Ask Why

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a detail of my painting, Know That You Are Waiting.

Marilyn told me that she spent the day with her 3 year-old granddaughter. The little girl, like most children her age, peppered Marilyn with the question, “Why?” In her reenactment, after trying to answer the multitude of “Why?” questions, she laughed and said, “I don’t know! That’s the way it’s always been done!” It’s a perfect loop! Sometimes there is no answer to the question, “Why?”

Many years ago Peter Block wrote a great little book called The Answer To How Is Yes. A lifetime of corporate consulting left him perplexed by the pervasive leading question, “How should we do it?” None of his clients ever asked, “Why should we do it?” “Why” was nowhere in the equation.

Asking “Why?” takes time. It slows things down and often requires some soul searching. It lives on the vertical axis of experience, the axis that reaches into the depths and knows no black and white answer. Also, asking “Why?” sometimes leads to the scary profit-challenging twin question, “Why shouldn’t we do it?” The question, “Why?” moves a business and the people that populate it out of reactionary practices and into intentionality. With intentionality comes ownership of action, responsibility. The legal department is dedicated to keeping the conversation away from “Why?” Responsibility can be costly.

People are no different than the organizations they create. We avoid the same questions for much the same reason.

In my life I’ve sat through countless meetings while boards-of-directors asking, “How do we get more people to buy/attend/support our art/business/cause?” I finally made it a practice to stop asking the troubling questions, “Why should people buy/attend/support you?” and “Why are you doing what you are doing?” Usually those questions invoked embarrassed silence or worse, a regurgitation of the company’s value statement. We are valuable because we say we are.

Skip used to tell me that a company isn’t valuable until it serves the customer’s customer. I liked that sentiment a lot: value is service as expressed through two degrees of separation. It is also an orientation according to what is given, not what is received. Serve. It’s a loop with a natural answer to the question, “Why?”

Artists of all stripes, churches, politicians, etc. might find a different understanding of value if they (we) applied Skip’s rule to their (our) plays/symphonies/paintings/dances/businesses. Why? To Serve.

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a detail from my painting May You

Maybe we all just need to be three-year-olds and ask “why?” more often. Maybe the best questions, the ones that make the most sense, are the ones that can’t be easily answered but require us to slow down and challenge doing what we’ve always done.

Save

Save

Save

Create A Purpose

photo-2In the sixteenth hour of our drive to the mountains, to keep us awake, Kerri and I began a rousing game of This-or-That. “Frosted Flakes or Lucky Charms?” Frosted Flakes all the way; those little marshmallow things get wonky in the milk. It’s amazing what you learn about yourself and others when the world of infinite possibilities is reduced to two choices. The game soon escalated to the impossible with pairings like “Coffee or Chocolate?” Real life penetrates the game when the only possible answers are, “It depends!” or “Both!”

Since our drive to the mountains I’ve been paying attention to how often people unwittingly play the This-or-That game, pretending that there are only two choices and, further, pretending that the choices are distinct and knowable. Democrat or Republican? Communities collapse when they forget that the important stuff is unanswerable. The important stuff is a moving target and requires conversation, debate, and comes along with multiple points of view. Two sizes do not fit all bodies.

I’ve also been playing my own inner game of This-or-That, purposefully choosing impossible pairings. Order or Chaos? It seems like a no-brainer until you dive in a bit deeper.

My favorite version so far is the Purpose-of-Life category. I picked a most lofty purpose: Illumination – and matched it with the utter absence of purpose. And, of course, I came to, “It depends!” or “Both!” I sprang my line of reasoning on Kerri (she thought we were going to talk about what to make for breakfast. She’s grown quite used to my surprise topics so she rolled her eyes, sipped coffee, and listened, knowing that no breakfast choice would be possible until after I unpacked my game).

