Flags Over the 48

September 11, 2011

Every 9/11, on each the 48 peaks above 4,000 ft. in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, bands of hikers carry up an American flag to plant at each summit. Every hiker has his or her own reasons for carrying the flag or for making the commemorative hike. Today, I hiked to remember the ordinary men and women who lost their lives and to celebrate the transcendent American values that will never die.

Looking at the flag over Mt. Garfield on 9/11/2011

At the heart of American values is the idea that human beings are free and they should not be controlled by someone other than themselves.

Over and over, for thousands of years, the idea that human beings should be controlled has been proven false. When human beings are controlled, a special few determine the production and distribution of goods and these decisions are enforced by the judicial and police powers of government.

The more controls, the more poverty, and the more suffering a society endures. The more controls, the less innovative and the less successful an organization is. Many American do not understand that these are the consequences when freedom wanes.

Wishing for freedom is not the same as taking the responsibility for creating the conditions under which freedom flourishes and thrives. In his book Wow I’m an American, the great psychiatrist Peter Breggin writes, “In economics, as in everything else, human beings need to live by the values of liberty, responsibility, gratitude and love.”

Breggin offers his idea of the principles that make it possible for free markets to flourish and for people to live productive, meaningful lives. Those principles are “protect freedom, take responsibility at all times, express gratitude for every gift and opportunity and become a source of love.”

I would put it a little bit differently than Breggin. We are not a source of love; instead we allow love to be expressed through us, every time we get our ego out of the way.

Love is the basic energy of the universe, and we block the flow of energy every time we try to control others, every time we cower from our responsibilities, and every time we shrink from expressing our gifts. Freedom erodes each time we behave expediently to protect imagined comforts that we think will be threatened if we don’t go along with the status quo.

We insulate ourselves; thinking our circumstances special, we are relieved when the responsibility for renewing a free society falls heavily on the shoulders of someone else. When we think we can avoid responsibility, we are wrong. Without each of us taking responsibility to renew freedom, the American experiment will die.

If freedom does die here in America, it will be renewed in some other place at some time to come; for freedom is a transcendent ideal. But, why not renew our commitment to freedom today? Why not in America?


Being Conducted

August 31, 2010

In the exquisitely beautiful and lyrical Swedish film As It Is in Heaven, Michale Nyqvist plays the fictional character Daniel Dareus, an internationally famous conductor. Although Daniel is in great demand for his ability, he is unfulfilled—he feels as though he has never facilitated the musicians in the orchestra to play to the best of their abilities.

As conductors go, he is a relatively young man; but at the pinnacle of his career, he suffers a heart attack. He retires to the small Swedish village of his boyhood. His name has changed since he was a boy, so no one in the village knows he is a native. He takes on the role of the choir director in the village church. As he assumes the role, the choir is undisciplined and mediocre.

In an early encounter with the choir, Daniel explains to them the importance of listening to the music: “Everything begins with listening. Imagine that all music all ready exists. It’s up here all around vibrating ready to be taken down. It’s all a matter of listening, of being ready to take it down. Every person has their own unique tone, their own individual tone.” The choir is puzzled but receptive to these ideas.

As I listened to Daniel, my mind flashed to one of my favorite passages from Polly Berends’ classic book on parenting Whole Child, Whole Parent, in which she explains why a good parent is like a good conductor:

On the surface it seems that the music is produced by the power of the conductor to tell everyone what to do and when to do it. He may have to do that, but that is not what makes the music. A good conductor does not merely tell everyone what to do; rather he helps everyone hear what is so. For this he is not primarily a telling but a listening individual: even while the orchestra is performing loudly he is listening inwardly to silent music. He is not so much commanding as he is obedient. The conductor conducts by being conducted.

In the movie and in life there is an important prerequisite for being conducted—a price that most people are unwilling to pay. Near the end of the movie, Daniel explains to his former manager why he found  fulfillment as the choir director in a small village while he never found it as a conductor of world-famous orchestras. He says of his choir: They love me and I love them.

