Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Real Strength

We’re in the midst of a crisis. Many of us have mistaken cruelty for strength, bluster for wisdom, and bullying for courage. It’s time to place the wisdom of our own hearts at the center of civic life. The hard-edged extremism that passes for discourse these days has withered the gentle growth of our perennial humanity. But the good news is there’s hope. There is always hope.
            It turns out that real strength, real wisdom, and real courage have at their core vulnerability, that is, the willingness to humbly reveal our own humanity flaws and all. And when we do, something miraculous happens. Those around us lean in, listen, and join together in loving community.
            Every teacher, minster, coach, parent, or leader worth their salt knows this is true – that when you show up authentically, honestly, openly, and risk it all, a wave of electricity moves through the room. And then you hear it – the hinges of a hundred cage doors swinging open. When you model your own freedom, you give people permission to find their own. Boldness begets boldness.
            When we misread strength as force we close ourselves off from the inexhaustible spring of the universe. In our isolation fear, tribalism, and aggression take over. When, however, we come to understand strength as resilience, fluidity, and allowance we move into accord with the sacred source. The universe shimmers with possibility and abundance.
            The simple-minded think that victory is the opposite of surrender – they praise one and mock the other – but the wise know that these are two points on a circle, forever bound together in cycles of arising and fading. The sea surrenders to the cloud, the cloud to the rain, the rain to the stream, the stream to the river, and the river to the sea. Water does not see these changes as defeat. It neither seeks nor resists these transformations. They are simply allowed.
            Look how the flowers leap from the field, offering their petals to the wind and hail. They are not afraid of what’s next. They know that their strength lies not in rigidity, but in vulnerability. It is not praise or permanence they’re after – it’s the holy joining, the prayer of playing your part, the surrender into oneness.
            Vulnerability is the face of real courage. It’s the willingness to be seen, finally seen, for who and what you really are. It is the ultimate manifestation of trust – trusting the other, and trusting yourself – knowing that who you are, how you are, is enough. Nothing to add, nothing to fix, nothing to find. Sure, room to grow. But in this moment, perfect as you are. Perfect in your imperfection. Just like everything else.
            And when you can finally let go, and be bold like this, it feels as though years of weariness slip from your frame. You had not realized how exhausting it was to maintain the fa├žade, play the part, and dutifully read the script written for you by your fear and pride.
            The final reward of vulnerability is the shroud of safety it weaves around you. You know in your bones that wherever you go, wherever you are, you belong, and the world belongs to you. No more strangers. No more strange places. You have let all of that drop. Lightness fills your being. It illuminates the path before you, and lights the way for others. Your vulnerability is your greatest gift to the world. 

[A version of this piece first appeared in the March/April 2020 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Last One

