Look To The Living Thing

my latest, as yet un-named, painting

Kerri looked at this painting and told me it captures how she feels when our daughter is hurting and calls home. “Describe that feeling to me?” I asked. She pointed to the painting, and said, “Just like that.”

Some things are universal and understood regardless of political affiliation or religious belief. What does a mother need to know to support her child? The political investments and religious doctrines are abstractions, separations. Motherhood is direct; it lives beyond the capacity of language to capture and articulate. It is the impulse to unity. It transcends all divisions. It knows nothing of conceptions like the rational and irrational.

Jim and I just had one of our famous phone calls. Our discussion romped through many fields but we returned again and again to the notion that the important things in life cannot be rushed. For instance, relationship takes time. Relationship takes attention and tending. It is fluid and dynamic so it is nearly impossible to slap a single word-label on it. It changes. It grows. In a single day it can pass through many descriptors. Dog-Dog can drive me crazy in one moment and melt my heart the next. The important stuff, like relationship, is not static or containable. It is not a concept. It is a living thing.

So What?

The best language can do is point to the living. Language can describe experience but can never be experience. Language, of necessity, reduces while the important stuff – like relationship – like love – expands. Language, as a tool of abstraction, can never be true. It can only point toward truth. Language separates. Truth is like relationship. Truth is a living thing, dynamic and changing. To be known, it must, like motherhood, be experienced directly.

Again, so what?

Direct experience is always (obviously) personal. Truth is not so easily captured. Is it exclusively liberal or conservative? Is it Christian? Buddhist? Is it unique to Islam, Judaism, or the Tao? Leave the city lights some night, take a good long look at the stars, and realize what you are staring into.

Last week we rushed 20 to the hospital. He couldn’t breathe. He walked to the edge of the abyss and looked into it. We watched him teeter on the edge. As we watched, all other concerns, pursuits, bills, frustrations, news,…, dropped away. The stuff of separations and abstractions went to dust in the face of the actual. Ask me what I experienced watching 20 grasp for life? There are no words. Ask him what he experienced in those long hours and he will shrug his shoulders. There are no words – but it is clear in his eyes.

The important stuff, the stuff beyond words, leaps the boundaries of separation and abstraction; all else falls away. The important stuff always leads to a universal place, a common ground. It is a beautiful paradox.  As a test, try this: if language can reach it, ask this very important and often absent question: Is it really true or merely another entrenched point of view?

a detail

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.

Look Beyond The Box

one of my paintings (untitled) from the Yoga series

one of my paintings (untitled) from the Yoga series

[continued from SEE THE BOX]

Craig’s question is bigger than a single post can accommodate. He’s both reflecting and asking several questions about the boxes people construct around themselves, about building personal “stages” and what becomes visible to us when we open ourselves to life without editor or inhibition. He’s asking deep river questions about the assumptions we make when we look at others through the lens of our own experience. He asked about what I see from my stage and when did I know to create my stage. And, here’s the kicker question, “When was the last time you stepped up and saw something you didn’t know was there?”

I want to start with the last question first because I believe it colors all of the other questions. At this point in my life, there isn’t a day that passes that I don’t see something surprising or new. I know that sounds like a superficial dodge until you consider that it wasn’t always the case. Like everyone else, I was schooled in a long series of mistaken notions: 1) that people need to know where they are going before they go there, 2) people need to know what they are doing before they do it, 3) knowing is something that happens in the head, and 4) that truth is singular and knowable; believers in right/wrong paradigms are especially fond of this point.

It took a few years (okay, decades) to realize that “knowing” is a process and not an arrival platform and, therefore, no body knows. People build boxes around themselves because they think they must know what is unknowable. People build boxes around themselves because they think they must look a certain way or think what others want them to think. People build boxes around themselves in an attempt to control what they can never control. No one really knows where they are going (well, everyone knows where they are going but dying is an existential question – a topic for another post). No one knows what tomorrow will bring. As Marshall McLuhan wrote, people step into the future with their eyes in the rearview mirror. We make sense of today through yesterday’s eyes so we can only “know” what happened, not what will happen. The day before September 11, 2001 people walked into airports to greet their friends and relatives at the gate. And then, the very next day, like millions of people, I sat in front of a television and watched a plane fly into the World Trade Center. That day I understood that what I thought I knew was basically useless.

Each of us has, at one time or another, had a personal September 11th. People learn. They grow. They have experiences and then make meaning of their experiences. People change. Life is a moving target. At one point in my life I started my own school within a school. It was experiential and filled with filmmaking and theatre and performance art. At the beginning of that era of my life I thought I would run that school until I the day I died. Three years later, I was done with my exploration in education and I surrendered my cushy tenured position and ran for the air of uncertainty. People story themselves according to inner imperatives through lenses of past experiences. The idea that we are primarily rational and reasonable is…not rational or reasonable.