Love is the prerequisite for being able to listen. Yes, the love of the music; but importantly, love for each other. Throughout the movie members of the choir gradually surrender past hurts and petty grievances that they have held towards each other. Without surrendering, they would not be able to hear the music. Notice, they must subtract, rather than add, to their lives. The act of surrender was a decision that, one-by-one, they each had to make. Yet, each choice for Love made it easier for someone else to make the same choice.  Daniel could not make that decision for them. For all of us, listening is natural once we get our egos out of the way.

As a leader, Daniel himself had to make the same decision for Love. Indeed, Daniel is the one who goes first; and that decision makes all the difference in his life and the lives of everyone in his childhood village. To our ego, the choice for Love seems very complex—there seem to be layers and layers of the intractable “story of me” to be dismissed. Yet as the film reveals, the choice can be made in an instant and requires nothing other than our willingness. What choice can be simpler?  What choice can be important? What choice can be more rewarding?

The Missing Ingredient

October 7, 2009

The film The Ramen Girl tells the story of Abby, a twenty-something American women who is stranded in Tokyo after being dumped by her boyfriend. She decides to stay. To earn a living, she begs a tyrannical Japanese ramen chef, who doesn’t speak a word of English, to teach her the art of making ramen. In Japan, ramen making is a high art.

Abby and her teacher clash, but the ramen master begins to soften towards Abby. Yet, despite all of her hard work, Abby cannot make a decent ramen bowl. In desperation, the master takes Abby to see his own mother. The scene unfolds as Abby prepares a bowl of ramen and serves it to the master’s mother:

Ramen master’s mother: Her broth is bland.

Ramen master: I wonder why? She’s mastered the techniques perfectly.

Mother talking to her son: Sometimes too much technical training can get in the way.

Mother talking to Abby: You cook with your head. Understand? Your head is full of noise. You must learn to cook from the quieter place deep inside of you.

Abby: How?

Mother:  Each bowl of ramen that you prepare is a gift to your customer. The food that you serve your customers becomes part of them. It contains your spirit. That’s why your ramen must be an expression of pure love; a gift from your heart.

Is this new age blather? Or, are we hearing business wisdom? After all, you can sell many things without having much regard for your customer. But, what about in today’s emerging economy where frugality will be the norm?

My wife enjoys an occasional cup of coffee. She recently told me the story of a coffee shop in town that she visited once and then did not return to for over a year. Why? It is a small shop, she related, and the server was not very welcoming. Drinking a cup of coffee, like eating ramen, is an experience. This is nothing new; companies like Starbucks were built on the experience they offer.

But does Abby really need to be so responsive to her customers that her work becomes an expression of love? The workday of a ramen chef is very long and repetitive. Many of her customers she may never see again. Kahil Gibran asked the question, “And what is it to work with love?” He answered his own question with advice that echoes that of the ramen master’s mother:

It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit…

Inspiring words, indeed. But what about the noise in Abby’s head that is getting in her way? Gibran asks us, “When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music. Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?”

Gibran is offering a pointer. We must allow ourselves to be found by life—to be found by the music that wants to sing through us in harmony with every living thing. A ramen cook becomes a ramen master when his cooking nourishes more than the body. A cook’s ingredients may be high quality, but there is more to cooking than ingredients. Are we part of the web of life that unites us all? Or, have we cut ourselves off? To ask the question is to be ready to receive the answer.

Abby is clearly trying to find her place in the world; but understandably given her circumstances, she is preoccupied with herself. The way out for Abby is to give even more of herself. This giving is enlivening rather than exhausting. Abby is called upon to have an intimate relationship with her customers—she is called upon to share fully of the gifts of her spirit. Doing so, she is united with her customers in their human journey; they are not mere objects playing their parts in Abby’s journey.

Eric Butterworth wrote, “Love is not an emotion that begins in us and ends in the positive response of another.” That kind of love is merely a deal destined to fall apart. Love doesn’t begin in us. We allow Love to flow through us when we can laugh at the noise in our head which is focused on the gratification of the endless demands of our own ego.

