Truly Powerful People (111)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

Eric is a conductor. He has loved music his entire life and dedicated his long and prosperous career to his love. I have known him superficially for a few years; we crossed paths at dinner parties but have never talked beyond the trivial. Last weekend our paths crossed again, at an engagement party, only this time we sat in a corner and went on a pilgrimage. I forgot we were at a party, I lost track of time, as Eric told me the story of his quest to find the writing shacks where Gustav Mahler composed his symphonies.

Mahler died young. His career was primarily as a conductor and off-season he built shacks away from all other demands and interruptions and did what he most wanted to do: he wrote music. Eric told me that Mahler predicted that his music would not find its audience until 50 years after his death. Some of his music was celebrated in his lifetime; most was not. He has since become one of the most frequently performed and recorded composers of the last century.

Eric wept when he described finding the shack where Mahler’s final works were written. I wept, too because I was standing with him in the Czech mountains as he came upon a clearing and saw the shack for the first time. Thus is the power of story, two men blubbering in the corner of an engagement party, having just discovered a cabin in the woods.

At the end of our pilgrimage Eric quietly told me that one of his compositions would premiere the next day. Had I not been listening carefully I would have missed it; he whispered it so softly, tossed it off so nonchalantly. I asked him to repeat what he just said. In his retirement he was returning to the real heart, the soul of his love for music: he was writing compositions and one of his pieces was to be performed for the first time the next day. He beamed and averted his eyes, so vulnerable and tender was his offering. I cried for the second time so grateful was I to accompany Eric on this part of his pilgrimage.

Truly Powerful People (110)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

While driving downtown yesterday I listened to This American Life on NPR. It was a story about the seeming sudden ugly division in politics in Wisconsin, a rift in a state that used to identify itself as friendly in all things political. And, what’s worse, the division seems scripted.

Centuries ago Machiavelli taught rulers a simple strategy to keep the power: divide the people.

The story was startling because every person interviewed asked the same question: “What happened to us? Where is the Wisconsin that I know?”

There is a term coined in the early history of the United States for the divide-and-rule strategy: it’s called The Giddy Masses. Divide the people by making two different sets of rules: one side assumes the identity of the privileged while the other side assumes the identity of the suppressed. Both sides live in fear. The privileged will fight to hold onto their privilege while the suppressed will fight for equal treatment. Both lose. Once, in a fit of frustration, a financial advisor that I was coaching in story processes swore that social engineering was the only reason for so complex a tax code. He gave voice to the thought and then swallowed his voice for the rest of our consultation, as if he was afraid someone might be listening in.

Ultimately, it is a strategy that diminishes both sides because the story common to all sides is one of division and disempowerment. It is necessarily based in fear and righteousness. Common narrative, the thing that binds a community, negates itself when the common narrative is one of division.

Disempowered people cannot see the sacred in others because they cannot see the sacred in themselves. Disempowered people diminish others in an attempt to elevate themselves (or keep themselves elevated). Either way, disempowered people see their power as something separate, something that can be given or taken away.

What Machiavelli forgot to tell his readers was that the strategy of division is good for the maintenance of power in the short term but it erodes the society in the long term. What good is power if what you control is not worth controlling?

The folks in Wisconsin (as in all of America) are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking, “where did it go?” we need to ask ourselves, “Why are we participating in this game?” As in all divided nations throughout history, this culture of division is not happening to us we are actively participating in it.

Truly Powerful People (109)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

It is Sunday morning, a hot day in the early 1990’s in Los Angeles. I walk to a corner gas station convenience store to buy a newspaper and milk. When I enter the store a customer is at the counter. He is angry and having a heated conversation with the owner. There are five other people in the store and I notice many have their items but are pretending to look for other things to buy. They are staying away from the counter until the angry man leaves.

I grab my paper and am opening the refrigerator door when the angry man escalates his violent diatribe. I get my milk and am closing the door when the sound, the BANG, drops me to the floor. It was an automatic response; I hit the deck and look around me; the other patrons have done the same thing. We are on the ground, arms over our heads. Eggs are broken. There is a puddle of juice and broken glass.

No shots were fired. The angry man slapped the counter with his hand before storming out of the store.

I hear it on the news every night: people killing other people for their shoes or because they are angry at the price of gas. What I didn’t realize is how deeply we carry that news in our bodies. It is always there. All of us hit the floor. We expect the violence. We are on guard all of the time. There is nothing on the spectrum between angry and murder on this day in Los Angeles – or on any other day, apparently.

I hear that it is human nature but I don’t buy it. That is a story. It is human nature to tell stories not kill for shoes. We have an infinite capacity to tell the story that we want to tell. But, we must first want to tell a different story. We have to believe that a different story is possible; we have to notice that the story does not happen to us. We author it and we enact it. Together we choose it.

When I left the store that morning I left Los Angeles (literally and metaphorically). I decided to carry a different story in my body. This other story I see daily (yet rarely on the news): it is the story of empowered people empowering others.

