Trumpets and whispers
In every hero's journey there is a transformative moment -- that instant where the hero hears, learns, or realizes the essential truth that changes him forever. Sometimes this moment of enlightenment and clear seeing arrives at the same instant when you first hear the call of what is to become your mission. This is perhaps the experience we most often recall from the great heroic stories. The way we remember it is that Joan of Arc
saw a vision, heard the voice of God, and instantly knew what she must do. So we wait for the trumpets to sound and the wave of inspiration to sweep over us, thinking that these are the necessary signals of a truly transformative moment.
But in fact, young Joan had been having visions of the saints for years before she finally did what the voices asked of her. In 1424, at age 12 or 13, Joan began to have visions of Saints Catherine, Margaret, and Michael the Archangel. In the beginning, the saints simply told her to be good and go to church. But then they began to ask her to go to the Dauphin Charles and offer to help him claim the throne of France. It wasn't until 1428 that she acted on the voices she had been hearing for so long.
We don't know much about Joan's actual transformative moment, when she decided to finally do what the voices asked. It has been suggested that it ultimately came about because she knew how desperate the Dauphin's situation had become. In other words, divine inspiration intersected with political and social reality and a growing awareness of what her world needed in that moment. But even for this classic heroine, she first heard the call as a whisper and not a sounding of trumpets, she listened in partial disbelief for years before taking action, and when she finally did act she was still not convinced that her actions would do any good.
What is it that is whispering to you right now?
Labels: hero stories, heroism, life purpose
Meeting the dragon
In my current recipe for becoming a hero, I had named one of the steps as "slaying the dragon" -- overcoming your inner demons of fear, self-doubt, and negativity. But in working with this concept, I have realized this name doesn't reflect what this stage really entails. A more accurate label is "meeting the dragon."
In my Person-to-Person Marketing class and Overcoming the Fear of Self-Promotion workshop, I have been teaching for several years about the concept of making friends with your fear. Instead of fighting the fire of this powerful emotion by pouring on more gasoline in the form of resistance, self-loathing, and guilt, I suggest recognizing your fear as a part of you that wishes to protect you from harm. If you make friends with it, you can discover what it needs in order to loosen its grip on you.
On the hero's path, what is necessary is not to slay the dragon, but to meet it in its lair. Go toward it instead of away, become acquainted with it, and learn how can you live a full life despite its presence. The images of slaying and overcoming imply that you can once and for all defeat your internal dragon, that the hero must destroy the dragon in his path before proceeding with the quest. But this is not only misleading; it is an impossible task.
The negative voices of fear, avoidance, and self-doubt will always be with us. The hero's journey requires learning to be heroic despite them. You must meet the dragon where he is, get to know him intimately, and discover how to live your life to the greater good regardless of the dragon's presence.
Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose
I spent last weekend in a meditation and study retreat led by Pema Chodron
with the intriguing title "Doorway to Freedom."
The full content of this retreat is probably worthy of a month's blogging, but the essence was captured in Pema's opening remarks: "The only path is to be in the immediacy of what is happening right now. But what do you do when now
is uncomfortable? If you are present for it, everything is a doorway to freedom -- from fear, defensiveness, anger, addiction, ignorance. Never underestimate our low tolerance for discomfort. All difficulty comes from our tendency to move away... Buddha's first teaching was that everyone feels underlying dissatisfaction. We think there must be some way to avoid it, but there is not. We must learn to be with it. If you live in avoidance, you must be on the defensive all the time."
One of the gifts that makes Pema a powerful teacher is her willingness to share her personal experience with finding a way to live with suffering. She speaks directly from the heart, making an empathic connection with her listeners. "We start looking for spiritual answers when none of the usual exits take us out of the pain," she said. "We rarely look until there is pain. We want a life where we always feel our best and when we can't find it, we look to spiritual answers for comfort."