As she gives more, Abby gets more. But what she gets she could not have planned for or even conceived of. Some people go through life expecting to get before they give. Others go through life giving but then keeping score to see if what they receive back is in balance with what they give. Neither of these ways of being in the world will allow life to sing through us. We are the ones placing boundaries on the notes that can be played. If we continue to see the world through the eyes of our egos, life becomes very small and tedious.

In many of our organizations, work is tedious. Employees don’t share their gifts fully, interpersonal conflict is the norm, and dubious decision-making is routine. For the successful corporations in the future, a culture which supports the idea that their products and services are an expression of pure love will become a business necessity. Consumers will be buying more of what adds real value to their lives, and by economic necessity, they will be buying less of what merely fills the void in an unfulfilled life.

The Bravehearts of Mumbai

December 7, 2008

It is hard not to notice the contrast between the heroism of ordinary Indian citizens and the seemingly inept official governmental response to the terrorists in Mumbai. In the Mumbai train station for instance, over 60 policemen (admittedly, underarmed) were on duty; the gunmen were out in the open; yet, not one of the policemen attempted to shoot the terrorists. In the hotels, about 10 gunmen, up against a force of over 1000 commandos and other law enforcement officials, were able to stay alive for over two days and wreak havoc.

In the same train station, hotels and in restaurants, ordinary Indian citizens behaved heroically risking and in some cases giving their lives to help their countrymen and foreign nationals. In contrast, those in the military and police forces were bound by their “rule books” and bound by a rigid command-and-control hierarchy that was issuing the plan. Their response was slower and less fluid than the situation demanded. How could it have been otherwise? The terrorists were not operating under a central command.

This is not a post written to criticize the Indian military. In the United States at the Columbine High School massacre, innocents were slaughtered or died of their injuries while the SWAT team “staged” outside the high school for an inexcusable amount of time before responding. Unresponsive bureaucracies know no national boundaries.

But this is a post about the heroism of ordinary Indians and the great cosmopolitan city of Mumbai—a city of Hindus, Moslems, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, and Jews—where tolerance is the norm.

One of the targets of the murderers was the Chabad House—an orthodox Jewish outreach center located in a poor, Muslim neighborhood—run by Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka. Immediately, Mumbai taught the world of the character of its citizens—residents in the area, presumably Muslims and Hindus, pelted the terrorists with stones in an attempt to stop them from entering the Chabad House. Some of these residents may have paid with their lives. I wish I could tell you more of their heroic actions, but no account I could find—Indian or American—had more details.

The terrorists entered the Chabad House. Two Indian nationals, employees of the House, Sandra Samuels, a Christian nanny to toddler Moishe Holtzberg (the son of the Rabbi and his wife), and Zaki Hussein, a Muslim, were able to escape the initial carnage and hide themselves away.

The next morning, Sandra heard little Mosihe crying out for her, “Sandra! Sandra! Sandra!” Leaving her safe nest, Sandra made her way up to the second floor where she found two-year old Moishe crying over his parents’ wounded or dead bodies. She scooped up Moishe; and then with Zaki standing watch at the door, Sandra fled the building.

“This baby is something very precious to me; what else could I have done?” Sandra said rhetorically as she tried to explain why she was not a hero. Indeed, Sandra, Zaki, and the neighbors of the Chabad House had functioned as human beings were meant to. There was no time to consult a rule book, there was no one to issue commands, they had no thoughts of “what is in for me.”

Bryon Katie in her book A Thousand Names for Joy has written: “To think that we need sadness or outrage to motivate us to do what’s right is insane… Love is action. It’s clear, it’s kind, it’s effortless, and it’s irresistible.”

In our own lives today, we can honor the bravehearts of Mumbai by doing what we truly value. Doing what is precious to us and not what is expedient or easier, because Love is indeed effortless.

In a Mumbai synagogue, Zaki comforts an inconsolable Moishe at the memorial service for his parents.

In a Mumbai synagogue, Zaki comforts an inconsolable Moishe at the memorial service for his parents.

Sandra is now in Israel living with Moishe. Since Mosihe only responds to her, she has vowed to remain with him for as long as he needs her.