            It’s hard to say goodbye, but this is my last column for the San Diego Troubadour.
            I’ve been graced with this space since June 2007. I’m beyond grateful.
            Co-founder, editor, and publisher of the Troubadour Liz Abbott has been the kindest, most supportive partner throughout these twelve and a half long years, 152 columns, and 160,000 words. That’s a lot of support. I can never thank her enough for trusting me with this space.
            But what I’ll miss most is the connection that’s been forged with so many of you. I’ve loved all the correspondence and conversations we’ve had about this column through the years – about creativity, about art, about spirituality – and the way we walked together a while and saw things through each other’s eyes. Words have a way of doing that – of bringing people into confluence.
            My first memory as a writer was back in third or fourth grade. Our teacher had us write little one page stories and then read them aloud. When I stood up and read my story the room shifted. A strange silence, focused intensity. I’d never experienced anything like that before. No one ever paid any attention to me. I was the invisible kid.
I only remember one of the stories I wrote – it was about a cow who learned to ride a motorcycle. She rode it to the top of the Matterhorn in Disneyland. Yeah I know, what? But those kids ate it up. Their applause did something – it rearranged my DNA. For a shy, reserved kid who didn’t play sports or crack jokes or do anything to stand out, suddenly something I made mattered. A door was opening.
            Mark Harriman lived across the street. We both loved Mad Magazine, so we created our own version. Film parodies, cartoons, jokes, political stuff. We drew it with pencils and colored pens and held it together with paper clips, tape, and staples. This was before computers or copier machines even, so we only had one handmade copy of each edition. But it wasn’t the product we were after, it was the process. Our writing sessions were cool water oases in a desert of suburban banality. We finally felt alive, like something mattered. Something blissful was bubbling up from the ground beneath our feet.
            The first two books I ever bought with my own money – lawn mowing money – were Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Charles Bukowski’s Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame. Poetry was electrifying. How could mere words do that – elicit such power? I began writing my own lonely adolescent poetry. Free verse stuff, just imagery really, slivers and facets of moments. It felt like a magic trick, shining light on the shimmering threads of the ordinary world. Who knew that by simply paying attention the transcendent revealed itself so readily. Poetry, like any writing, is the art of paying attention, then rendering what you see in sentences and paragraphs that bridge others into the wonderment. It was intoxicating.
            By now I was writing songs too. Ah the awful, derivative songs of thirteen year olds. You can’t help but copy your favorite artists. All art begins as theft. And what life experience do you have to write about anyway? The bully in third period? The fact that Cammie Ramelli doesn’t know you exist? That day you lost your retainer in the cafeteria? After a while you realize that even if you try to copy Neil Young and Jackson Browne you can’t because you’re not them – it can’t help but sound different coming through your voice, your mind, and your hands. You can’t help but be yourself. Art is not something you do – it’s something you are.
            And all through high school you keep reading, reading, reading. Ray Bradbury, Mark Twain, Issac Asimov, J. R. R. Tolkien, Khalil Gibran, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Peter Matthiessen, Arthur C. Clarke, Edward Abbey, Thomas Merton, Harper Lee, Robert Heinlien, H. P. Lovecraft, Ernest Hemingway, and a hundred others. To be a writer you must be a voracious reader. Reading reveals the myriad ways language can be shaped to evoke an unending stream of experience. When you hold a book in your hands you hold proof that words send tendrils down into your soul and into the core of the earth where all the other soul-threads meet. Words reach farther than the farthest reaches of space. Words are gods that create, destroy, and resurrect. Learning the craft of writing was a calling worth my time. I’m still not very good at it – a rank amateur really. I don’t know the rules of grammar very well (that’s why there are editors). I feel my way through more than know the way. But I never tire of stumbling along, chasing the light.
            Another chapter in my life as a writer was letter writing. When a good friend Tim Forsell moved away after high school to pursue life as a mountain climber – first Colorado, and then Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley, and beyond – we started exchanging letters. Long hand-written letters. He’d share his alpine adventures, and I’d share vignettes of life on the coast. Small stories, scenes, ideas. This went on for years. I have boxes full of these letters. If you want to be a writer, write.
            As a philosophy grad student I faced another threshold – writing my master’s thesis on Ralph Waldo Emerson. I had written many academic papers by then, but this was different. It was over a hundred pages. It took a year. It damn near killed me. But I got it done.
            Then I started writing Christmas letters. This was back in the days when many of us were still sending out Christmas cards. A few people included a family newsletter, but mine was a little different. We didn’t have kids to talk about, or many travels to share, so I turned them into philosophical reflections and vignettes of life moments that seemed emblematic of the deeper significance of the holidays. This went on for over ten years.
            That’s when my brother-in-law Michael Krewitsky, owner of Pro Sound and Music, asked me to write a column for their monthly company newsletter – my first real writing job. The newsletter eventually ended, but the seeds were sown.
            I wrote a few features for a brand new music magazine called The San Diego Troubadour. I kept asking for a column. Liz eventually said yes. Stages: Philosophy, Art, Culture, and Music was born.
            I kept branching out. I wrote a book, The Seven Stone Path: An Everyday Journey to Wisdom (coming soon), and I began writing for national magazines like Unity Magazine and Science of Mind. (My column in Unity Magazine will go on.)
            So why end this column? It isn’t a question that lends itself to easy answers. It’s a body of work I’m very proud of. Having that 1,200 word deadline every four weeks for twelve and a half years was a labor of love that made me a better writer. And for that I am forever grateful.
            Looking back over all of this affirms me in my belief that if you answer the call and follow your bliss and simply show up and do what you love every day, year after year, it carves a path, a true path, a path with heart. And that is a path I will continue walking until I can’t walk anymore.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Mothers of God

