Tomorrow is Christmas once again. Most people will be spending it with their parents, or spouses, or children. I, like a minority of people in America, will be spending it by myself. And though it is Christmas, I won’t be spending it quite like most people. While others are opening their presents, eating Christmas dinner, and other family traditions, I’ll be reflecting on Christmases past. I’ll remember how good I had it and the love that surrounded me. But I’ll also be giving thanks for how good I have it now too. Though some circumstances have changed, I’m still very blessed, and it’s important to acknowledge that. I am very grateful for my life. I hope you are too. I know there are good things coming too. All things in their time.
So in this season of hope, love, and happiness, I hope you have plenty of all of these.
You cannot step into the same river twice – Heraclitus.
Just over 10 years ago, for a number of reasons, I moved from Colorado to South Carolina. Obviously this is not the first time I’ve moved, nor is likely to be the last. The last few years I’ve planned to move back west, closer to family. I was not necessarily planning on moving back to Colorado, but definitely somewhere in the region. At the risk of sounding cliché, I came to a realization Saturday: I have no intention of moving west any more, even to Colorado. Let me tell you why.
Time passes. And while some things change slowly, they do change. Sure, I could move west if I wanted to. But it wouldn’t be the same. In the last 10 years, the west has changed. And more importantly, I have changed. No matter how hard I tried, I’d never be able to make things the same as they were. Few traps are as insidious as living in past glories.
You cannot step into the same river twice, but life is more than happy to repeatedly present you with the same lesson until you learn it. This is relevant for me because I went through something very similar as a child. When I was 11, my family relocated from small town Ohio to big city Colorado. The company my dad worked for gave him an ultimatum – move and work in their headquarters, or find another job. We talked about it as a family, and later that year we were on our way.
I was miserable and wanted nothing more than to move back to small town Ohio. As time passed, things got somewhat better, but I still wanted to move back. My parents knew I wasn’t happy, and honestly, I’m not sure they were very happy either. One day we were driving home, and mom and dad said something I never thought I hear them say. It seems a position had opened up in Ohio, and if he wanted it, the job was his. So they asked me if I wanted what I wanted for so long – did I want to move back to Ohio? It wouldn’t be where we’d came from, but still, it was back in Ohio.
Just like it did Saturday, the realization hit me. I could not step in the same river twice. Going back to Ohio would be pointless. Even if we went back to the same neighborhood, which we wouldn’t have done, everything would be different. The neighborhood would be different. I was different. So I told them the only thing I could – I said no. I let go of the dream or reliving the past, and got on with living my life.
In a way, I feel like I’ve just made the same decision in letting go of the wish to move back west. I miss my family, good Mexican and Chinese food, I miss snow, at least now and then, the mountains, and the lack of better defined seasons. But I don’t miss the coldness of the people, the sub-zero temps, the traffic, the standing in line, or the higher cost of living.
Sometimes I think some of my friends are learning their own version of this lesson in some form or another. Where I’m at now everyone seems bent on recreating their college days. That’s my perception, anyway. It’s neither good nor bad, it simply is what it is. We all have our challenges.
It makes me wonder though. What else can I let go of and stop trying to step into the same river twice? What about you?
Just over two weeks ago, I took the next step on a journey I have been on for the past 7 and 1/2 years – I passed the black belt test for the organization to which my martial arts school belongs. This is longer than the average person takes, and I will readily admit that had I put my mind to it, I could have achieved this two or possibly three years ago. Which brings me to the subject of today’s discussion.
In reaching this achievement, I learned many, many lessons. One of the things I learned towards the end of this process was that making a decision wasn’t enough. I had made a choice some time ago that I wanted to study a martial art – it turned out to be jujitsu, though I’m sure I could have done others and been equally happy. I also made a choice some time ago that I wanted to reach black belt level and teach. During this time, I had periods where I would go to class regularly for a little while, reach the cusp of advancement, then stop going for a little while. This cycle would repeat for a number of years.
