Morgan’s Dream

April 22, 2009

I watch very little television; but when Amazon previewed an episode, I was instantly hooked on Chuck, NBC’s action/comedy/satire series. One character in the series is Morgan Grimes. Morgan is a slacker, around 30, who works in a Buy More (a parody of Best Buy). In the most recent episode, Anna, Morgan’s girlfriend, asks him if he has any dreams and goals beyond working at the Buy More. After making Anna  promise not to laugh, Morgan reveals his dream: He wants to be a “Benihana chef in Hawaii.” Then he quickly explains why his dream is not practical: “I’m way past my prime. I’m not Asian. And I don’t even know where to get the knives.”

I laughed, but not at Morgan. Morgan was simply articulating the human condition—we all make up absurd excuses for not following our dream. Vincent Van Gogh provided the antidote to this state of being when he said: “If you hear a voice within you saying, ‘You are not a painter,’ then by all means paint… and that voice will be silenced.”

Van Gogh is teaching us that we must not wait until the negative voice goes away before we follow our dream. Waiting is not a strategy for success. The voice will never go away, but it can fade away.

Every human being has two voices within. We are most familiar with the voice of our ego.  The voice of the ego evaluates everything as for us or against us. It is the part of our mind that trys to control everything. In her book Soul-Kissed, Ann Linthorst helps us to understand that our ego defines itself based on separation:

Human identity is a sense of personhood, which is established by separation, location and limitation.  Ask yourself who you are, and the details that come to mind will all be statements of location and limitation: “I am male or female, born there, to that father and mother, living here, in this house, with these people, doing this, having that.” This kind of self-identification, which I call “ego” automatically excludes all other possibilities. Being here we cannot be anywhere else. Having what we have and doing what we do means that we don’t have or do other things. Personal identity is determined precisely by separation, location, and distinction from others. I know that I am… by the differences that distinguish and separate us.

Initially, Morgan is certain of his lack and limitation; he knows why he can’t be a Benihana chef. By the end of the episode, he is trying to get back in touch with the other voice within—his True Self. The True Self in each of us is that part of the mind which is connected to the Love and Intelligence of the Universe.

Has the ego’s voice of doubt left Morgan for good? Of course not. Both voices—ego and True Self—will exist in each of us until we die. However, whatever voice we choose to listen to at this moment, we will strengthen. Steve Chandler wrote recently of that voice that Van Gogh speaks of:

The voice says, “Oh, my gosh, this would be so scary, and I dread this and don’t do this and don’t try that.”  It’s a voice that tries to keep the organism safe, but it’s not really safe to be safe.  It’s the opposite of safe.  People trying to stay safe, aren’t creating the world that they really want; and they’re not learning to be fearless.  They are actually learning to be scared.  Training themselves to accommodate fear. Ongoing fear.

In other words, following the choice of our ego is a sad bargain—like alcohol, it buys us only temporary relief from the human condition at the price of reinforcing our weakness. My elderly aunt checks her blood pressure constantly throughout the day. She gets alarmed with each high reading; but perversely, she seems reassured that her definition of herself is intact.

Her blood pressure reading has become her God. In her own way, she has been teaching me. What dream of lack and limitation am I monitoring—and thus worshiping—all day? The disinfectant is simply to be aware of what our ego is worshiping. This awareness is cleansing—but only when it is done free of judgment.

We are all Morgan. Now, more than ever, our world needs us to pivot towards the dreams of our True Self.



November 13, 2007

In the poignant and touching novel Replay by Ken Grimwood, the main characters die again and again only to repeat a portion of their adulthood. The main characters discover over the course of many “replayed” lifetimes that all of their attempts to “improve” their lives fail. Their core belief, which endures for many “lifetimes,” is that the key to a happy life is creating a perfect set of circumstances. But in every case, their lives never turn out the way they envision them. They are able to change some of the details of their lives—but the more they try and manipulate the outcome, the less happiness they have. They finally discover that life is not about manipulating the future, but rather, living fully in the present in an uncertain world. What the characters in Replay discover is a hard concept for individuals to understand.

