What bugs you, may unburden your soul

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If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?
– Rumi

One of my biggest challenges is a dance with anger or its father, irritation. When I look outside myself and see what I don’t like, I feel an irritation. When I ask someone to do something that I want and they don’t, I feel irritation that often bubbles quickly into anger. When something I expect to happen doesn’t. I am annoyed.

This morning, I was thinking about the limitation of irritation in my life. As I did, the Rumi saying above appeared. Reflecting, I realized irritation was a way for me to strike back at my discomfort. I want to bend whatever is bothering me to my will. This reaction has been part of my life experience so long it is automatic.

Rumi’s words remind me of a quality that I admire in others who plumb the depths of their fields of endeavor. I was reading a story about Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the math world’s most prestigious award, the Fields Medal. This story explored her life and passion for math. She approached each unknown as a world to be discovered. She entered these journeys of discovery knowing that when it was complete her understanding of the problem she was considering would be far different than when she began and it excited her.

The unbridled commitment to exploration without holding on a fixed outcome is my opportunity as well. I can enter a committed exploration of what is at the root of my irritation with a knowing that my discoveries will enlighten and perhaps surprise me. What is absolutely true is that my “status quo” will be disturbed and that is always uncomfortable and good.

So off I go.

Authenticity 101

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As all the hubbub in the media analyzing the congressional primary victory of David Brat over Eric Cantor reaches a crescendo today, I think the reason Brat won is very simple. David Brat didn’t play the game of big media buys and big money. That’s not who he is. He is a college professor in economics who is concerned with the way things are going. He tried to get the attention of the “establishment” and was unsuccessful. So he decided to take some action.

Now, he didn’t go raise a bunch of money and hire a top political operative and polling team. He found like-minded folks who agreed with his perspective and they agreed to support him. He did this over and over again. Sure, he had support from a very vocal conservative talk show host. This made sense because his basic positions were ones they supported.

The headlines about this campaign victory are misleading. He is not a darling of the Tea Party. They didn’t put their muscle behind him. In fact, they ignored the race.

What mattered here was one man who was true to his positions and talked about them every day to those who mattered – the voters. Showing that when we hear something authentic it motivates us to act. (18,000 more voters turned out for this primary than 2 years ago).

As a leader, this is a good example of the power of authenticity. People know if you are blowing smoke or speaking truthfully. Granted not all the time, but when it really matters, they understand. If there is one leadership trait you choose to guide you, I suggest it’s always be true to yourself and speak to all your constituencies with integrity, NO MATTER WHAT.

Time to Remember What’s Important!

Have you ever looked around in your life and wondered, “where did all the time go?” I found myself having that experience yesterday afternoon. I was talking to someone who is overseeing how I communicate in the world of social media. I suggested she attract people to read this blog. While we were talking she said, “Oh, I see you haven’t posted since last October”. Ouch..

I’ve been involved in a “startup” business and falling into my old patterns of how busy I am. The startup mentality (at least the one that I learned) is that everything in your life is put on hold to get the business started.

Now I haven’t quite followed the old script. I have been busier than normal, but my family is not being ignored (althougth I’m sure they are feeling less attention). Other aspects of my life have been taking a hit, though, when I live out of the way of the past.

As I’ve drifted into this pattern, I stopped writing. Sure, I’m writing all kinds of things for the new business. You know, the important stuff like business plans, presentations and marketing material. It’s not the same.

I miss stopping what else is going on and wondering. Wondering about what makes life tick and why I am happy or not. I ponder questions of big and small scope. In these times of reflection and the writing that come from them, I learn so much. I’ve missed both the learning and connecting with you.

So the drought is over. I’m back at the keyboard, pondering and feeling and writing. Some of you have written and encouraged me to resume posting. To those of you who proded, Thank you.

Until tomorrow.

Thomas

Can you handle the Truth?

I’ve had some inner rumbling for some time about how inauthentic we are with each other. When I’m in the supermarket and greeted by an acquaintance, the usual question is, “so, how are you doing?” The response I give is usually, “Great!” or some other positive word. When I return the question to them, the answer is similar.