Sandra is now in Israel living with Moishe. Since Mosihe only responds to her, she has vowed to remain with him for as long as he needs her.

In 1970, Neil Diamond wrote a song “Done Too Soon”—a simple song that may well have been about the common humanity that the victims of the Mumbai murderers share. The last verse is:

And each one there
Has one thing shared:
They have sweated beneath the same sun,
Looked up in wonder at the same moon,
And wept when it was all done
For bein’ done too soon.

Wisdom from Lou Piniella: “There Are No Concerns, About Anything”

September 24, 2007

The last time the Chicago Cubs made the World Series was 1945. The last time they won a World Series was 1908. As the baseball season dwindles down and the Cubs compete for a playoff spot, their fiery manager Lou Piniella said, “There are no concerns, about anything.”

Piniella is known for his combative eruptions, but he added, “I’ve been through these things before. You got to let these things play out. Pennant races have a life of their own, like a hurricane. They keep going and going until they hit landfall. Landfall will be sometime next weekend.”

No, Piniella is not in some nihilistic funk, and he has not given up. He is as competitive as ever; indeed, he has promised Cubs fans that their “frustration” will end under his managerial reign.

I have no idea if Lou Piniella has suddenly become a Zen master, but there is wisdom in his advice about allowing things to “play out.” He seems to understand that his worry or bluster will change nothing about the outcome of the pennant race. Let his players play with heart and the outcome will be what it will be.

How often I have forgotten to do exactly that.

Currently there is a photograph on my refrigerator of my son and my wife. It was taken when my son was a year old. He is riding in a baby carrier on my wife’s back.

I have looked at this photo many times, but I never saw it like I saw it today. Today I felt an incredible poignancy while looking at the photo. As I looked, all I felt was the pure Love and the vibrancy of the moment on that day over 11 years ago.

I felt poignancy because I experience many moments where I don’t feel Love. Indeed, even at the moment that I took the photograph, I’m not sure I felt the Love. Although I have no particular memories, I am sure I had my “concerns” and events were occurring around me which, at the time, may have seemed like a “pennant race.” These “concerns” clouded what was there and prevented my full enjoyment of the moment. But the gifts of that moment were never lost and were being saved for me.

The clouds were mind-created and were never really there in the first place. This is true about each and every moment. Some days, the cloud cover we create is denser; but Love is always there giving its gifts. We can open our gifts in that moment or in a future moment.

I don’t know if Lou Piniella would agree with me, but the gifts of the moment for the Cubs are the joy of playing as a team with all the gusto that they can muster. That is the one choice over which they do have control; over winning or losing, they do not.

Don Mclean wrote in his 1970 song “And I Love You So”:

The book of life is brief
And once a page is read,
All but love is dead.
That is my belief.

Best wishes to the Cubs; best wishes to all teams. There will be only one World Series winner, but every team will face the same choice when they look back over the season: Will they choose to feel the Love or will they remember the clouds?

The Good News About Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith

August 30, 2007

Next week Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light will be published. The book consists primarily of Mother Teresa’s letters over a period of 66 years in which she frequently confesses doubts about her faith. Consider this passage in which she even questions the existence of God:

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them—because of the blasphemy—If there be God—please forgive me—When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven—there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.—I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?

Many passages in the book are in sharp contrast to Mother Teresa’s public image. In this book, Mother Teresa described her ever-present smile as “a cloak that covers everything.”

No doubt that many will be shocked by the revelations in this new book. This is because there is a need many human beings have to see individuals who lead extraordinary lives as having special abilities or being especially blessed. The need to see them in this light arises because many individuals seek an excuse for not living up to their own potential.

From the viewpoint of the ego, it is only those “special” individuals who are responsible for living a life that has the highest reflection of who they are. It is only these “special” beings who are responsible for developing their unique gifts. Our ego counsels that we, lesser individuals, can settle for a life that is not lived according to our highest principles and values.

What Mother Teresa’s extraordinary life teaches is that any of us can choose to ignore the thoughts of the ego and see through the illusions that the ego provides. Although she was tortured by her doubts, she chose moment-by-moment to live her life according to her highest principles and values.

