Surrender And Surrender Again

I’ve grown accustomed to this sanctuary. I come here when Kerri has meetings in the church. It is quiet. As I sit here alone, I easily become quiet. The evening sun pours through the stained glass, the symbols shimmer.

When I met Kerri I told her that, if we were going to have a relationship, she needed to understand two things about me: I don’t sing and I don’t pray. I imagine that was stark news for a woman who works as a minister of music. I imagine she rolled her eyes. It is a running joke with the folks that know the story of my proclamation that I now sing in the church choir and band. I love to sing. As for the praying, well…, I’ve always been a meditator and that counts. Quiet is a delicious form of prayer. I was hung up on definitions. I talk to the universe all the time. To-mAaa-to, to-Mah-to.

I have, all my life, believed religion most often gets in the way of a true spiritual experience (life). “Prayer” was for me, at the time I met Kerri, a word of religion while “meditation” was a word I associated with a spiritual life. One night, not long after my move, Kerri and I had dinner with Heidi. She asked me about my faith and laughed at my reflections, saying, “You are one of those many-paths-one-mountain guys.” Yes. And, to truly be a many-paths-one-mountain guy, I’ve had to challenge some of my long held defenses, walk into some of my long held prejudices.

Yesterday, Bill said a simple, beautiful thing about faith, grace and spiritual journeys. It reinforced something I have known (for myself) for years. He said, “The problem with religion is it is heavily invested in having answers. It becomes invested in being right (righteousness), being “the way” as if there was only one way. A true spiritual life,” he said, “is about walking into the questions.” Life, the real crackling, shimmering life, is always experienced in the questions. Awe is rarely experienced in something so constructed and contained as an answer.

I brought to the sanctuary an outline/book of a class that I intended to teach years ago but never got around to offering. In the introduction a previous-version-of-me wrote this: The premise is simple and ancient: when you change your story you change your world. All stories of transformation begin with an attempt to control the uncontrollable: transformation in a story happens when the main character surrenders their illusion of control, strips their armor, walks into their fear, and meets their dragon. There are many variations on this theme. What is important to grasp is that empowerment follows surrender….

Were I writing that today I would never use the word “empowerment.It is an overused and abstract word like “presence” and generally misunderstood as something to achieve (or sold as an answer). Power is irrelevant after a dragon is met.

When I met Kerri I was terrified to sing. I’d been shamed more than once for opening my mouth, thus my proclamation. I learned, as I sang the fear from myself, that the only thing that follows surrender is more surrender.

And, in surrender, there is shimmering quiet.

Learn To Question

My best place for asking questions

My best place for asking questions

20 (aka John) tells me that his coworker, Amy, aged 22, will have answered all of life’s questions within the next three years. He assures me that she will share her answers when she has them. “We just need to hang on for another three years,” he quips, “…and it’ll all make sense!”

The admitting nurse at the surgery center feels like a threshold guardian. She said, “People who pass through here learn just how little they actually control in life. Surgery is humbling. I’m here when their illusion of control bursts. That moment is hard.” She was quiet for a moment and added, “What gets me is all these people in the world who think they have all the answers – and they think their answer has to be the answer for everybody. All these rules made up by all these people who think they have the right answer for everybody! That’s why people are killing people everywhere.”

“It sounds like more people ought to have surgery!” I tease.

“You got that right,” she said, handing me my gown, hairnet and blue booties. “Put one of these on and you realize how little control you actually have; in this place none of your answers matter and none of your rules apply!”

It should be a mantra for educators and the only argument necessary to dismantle a test-driven system: Life is always found in the direction of the question. At best, answers are relative – and the best answers, if understood, are simply doors to more questions. Learn to question.

The best art follows the same mantra. It steps into big questions, wanders into unknowns and complexities. It tests and tries, explores and experiments. It leads us to explode our answers and like a good trickster does not allow us to hold our gods too tightly. It begs us to question.

“Shall we tell Amy that there are no answers?” I ask 20.

“Nah. Why spoil the surprise.”