This little dance plays itself out over and over throughout my day. On the phone, at the bank, at a restaurant, I engage people I know and don’t know and we say things that just aren’t a true depiction of how we feel and what’s going on in our lives.

I don’t feel that I’m required to share the intimate details of my life with every inquiry, but it seems that we have adopted a practice to put on a mask when we engage others. One of my great joys is working with people to help them find the truth about their own greatness., We often have a great bond of trust between us and still I notice that the other person will often grab a mask of some sort and not speak what’s true for them.

I’ve come to realize that the practice of speaking the truth is one that we have so little experience with.  From early childhood, I was told to either hide what I was feeling or to say something that was untrue. I bet you had a similar experience.

Watch children who haven’t been taught to be deceitful about how they feel. They will say things like, “look at that fat lady (or man)” or “my daddy says you aren’t very nice.” Immediately they are quieted by an embarrassed adult and later remonstrated for what they said.

At first, it is confusing for the child. They are either saying how they really feel or repeating what someone else said. Quickly they learn that this is not a good idea. They are taught to speak what’s “nice”. The consequence of learning to be deceitful is that we deceive ourselves. Once this practice is engrained, it becomes difficult to first realize that what I’m speaking and thinking isn’t what’s true but an age-old reaction to hiding what I feel so I can be “nice” to others.

It calls to mind a court room scene from the movie A Few Good Men. Lt. Daniel Kaffee (portrayed by Tom Cruise) is interogating Col. Nathan Jessup (played by Jack Nicholson) about a situation at the Marine base at Guantanimo. When Lt. Kaffee presses Col. Jessup to answer his questions, he says ,” I want the truth,” to which Col. Jessup answers, “son, you can’t handle the truth.”

To stop the cycles of ups and downs we experience throughout our lives calls for us to stop the old pattern of intentional deceit. The old saying that “the truth will set you free” is more powerful than you can imagine. I’m on my own path of re-learning truth. It’s rocky and, when I’m being truthful (smile), worth it.

How do you start? A simple way is to observe the automatic things you say to others. When you are asked questions, how often do you respond without any consideration. I bet if you pay attention you will notice that you have a small number of “canned responses” that are predictably given.

Once I start to see myself as I really am, then I can begin to change the old “programming”. It takes some time and the road is filled with starts and stops. Don’t despair, an authentic life is worth the journey.

I will be sharing more on the process of being authentic with yourself over the next few months. Let me know of your experiences and any questions you have. We are on this journey together.

Until later,

Thomas

To Conform or Not to Conform – The Story of the Big Orange Splot

Last night, I was reading to our young boys one of my favorite children’s stories, The Big Orange Splott by Daniel Pinkwater. In this story, Mr. Plumbean’s world is disturbed in a most unusual way when a seagull drops a can of orange paint on the roof of his perfect house. You see, his house is like all the others in his neighborhood. This unlikely event starts a change that I invite you find out more about by reading the book.

I was reflecting on Mr. Plumbean last night and he wandered into my dreams. Conformity is such a strong force in our lives. It used to be called “keeping up with the Jones”. How we can belong to our local tribe by being alike seems to compose our actions in ways that we don’t really understand. Marketers know this, and people like Malcolm Gladwell have talked about it. Conforming is as good a name as any to describe this phenomenon.

I have always fancied myself as a non-conformist. I tell myself that I don’t like “the conventional wisdom” – another way of saying I don’t like others telling me what to think. Yet, I see the many ways that I allow what other’s think to influence my thoughts and feelings and actions. I want to be liked, so I stop considering what I feel and let others shape my life.

The act of non-conformity is not so much an act of rebellion, but a declaration of independence. It’s not selfish, although maybe your mother told you it was so. It’s your right to choose what you feel is right. One of my favorite aspects of Buddhism is the following that has been ascribed to the Buddha: Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

We assimilate so much based upon what we are told. Look at our current political campaigns for president. Candidates feel that if they say something, even if it isn’t true, we will believe it because we don’t take the time to follow the Buddha’s wisdom. The compelling story teller can influence us because we have forgotten that we are the ones who decide what’s true for us.