In the months prior to my test, I discovered it wasn’t enough to just make a choice – I had to put my will behind that choice, to become determined. It’s determination that separates choices from decisions. I can make choices all day long, but my decisions are immediately evident – because I put the necessary action behind them to bring them into being. When I made the decision to become a black belt, I determined that I was going to do that, whatever it took. I took action in line with my goal that I knew would help me get there.
Although I’m talking about something very specific, this applies to everything in life. How many times have you made a choice, only to go and do something that totally undermines that choice? The classic example of this is the new year resolution. People make all sorts of choices, and in the end, discard them not long afterwards. Most often it’s not lack of determination, but too much change too soon because of misdirected determination.
As Americans, our culture as a whole is one of instant gratification. We want everything, and we want it now. But the fallacy is, these conditions didn’t come up overnight, they’re not going away overnight. If you truly have decided to change, you must have the determination to do what is necessary to bring it about.
So, what have you chosen? And more importantly, what have you decided? What are you determined to do?
I went to the local botanic gardens today for the first time in nearly three months. I do some of my best thinking there, or non-thinking, as the case may be. I knew today would be special when within the first few minutes of being there, I was approached by a hummingbird, who decided to fly off when I tried to get my camera around for a picture. I wasn’t disappointed.
The cultivated area of the garden is changing. The old director left and late last year, and a new one was brought in. The new one seems intent on removing almost all of my favorite plants, and several beds that were lush with plants last year are now sparsely planted with mostly mulch visible. The natural woodlands area is still much the same.
As I was walking through the woodland area today, I was reflecting on Taoist philosophy. Taoism is a philosophy that studies the relationships, patterns, and changes in and with nature. It also espouses the idea that since humans are part of nature, those same relationships, patterns, and changes are reflected in us, both physically and personality wise. It covers cycles like days and years, birth, growth, death, and decay, and rain and sun.
I was also thinking about the book The Shadow Effect. While there are parts from Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson, it’s always been Debbie Ford’s material that I come back to. The entire thrust of the book is that we repress parts of ourselves for whatever reason, and that to achieve wholeness, we need to bring those parts out of the shadow and acknowledge them.
Today that all came together for me. I figured out that when I’m at the gardens, I am a whole person. I must confess that at times I focus too much on what needs to change, what isn’t working, what’s going wrong. As I was walking, I noticed the trees in the forest. They’re standing there, in part, because there are leaves decaying on the forest floor, decomposing back into dirt that will then feed the tree. What a great analogy for our ‘imperfections’: they are there to breakdown and eventually feed us and make us stronger.
Each and every one of us is a forest – a cycle of life in itself. We are the trees, we are the leaves decaying, we are the insects that live in them. We are the worms that break things down farther, we are the water that washes the nutrients into the soil, and the roots that pull the water and nutrients back into the tree. We are the nuts and berries the birds eat, and we are the birds. We are the sky and the sun and the clouds. We are the brutal heat of summer, the cooling nights of autumn, the coldness of winter, and promise of spring. We are all of it and more.
When we hide part of ourself, or hate part of ourself, we discount the importance of that part of ourselves. Every part of us is important, and we ignore that at our peril. Each of us is perfect and imperfect, at the same time. If you would truly change yourself, you must first accept yourself as you are now. How would your life change if you accepted yourself as you are?
I flitted with a hummingbird
danced with a butterfly
slithered with a lizard
sang with the birds
was serenaded by cicadas
stood with the trees
flowed with a river
and was warmed by the sun.
I mowed my lawn a couple weeks ago on Saturday. There’s nothing unusual about this, except that I didn’t start until after 11. Thanks to some morning cloud cover, the temperature hadn’t climbed into the upper 80′s as it normally does by noon. What I didn’t know was that this was going to be a life altering experience.