At some point, when you cease thinking you know stuff, your eyes open. You see beyond what you think. Everything is surprising beyond the dull-wit of thinking. Thinking (a language-based activity) will always be an abstraction. Put a word on something and you delude yourself into thinking that you “know” what it is. This is especially heinous when applied to other people. People build boxes around themselves because of the words placed on them or the words they place on themselves.

Mostly, people build stages for the exact same reason. Saying, “I’m not going to be influenced by others; I’m going to act independent of others” is also a delusion constructed from notions of “knowing” or trying to determine how others will see you. Most stages are constructed from the desire to control. Sometimes the biggest box looks like a stage.

When you no longer need to know anything, you see surprising things everywhere you look.

[to be continued]

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Take One Step

671. 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 watched the sun come up this morning. I was sitting in Alan’s sun room sipping coffee, marveling at the winter colors of the sky: salmon pinks, lavender, and ice blue. And then, beneath the tree line, in a specific spot, the branches began to shimmer. I expected Merlin to materialize. And then the shimmer warmed, became orange and round and instead of Merlin, the sun lifted above the horizon, streamed through the trees, and washed me with the warmth of a new day. Were I a plant my leaves would have opened and I would have taken a might drink of the light of the new day. As a human, I had coffee on the inside, sun on the outside – I was warmed through and through.

I do not know what this day brings. Alan and I will teach a class, that much I know. Then, I will dash to catch a plane and then if the timing is right I will catch a train. If not, there will be an entire day between the plane and the train. Planes and trains are sometimes on schedule and sometimes off schedule depending on Mother Nature and the nature of machines. Tonight I could be in one of 5 different cities. I recognized as the sun rose that I am in presence training. I am learning to trust. For the next several months there will be no daily pattern that repeats itself. I will be mostly on the move; my suitcase is my home. Sometimes I will be with loved ones, sometimes I will be in isolation, sometimes with new friends, sometimes in another country. I am throwing my work away, tossing the patterns of my life as I knew them and re-imagining things. I couldn’t be more alive and present to my moment. My inner gypsy stubbed out his cigarette and hissing smoke through his nose said, “It’s about time.”

It is about time. We count our days, our minutes, we measure our lives, check our lists, stay on our schedules. We count ourselves into desperation when we forget what we are counting. Each breath is life giving. Each breath is unique and never to happen again. I watched the sun rise again and it was no less a miracle today than it was yesterday. It was not the same. Another year just turned over (if you recognize the same calendar that I do) and I can look to the past and think, “This and this happened.” At least that is the story that I tell, none of it is true for anyone but me. I realized an amazing thing about personal edges and story this week. The scary edges are only visible if you are oriented to the past; anchored into and trying to maintain the known. Orient to the unknown, anchor into present and there are no edges, only experiences. I think that is what I mean by learning to trust – I am learning to orient according to what is with me right now as opposed to what has been, what should be, or what might have been. Those things are mental abstracts – as are scary edges….the edges certainly exist, the “scary” is a story I can tell. Here is presence school, I am taking one step at a time, something I have done since first learning to walk only now, as an experienced walker, I am paying attention to the steps as I take them.

Open And Experience

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

Walking through a driving rain in downtown Seattle, I had my hood up and eyes down and stepped into a flock of pigeons just as a bus passed spooking the entire pigeon squadron into taking flight – straight at me. I was suddenly and completely engulfed in a swoosh of wings and riot. I don’t know why but I closed my eyes, not for protection, but because I wanted to feel the experience of so many wings flapping around me. The sensation was as if being lifted, stirred and then returned to the ground. After having so many crow attacks I am generally skittish when birds fly at my face; my first reaction is to duck and cover. Not today. For some reason (that is beyond my capacity to reason), rather than close and protect, I opened and experienced. Lift, stir, gentle return to the ground. “The pigeons took me with them,” I thought as I opened my eyes and laughed.

I flipped back my hood and looked up into the rain. The pigeons vanished and I was getting soaked and awakened. It was as if I left this plane of reality for a moment and needed a cold splash of rain to bring me back. It was just a few days ago, upon Marilyn’s request, that I went outside to pick a fight with the crows and instead of having a good crow bout I ended up doing the same thing, hood back, looking into the sky as the rain soaked and cleansed me of my dark mood. This time, staring into a steel grey sky, rain running down my cheeks and off my forehead, I remembered a phrase that I read this morning from Thom Hartmann’s book, The Prophet’s Way: “You must behave as if your every act, even the smallest, impacted a thousand people for a hundred generations. Because it does.”

I stared into the sky surprised at my reaction to the birds and asked myself, “What ripple would I send through a hundred generations if my first response to any situation was to open and experience rather than close and protect myself?” And, an even better question followed, “How different would I be in the world if I lived open to any experience?” Isn’t that another way of saying, “be present to what is?” Flipping my hood back up I discovered in a chilly rush that my hood was filled with water that poured down my back so I took flight a second time, howling and dancing my own version of the pigeon launch, chanting, “open, open, open…!” Of this I am certain: a hundred generations from now they will most likely still be laughing!