No matter which spiritual tradition I read, the final point seems to be presence (living fully – aware of your moments). And in practice, presence becomes possible when thought is either transcended (meditation) or focused (prayer). Meditation and prayer are both purpose-full. Thought needs transcending and/or focus because it is mostly a babbling brook of nonsense or, better, a brook of babbling nonsense. It’s a lot of made up stuff that often takes the form of a game called This-or-That (I win/I lose, I’m right/I’m wrong, Us/Them). The game, as is true of all forms of interpretation, gets in the way of direct experience. It interrupts presence.

Detach from the babble. Meditate. Or recognize that it’s all made up and focus what’s made up. Pray. In either case presence comes through the recognition that it is all made up. The hitch: every notion of purpose, then, is also made up. There isn’t one. But, having a purpose is required to come to the recognition that there is no purpose. It’s a loop. It’s all creativity. It’s all imagination.

Spectrums and polarities are often cycles in disguise. They are both/and. They are yin and yang (not Yin or Yang). Illumination or Purposelessness? It depends. Both. Order needs chaos just as much as chaos needs order. The question is, what do we want to create? Why, a purpose, of course! So, let’s see what’s needed and decide to address it.

“My imagined purpose is breakfast,” Kerri sighed at the end of my rambling dissertation. “Pancakes or an egg scramble?”

 

Chase The Butterflies

a detail from my painting, John's Secret

a detail from my painting, John’s Secret

Wisdom butterflies that have recently fluttered across my path:

Soaking up the morning sun and drinking coffee from the deck of Common Grounds, 20 said, “You’ve heard this one, right? There are three sides to every story.”

Standing on the side of the road peering into Judy’s car, she gave us some sage relationship advice. She said, “That’s the secret to life, you know: listen before you talk.”

Kerri was composing a song. I asked her how she starts, how she knows where to start. She said, “I don’t know. Sometimes you just need to put your fingers on the keys and follow the music.”

There is an aging pink post-it note stuck (permanently) to the desk. It reads, “Make The Adventure.”

On a recent phone call, Skip offered wise counsel about how I see my role in a new business, “Find your own metaphor,” he said. ”What is the metaphor that will keep you energized, that taps into your 10,000 hours?”

Sitting behind his drum set, waiting for rehearsal to begin, John said, “Our job is to make the art, not to determine its reception.” And then he said, “What do you think?” and laughed.

Josh took a belly punch from the universe yesterday. He said, “I want to be angry but anger does me no good. I have better things to do with my life than get angry.”

A detail from my painting, An Instrument of Peace

A detail from my painting, An Instrument of Peace

P-Tom weighed in with this: “Faith is scandalous,” he said, “It pushes back against everything we experience.”

Dog-Dog raced across the yard in hot pursuit of a butterfly. I’m wagering that he knew he would never catch it, but the chase was glorious.

Know Your Pet

my pet peeve

my pet peeve

This morning I heard one of my favorite phrases: pet peeve.

As a visual person, someone regularly accused of having too much imagination (a topic for another post!), phrases like pet peeve conjure images from the ridiculous to the sublime. Feeding a peeve so it grows healthy and strong, protecting it from traffic and other peeve-hazards, is a field of imagery ripe for the picking. Had I been thinking, Tripper-Dog-Dog-Dog might gone through life as my pet Peeve.

In order to have a pet peeve there must exist multiple standard peeves, the everyday garden variety of common peeves. For instance, I spill coffee on my shirt every single day. Because I try not to spill my coffee I always do. It is a rule of the universe that attempting to NOT do something guarantees the doing of it. Try NOT hitting your thumb with the hammer or not dripping paint on your good pants (I now own exclusively no-good pants so dripping paint is no longer a peeve). Cyclists assure me that focusing on the pot hole to avoid the pot hole guarantees hitting the pot hole. This rule-of-the-universe is, for me, a common peeve.

Pet peeve status is usually granted to seemingly small things. I just asked Kerri about her pet peeve and she said, without hesitation, hair-on-soap. I suspect she means finding a single hair on the bar of soap but hair-on-soap is open to multiple peeve possibilities, for instance, soap toupees. Soap with goatees. I’ll get clarification when she’s not busy.