Our vision of what perfect circumstances will make us happy always comes from our ego and bears little resemblance to what we truly need in order to grow at this time. This is not to say that we need to reject inspirational visions, but the shortest route to reach those visions is wholehearted engagement in the present. When we need to change our circumstances, it can be accomplished out of a quiet knowing. This action, based on quiet knowing and surrender, is the alternative to futile, fear-based attempts to control. That quiet sense of knowing is easily drowned out by our frenetic mental activity aimed at control. This mental activity is generated by the false belief that although we are uncommitted and unhappy now, if we change our circumstances, our commitment will magically change.

Tom McMakin, formerly the chief operating officer of Great Harvest Bread Company, tells the story of his own struggle to commit. He places his story in the larger context of the myriad of choices facing us all:

The curse of living today is not the absence of opportunity; it is that of having too many choices. There is so much we can do; it is hard to decide sometimes. How many times have you heard a friend say, “I don’t know what I want to do!” They’re not worried about whether there is anything they can do. They are freaking out because there are lots of things they could do and they don’t know which one will make them happy.

McMakin goes on to share the experience of one of Great Harvest’s franchisees whose owner realized that he “was one of those guys who likes to keep his options open and it was making (him) miserable.” The store had become a burden to him and business was suffering. His wife provided the simple cure when she advised him, “Get in there with all you heart and Spirit or get out.”

My wife reminds me that I sometimes suffer from the same disease; I try to keep all my options open when it comes to my work. I’ve gotten much better; and when I look back at the times that I didn’t understand this point, I can only smile and wonder why it took me so long. In past days I would wake up each day with everything in play: work on my book project, work on my PowerPoint slides for class, develop exercises for a client’s leadership development program, write a blog post, etc. When I approached the day in this way, the morning would frequently go by in spasms of work but more frustration than anything else. He who is distracted by anything, will quickly be distracted by everything.

There is no perfect set of circumstances to create, there is just the moment in front us to live wholeheartedly. This moment will soon pass. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Dan Baker, in his book What Happy People Know, shares this wisdom that inspired one of his clients: “Every moment that’s ever been, or ever will be, is gone the instant it’s begun. So life is loss. And the secret of happiness is to learn to love the moment more than you mourn the loss.”

Why “The Secret” Doesn’t Work and Why You Should be Glad it Doesn’t

October 30, 2007

In 2006, a DVD called The Secret was released. The DVD, which later spawned a book of the same name, purported to reveal the “law of attraction,” a so-called secret teaching that had been handed down through the ages. This secret, which has attracted the interest of Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, and millions of others, claims that there is a “universal intelligence” that will manifest our desires. In other words, our thoughts can create real world events.

The idea that God is a genie ready to respond to our whims is all at once seductive, juvenile, and almost immediately falsifiable. If you doubt the latter, buy a lottery ticket tonight, and see how far “the secret” will get you.

In Disneyland, from 1957 until 1993, there was a ride called the Motor Boat Cruise. You piloted a boat down a waterway. You never hit the rocks or other obstacles because you were not really steering. Sooner or later on the ride you made a wrong, even dangerous, turn; but the boat kept going in the right direction. Nonetheless, it would take children quite a while to realize that they were not steering.

Wayne Liquorman uses this ride as a metaphor for our lives. He asks,

Now, is it not extraordinary, that through this whole process, it never occurs to you, the thought never enters your mind, that this wheel isn’t connected to anything? Despite all the evidence to the contrary! You look at your life, all your intentions, all of the times that you were absolutely certain of what it was that you wanted to do. And then you worked so hard and diligently to do them. And your life went that way. Time and time again, your best efforts did not yield the desired results. And yet you say, “I’m the master of my destiny. I choose what I want to do.” But your wheel isn’t connected to anything! And yet you don’t see it! How is this possible?

I would like to take a stab at answering Wayne’s question, “How is this possible?” Chances are that most readers of this blog have a standard of living that is higher than most people who have ever lived on this planet. More often than not, things have gone reasonably well in our lives. And, as the boat ride story illustrates, it is natural to assume that this is the result of our efforts to control the world and prevent the myriad of unfavorable outcomes that are possible.