Always seeking comfort, though, can be our downfall. The urge to move away from discomfort is so strong, Pema told us, that just like an annoying rash, we feel we must scratch it -- by turning on the TV, taking a drink, eating the chocolate -- whatever our favorite avoidance behavior is. But scratching only makes the rash spread. We must learn not to equate scratching with comfort and the cure. "Stay present with the discomfort," Pema suggests, "and have compassion with yourself for wanting to scratch."
Labels: buddhism, life purpose
Freedom, choice & responsibility
I've been listening to a wonderful lecture series
on existentialism by Robert Solomon of the University of Texas at Austin. The writings of the existentialists
have much to offer on the topic of becoming a hero. In Professor Solomon's lectures on the books and essays of Kierkegaard, Nietzche, Heidegger, Camus, and Sartre, what emerges is the theme of "no excuses." Says Solomon, "Life may be difficult; circumstances may be impossible. There may be obstacles, not least of which are our own personalities, characters, emotions, and limited means or intelligence. But, nevertheless, we are responsible... responsible for what we do, responsible for who we are, responsible for the way we face and deal with the world, responsible, ultimately, for the way the world is."
Jean-Paul Sartre, who named the existentialist movement and popularized it, argued that we are all "absolutely free" to change the world around us. This doesn't mean that we can succeed in anything we choose to, but rather that choices are always available. Even a person condemned to die can still choose. Will he die railing against his fate and hating those who condemned him? Will he have remorse for the crime that put him in prison and ask forgiveness? Will he become a model prisoner and try to serve as an example to those around him until the moment of his death?
Whatever the situation, Sartre declared, we have the choice to make of it what we can, and
whatever we choose to do excludes all other choices. It seems, then, that we had better learn to make these choices consciously, or else we are destined to continually live in a world created by the choices others make without our contribution.
Labels: life purpose
Bake in a hot oven for 45 years
Is there a recipe for becoming a hero? Can one follow a series of steps to travel from self-centered to selfless, from survival to triumph, from lost and wandering to enlightened? There are no guarantees in the making of heroes. The process is more like alchemy
than cooking dinner.
But I believe there are steps one can take to move in a heroic direction. In my first formulation of this, I have named five:
1. Evoking your higher self - This was Joseph Campbell's advice about the path to becoming a hero: "Put yourself in situations where your higher self is evoked rather than your lower."
2. Hearing the call - Listening for, and allowing yourself to believe in, the voice that outlines your true path to greatness.
3. Taking action - Getting past the initial refusal that all heroes experience, and taking concrete steps in the direction of your quest.
4. Slaying the dragon - Overcoming the inner demons of fear, self-doubt, and negativity that prevent you from owning the hero's mantle.
5. Seeking guidance - Finding people, places and precepts that support your heroism and inspire it to greater heights.
There will be more about these principles in weeks to come, but this is a beginning. I welcome your thoughts on this topic as it evolves.
Labels: heroism, life purpose
Everyday heroes in Tibet
I had the honor last night of meeting Karma Senge Rinpoche and Damcho Tenphel Rinpoche, Tibetan lamas who are visiting the US for the first time to raise money for the Weyching Gompa nunnery
. Karma Senge Rinpoche spoke to us through an interpreter on the topic of "Practicing in Difficult Times." He made the topic personal -- about us, his American hosts, and our difficult times since Sept. 11 and its aftermath. Never once did he mention the incredible difficulties of his own daily existence as a religious leader in Chinese-occupied Tibet
Karma Senge described simply how they are providing shelter, food, clothing, and education for the nuns, most of whom are orphans. Housing for most of them does not yet exist in the sacred site where they have gathered, which is accessible only by foot or on horseback. Regardless of the conditions, they study and meditate for 8 hours per day... and work 6 hours daily to keep themselves fed, clothed, and build the nunnery around them. When housing construction is complete, they plan to next build a medical clinic to provide health care to the surrounding area.
Under conditions where we might think we could accomplish nothing more than survive, the nuns are making their study a higher priority than having a roof. Instead of waiting for a road to be built, they are planning a medical clinic. What a difference in perspective this is on what might be considered "difficult."
