinfeld show. After he started to be home all the time, “Larry” was too much to take. Cheryl explained that although she missed him, a sliver of Larry was all she could take. To that Larry responded, “I got 24-hour Larry; you think I like it?”

I laughed hard, because when I am in my ego state of mind, I don’t like “24-hour Barry” any more than Larry and Cheryl like “24-hour Larry.” Fortunately for me, my wife is more tolerant of “24-hour Barry” than Cheryl was of “24-hour Larry.” If you are a fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm, you know that Larry’s ego contaminates every relationship and every encounter Larry has. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a huge hit because Larry captures the universal condition.

When we are in ego state of mind we can’t help but be uncomfortable in our own skin and a pain in the neck to everyone else. Why? Our ego is a self-constructed and conditioned identity—it’s not our real identity. When we are in our ego state of mind, we think the solution for every problem is more of us—more of our analysis, more of our authority, and more of our attempts to control the situation.

As our ego bears down, analyzes, and exerts control, the more miserable we become. We are no different than Larry in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Every situation becomes a challenge for Larry as he tries to get what he wants while conniving to convince others that he is really a good person. In the show this almost always backfires—he often doesn’t get what he wants and no one is convinced he is a good person. Occasionally he has his moment of triumph, but these moments are short-lived and his misery returns.

In his miserable state, Larry continually seeks external causes and external solutions for his suffering. Everyone he encounters is a potential target for his blame. In one episode in season seven, Larry’s manager encourages him to give the president of NBC the benefit of the doubt. Larry responds, “I’m not used to giving the benefit of the doubt; I don’t even know how to do it.”

So what is Larry to do? What are we to do? In April, at the announcement that there would be a eighth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry quipped, “After much soul searching – and by the way, it was nowhere to be found – I have decided to do another season of Curb. I look forward to the end of shooting, when I can once again resume the hunt for my elusive soul. I know it’s here somewhere or perhaps in the rugged mountainous regions of Pakistan.”

But what Larry is looking for? What are we really looking for? Is the happiness we seek that elusive? I know from my own experience, when I try to find “spiritual Barry,” my ego is in charge of the search. And although “spiritual Barry” may be a little bit more pleasant to be around than “24-hour Barry,” “spiritual Barry” is likely to be just as miserable and just as likely to treat other people as objects.

So, how do we find what in my book The Inner-Work of Leadership I call the True Self? The most important step is simply to realize that there is nothing to find. Our True Self already exists fully developed; we have just made a decision to turn away from it. Yet, we have the power of choice to choose our True Self at any time. If we are in our ego state of mind, no one else is to blame–we have chosen to identify with our ego. The clouds—our judgments, our anger, our anxiety—that block our True Self from our awareness have no external cause. The clouds are there because we want them to be there; they vanish the second we decide otherwise. This is a statement of our absolute freedom to choose again.

So the task of finding our True Self does not, as Larry quipped, require a trip to the proverbial remote mountains. It is instead a process whereby we become aware of and look without judgment at all the specialness we have chosen for ourselves. Our ego promises us that we are special in many ways, both positive and negative. We have strengths, and we have our problematical life circumstances which we call our special problems. We have a unique identity with which we are comfortable. We have a set of judgments and opinions we hold about ourselves and everyone else we encounter. As we look at our specialness without judgment, the clouds begin to lift. Our True Self is always there. The fear of relinquishing the identity we have constructed is great, so frequently we return to our ego state of mind.

When our ego has us in its grip, it seems like our 24-hour virtual character is here to stay. Watching Larry lie, manipulate, and seek to find happiness where it can never be found, we can laugh at our own foibles. And as we do, the grip our false identity has on us loosens. Gently laughing at ourselves is good medicine.

Warning: If you have never viewed Curb Your Enthusiasm please be cautioned that the show contains frequent swearing and adult situations.

