Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Wisdom of Spring

Since the invention of language, poets and writers have strained every linguistic fiber and stretched every metaphoric muscle to celebrate the magic of spring. Songs have been written, symphonies composed, paintings painted and sculptures sculpted. We’re perennially drawn to the emblematic power of spring because it represents our own capacity to begin again, to rise from the ashes of winter and to stand reborn in the bright light of redemption. Spring is proof that death is not real. No matter how low and how long the downturn, there is always resurrection. Hidden in plain sight, right before our eyes, spring turns the myth of eternal recurrence into concrete fact. The wisdom of spring is ripening all around us.

Grow. Like ascending fireworks, flower bulbs shoot up long thin columns that burst into color. The smooth and deceptively barren wood of deciduous trees erupts with buds that split open unfurling bright green flags in the wind. Everywhere new forms arise from the pregnant core of old forms. The emptiness of winter fills with emerging shapes casting new shadows across the thaw. And like the awakening world around us, the restlessness we feel inside of our body, mind and soul is our own endless unfurling. We hunger to learn more, see more, be more, and find new ways to give voice to the music within us. Learning to get out of the way, we allow what is emerging through us to flower and expand into fruition.

Be bold. In spring time, life gets loud. Every living thing comes out of its shell and stands tall. Colors just a little too vivid, birdsongs just a little too shrill, sunlight just a little too bright – everything is over the top, unafraid to grab attention and rise above the rest. What if we dropped our practiced reticence? What if we stopped being so…beige? What if we let the explosive beauty of our own inner nature finally arise unfiltered, unprocessed, raw and impetuous? Would we frighten our more polite neighbors? You’re alive, and life is messy. So be it.

Play. Newborn lambs bound across the field, leaping in the air for the sheer joy of having legs. Coyote pups roll in the sage grappling and snarling in mock combat. Everywhere the young at heart let a skip into their step and do delightful things for no good reason. What if we let the simple enjoyment of being alive guide us for an hour or so? Would we really fall so far behind on our precious to-do lists? Or would our mindless reverie invigorate and enliven our deeper creativities? Fall into play, and watch your productivity climb tenfold.

Celebrate. Nature decorates itself majestically. Festooned with blossoms and flowing curtains of green, a dogwood and cedar forest draws close around a meadow of columbine like a gathering of family. Through the meadow runs a ribbon of cold clear water the color of lapis and quicksilver. Butterflies float from blossom to blossom like thoughts meandering through a placid mind. In our homes we clean and renew and restore and rededicate. We paint rooms, clear out garages and wash windows. We set tables, light candles, arrange bouquets, and prepare meals from the bounty of our gardens. We welcome friends and let the space in which we gather become a sacred place of commemoration and celebration, banishing the mundane banality of our aloneness with the mirth of our songs.

Be beautiful. Nature cannot help but be beautiful. Her beauty arises out of her own nature, not arduous effort. So too the beauty of our lives arises out of our own nature and not through calculated artifice or clever striving. We do not add one speck of beauty to our lives by worrying if we are good enough or by comparing ourselves with others. Yes our clothes and hair and make-up and jewelry are wonderful, and it is certainly fun to play in the field of forms, but real beauty is an inner light not of our own making. You can’t find it at the mall. Beauty is not something you buy – it is something you are.

Take chances. Rabbits run the same trails as coyotes. Mule deer sleep in the meadow with mountain lions. Sparrows fly in the flight lines of Cooper’s hawks. New sagebrush and lavender spring up from the scorched earth left by last year’s wildfires. Nature risks everything for a chance to fly, run or bloom. In our own lives there are always a million reasons why it’s never going to work and a long list of impending disasters. Instead of carefully cataloging the height and width of every barrier, marveling at the power of our enemies and inventing problems that never happen, let us simply take root, take flight or take the next step as if the universe were conspiring in our favor, because it is.