Labels: buddhism, hero stories, social action
Slaying the dragon within
I wrote last month
about the internal dragon every hero must slay. The dragon comes in many shapes and sizes, but it seems that there are three dominant forms. The first is, "I'm not ready," of which I wrote on Friday. The second is, "I'm not enough." You can take that phrase as it stands, or add your favorite word in the middle: "I'm not smart enough," "brave enough," "talented enough," etc.
The third dragon is, "What will people think?" This can be a tough one to slay, because more than either of the others, it reflects an external truth. Our readiness to set out on the hero's journey, and whether we are enough for the task at hand, are areas where we can hopefully change our thinking. We can come to believe that we are as ready as we're going to get, or that we do have enough intelligence, talent, and courage to begin. But we cannot alter the opinions of others.
We can try to influence what others think, but the fact is that if we are truly to become heroes, there will be those who disapprove. What we are doing may scare them; they may disagree with our course; they may fear losing us from their lives. When they express their disapproval, it will be real, outside of us, an unalterable fact.
The only element truly under our control is how we react to their disapproval. Will we allow it to stop us, or accept it and continue on? And will we allow our apprehension of some future disapproving voice to stop us even before we begin? The trick to slaying the "What will people think?" dragon is remembering that it is still an internal one. Even though it seems to be about the opinions of others, it is really about our own reaction to those opinions. We get to choose whether we will stay home until everyone around us agrees where we are going and how to get there, or we can begin the quest as best we know how, and trust that it is our own right choice.
Labels: heroism, life purpose
Are you ready yet?
A common misconception held by would-be heroes is the belief that you must be "ready" before beginning your heroic journey. Thinking that you must have your life more together before starting your big adventure, you find yourself waiting to begin, often for years. You may never get started at all, because you never feel ready. When feeling stuck in this place, it can be helpful to remember that the great ones became heroes because
they went on the quest. They didn't wait to turn into heroes first and then set out.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the first stage of the hero's journey as beginning with the call to adventure -- Luke Skywalker sees the recorded message from the desperate Princess Leia -- followed by the refusal of the call -- Luke is duty-bound to stay home and help with the harvest. It seems that the place we modern heroes frequently stop is with the refusal. We convince ourselves that bringing in the harvest is the sensible thing to do. But the harvest must be brought in every year, and when we are not reaping, we must be sowing, and cultivating, and threshing, and hauling the grain to market... When will there ever be time to save the world?
The answer, of course, is now. Now, when the call comes. The harvest will always be there, with you or without you. But the call, ah, that is special. It doesn't come every day or even every year. When you hear it, there is no way to know if you will ever hear it again. So if today is the day you hear it, today is the day you should act on it. Ready or not.
Labels: heroism, life purpose
I'm a Buddha; you're a Buddha
One of the many elements I find useful in the Mahayana
teachings of Buddhism is the basic principle that we are all already Buddhas
. According to Tibetan lama Tulku Thubten Rinpoche
: "We are already endowed with Buddha qualities, or Buddha perfections, the moment we are born... The only problem is that somehow we are trapped in samsara
... all our internal obscurations... which prevent us from actualizing and manifesting this internal perfection..."
As a Co-Active Coach, I was trained to hold my clients as naturally creative, resourceful and whole. By holding on to that perspective, my clients and I together attempt to view anything that prevents them from being magnificent as illusory. Their natural state is perfection, so self-perceived limitations and the voice of the inner critic are simply distracting chatter -- the background noise in the restaurant that makes it hard to hear the important conversation you are wanting to have with your dining companion.
But since we exist in the state of samsara, holding on to this perspective can be quite difficult. I spotted a marvelous commentary on this in the movie Shallow Hal. (You're kidding, right? Buddhist philosophy in a Farrelly Brothers movie?) Our hero Hal -- a formerly shallow guy -- has been hypnotized by Tony Robbins (playing himself) to see the inner beauty in every woman he meets, causing him to fall in love with the charming 300-pound Rosemary. In a scene where Hal's best friend begs Robbins to break the spell, Robbins says, "What spell? He was hypnotized before when he thought women like Rosemary were ugly." This is samsara, our conditioned existence under the control of delusions that prevent us from seeing the beauty and perfection in everyone, including ourselves.