In doing so, she became an example for all of humanity. Thoughts of doubt may come and go, the ego’s false counsel might even linger, but there is a place inside each of us that can still choose inspired ideas.

When we read of Mother Teresa’s torment, no longer can we say that we will choose to live an inspired life when all the circumstances fall into place for us. Few are called to follow Mother Teresa’s path in form, but we are all chosen by Love that is not of our making, to follow her path in content.

In other words, wherever we find ourselves is our place to begin to choose inspired ideas. There is a story from the Hasidic Jewish religious tradition about Rabbi Zusya who said: “In the coming world, they will not ask me: `Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: `Why were you not Zusya?'”

Mother Teresa was not a great woman because she had special gifts. She was a great woman because she chose to moment-by-moment to honor her gifts in spite of her doubts.

The 13th Century Sufi poet Rumi wrote:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty

and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study

and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.

There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.


Mother Teresa may have woke up many mornings feeling “empty” but she “let the beauty we love be what we do” in an extraordinary way.


The One Thing That Doesn’t Cause Cancer

July 20, 2007

While driving home from work last month, I was listening to the radio and heard an advertisement for a local television station’s five o’clock news program. Breathlessly a reporter announced that multivitamins may increase the incidence of prostate cancer; the news would have details at five.

As a user of multivitamins, I was a little alarmed. In truth I was a more amused than alarmed. I was not amused because I dismiss cancer warnings with a perfunctory “what doesn’t cause cancer” statement. I don’t. But I also believe our understanding of what causes cancer is very primitive. There is probably too much emphasis on genes, on the environment, and on other factors beyond our control. There is too little emphasis on factors that are under our control, such as our diet and other choices we make daily.

There is one thing I am certain that doesn’t cause cancer. That one thing is Love. Now I don’t mean the love that we are most familiar with. That love is conditional; you do this for me and I’ll do this for you. I’ll love you if I get something I want from you. Couples frequently have very complex deals; and when the deal is broken, they separate. They say they fell out of love. The truth may be they never Loved.

When we truly Love, we behave in a Loving way, not because someone else deserves it and not to preserve a deal we made. Instead, we Love because we choose to allow what Thomas Hora calls the ocean of Love-Intelligence to flow through us.

We did not create the ocean of Love-Intelligence, but we are part of the ocean of Love- Intelligence; it is our natural inheritance. It flows through us automatically, except when we block its flow. How do we block its flow? We block its flow by being caught up in our ego’s thoughts.

In our minds, there are certain universal themes that our ego plays over and over. Many of these themes involve struggling against what is. Why is the traffic so slow today? Why are these drivers such idiots? Why are the people in this town so rude? Why does the checkout clerk work so slowly? Why aren’t my children doing better in school? Why doesn’t my boss appreciate me more? Why don’t my employees take more initiative? Why doesn’t my spouse do more household chores?

The outcome of all these universal ego themes is the same—we feel separated from the people we are judging. Our ego counsels us: we are innocent and they are guilty. Those people are victimizing us, proclaims the ego. In truth, we are all being victimized by our dysfunctional thinking.

Each time we create a story around who is to blame, we squeeze the flow a little more. We rehearse the stories and seek witnesses to our stories. When we are in the grip of our stories, we want to be right. We want to be innocent. Since our stories further constrict us, we pay a high price for being right.

As we struggle with what is, as we judge our life in this moment, we block the ocean of Love-Intelligence from flowing through us. We may go through the motions of doing loving things, but we are not fooling anybody. We are not Loving.

The antidote to blocking Love is pure awareness. Pure awareness is free of judgment. When we can look at our thinking with honesty, which means without judgment or justification, we began the process of releasing our constrictions which squeeze the flow of Love to a trickle.

If everyone is part of this ocean of Love-Intelligence, constricting its flow must affect our happiness and health. And although there are no guarantees, if we are constricting Love, allowing more Love to flow through us may improve our health. We can be sure of one thing—allowing Love to flow through us is the one thing that does not cause cancer.

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