Before I get into what happened, I need to give you a little background. The martial art I study has a healing side. The healing work has a basis in Chinese medicine, which has a very different perspective than the western viewpoint. I’ve studied this on and off for a while now, and I’m currently in one of those healing classes. I’ve also been asking the universe to very clearly show me things I need to see. So Saturday while I was mowing the lawn, it did exactly that.
I wish I could say there was some big build up, that I knew something was coming and I was able to slow down or stop until it came. But it doesn’t work that way, at least not for me. I’ll be going along doing the most mundane things, and bam, there it is. The interesting thing was, it wasn’t just one big hit and there it was. As the first revelation settled in, then came the next one. And the next one. Until I knew the answers to the questions I’d asked.
I see my life a lot differently now. I still can’t answer a lot of the ‘big questions’ that people ask, but that’s ok. I know the what and why of a lot of things now. I know why I do the type of work I do, and why it’s not really what I should be doing. I know what I ‘should’ be doing. I think it’s better to say I know what I need to be doing, and why. I see the dynamics behind the relationships I do and don’t have in my life, and why. I see my life in a way I haven’t seen it before, in a way that makes some sense of my life. In the past, my life has seemed to me a series of disconnected events and people. While I have made a lot of my life, my first best destiny is gone. That possibility was over more than 20 years ago, when I didn’t go for what I wanted to in college. regardless, life goes on.
There is a Zen saying, “Before enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water.” While I can’t say that I’ve been enlightened, I’ve come to understand some things about this saying. Life does go on, enlightened or not. While we live in this world, there will always be things we need to do in order to survive in it. Another big thing – just because you’re enlightened doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work to do. If anything, it brings more work because now you know what you need to do. Sometimes, that’s far bigger than anything you’ve thought about, or farther outside your comfort zone than anything you’ve ever tried. It feels like finding a path, but then you actually have to walk it, one step at a time. Just like any other path.
Enlightenment – what a trip!
Not many people know that the martial art I study has an associated healing art. That, more than anything else, was what made me choose this art to study. The healing art learning consists of four modules that total 650 hours, I’m currently in the third one. Because of where I live I can’t license, but if I moved, in about 25 states I already have enough hours to test for a massage therapy license. It’s been an interesting start to the training this time around. Before I went through the second module, I made sure I was ready by doing a few massages first and then flowed right into it.
This time around, I tried the same thing, though I only did one or two massages done beforehand. The first couple classes, a month apart, were pretty much disasters for me. It was some of the worst work I’d done in a long time. I was disconnected and couldn’t get my placement quite right on anything. And then one day, it finally clicked, and I’m doing them at least as well, if not better, than I ever have. It’s really made a difference on the mat as well. My martial arts techniques have improved dramatically as my healing technique has improved. When I returned to the mat this year, my techniques were a little off there too. Now that things are better, I’ve had a chance to think through things and realized some things that are true for me.
I needed this class. For reasons I don’t understand, I need to have a connection with people. The last few years I’ve wanted nothing more than to get a job working from home, move back west to the mountains, and keep my exposure to people to a minimum. But I’ve noticed that in keeping to myself, I don’t get the things I need to get, and correspondingly the things I do suffer as well. Strangely, I didn’t see that while I was going through it. I could tell something was off, but not why, let alone have any idea how to fix it.
It’s really made me think about getting the things I want and getting the things I need. With all the talk of Law of Attraction (loa), there’s a big emphasis on how we get the things we want in our lives. Something I haven’t really seen addressed is, what if what you need and what you want are at odds with each other? Loa would say that you’ve attracted things to you that are at cross currents to what you want, but I’m not entirely convinced of that. As human beings, we are all imperfect – there are things we could always do better. Correspondingly, some people want or need to bring things and people into their lives which help them learn lessons to deal with or eliminate those imperfections. I’ll use a drug addict as an example. What the addict needs is to stop using the drug, but what he wants usually is another hit. He may not even see the need to stop until it’s too late, and so he doesn’t want to stop. Which would be more beneficial? Which is more likely to happen?