Labels: buddhism, life purpose
Courage to change... or not
If there is a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for despondency?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being sad?-- Shantideva
This 8th century version of the Serenity Prayer is my study verse this week for my Way of the Bodhisattva class with Pema Chodron. Heroes are well known for taking action, finding a remedy when trouble strikes, but this verse reminds us that another heroic quality is cheerfulness in the face of danger and difficulty. Sometimes there is no solution, or at least not an immediate one, and if that's the case, well, is there a use in being sad?
Labels: buddhism, heroism, life purpose
Insects and angels
Walking in Golden Gate Park with my sweetheart Dave yesterday, we spotted a water strider
scooting across the surface of the wildfowl pond. These amazing insects are able to literally walk on water by balancing their featherweight bodies on long legs supported by the water's surface tension. They can do this because they are so light. But you know what they say about angels -- that they can fly because they take themselves lightly.
We think of walking on water and flying as being the result of miracles, but what if Tinker Bell was right? What if the truth is that miracles exist as long as you believe in them? (Do you believe in fairies? Clap your hands, everyone!)
Once upon a time, I wanted to get a federal job as a planetary geologist in the unit that was studying the Viking mission imagery of the surface of Mars. (You know this must be a true story -- it's too goofy to have made it up.) There were less than a dozen jobs like this in the country and the competition for them was fierce. I was lacking a few basic requirements. For example, I had no experience whatsoever, and didn't even hold a bachelor's degree at the time. Oh, and there were no open positions, either.
Disregarding all this, I asked one of my college professors to have a word with someone he knew at the Geological Survey. (Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.) Somehow, I got an interview with the senior scientist on the Mars project in Menlo Park, commuting distance from my home. In the interview, I desperately trotted out the only item I could think of that might make a difference -- I held an associate degree in computer science and had some programming experience. Lo and behold, the scientist, nearing retirement age, was computer illiterate, and needed some simple programs that would analyze crater densities for his research. He wrote a position description that matched exactly my sketchy background, and posted it as required so I could apply for the job.
The miracle didn't end there. In the few days the position was required to be posted before I could be hired, another woman applied for it. She had a master's degree and years of experience. I thought I was sunk. But the senior scientist declared her "overqualified" and hired me instead. When I asked him why, he said, "You really wanted the job."
You'll notice this took a little more than positive thinking. I didn't just sit on the steps and wish I could get a job as a planetary geologist. I took the risk of being thought a fool, and asked for help from people who had the power to give it. But underneath all that, the "surface tension" that held me up was my belief that it was possible, despite the many people who told me it wasn't.
Are you clapping yet?
Labels: life purpose
A UK colleague of mine named Mark Forster wrote a marvelous book, Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play.
What I like most about Mark's book is his holistic perspective: "...the phrase 'time-management' is really a completely inadequate description -- what we are in fact dealing with is how we manage our lives. If we were to rename it 'life-management' it might throw a new and clearer perspective on the issue. We are dealing with the surface manifestation of the very roots of our existence and what is important to us."
Oh. Is that all? No wonder getting a handle on our time can be so difficult. Mark describes one of the factors in using time wisely -- the difference between being decisive and impulsive. "Because good time-managers are clear about what their intentions are, they are able to move purposefully towards fulfilling them. Poor time-managers have seldom worked out their intentions clearly and therefore find it very difficult to act purposefully. Without having a big picture to keep their eyes on, they are prey to every kind of trivia... 'Wouldn't it be a good idea to learn French/surf the net/go shopping/rearrange the pencils on my desk/take up yoga?'"
Having been guilty of a vast number of impulsive acts in my own life, this distinction struck home. It always surprises people to learn that I have suffered from a tendency to procrastinate since I was old enough to have a to-do list. I seem to have a reputation for getting things done. Ah, but are they the right things? Do they occur because of intentional decisions on my part, or are they simply impulses that due to my other inborn traits -- dogged persistence, for example -- I feel obligated to carry out once they have been launched?