We pride ourselves as Americans on our fierce independence of thought. That may have been so a few hundred years ago, but what about now? Without our return to discernment, we will miss the amazing adventure life offers outside the lines of conformity, and the opportunity to create a life filled with wonder will be left behind.

From Here to Simplicity

So you get caught up in your daily life’s stress. It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and you have lost perspective about what’s important. How do you know this? You are gearing up to spend four or five more hours getting “things” done before your day is over.

In our culture, there is a rationalizing story that hard work is the way to success. I come from many years in Silicon Valley. Company leaders don’t feel you are pulling your weight if you aren’t putting in 55- 60 hours a week, and go home and continue reading and answering emails.

What’s the cost? Everything that’s vital to our life is the cost. As I’m burning the midnight oil working on a project, I start transferring greater and greater importance to my work. Every day, I inch my way further and further away from the people I care most about, I deny my health, or I ignore the need in my soul for quiet.

All this to feed the beast of success. Success, so I can have more stuff. More stuff, that for the most part, isn’t essential to my life, and requires gobs of non-renewable resources to build or use.

This pattern is played out every day all over this country. If that’s not bad enough, we seem to be infecting the rest of the world. As consumer spending grows here and in Europe, it fuels manufacturing in Asia. The growing population of factory workers and supporting business employees want their taste of the fruits of consumerism.

Where does this end? It ends in a mess. Right now, we are consuming more resources than the planet can replenish. The problem is there is a tipping point and the stuff we all want will rise dramatically in price until it’s only available to the elite. We hard workers will have less and less reward.

Now many feel that the solution is some government intervention, or a restructuring of large businesses. I don’t think that’s going to happen right away. Are we doomed? Not necessarily. A movement called Transition Town is emerging in more parts of the world. It’s doing some wonderful things that help bring us back into harmony with the earth and each other. This is good, yet insufficient.

What’s called for, is a real change of perspective. We are called to reframe our material needs. Move from working and living so we can have stuff to only having what we truly needs. This will mean a lot less for most of us. For those who are practicing this radical simplicity, the reports are encouraging.

They report that they feel freer. They spend significantly less time working at jobs. They are healthier, and their relationships are the richest they’ve been in years.

Even with these appealing outcomes, the change to living a simpler life appears daunting. Does it mean that I have to give all my stuff away. Nope! It means that you start getting deliberate and honest. You have anything that you require to have a safe, healthy, harmonious life. These three criteria are at the root of four questions you can ask about anything you have, or are considering having.

What are these four questions? OK, I’ll share.

  1. Is this possession required for my personal or family safety?
  2. Does this possession promote my well-being or health?
  3. Do I agree with the practices employed to create this possession?
  4. If I don’t have this possession, will my quality of life be truly diminished?

Remember that real honesty is required. Questions like number 3 require us to consider something that we mostly overlook. How was this manufactured? Was the labor employed in a way I would agree with ? Is it done with the most ecologically sound approach? Is the building of this the best use of the natural resources required?

Now here’s the key for the four question exercise. If your answer is no to any of these questions, it’s probably a good idea to pass along the possession if you already have it or not acquire it if you do.

Whew, you may say. That’s a lot. Yep. If you don’t want to drop over the cliff as a consequence of our continuing mindset of more, you are offered this opportunity. It won’t hurt. It will just be a bit uncomfortable for a short while, and then the real benefits will kick in.

I’m writing this not just for you. I was here at my desk until midnight last night. This was very familiar. I could rationalize the situation and say that I don’t normally fall into this type of behavior. I know how easy it is to fall into the old habit, and I’d be off to the races.

The consequences would be more severe this time. I know better. I’ve tasted life without this stress. Good, I say to myself, I can pull back now. Yes, and its this practice of reflection and writing that is bringing me back.