Now you’ve seen the conflict that needing one thing while wanting something else can produce. In the time that’s passed since I started writing this, I’ve discovered some other things about myself that I need to examine. There seems to be a part of me that needs to have dreams that are unachievable. When I first realized this, I thought how horrible it was that I was doing that to myself. That was because I was looking at those dreams and using them to make myself sad for not being able to achieve them. There is a flip side to that though – dreams can inspire, even unachievable ones. If I picked one to try to make real, it would start in motion a series of events that would take somewhere I’ve never been, and may never have gone if I hadn’t tried. And honestly, maybe the dream would be achievable – the judgment of whether a dream can be reached or not is always done from the perspective of where I’m at, not where I’m going. This is a big universe we live in, and what appear to be wildly improbable things happen all the time, and they can and do happen to anyone.
Life – the possibilities are endless. Maybe the universe can bring me what I want and what I need. If I have to choose between the two, I’ll take getting what I need over getting what I want. You see, I’ve found that for myself, I’m usually happiest when I’m getting the things I need. If that happens to line up with what I want, even better. It may sound unusual, but when I get what I need, what I truly need, there’s always that feeling of really deep contentment when I realize that’s happened. It’s like a part of my soul is fed that I didn’t even know was hungry. So, I am going to ask the universe to bring me what I need, even if I don’t know consciously that I need it. I choose to believe that the universe will bring it to me at the right time and in the right way, even if it’s not pleasant at the time.
What about you? What do you want? What do you need? Do you know?
I was trading emails with a friend recently about something near and dear to my heart, and she asked me a pretty basic but profound question. When I read it, I stopped for a moment, and my first conscious thought was, “I don’t know.” Which disturbed me a bit, given how central this question was to the matter at hand. I thought I needed to know, so I gave it some thought until I arrived at an answer that made sense to me. Except I think it was a superficial answer, and I’m not particularly happy with the answer I came up with. After I moved on from that particular subject, the idea of I don’t know stayed with me.
Since that happened, I’ve started to realize just how powerful those three words can be. In the words of the great Greek philosopher Socrates, “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.” It has been said that the beginning of wisdom lies in understanding the depth of our ignorance, and I agree with that. I’ve come to believe that sometimes not knowing is more powerful than knowing. Don’t misunderstand me, there are things we definitely need to know to live our lives, and ignorance is not preferable knowledge or wisdom. The realization of our ignorance does carry power though.
Acknowledging that we don’t know frees us in many ways. It frees us from pretending that we do – and in so admitting, it frees us to be more natural and authentic with others. It allows us to ask for help from others that may know. It releases us to seek that knowledge if we want it, or to discard the matter if we don’t, so that we spend our energy on the things we do want.
How many times have you heard this back and forth discussion? “Where do you want to go eat?” “I don’t know.” That’s one of the biggest dangers of these three words – here, it’s not usually about not knowing, it’s about something else. Some people use them as a shield – as if not knowing something will protect them from whatever consequence knowing would have. Very few times does that actually work.
The power of I don’t know really comes into play when we start talking about the important questions of our lives. Who am I? Why am I here? What did I come here to do? Bookstore shelves are filled with other people’s words, supposedly answering those questions, and telling us why it’s so important that we have them. But is that really the case?
I admit, at 46 years old, I don’t have a good answer for why I am here or what I came here to do. And I’m OK with that. Because in admitting I don’t know, I’m free to live the questions and experience the answers I find. If I find an answer that makes sense to me (in fact I have, partially), then I am also free to continue down that path without wondering if I made the right choice.
For the sake of completeness, I’ll give you the partial answer I found. And I wasn’t even looking for it really when it found me. I was taking a Huna class at the time. The teacher was giving us an overview of Hawaiian cosmology, and as a natural consequence, it led into the subject of why we are here. The answer he gave me makes more sense to me than anything I’ve heard so far. He said, we’re here to put more light in our bowl. Nothing grandiose, or earth shattering, just to put more light in our bowl. When we do good, we put more light in, and when we do bad, we take light out. There wasn’t any discussion about our “purpose in life”, or what we should be doing, or any of that. It’s simple and direct – that’s the beauty of it to me. How we choose to put more light in our bowls is entirely up to us. There may be a purpose, or task we’ve come here to do, but we won’t do it by thinking about it and fretting over it. We’ll do it by living our question and seeking the knowledge we don’t know.