From the archives. This one often calls to me

From the archives. This one often calls to me

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Sit In The First Seat

 

a detail from my latest painting

a detail from my latest painting

I am living this story, as are we all. I am a lover of story so I count myself fortunate enough to know that I am living it. It’s one of the grail stories. Here’s the section of the story that I am now living:

The knight who cannot be beaten (he has a magic sword) is knocked from his warhorse. A warrior, a man with no armor or shield, no protection, emerges from the woods, challenges the knight, and in a single blow, unseats him. That’s not the worst of it: the knight’s magic sword shatters. And, that’s not the worst of it. His armor, his trusty protection through the many wars in the wasteland, pins him down. Like a turtle on its back, he is defenseless. His magic sword, his trusted armor, all that he has relied on, all that he’s built his identity and purpose upon, betray him. He is stunned. He is lost. He closes his eyes and awaits his death.

Death does not come. Well…

another detail

another detail

The warrior, the man with no armor, does not finish the job. He disappears without a trace leaving the knight stranded but alive. The knight opens his eyes and somehow manages to sit up. He weeps because his endless efforts to save the world have come to naught. In fact, fighting ogres seemed to produce more ogres! He removes his armor. He is no longer a knight. He is no longer capable of saving the world. He is, for the first time since his childhood, unprotected. He is, at last, purpose-free.

Nothing is more frightening – or useful – than to drop the armor of purpose and take a good hard look at what lives beneath all that forged metal.

...and another

…and another

At first his lack of identity drives him crazy. He has no answer to the cocktail party question, “So, what do you do?” He feels naked and exposed. Fortunately, a teacher, a hermit, emerges from the woods to help him navigate the crazies. Namely, the hermit helps him by not answering his endless questions. The hermit helps him understand that the world never really needed him because the world was never really broken. The hermit helps him relax and see beyond all of his thinking. He realizes that the wasteland came, not because the world was broken, but because he believed himself to be broken, somehow lacking.

In a life of chopping wood and carrying water he sees that his purpose has nothing at all to do with doing – or roles or achievements. He sees that the road to the grail castle is blocked so long as he believes he is defined by a role or a bank account or lost in a made-up purpose. When he drops his need for importance the grail castle appears.

...and another

…and another

Satori, in all the stories, knocks seekers from their ponies. It stops all pursuits. It pops the illusion of a purpose-driven life. It necessarily strips the seeker naked.

We are all seekers at some point.

When you are required in the workshop to write your epitaph or are somehow forced to articulate what was most important in this life, the doing, the list of achievements, the purpose-drive will always take second seat. HOW you did what you did, the relationships you tended or ignored, the moments you appreciated or missed, will sit squarely in the first spot.

 

as yet unnamed

as yet unnamed

 

 

 

 

 

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Ask Why

photo

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.

photo

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.

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It Matters

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

From the department of subtlety in language comes a submission from Skip. During lunch today (His email said, “Meet me for a black and tan. We’ll call it late lunch or early dinner.”) During “lunch” he told me about a speaker who made the distinction between a student and a learner – to make the point that our systems of education (higher and lower) are not about learning. To be a student and to be a learner are not the same thing at all.

The distinction is in the assumptions beneath the words. The word “student” implies the need for teachers, curricula, etc. The deeper implication is in the necessary action: it is ‘other-directed.” The word learner, on the other hand, requires no teacher, no agenda, nor a curriculum. The necessary action is self-directed. The action can be facilitated, it can be mentored, it can be shared, but the imperative is within.

Why, you ask, does this matter? Isn’t this just splitting hairs?

Last year Skip and I met at a conference for educators on reinventing learning but in Skip’s words, it was not about learning at all. It was about reinventing teaching. The organizers were educators so their assumption set necessitated students and teachers in an expert driven relationship. The teachers know. The students receive the knowing. No learning required. There were incredible conversations that day and few had to do with learning.

Learning is a pursuit. It is a discovery path. There is nothing passively receptive about learning (note: the moment you separate content from method you end all learning and enter the realm of student/teacher).

It matters. The way we ask the question determines the possibilities we see or don’t see. None of our current questions in the field of education have much to do with learning. I walk in many worlds and in the business realm I regularly hear these phrases: “Why don’t my employees take any initiative?” “They expect to be rewarded for everything?” “It’s impossible to critique anything because they take it so personally.” “Everything needs to be an ‘atta-boy!” “They might do just what you ask but never go beyond the prescription.” Frustration abounds.

Well. We get what we create. Students look for permission, color inside the lines, need approval and fixate on their grade. Learners embrace challenges, step across lines, and know intrinsically whether or not their work is good. It matters.