The ancients believed that the earth was the center of the universe. We laugh at them and then turn around and place our ego at the center. Desires to control our environment and events are somewhat shared by almost every ego. Let us be glad that reality is not controlled by our egos.

The runaway success of The Secret is predicated on the idea that we understand our own best interests. This idea is clearly absurd when looked at by any perspective other than our ego. To be sure, our ego has its particular view of what our best interests are. But at the top of the ego’s list is the desire that it be perpetuated. The ego wants to make sure that we will never take a good look inside and see that in each of us is another voice that we can listen too. That voice is not dominated by the ego’s petty aims and desires. That voice does not believe that happiness can be achieved by a new car or bigger house. That voice does not believe that God is a genie who will reward us for thinking “good” thoughts.

If you look back with honesty over your life, you can recall many events that—although when they occurred they seemed to be unfortunate—worked in your interest. Similarly, events that at the time they occurred seemed wonderful to you led to unfortunate outcomes further down the road.

Let me suggest an alternative to “The Secret”—become more spiritually receptive. This receptivity begins with interest, not in getting more of what our ego wants, but interest in being the highest expression of who we truly are.

To that end, George Barnard Shaw offered sound advice:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

Renée Fleming on the Inner Voice

September 17, 2007

This weekend I was reading The Inner Voice, the autobiography of opera singer Renée Fleming. In the book, she explains her view that ambition should not be about rising to the top. Ambition, to Fleming, is an “inner motivator.”

It’s less about seeing how high up I can vault than about seeing how deeply I can explore my potential. How can I find a truer interpretation of a role? How much more depth and light and emotion can I find in my own voice? How much can I feel when I’m singing a piece, and how much can I in turn make the audience feel? Ambition for me is about the willingness to work, the ability to mine my own soul fearlessly. At the end of my career, I want to know in my heart that I did everything I was capable of doing, that I succeeded in singing in a way that not even I had imagined was possible.

As I read Fleming’s words, I couldn’t help but recall my last blog post on Bill Belichick. Belichick’s ambition, in Fleming’s terms, is not driven by the need to develop one’s gifts; his ambition is driven by a need “to step on other people to make sure you’re the first one to get through the door.”

A few years ago, in a radio interview, Fleming told the host of her long hours of practice and her belief that she didn’t have exceptional ability. She explained:

The most important talent that exists in all of us is our instrument; whatever sound there is that makes us all unique is the crucial thing that separates the men from the boys. But it is the part of which we have no control over, so it’s not what I think about everyday. I’m not aware of how my voice sounds so much as I’m steeped in the process of making the notes on the page come to life.

Fleming’s views on both ambition and ability reflect her deep understanding that her accomplishments arise out of a process of personal surrender to forces greater than her self. It is her “inner motivator” that allows these forces to live in her. Wisely, she pays less attention to the outcome and more attention to her practice. She observed philosophically in her interview that her gifts were ephemeral: “On any given night, what we do is a gift, and it can all go away due to unforeseen possibilities.”

Fleming is not unique. We have all been given a gift of genius; our business is to discover it, practice it, and share it. We can only share that for which we have respect. And we can only respect our gifts if we understand, as Fleming does, that our gifts truly are gifts—we did not create them.

The energy that animates Fleming’s gifts, and our gifts, has been called by many names. I prefer Wholeness, since that word conveys that each of us is a part of something greater than our self. It is this energy of Wholeness that animates Renée Fleming’s “instrument,” and it is this energy that animates our own. We receive this gift as long as our intentionality—our inner motivation—is authentic.

When we behave with ruthless ambition, like a Belichick, our gift is sure to flee. There are other ways our gifts flee too. Our gifts flee when we forget to be grateful for them. We forget to be grateful when we think we must run our life off our own personal willpower. I know that this delusional belief—this belief that I am separate from Wholeness that animates my gifts—has caused me grief.

