Our Gratitude to America

March 19, 2008

I’m not buying Barack Obama’s attempt to place the controversy over his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, in a racial context.

There is no need to repeat here all of Wright’s messages of hate. This one is enough for me: Rev. Wright has said, “No, no, no, not God bless America — God damn America!”

You don’t have to be any particular color, nationality, or ethnic group to share those sentiments. Unfortunately, Rev. Wright is not alone.

David Reynolds has written extensively on gratitude, and he observes: “Gratitude is a natural response to taking a realistic look at the world, including our place in it. We aren’t realistic enough to gain the benefits of gratitude often.” Why not? Reynolds explains that we fail to understand that,

There is nothing that I have achieved without help from others…I keep on wearing clothes others made for me, eating food others grew and prepared for me, using tools others designed and fabricated and taught me how to use, speaking words others defined and explained.

Allow me to extend Reynolds’ remarks. Rev. Wright is practicing freedom of speech because of the sacrifices of blood and fortune of the founding fathers. Because this country was founded on principles of economic liberty, Wright has a standard of living that few on this planet can dream of.

I feel gratitude for this country, not because I overlook its flaws, but because I know how blessed I am. All over the world, many people will go to bed hungry and sick—I eat organic food. Many people by necessity have no time to pursue their passions—I make my living pursuing my passions. Many people throughout the world don’t feel secure in their homes or they feel their basic liberties are not secure—I feel secure in both. Many people experience the bloody horrors of tribal hatreds that have lasted thousands of years—I live in a country where the horrors of tribalism have never taken root.

Rev. Wright’s message of hate is not what the perennial spiritual wisdom teaches. The truth is that there are no self-made men. A leaf on a tree has no life apart from the tree; we all are joined. Ken Wapnick has written that gratitude is a natural reaction when you reflect on spiritual truth:

Gratitude is an experience of humility that comes from the fact that I need you, not in the specialness sense of needing you to complete me or to fill certain lacks in me. It is a need that recognizes that you are a part of me, and if I do not recognize that, then I will not remember who I am…

Much has been written about Rev. Wright’s lies. Reynolds explains why those who don’t practice gratitude routinely lie:

It takes energy and struggle to ignore how much we receive and how little we return to the world. But we grow used to the investment in deceit as we grow older. Ignoring and lying helps us feel better about ourselves.

Helping others feel better about themselves through lies is not worthy of a pastor. A message of deceit and hate doesn’t heal injustice—it feeds injustice. A message of separation pits brother against brother; it splits—it does not unify. A message that lacks gratitude does remind of us our true nature—it blinds us to our true nature. I find it inconceivable that Barack Obama never noticed these differences.

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The Story of the Other Wise Man

December 23, 2007

An annual Christmas tradition in our home is my wife’s reading of The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry van Dyke. This little gem of a novel tells the tale of the pilgrim Artaban. Artaban lives during the time of Jesus and devotes his life to searching for him. He never encounters Jesus; but along the 33 years of his pilgrimage, Artaban performs many heartfelt, charitable deeds. I won’t spoil the ending; but as he is dying, Artaban learns that his life had more meaning than he ever could have imagined.

In the preface to his book, Van Dyke offers insights on the human condition. No matter how hard you work at it, it will never work out the way you hoped for:

You must face the thought that your work in the world may be almost ended, but you know that it is not nearly finished.

You have not solved the problems that perplexed you. You have not reached the goal that you aimed at. You have not accomplished the great tests that you set for yourself. You are still on the way; and perhaps your journey must end now—nowhere—in the dark.

Later in the preface van Dyke offers wonderful advice to all who are moved by the creative force within:

An idea arrives without effort; a form can only be wrought out by patient labor. If your story is worth telling, you ought to love it enough to be willing to work over it until it is true—true not only to the ideal, but true also to the real. The light is a gift; but the local color can only be seen by one who looks for it long and steadily.

Van Dyke offers the wisdom that the goal is not what counts, but that the integrity by which you seek to accomplish the goal is everything:

Who seeks for heaven alone to save his soul,
May keep the path, but will not reach the goal;
While he who walks in love may wander far,
Yet God will bring him where the blessed are.

Toward the end of the book, Artaban faces one last test. Will he be true to his goal or true to Love. He chooses Love. Van Dyke writes:

What had he to fear? What had he to live for? He’d given away the last remnant of his tribute for (Jesus). He had parted with the last hope of finding Him. The quest was over, and it had failed. But, even in that thought, accepted and embraced, there was peace. It was not resignation. It was not submission. It was something more profound and searching. He knew that all was well, because he had done the best that he could, from day to day. He had been true to the light that had been given to him.

There is a final treat for the reader of this wonderful book—and that I will leave for you to discover.

Best wishes for a wonderful and peaceful Holiday.


Replaying

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.


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.

 


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