Shine right where you are. When a seed falls in a crack in a granite boulder it doesn’t dream of loamy meadows – it grows and blooms right where it is. Every place is the right place to be. Making peace with our genetic code, saying yes to the conditions of our lives that we cannot change, practicing deep and mindful acceptance – these are the gifts we give ourselves on the path to serenity and effectiveness. How can we truly grow, create and thrive if we do not first stop resisting what is?

Say yes to love. When spring lights up the world, love is certainly in the air. Love invites us into a deep and vital reckoning with all that is good and bad about ourselves, all of our unconscious maladies and beauties. In love we must surrender to the truth about whom and what we really are. Nothing is hidden, all is revealed. In order to embrace and be embraced by love, we must tap into everything we know and apply every skill as artfully as possible while simultaneously relinquishing control and surrendering to music we did not write and cannot fully hear. We must embody everything spring has taught us. We must allow growth, be bold, recover our playfulness, celebrate our beauty and the beauty of others, take enormous risks, and learn to shine in the here and now of this time and place. When we answer the call and join together with another in love, we come to know, not in our minds but deep in our bones, that this life-force surging in us, through us, and as us is an energy not of our own making, and the very fact of our lives is a mystery and a majesty no poet, sage or prophet has every fully conveyed or understood. When we love we dive deep into that formless ocean of sacred consciousness that goes down and down and down to the place where all of the riddles are solved, all of the heartaches are healed, and all of the secrets are revealed – but when we rise again to the surface we cannot bring any of that with us. We reappear naked and na├»ve, stripped of insight and bereft of wisdom – frolicking like fawn in the meadows of renewal, caught by the beauty and significance of the world, but strangers in it still and awkward in our own skin. Yet there beside us is a trusted friend, a soul like us, a kind face, a hand up, a loving embrace, and in their presence we feel our worth, and we learn to trust their trust, honor their honor and take refuge in the shelter of their love. Together we rise up and take our place among the sacred things of this world. Together we are beautiful and free. Together we honor the seeds from which we came and grow strong enough to pass along what we have been given in the great blossoming. This and so much more is what we learn from the wisdom of spring.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Phi Theta Kappa Address: Learning to Serve

The following is a transcript of a talk I gave at the induction ceremony of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society at Southwestern College on February 18, 2012.

Good morning and thank you all so much for this honorable invitation. It’s profoundly inspiring to be in the presence of so many deeply disciplined and completely committed people.

Over 100 years ago Phi Theta Kappa was created to honor, inspire and celebrate academic excellence. And over the last 100 plus years, tens of thousands of outstanding young people have earned the right to wear the banner of this esteemed honor society. And today, we celebrate you, our newest inductees.

On this important occasion, I think it would be a good idea, alongside the pageantry and celebration, to reflect for a few minutes on some important questions that we’re generally too busy to think about because we’re working so hard at being successful. But what is all this success really for? What is it really that we’re working towards? What is the real purpose of education?

Sometimes it seems that education is about gathering information, collecting data and hypotheses and theories and techniques and methods and more and more and more and more until you think you’re going to burst. It’s as if every class is an information dump – teachers back up giant trucks full of knowledge and dump it all in the middle of the room and you’re expected to carry all of it away and make good use of it.

All of that may be true to a large extent. But lost in that model is a more ancient notion of what education is really all about. The word education comes from the Latin educare which means “to draw out”. In other words, in this classical sense, the purpose of education is not to cover you over with layers and layers of what everybody else thinks, but to draw you out of yourself, the way a sculpture is lifted out of a bath of water.

Here’s a dirty little secret. Your teachers don’t really know anything. Sure, we’ve read more books than you and taken more classes than you, and after years of teaching we’ve certainly mastered our disciplines and learned how to effectively draw others into them. But we are not pouring our wisdom, such as it is, into you like water into an empty vessel. All we teachers really do is set up a series of tasks and challenges – read this, try this, find your way through this confusion, struggle through this problem – and when you take on these activities earnestly and vigilantly, something begins to shift inside of you. The real you begins to emerge.