The "big picture" Mark mentions seems to be the key. How else can one get through the day without being pulled in a million different directions? I know for myself that the clearer that picture becomes, the easier it is to say one of the most important words in the English language: "No. "
Labels: life purpose
Halfway through the journey of our life
I found that I was wandering in a dark wood
And realised that I'd lost the straight way.
-- Dante's Inferno
On the web site of Daniel Johnston, author of Lessons for Living, he mentions that in the Chinese language the ideogram for "crisis" is made up of two separate characters. One of these characters represents "danger" and the other represents "opportunity." Thus the proper translation of crisis from the Chinese is a "dangerous opportunity." He goes on to state, "The danger of midlife is very real. Successful transition to the next life stage is not guaranteed."
Dr. Johnston is not suggesting that midlife will kill us, but rather that we are in danger of not progressing beyond where we have been. The opportunity, however, is tremendous.
Says Johnston, "The midlife experience provides an opening to psychological and spiritual growth that allows and empowers a giving back to others and the community. This is the good news. The bad news is that you cannot take this journey without a certain amount of suffering... you must give up who you think you are so you can become who you were meant to be."
Giving up who we think we are can be painful indeed. It also requires giving up who others think we are. The people around us often have a very fixed image of us. By the time we reach midlife, those who have known us for many years may be holding a picture of who we are that is decades outdated. It may be quite a shock to them to discover that not only are we no longer that person they used to know, but now we are becoming someone else again right under their noses.
It takes a great deal of courage to become who you are, and even more to actually tell anyone about the new you. But to quote Johnston once again, "To become a whole person the journey must be taken."
Labels: life purpose
Making it up as you go
Speaking today at the San Francisco Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center
, I was struck once again by the awesome inventiveness of entrepreneurs. Fully half the audience was made up of people who owned businesses that were totally unique. That's one of the greatest things about starting a business -- you can just make it up.
When you are on the outside of entrepreneurship looking in, you may think that to be a successful business owner, you must be a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. There is much in the business literature to support the idea that you should choose a business with a recognized label, e.g. graphic designer, bookkeeper, or executive recruiter. Or one where you can follow a manual someone will be happy to sell you -- for medical transcription, gift baskets, or home inspection -- and perhaps even buy into a brand name through a franchise or direct selling company. But it doesn't have to look this way at all.
One of the people I met today was Roger Kalhoefer, founder of Holy Legends Ltd. His violence-free board and video games promote cross-cultural understanding by featuring the heroic story of Abraham, patriarch of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
Also in the audience was Myra Alcaide, managing partner of Prime Image. Her company helps to celebrate and unite Asian communities by providing entertainers and event production services. Their mission is to give the Asian community a voice in mainstream entertainment. Try finding either of those enterprises in a how-to-start-a-business guide.
It's my belief that whatever your mission in life is, you can find a way to make a living at it, and therefore be able to work at your mission full time. But to do this, you often must be willing "to boldly go where no one has gone before."
Labels: life purpose, social entrepreneurs
Good, bad & different
One of my favorite quotes from Thoreau's Walden
is the following: "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life..."
Caught by the enthusiasm of our desire to be of service, sometimes we forget that the path we have chosen is uniquely ours, and may not be right for everyone. I find that most true callings are a strong reflection of our personal values -- those beliefs that we hold so strongly they seem absolute. Coaches Training Institute founder Laura Whitworth compares them to "the freckles on your face," invisible to you because they have always been there, but to others, part of what makes you distinctive.
When we attempt to serve others according to our own values, even with the best intentions in mind, we can become overbearing proselytizers who insist that only we know the right way to live. Think of the devastation that Christian missionaries caused to Native American cultures, and yet many of them truly believed they had the best interests of those civilizations in mind.
Perhaps it is my years of training and experience as a coach that make me ask first about the other person's agenda when I want to help. (And this is of course my own bias, ultimately stemming from my own values.) What I find is that help offered in an unwanted direction rarely has a positive effect. How well do we listen to even our closest friends when they offer us advice we didn't ask for?