We also block our gifts by our thinking. The ways we do this are endless. We may believe we need a new material possession. We may ruminate that our house is too small. We rehearse an imaginary conversation that may or not be necessary. We may hold on to a past grievance. We may think that our circumstances have to change before we can use our gifts.

All of these are just thoughts. Our problem starts when we think that because we had a thought, we have to take the thought seriously. We think we have to act on the thought or resist the thought. What if we just let go of the thought?

It is our gratitude and respect for our gifts that help us want to live our career with the kind of ambition that Fleming describes. As Fleming explains, practicing our gifts is a journey of lifetime; and that journey is endlessly fulfilling.

Awake but Asleep on the D.C. Subway

August 16, 2007

When my children were about three years old, I got a wake-up call. I realized how unaware I could be. We were dropping off a relative at the airport, at a time when you could still pull up to the curb by the baggage handlers. I noticed that my children were paying rapt attention to a show going on just a few feet above the throngs of people, but invisible to almost everybody. They had noticed that there were owls perched in the open rafters of the airline terminal.

As they have gotten older, they have not lost their acute awareness; while I, in spite of my wake-up call, still lag behind. Given that, it was with more than a little interest that I read an amazing story this morning.

This past January, in an experiment documented by the Washington Post, one of the great violinists of our time, Joshua Bell, played on a Stradivarius violin worth $3.5 million, at the entrance of L’Enfant Plaza subway stop in Washington, D.C. Bell showed up to play in jeans, tee shirts, and a baseball cap.

Among the music Bell played was the “Chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, which is—without exaggeration—among the most sublime and moving music ever written. That piece was followed by Schubert’s achingly beautiful “Ave Maria.”

What is extraordinary about this story is that of the 1097 people who walked by during his 43 minute performance, only seven stopped. It was a full six minutes into the performance until the first person did. If you watch the video of his performance you can see that most seemed not to notice he was there.

Live life to the fullest! Wake up and smell the roses! Our culture is full of clichés about being more alive and present. Yet most of us remain unaware, living proof that exhortations rarely change behavior.

What then would change our behavior? What would make us more present? All that is required is for us to become aware of what is getting in our way.

Consider a D.C. subway commuter. When he woke up in the morning of his encounter with Joshua Bell, he probably did not notice how quickly the mind activity of his ego absorbed his attention. He probably didn’t notice how his ego instantly checked in to its physical and psychological aliments. Back pain? Still there. Afternoon meeting to worry about? Still there. Problematical financial situation? Still there. Good! All systems go. In other words—and for all of us—the ego thrives on defining our identity by our problems.

Before getting out of bed, anxiety about the day may begin to mount. The ego mind will then go into action, scan the world, and comes up with a cause: “I know why I am anxious, I have a difficult business meeting at 3 P.M. today. Joe will be there and he always creates conflicts.”

On the D.C. subway, the commuter may begin to imagine scenarios in his head. “Joe will say this and then I will respond as follows.” His day is almost ruined and it has hardly begun. Having turned to his ego for guidance, the ego stream of thinking continues on the subway ride. “I have got to get out of D.C. I have to find another job.”

By the time the subway ride ends, the commuter is too distracted by his mind activity to even notice the extraordinary music he is about to walk by. One wonders, what quality of work could he possibly perform while in such a state of being lost in his ego?

No wonder that I meet government employees in their 30s and 40s who are already dreaming of retirement. I mention government employees because the Metro station at which Bell performed is in the heart of a myriad of non-descript Federal buildings.

Yet for any of us, the journey to be more aware and more present can begin at any time. The first step is to realize that there is another way to be and that this other way waits on our choice. Although changes in our external circumstances may be called for, the journey towards this other way rarely begins with those sorts of changes.

Instead the journey begins by noticing our ego stream of thinking and then turning from it. If you are able to notice your ego stream of thinking, there must be something present in you other than your ego. That something is the awareness and presence that you are seeking. It is that presence that is the source of joy, vitality, love, and happiness. That presence is always with us, we just have to value it.

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