What do you want to know that you don’t know?
I was walking through the local botanic gardens recently, as I often do. I enjoy it because no matter what else is happening, anything I may be concerned about fades away for a while. For me, part of this year is about doing what’s important. Not what’s right, or what needs to be done now, but what’s important.
In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Steven Covey teaches people to divide their activities into 4 areas, based on urgency and importance. The four areas are urgent and important, urgent and unimportant, important but not urgent, and unimportant and not urgent. The author notes that the majority of people of spend their time doing activities that are urgent but unimportant, or not urgent and unimportant. Think about it for a moment – how much time do you spend watching tv? Not urgent and unimportant. People dash here and there, doing this and that, when ultimately what they are doing is unimportant in the long run.
I’m convinced that the richness in life is actually in those activities that are important but not urgent. Achieving what is important to us as individuals requires effort – sustained effort. But the paradox is that typically those actions aren’t urgent, which is why they tend to get lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We make time to do the urgent but unimportant things because we tend to them as they crop up. Often, we don’t stop to think about whether it’s something that is actually important and worth doing.
I’m a prime example of that. Right now I’m not just prepping for my black belt exam this year, I’m also taking classes related to the healing side of the martial art I study as well. These tests are coming quickly, and I need to attend class and study the healing related material so I’m ready. These things are important to me, but not urgent. They are things I need to take action on regularly. These are the things I have chosen to find meaning in – but if I do nothing with them, skip class, don’t study, I’ll have wasted that opportunity.
Priorities are a touchstone of our lives. There’s a very easy way to determine when our actions are out of alignment with our priorities, what we think is important. There’s one simple question to answer: If you knew you only had one year left to live, what would you do?
If your answer involved living any differently than you do now, your actions and priorities are out of alignment. The reason I say that is simple: you don’t know how much longer you’ll be alive. Though it’s likely you’ll live past retirement age, you never know when sudden calamity may strike and end it all. I don’t know about you, but when I die, I want to be able to look back and say I died in pursuit of dreams, doing the things that were important to me. I don’t want there to be any doubt in anyone’s mind that I lived life to the fullest, the best I knew how.
As much as I want people to see that, I’m not living my life for them, I’m living it for me. I may or may not reach my dreams, but at least I’m reaching for them. I know what’s important to me, and I’m doing what’s important. What’s important to you?
I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’ve known intellectually for a long time that no one is perfect, especially me. I didn’t let that stop me from trying to be perfect, and it didn’t stop me from being incredibly hard on myself. I am my own worst critic. Despite this, it’s only been in the last few weeks that I’ve come to understand in my heart also that I’m not perfect. Learning to deal with it hasn’t been easy.
What brought this crisis on was the martial art that I study. I am gearing up for my black belt exam later this year. The rank of black belt is called shodan, which in Japanese means beginner. During my training, I have noticed that the more I learn, the more there is to learn. I feel at times as if I’m going backwards instead of forwards. For a while, this seriously depressed me. How can it be that the more I know, the more I don’t know?
I thought about this hard and long, puzzling over it and turning it over in my head as if it were a scrambled Rubik’s Cube. I started thinking about the other things I’ve done in my life, the various hobbies I dove into intensely only to leave a short time later. I mulled it over in my mind until I could finally see the truth behind the situation and make peace with it. The conclusion I reached surprised me at first.
It surprised me because I finally figured out that this is how everything works! Within every conceivable subject that exists, there are infinite levels of knowledge. No matter how much anyone knows about a subject, there will always be more to know about it. I realized that everyone who studies something in depth comes to the realization, consciously or subconsciously, that they will never know everything about that subject.