If we want our service to have the greatest possible impact, perhaps the best place to begin is simply asking, "What do you need?"
Labels: life purpose, social action
Taking out the hook
In a discussion group with Pema Chodron
last night, our topic was getting hooked by strong negative emotions such as anger or fear. Pema told us that while these emotions -- and the experience of being powerless in their grip -- are universal, there was an aspect of the experience that was unique to the West.
It seems we Westerners, when we notice that we have once again been waylaid by our own negativity, blame ourselves for it. We actually compound the problem by layering guilt on top of the original sabotaging emotion. Pema described the process as trying to put out a fire with kerosene.
According to Pema's teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
, who taught all over the world about training the mind, in Eastern cultures this isn't so. The negative emotions, or kleshas
, are seen more as influences from outside that impose their will on you, almost like being possessed by a demon. If a demon possesses you, it certainly isn't your fault!
Detaching from the source of the negativity in this way seems almost certain to make it easier to unhook from it once you realize it is there. You can bypass completely the phase so familiar to us Westerners of thinking, "What's wrong with me? I've done it again. I should have been stronger. I should have known better."
Pema pointed out that when seeing yourself as you really are hurts, when you are stung by not living up to your own expectations, it's an insult to your ego. And this perhaps is the real source of this difference between West and East. We Westerners are well known for being overly dependent on individual ego strength, for isolating ourselves and shunning collective thought. So, naturally, when we find ourselves doing something we had sworn we would no longer do -- getting angry or being afraid -- we believe it is our ego that has failed us. We believe we
have failed, and another round of self-loathing and blame begins.
If instead we can separate from the sabotaging emotion, reject the emotion but love ourselves
, we can take the hook out with much less struggle. Instead of pouring kerosene on the fire, we can remove its source of fuel.
Labels: buddhism, life purpose
Up, down, over & through
I'm continuing with my study of Shantideva's instructions for becoming an enlightened hero in The Way of the Bodhisattva
. The verse posted on my bathroom mirror this week is:
"When something has been planned and started on,
Attention should not drift to other things.
With thoughts fixed on the chosen target,
That and that alone should be pursued."
This is from the chapter on Vigilance, which describes how once you have found your true path, the real trick is staying on it. I've found it helpful to contemplate this verse many times this week as what seems like a million distractions have pulled at me. I am attempting to diligently write my next book, Get Hired NOW!
, while running my business, serving my clients, studying with Pema Chodron, and generally living my life.
Adding one extra unwanted task -- my 17th phone call to Comcast attempting to get my cable service restored following their system upgrade -- pushed me over the edge two days ago. "Who am I to be writing a book?" I fumed, forgetting I had already written several. "I can't even get my cable service fixed."
I sulked for a bit, went for a walk in Golden Gate Park, and while scowling at a spectacularly beautiful flower bed, remembered something Pema said in a recent class. "Some days you just can't manage to be a hero. Some days even tying your shoes is too hard. So do what small thing you can
manage. And remember that other people feel this way too."
I started back home, trying to turn my thoughts to the people I wanted to serve by writing the book. When I got back, I re-read the verse above. And then I sat down at the keyboard.
Labels: buddhism, life purpose
Taking it to the street
I wrote yesterday about the importance of turning insight into action. This is a critical step for the enlightened hero. Joseph Campbell
said that rather than focus on the meaning of life, we should focus on the experience of being alive.
It's all too easy to become absorbed in the big questions of who we are, where we are going, and why we are here. Not that these aren't important questions, but at some point, we must put into action what we are discovering. Without that action, we may become personally enlightened, but we are not yet being of much service to others.
Once we begin to create an outward expression of the insights, inspiration, or spiritual guidance we receive, they can begin to have a positive impact on those we touch. And this is true even when we begin only by applying our discoveries to our own lives.
So whatever you feel inspired by, bring it out into the open. Share it with another person, or find a way to act upon it. Begin to experience the meaning of it instead if just contemplating it. Your courage in doing so will immediately inspire others to let their light shine also.
Labels: heroism, social action