Be Kind, Part 2

June 15, 2010

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”—Plato

My son, a freshman in high school, has an easy-going, nonjudgmental personality that attracts other students.  A few weeks ago he came home with this story: Another freshman, Shaun (not his real name) had showed my son a tooth, still in the boy’s mouth, that had rotted all the way down to the gum line. Shaun showed his tooth with an air of bravado, but it was not hard to sense that Shaun was asking for help in the only way he knew how.

After hearing the story, my wife called a school guidance counselor with whom we are friendly. The counselor promised to get dental help for the student. Given how the school operates, we have no doubt that that is exactly what happened. As importantly, we have no doubt that the guidance counselor, a firm but kind man, will be looking out for Shaun in other ways.

My wife and I were perplexed though. Just a few weeks earlier, the local hospital had sponsored a free dental screening at the high school for students who didn’t have a regular dentist. All Shaun’s parents had to do was sign a release form; Shaun would have received needed care. Under these circumstances how could Shaun’s dental needs have been neglected? That was not our business, nonetheless we did wonder.

We asked our son what kind of young man Shaun is. Our son described him as pretty nasty and unpopular. I began to reflect on the life Shaun is living. He is clearly having a hard battle. His life is rough; his behavior compounds his problems. By and by, Shaun is ignored by his classmates; and apparently, his parents ignore him as well.

In his book The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk reports on a classic nature/nurture experiment by Canadians Rod Cooper and John Zubek. They began with two “genetic” strains of rat pups—rats that had shown over many generations to be “maze-bright” and those who were “maze-dull.” Maze-dull rats made on average 40 percent more mistakes while running the maze.  A sample of rat pups were raised in one of three distinct environments—enriched with many stimulating toys, normal, or restricted (just food and water).   Normal conditions, produced what they expected—“maze-bright” rats outperformed “maze-dull” rats. But they were shocked by the results in enriched and restricted conditions. In both of these environments, “genetic” differences disappeared. In enriched conditions, both types of rats were equally smart ; in restricted conditions, both types were equally stupid. There were no statistically significant differences in performance.

Shenk’s interpretation of the research is startling: “There is no genetic foundation that gets laid before the environment enters in; rather, genes express themselves strictly in accordance with their environment.” In other words, the effects of nature and nurture on our development are completely inseparable.

In our daily lives we all encounter Shauns, and it is easy to justify the judgments we make about them. We assume that they should know better. We assume that they know the “correct way” to behave, and yet with conscious volition, they misbehave. It is easy for an air of superiority to creep in, even as we think about walking the proverbial “mile in their shoes.” As we feel sorry for the Shauns of the world, we feel special. And someone who feels special can never be kind.

The new genetic research tells us that our judgments are completely faulty. There is no possible way for us to accurately and fairly judge (as opposed to discern) the behavior of somebody else. It is possible to discern the behavior of another and hold them accountable and responsible for their choices, if it is our role to do so. But if we discern without judging, we will be a lot kinder as we go about it. We can drop our stories about them and our own feelings of superiority and specialness. We are responsible for how we react to the behavior of others; we choose to discern or to judge. If we judge, we focus on their choices; and we neglect to examine our own moment-by-moment choices.

Like me, when you honestly observe your own thinking, you may notice how often you ruminate over the choices that others are making and how often you neglect to look at your own. Can we catch in-the-bud a judgment we were about to make over the behavior of another? Can we make another choice to drop our judgments? Do we see ourselves and the person we judge as human beings, both in the same boat—trying to make our way in the world? If we don’t perceive that sameness, we perceive specialness as we look through the eyes of our ego. Are we not all challenged to choose to access the part of the mind that helps us rise above our nature/nurture conditioning?

These choices to be kind and to drop judgment will make all the difference in our lives. Wendy Egyoku Nakaos, the abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, helps us with this evocative reminder:  “May we open to a deeper understanding and a genuine love and caring for the multitude of faces, who are none other than ourselves.”