Truly Powerful People (108)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

The first time I understood stillness was in Bali. It was a very hot day. I’d been in the country for almost 5 weeks, long enough to leave behind my very American need to be someplace other than where I was. For the previous few weeks I’d been playing a game that morphed into a kind of practice: walk behind a Balinese man or woman and imitate their gait, their rhythm of walking. I started this practice because it seemed to me that the Balinese were never in a hurry to get anywhere. Walking was not primarily about getting from point A to point B. Walking was not about arriving. Walking was about walking. Walking was process, not outcome.

At first my game was hard to play. I found it nearly impossible to sustain, my body tensed and ached as if I was detoxing my hurry-up-and-get-there addiction. After a while, time began to change, it slowed and sometimes disappeared. I acquired the capacity to walk more on my heels than on my toes. And the real benefit: my thinking also went back on its heels. The pace of my thought slowed.

On that very hot day I no longer needed to follow a Balinese man or woman, the practice was incorporated in me. I walked a path that led through fields and occasional clusters of house compounds. Somewhere on that path, I recognized that I was no longer in a story; the story was in me. I could turn it on if necessary and it was rarely necessary.

Stillness is not the absence of action. Stillness can be very active.
Stillness is to act without story and is immediately available when you recognize that you are telling the story, the story is not telling you.

Truly Powerful People (107)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

Change is a process, not a product. Change happens in the little choices you make each day. It is not in the big things you seek, it is in the little practices that you practice each day. If you are practicing resistance and attempting to control, you are creating resistance and frustration. If you practice being too busy or not having enough time, you are creating busy and lack. If you want to create something else, practice something else.

It seems so simple and that is probably why it is so difficult to embrace. Seeking is too often focused on finding an answer – seeking something that will provide the answer. It is not until we surrender the need for an answer that we can taste the life that we are living now.

What small steps (choices) are available to you in this moment? What small practices will you change? How can you reframe what you are doing so that life is not a lock to be picked, a mystery to be revealed, but something you create in small ways each minute of every day?

Truly Powerful People (106)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

I have a special relationship with crows. If Beowulf had bees, I have crows.
In the epic story, Beowulf as a young man is attacked by a swarm of bees and stung so viciously that his eyesight is compromised. He has to develop senses other than sight. It is his heightened senses that enable him to defeat Grendel and Grendel’s mother. The wound becomes the gift. In his old age he becomes a bee-keeper and in his final battle the bees serve him and help him rid his kingdom of a fierce dragon. The bees become his allies.

I am told that crows have facial recognition. For years I have searched for my double, the man that wears my face and did something bad to the crows. At first, their attacks, though vicious and confusing to me, were not personal (I thought). When they began picking me out of crowds, bombing me and not my companions, I grew suspicious. Now, I know it is personal and I listen. The crows teach me where I can go and where I cannot go. They have very clear boundaries!

Once, in my studio, several crows circled the building, smacking the windows when I moved from one end of the studio to another. Their chicks were on the ground outside of my studio door. I was being put on notice. There is a crow that patrols near the beach and I’m convinced it wants to kill me. It chases me and I run. There is nothing so chilling as the sound of a crow swooping in to hit your head! The eagles don’t seem to care but I am not as sturdy as those majestic birds.

I used to loathe the crows. I feared them. Now, I love them. I respect them. I listen to them. I know what is happening in the neighborhood by the sounds that they make. They are magic.

Though I am still on the black list I hold great hope that someday when I face my Grendel the crow’s lessons will come in handy. And, how amazing will it be when I am an old man to hang out with crows. When my dragon rises to take me, it will be the crows that I call.

Truly Powerful People (105)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

I was desperate. It was the early 1980’s and I was just out of college. I’d moved to Louisville, KY to support my girlfriend who’d been accepted in to The Actor’s Theatre apprentice program. I’d been looking for jobs for weeks. The economy crashed a few months before we moved and many of the local factories had closed. I stood in lines for hours to fill out a single application. Day after day I was turned down, not because I was young, stupid, and inexperienced; I was turned down because I had a college degree. Day after day I heard, “You have a degree. You’ll want too much.”

I was surviving by doing odd jobs, mostly unloading mattresses from semi-trucks delivering them to warehouses. I painted a house. I worked for a contractor busting concrete, raking leaves. We were living on Ramen noodles and some vegetables. It turns out that I was not the great provider.

The day I actually begged for a job was the day I stopped looking. I saw an ad in the paper and drove immediately to the address. The job was (this is not a lie) to be the guy at the monster truck show that wears a gorilla suit and throws a Frisbee for a dog. I like dogs. It required travel and since my girlfriend was tired of Ramen noodles and my inability to support her, I thought some travel might be good for our relationship.

I was the only applicant and I didn’t get the job. The guy behind the desk said, “You know Shakespeare and stuff. You’re over qualified.” So I begged. I told him that I could pretend to not know Shakespeare and stuff. It didn’t matter. I knew too much. I was educated so I’d want more.