What do you do to maintain your sanity? How do you remember where you have fallen off the path of a balanced life and bring yourself back? Perhaps this is something worthwhile to munch on over the weekend.

The Cup is Half Full

A few days ago, I started this conversation about the half empty, half full cup. I talked about the implications of looking at the cup as half empty. You can go to the earlier posting on this blog to catch up.

Today, I’m in the world of half-full cups. We generally say that the cup half full folks are optimists. They see opportunities in everything. True, and there is more to it than that.

I have studied optimists for some time. I have a tendency toward optimism, so it’s personal. I always felt being a half full cup person was far better than being a half empty believer. It let me feeling I was better than others.

I bounced around thinking this for most of life. Then I met, head-on, someone who made me look like a pessimist. At first, I was enthralled. Great, someone who everyone loves to be around because of their bright outlook. As time wore on, I began to see fraying around the edges of this perspective.

One day, it dawned on me that I was around this person so I could see myself better. It’s that way when a big lesson is up. I’ve written often enough about the impact of living in the future. This is often the orientation of an optimist. They look beyond today, and find how tomorrow’s good outcome will take care of today’s problem.

This leaning into the future is contagious. So many of us want things to be better than they are. There are parts of our lives we don’t like. So, if we think about how things could be different, and apply a bit of hope, then “poof” all is well.

We all had a first hand example of how this brand of optimism works during the 2008 campaign. President Obama’s HOPE poster said it all. We were in a terrible economic mess, and we hoped that this man could get us out of it. This hope infected enough voters, and tipped the election in his direction.

I remember watching Obama’s speech the night of the election. After a few minutes of thanking everyone, he started to reshape his conversation with the American people. The road ahead was going to take hard work. He warned that there would be no quick solutions. I thought I could see in his eyes the awareness that his use of the optimists mantra of hope may turn on him.

Hope is something that is honored as an important attribute. I’m not so sure. Hope, to me, overlooks what’s right before my eyes. Hope has me believe in magical solutions that are often about what will happen tomorrow, rather than being present with what is, today.

I feel that confidence is a far greater quality than hope. Confidence is informed by the current situation, but not limited by it. In reading David McCoullough’s book, 1776, I was moved by George Washington’s confidence in the ability of the Continental Army to overcome great odds against the British army. He wasn’t hopeful. In fact, in some of his private letters, he reveals his concerns about the magnitude of the challenge. Yet, he felt confident, even knowing this situation, that they would prevail.

Sometimes, people will say that hope is the only way beyond a seemingly impossible situation. I disagree. You see, the obstacles I perceive are derived from what i believe. It’s these beliefs that create the feeling of impossibility. When I look at the world through these beliefs, I can’t see things as they are. I see the obstacles, or I see possibilities that aren’t real.

I’m becoming a reformed optimist. I have great help from my wife, who asks questions that puncture my optimism. For the longest time, I was really annoyed by these questions. I said to myself that she wasn’t supportive of my ambitions. I felt she didn’t understand what I could see.

I realized that she wasn’t infected by the emotions of optimism, and she could see some things I was overlooking. I had a fear, unknown at the time, that if I wasn’t optimistic, I would be stuck in a bleak world of “can’t do”. I would look around and capitulate to seeming adversity.

My experience has been very different than what I feared. I don’t have the emotional highs so much, and that fits me better. I also notice one of the other impacts of optimism. I would consistently override intuition. I would know something so clearly that there was no doubt. Yet, my optimism would sweep me right past this knowing and into the realm of wishing thinking. The outcome was often not very pretty.

I can see that pessimists have the same challenge. It’s just the other side of this coin of not seeing things as they are. In the end, the cup isn’t half-full or half-empty. The cup has a certain volume of liquid in it, and that’s it.

When we make our world something it isn’t, we are on the roller-coaster of emotional drama that some call suffering. Stepping into the reality of this moment is both a cure for both optimism and pessimism, and a way to a life that is free beyond comparison.