I language the world for a living. And though I hate to admit it (because it’s bad for business) it really can’t be done. As a writer, lecturer, and singer-songwriter, my entire career has been a quixotic battle to achieve the impossible. I strive to express what cannot be expressed. I oversell and under-deliver every single day.
            And yet I keep trying. Because you get close. Once in a while you pierce the fog with the bright shard of an idea, a fortunate turn of phrase, an apt metaphor. You get close to naming the mystery. You almost sing truth. But stepping off stage you know you missed it. Your old friend disappointment comes to visit. You didn’t get it, not really. But on the calendar a string of speaking events, concerts, and writing deadlines loom before you, like downstream towns on a river journey – chances to try again. You’ll do better next time.
            I guess all work is like this. Raising children, starting a business, writing books, mastering any craft. You begin with the end in mind, or at least what you imagine the end to be, and you get busy. But you don’t really know what you’re doing, or where this is all going, or what value any of it will have. You have nothing to guide you but your gut sense that this is worthwhile, that it matters, that it will somehow help others meet their own nameless needs. Because that is one thing you do know – that all work is service, that we are all here to play our part in a symphony of infinite complexity and breathtaking beauty. Seen this way, life begins to shimmer with significance, and you begin to see your choices as instruments wielded not by your narrow self-interest but by the cosmos itself. It no longer feels like you alone are doing this. It’s more like you are being led or called or compelled by something not you. Maybe the way we show up and offer our gifts is how the universe shows up and offers its gifts. Everything in the foreground is the mouthpiece through which the background depths speak. When you get out of your own way your true voice emerges.
            When you begin to understand this better, you begin to relax. You let go of the illusion of control and you renounce the need to be perfect. You know that who you are, how you are, and what you are is enough. And with a sense of play you go about improving your work in a thousand little ways, not because what you did last time was lousy – it wasn’t – but because something better is trying to emerge through you, as you. And who are you to interfere with that?
            It’s liberating to know that you don’t have to have all the answers before you begin. It’s inspiring to know that your own nameless longing is the same nameless longing that courses through everything. And it’s empowering to know that our private suffering connects us to one another in a web of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being.” We are never alone. There is no such thing as alone.
            As we deepen into the realization that our yearning is not a private pang of deficiency, but the cosmos longing to give birth to itself through us, we surrender, let go, smile, and shift into optimism and wonderment. Being a witness and a participant of this great unfolding is our highest bliss.
            The 13th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart put it this way: “What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1,400 years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.”
            And 13th century Sufi poet Rumi put it this way in his poem Each Note:

God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.
Each note is a need coming through one of us
a passion, a longing-pain.
Remember the lips
where the wind-breath originated,
and let your note be clear.
Don’t try to end it.
Be your note.
I’ll show you how it’s enough.

Go up on the roof at night
in this city of the soul.

Let everyone climb on their roofs
and sing their notes!

Sing loud!

When we live authentically, answering the call and courageously trading security for the danger of self-realization, we honor ourselves and the universal source in one fell swoop. How can this not lead to rewards unimagined in more timid hours?
We do not breathe – we are breathed. We do not sing– we are sung. We do not make art – art makes us. As Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” And when you begin to experience life this way – not as a private event but as a wave in a boundless sea of waves – you slip into illumined stillness and from there everything is possible.
It is the role of the artist to bring forth these realizations in ever new forms relevant for their time and place, and to show us our oneness. Art connects us all in a binding ritual and reminds us of our common humanity. Art crosses all borders, no, annihilates all borders. The storytellers and film makers who reveal our secrets through the lives of their characters, the musicians who color our silence with sound, the poets who say the unsayable, the painters who show what cannot be seen, the sculptors who wrest shape from shapelessness – artists re-present the ineffable power of our own lives to us over and over again, and in this way affirm us in our limitlessness and infinite beauty.
As Meister Eckhart said, we are here to give birth to God – the formless source that takes form as our thoughts, our bodies, our words, our actions, and the majesty of the entire cosmos. “God is always needing to be born,” he wrote, and he was right. As we midwife one another’s birthing, and as we endure the sometimes agonizing process of our own birthing, we honor ourselves, each other, and the sacred source. Our lives are the instruments through which the universe sings. And as Rumi wrote, “Let your note be clear…be your note. I’ll show you how it’s enough.”