What mattered is that I heard it; I finally heard it. To want too much was not acceptable in the workforce. To survive, to work, to eat and have shelter, I had to be less. I had to pretend to be less. Education, to my prospective employers, made me a pariah. Or, I had to become one of the people in management that would require the people working for me to be less. Either way, I couldn’t do it. I would never again beg to wear a gorilla suit and promise to pretend to not know Shakespeare.

It is upside down.

I still like dogs. And, I am certain that the point of education is to make you want more, know more, be more, see more, explore more – and help others do the same. I’m also certain that the current test crazed system of education must be designed and driven by management, why else would we invest in a system designed to prepare people to dull themselves, to expect less.

I wonder what kind of community we might become if the opposite idea was the expectation?

Truly Powerful People (104)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

I’m having the oddest experience and am a little off balance. I opened a time capsule today – a capsule that I packed with great care and attention more than a decade ago. A few moments ago, I opened the lid. There was lots of stuff in the box but nothing that I remember putting in it – instead I found many things that I remember leaving out precisely because they were not essential. What happened?

Many years ago I burned most of my paintings but before I did, I carefully chose 20 or so of my favorites, rolled them, sealed them in a box, and sent them to a friend. He promised I would never have to see them again. Recently, after more than a decade, I was ready to reclaim those paintings and my friend sent them back to me. This was the box I opened the today.

The paintings that I found rolled in the box were not the great paintings I remember selecting, in fact, most were pieces, had I not burned them, I would have painted over – only the canvas was worth saving!

I burned the paintings on a beach at a fire pit and people helped me – people I did not know, walking by, recognized what I was doing and wordlessly helped me. They held vigil with me by the flames. They helped me stack the paintings on the fire. An elderly man helped me carry a painting from my truck – it was the last painting in the truck that day – I remember it vividly – and together we set it on the flames. Today, I pulled this painting from the box.

The universe is a trickster that reminds me to laugh, to not attach too strongly to what I remember, to let my gods run like sand through my hands. Over three long days in 2000 I let go of my paintings and my idea of myself. Today, I let go of those things all over again – only this time there was no need for fire. I can laugh.

Truly Powerful People (103)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

Last week Patti and I had an extraordinary week working with educators. Among the many deep pools we explored together, there is one that is troubling to me: the tendency (or is it a bias) to separate life into compartments. These are just a few of the separations I noted: teachers are taught to think of content as separate from method. They are steeped in a tradition that abstracts learning from application, mind from body, and body from spirit. And spirit from any serious consideration (thus, the arts are neutered).


This is a rhetorical question. I know.

Here’s the big separation, the one that dismembers the entire western world: the notion that doing is separate from being (of course, this is the epicenter of the belief that content can possibly be distinct from method). Is it any wonder that teachers are beleaguered and students are bored and frustrated? As one teacher so aptly noted, “the students are going around us; we are the impediment.”

We are our own impediments. How could it be otherwise when separation is the organizing principle and expectation? I work with people in a variety of circumstances and most, if not all, believe that they are missing a piece of themselves – or perhaps looking for peace anywhere but within themselves. They are searching for something and in the mean time their lives roll by. They are losing this moment hoping that in some distant moment they will achieve…something; presence, completion, peace, unity (add your word here).

Many years ago my friend Roger told me that somewhere in his middle 30’s he realized that he was no longer becoming someone; he was someone. Patti reminded the educators that children are already complete. They are someone. Yes, they are becoming. Yes, they are already whole. Nothing is missing. Nothing needs fixing, nothing needs adding.

Good words to consider: nothing is missing. Nothing needs fixing. Your “doing” can’t possibly be separate from your “being.” Your content can’t possibly be separate from your method. Those cubicles in your mind are…in your mind. They are infinitely removable.

Truly Powerful People (102)

Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

I know why there are so many artists and poets in Nebraska. It is the sky. There is a lot of it and it changes dramatically by the minute. I’ve been here almost a week and I can no longer count the times that I’ve been stopped in my tracks by the ballet that happens there.

All the way down 2nd Avenue, P-Diddy and I screamed like we were kids on a roller coaster, the lightning storm was a terrifying and brilliant ride. The clouds help me understand the Greek plays, the grey roiling angry power of Zeus and moments later all is forgiven, pink roses blossom and I am breathless. The base thunder shook my hotel and by the time I got outside to stand in it the sun was on my face and I wondered if I had imagined it.

Patti and I stood by the rental car long after the gas pump had turned off and watched the sky flicker and crackle with lightning too far away to hear. It went on and on and on, I held my breath for several minutes of sky dancing. It was the best fireworks display I’d ever seen, so brilliant, in fact, that we didn’t speak a word. We couldn’t. It was beyond words, beyond our capacity to capture or contain. It demanded our presence.

It is the sky, this “beyond” quality, this requirement of presence that inspires so many artists and poets in Nebraska. Presence and Beyond; It is the artist’s job to stand in the midst of such awesome power and open the trail for others.