I love pet peeves because they are generally harmless but also generally revealing about how people think/operate (and, therefore, what they see). Richard Bach famously wrote, “Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they’re yours.” I’ve yet to meet a human (myself included) that is not in one way or another arguing for their limitations. Recently, at a party, I talked with a woman who told me exactly what she needed to change in her life to be happy. “Why don’t you do it?” I asked. “Oh, I couldn’t!” she exclaimed. “I’m afraid to do it,” she admitted.

Another way of stating my common peeve rule-of-the-universe: where you place your focus grows. The obvious question, approximating my wear-only-no-good-pants solution to spilling, is this: If fear  or doubt rules the day, why not focus on something else? Or, perhaps, imagine doing what you want, walking toward what you want, focusing intently on what you want to create instead of the opposite? AHHH!!! A COMMON PEEVE! A COMMON PEEVE!

 

 

Chase Big Bubbles

photo-1I’m opening old journals. It’s hot and humid so the paper feels as if it is melting. I’m not sure why this morning I reached for them. They sit in several piles and bookcases around the house. I’ve not opened one since moving to Wisconsin almost two years ago.

I used to be an avid catcher-of-my-thoughts. I’d carry notebooks everywhere. I stuffed my pockets with index cards and extra pens. At the end of a day I’d read the days idea-harvest, empty scraps of paper with my nearly unreadable scribbles onto the table and translate them into THE MOTHER SHIP, a black and red hard cover journal. Some thought-scraps didn’t make the cut. Some of the scraps were undecipherable and no amount of brow wrinkling could resurrect the unreadable idea. Some of the scraps were revelations and, to me more precious than jewels.

At the time I was facilitating groups, creating models for change and models for growth and models for models…. I was coaching and teaching and reading everything from business books to eastern philosophy. I loved picking people’s brains and trading ideas with friends. I was seeking.

A moment ago I randomly flipped open the journal on the top of the pile. This is what I’d scribbled many years ago:

Joe just used “myth“ this way: We all live in this myth that, what we believe, is reality – that our beliefs are what really exist….”

Myth as falsehood. There are explanatory myths, too (for instance, the Bible). Myths serve to keep us in accord with the universe (a concept of our own creation). Balance and harmony are the purpose of myth. Joe doesn’t yet understand myth.

Myth is an action, it is not a lie.

I flipped to the previous page and read this:

~humor

~humor

~humor

Wholeness attracts wholeness. Live in it and not be of it (what?)

You have to be it to attract it.

On the facing page was this entry:

Conflict and oppositions. Always oppositions. How do I construct… a non-dual existence? A non-dual way of thinking? How do I live amidst to forces of opposition?

I can’t remember the context of these thoughts. I have no idea what I was working on or what was going on in my life at the time. I rarely dated my entries though are identifiable zones given the people I mention or the places I reference. From this vantage point it seems like reading the notes of someone else’s life.

After paging through the journals we walked to the farmer’s market on the lakefront. Amidst the vegetable stands, the baked goods, and crafts people, there was someone selling bubbles! Behind the bubble tent a man was demonstrating the product. He had two sticks with a looped rope and, after dipping the rope in a big bucket of suds, he slowly waved the contraption in the air, producing huge generous bubbles. Children gathered and squealed with delight as they chased the bubbles.

As I watched the bubble-chasers I realized that I had been like those children, squealing with pleasure as I chased my thought-bubbles, each bubble popping every time I got close enough to touch it. The thoughts themselves were of no consequence, not really. The important thing was the chase and the joy and the reaching for something that can never be captured. My journals live like Jackson Pollock’s paintings, a record of my movement, a map of my dance of delight in ideas.

JFGI!

I had to use this painting for this post. I call it Eve

I had to use this painting from the archive  for this post. I call it Eve

Notes at the crossroads of The New World Order:

1. Betsi was disappointed in the low attendance at church. She told us that everything had changed in the last decade. Churches that were once thriving were now struggling. It is a trend. It is happening everywhere. It’s true. A few months ago I saw the statistics of church membership in America and the numbers are plummeting.

“What changed,” I asked.