See also:

Be Kind


Are you doing the Inner-Work of Leadership?

The Government We Deserve

March 4, 2010

A new Rasmussen Reports national survey has found that just 21% of voters nationwide believe that the federal government enjoys the consent of the governed. 75% of voters are angry at the policies of the federal government.

Some advocates of limited government may see this as good news. They may believe that voter anger will translate into support for principled advocates of limited government. Indeed, interest in limited government may increase. Unfortunately, most of the anger will translate into support for unprincipled populists. The result is likely to be a further expansion of government fueled by populist fervor; our nation will be thrown further out of alignment with the timeless principles that promote economic prosperity and liberty.

In any case, the voters who were surveyed are wrong. Congress and the President reflect pretty closely the collective will of the governed. The political world they see reflects our collective inward condition as a nation. When I write “they”—I refer to all of us when our thinking is dominated by our ego. Let us review the ways that Congress, the president, and the American public (collectively) are in alignment.

They are ignorant about the principles that generate economic prosperity and freedom. Importantly, they are content to be ignorant. Consider this question asked on the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Civic Literacy Quiz:

Free markets typically secure more economic prosperity than government’s centralized planning because:

A. the price system utilizes more local knowledge of means and ends

B. markets rely upon coercion, whereas government relies upon voluntary compliance with the law

C. more tax revenue can be generated from free enterprise

D. property rights and contracts are best enforced by the market system

E. government planners are too cautious in spending taxpayers’ money

The correct answer is A, but only 16.25% of the public answered correctly. Not surprisingly, only 10.71% of elected officials choose the correct answer.  The complete quiz can be found here.

They are arrogant. They believe in the powers of their own mind to understand and then to control the world. Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek called them naïve when he wrote: “To the naïve mind that conceives of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions, order and adaptation to the unknown can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions.” Hayek was a gentleman. They are more than naïve; it is a blind arrogance that fails to recognize that each individual is part of a complex web of uncontrollable relationships with other human beings, the market-economy, and the natural world.

They are frightened. How could one not be frightened if you see yourself as separate from the web of life? How can one not be frightened if you expend your energy to try to control this web of life rather than to live in alignment with it?

They are selfish. Full of their own self-importance and frightened, they believe that everybody and everything is there to serve their needs. When they give, it is only to get; and they expect to get much more than they ever gave. The world is seen as win-lose and static; and given that view, they can’t help but struggle over every proverbial bone they see. Some may have polite veneers, but beneath that politeness there is a viciousness—a viciousness spawned from the belief that they are deserving of every last penny they can coerce away from somebody else. They would rather bankrupt the nation than surrender anything that they have already gained by coercion.

Am I being harsh? If you live in a municipality or state with public employee unions, you know I am not being harsh. Unions have extracted salaries and pension plans that are not sustainable. Yet, they will not surrender or compromise on any aspect of their outrageous contracts.

They are mindless. An individual who is mindful recognizes the power of his or her mind to make another choice. Mindless individuals pretend to be victims of circumstances. They strive to convince themselves and others that their own choices are irrelevant.  Endless propaganda comes out of their mouths for their non-solutions to non-problems.

They are expedient. Ignorance, arrogance, fear, and selfishness are a combustible combination. When we allow our minds to turn to these destructive attributes, we bury higher values and principles under deep layers of rationalization.

The rising anger in the American public has barely begun. Much economic hardship is ahead, voters will grow more angry, and populists will exploit that hardship and anger. Thinking that we will solve our problems merely by changing politicians is like trying to sooth a cut on your face by bandaging the reflection you see in the mirror. The problem is our collective choice to be arrogant, ignorant, and mindless; the solution is to realize that we made a faulty choice. With that realization, we can choose to educate ourselves on what promotes liberty and prosperity. As we choose higher values and principles, principled politicians will arise to take the place of the arrogant and unprincipled gang that only seems to be outside of us and different from us. As within, so without.

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