The best education then, true education, is not indoctrination. True education does not bind you to tired and stale second-hand opinions of powerful others. True education sets you free, to finally be who and what you really are. It draws you up out of your fear and safety and invites you, or drags you, onto the wider stage where the rest of us are waiting for you to pitch in and help us heal the world.

So in a very real sense, education doesn’t add anything to you – it removes barriers. The Tao te Ching says that “in the pursuit of knowledge everyday something is added, but in the pursuit of wisdom, everyday something is dropped.” As we become who we really are, all the fear and artificiality falls away from us. Real education gives us to ourselves.

I know you’ve all experienced this yourselves. In the best classes with the best teachers, you’ve confronted this irony – that wisdom is the end result of a process of unlearning – letting go all of the false assumptions, prejudices, conditioned responses, biases, judgments and opinions that coalesced during our long childhood and adolescence. College strips all of that away.

A true teacher frees you from the things you think you know.

A true teacher leads you into an open field beyond all the partisan encampments.

A true teacher softens the walls that compartmentalize the uncarved wholeness of the world.

And out there in that field, with the rest of us, you find your own path, your own rhythm, your own light.

And then within yourself a sense of authority arises, an unshakable conviction that you are on the right track, that this is where you are supposed to be. Joseph Campbell calls it “following your bliss.” It comes from within and tells you clearly whether you are on the right path or not.

Bliss is different from pleasure. Bliss isn’t always pleasurable. Sometimes it’s challenging, difficult, frightening. But when you feel it, you finally feel alive, really alive, and you wouldn’t trade anything in the world for it.

And then comes the surprise – we learn that our deepest, most abiding joy lies not in the private fulfillment of desires. Our deepest, most abiding joy arises only when we perform the work that we have been given to do, in the service of others. When we take the tools we have been given and courageously fashion out of the raw materials of our lives great works of compassionate action, when we do this, a joy wells up in us that affirms our very existence. Finally we feel comfortable in our own skin. Finally we feel useful. Finally we feel like we are a part, a vital part, of something bigger than ourselves.

And this is where our education has been leading us.

And next comes this insight – that there is no difference between self-interest and the interests of others. In western philosophy we often place altruism – self-sacrifice for others – and egoism – pure self-interest, on opposite ends of a spectrum. We act as if they were diametric opposites. I’m either doing things for myself, or I’m sacrificing myself for others. It’s one or the other. But our own lived experience reveals that that construct is a lie. When we learn how to live lives of service, when we fully embody the truth that any and all work is service, then we awaken to the fact that our self-interest and the interests of others are, and have always been, wholly interconnected.

The Dalai Lama puts it this way: “Compassionate action is the highest form of self-interest.” In other words, only when we truly embody the consciousness of service does our own deepest joy arise.

So today we celebrate learning and achievement. Today we celebrate hard work and great accomplishment. Today we celebrate willingness and optimism. Today we join together to bind our talents and gifts into a great moral force for good. And today we honor that hunger you feel inside of you, that hunger to learn more, to grow, to do more, to be more, for that yearning you feel arising in you is a sacred energy, a divine expansion. It is nothing less than the universe expressing itself in you, through you, as you.

From us, to whom so much has been given, so much is expected. We have the talent, we have learned how to cultivate the discipline, we have the desire and the ambition, and we have the chops. We know how to write, we’re good at math. We figure things out. We read. We incessantly read. And all of this struggle is polishing us smooth, and shaping us for the rich and rough road ahead.

The real purpose of education is to draw out our authentic nature, and equip our joy with the tools it needs to better be of service, to be a part of the healing of the world. And the world needs healing. So many suffer. So much injustice thrives, awaiting only our awareness. For in the withering light of our vision suffering and injustice cannot stand. And in the warmth of our compassionate action, misery and disease cannot persist.

So take these colors, take this banner, take this honor of membership in Phi Theta Kappa and carry it forward as it carries you forward, into a future not one of us knows. But together, with the good men and women all around us, we will walk across that bridge together, and begin to build a world that works for everyone because that is what our soul is asking for, that is what we were born to do, that is what all this hard work is for, and that is where our deepest joy lies.