Without hesitation she said, “People don’t need God anymore. They think they know everything.”

I quipped, “Who needs God when you have Google?”

She laughed and said, “Right! JFGI!”

“What does that mean?”

She smiled, “Just f*cking Google it.”

It is probably true for believers and non-believers alike that God is slower than Google, especially if the notion of God is uncannily human, (i.e., a rule-maker, judgmental, angry one minute and loving the next, assigns ‘chosen’ status to one team but not the other, etc.). Such a god might easily be confused with a search engine or a legal system.

I thought, but did not say, perhaps people are looking for something that neither technology nor a search-engine-god can deliver. Perhaps they are looking for something less volatile. Information is readily available. So is judgment. Wisdom is a bit harder to come by.

2. After band rehearsal we went to a bar. Jim grew up Catholic and we were talking about the revolution of thought that Pope Francis is inspiring. Jim said, “I really like that guy!” Suddenly, he pulled out his phone. “I wonder if The Pope is on Facebook?” We laughed when he found and “liked” The Pope. Facebook showed us a gallery of others who’d “liked” The Pope. The top of the list was The Dali Llama. “I’m going to like him, too!” Jim cheered and added, “I wonder if he’ll like me back?” We laughed.

I remember when a photograph was absolute proof that something happened. I remember the day that a photographer showed me a new “software” (at the time I had to ask what that meant) that could alter a photograph. He showed me and erased someone from a shot. I remember wondering what would be the new standard of proof? Sitting at the bar the other night with Jim, nearly 30 years later, I finally received my answer: it doesn’t exist if it isn’t on Facebook.

This brought me to what will be my next late night bar conversation topic with Jim: When did all of life become marketing and data collection? Have you checked your “likes” lately?

This inspired a glance at the fast moving river that is Facebook. I read:

Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there.

That raises an obvious question: Is hell an experience or a place? JFGI!

Study Your Study

the next iteration. it's coming along now.

the next iteration. it’s coming along now.

Ontology = the study of existence.

When I was in graduate school the word “ontology” was bandied about regularly. I tossed it around a few times myself, checking it for style and elegance, prancing about to see if it suited me in my degree pursuit. It always felt a bit clumsy and left me with two questions:

1) What isn’t ontology? When I lived in Los Angeles I learned that people chose their houses relative to the direction of their commute. The rule was to find a place that afforded them the capacity to go against the commute otherwise they’d be stuck in traffic all day, everyday. It was essentially a quality-of-life consideration. Aren’t the reasons we locate ourselves, how and why we place our selves in space and time, an ontological question? Aren’t we surrounded by eternity whether we sit in traffic or by the swimming pool? When rolling ontology around my vocabulary I always wondered what was the difference between being fully aware of your existence and studying your existence. Now, that’s an ontological question! I have recently made it my ontological study to sit in the backyard drinking in the sun watching the Dog-Dog race around in delight barking at birds – and not wanting to be anywhere else, not wanting to do anything else. And, that brings me to question number 2:

the previous iteration

the previous iteration

2) Isn’t it improper for the subject of the study to be the studier? Ontology is a metaphysical study of human existence, not all of existence, and humans are conducting the study. I I were teaching this course I’d have to flunk myself for proposing such an ill constructed proposal! I’m fairly certain the birds are not interested in the greater question of their existence. Frogs and bees, disappearing from the earth at an alarming rate, might be interested in the question: What’s the real point of the study of existence if the studiers are so cavalier about existence? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Why are we here? It seems our study is the existential equivalent of a blind date that says, “Let’s talk about me!”

Are you being or are you becoming and – truly – is there ever a moment when you are not both (are you a particle or a wave)? Religion. Science. History. Art. Stars. Insects. Shadows. Waking to the sound of the morning dove. Knowing that the water of the lake is so cold that your feet will go numb in seconds – and stepping in anyway. A walk in the rain. Planting an herb garden. A warm bed on a cold night. Reaching out to a friend when you need to talk. The smell of good coffee. A song that makes you remember. Just because. Ontology?