Once I figured this out, I revisited my perspective and how I felt about this. Sure, my technique isn’t perfect, and never will be. But my perspective of this knowledge is mine to determine. I can focus on the fact that there is so much I will never know and let it depress me. Or I can focus on the fact that I can always improve, always get better, and always learn. There is more than enough material to keep me learning for the rest of my life, and there will be plenty left to learn long after I have departed this life. Wow!
Needless to say, I got over my depression. I know now that I can do just about anything that anyone else has done or learn anything anyone else has learned, if I am willing to put in the work. The same can be said for anyone. The best example of that is professional athletes. After repeated studies, they’ve found that without fail, that the best athletes in their sports are also the hardest workers. Not the luckiest, nor the most talented, but the hardest workers. Before he retired the first time after a dramatic victory in Game 7 of the NBA finals, Michael Jordan was arguably the best basketball player the world has ever seen. Millions of people watched his heroics on the court. No one but him watched him during the many hours he spent on the court practicing every day. No one saw all the shots he missed learning how to do the things that amazed so many when he did them in a game.
In the end, I’m working on a new goal, and it’s not perfection. It’s simply to keep learning, to keep getting better. Realistically, that’s all I can ask for. It’s all anyone can ask for. Much as you may not want to admit it, you’re not perfect either. Cut yourself some slack though. You’re not perfect, nor will you ever be. The best you can do is to do better. What do you want to do better?
I traded messages with my friend last weekend after my last post. I was concerned over the reception it might receive, as I don’t normally talk about those inner most thoughts with others. It seems that it struck a nerve with some people, and it made me want to think about things further. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is that despite our technological advancements, on the whole, we’ve regressed culturally.
Looking at tribal cultures, many of them had rites of passage that are missing from modern day cultures. Granted, modern cultures have their rites of passage too. But tribal members didn’t have to get driver’s licenses, or register for the draft, or look for their first job. These things are important in today’s society. But some of the more important ones have been lost.
Ever wonder why so many men still act like boys when they grow up? In many tribal cultures, there was a ritual a boy went through before he was considered a man. He had to pass a test, often to prove that he could survive on his own. In modern America, we’ve set an arbitrary number on adulthood – 18. Oh, you’re 18 now you can do whatever you want. We send them to schools that teach them almost everything except how to survive in the real world. We don’t teach them how to manage time, how to interview for a job, how to handle money, or even how to figure out what kind of work they might like to do. Then we wonder why they are unable to make it on their own, or ‘act their age.’ Many boys no longer have a male role model or father figure to help them grow into men.
If he wanted to marry, he would have to pass another test, typically going on a hunt to bring back food. This would prove that he could provide for his wife and any children they might have. It was all well and good for a boy or man to say he wanted to do something, but he had to prove he’d be able to do it. He had to show he could walk the walk, not just talk the talk. These days a guy’s friends just throw him a bachelor party, and good luck to him.
Women had their rituals too. When a girl would have her first cycle, the event was celebrated as her moving from childhood into womanhood. Now days it’s often devolved to a short talk about here’s what’s happening, basic feminine hygiene, and don’t fool around so you don’t get pregnant. Of course, girls weren’t beginning their cycles before the age of 10 as they are now, but that’s a different topic. There was a special place set up for women experiencing their cycle, where they would have the support of other women. Now the subject is all but taboo, or worse, only subject matter for comedy.
Childbirth too, is a ritual of sorts, into parenthood. Parenting is still one of the few areas where rituals acknowledging the impact of such a life changing event are done. Only now they’re just called baby showers.
When a woman reached menopause, there was a ritual for that too. A woman’s experience was acknowledged, and she was given an exalted position within the tribe, a wise woman who had been through the maiden and motherhood years, and had the experience to help guide others. In our society, older women are casually discarded in favor of younger ones, as if they were a car to be traded in. Her experience and maturity are not considered assets, but a liabilities. Advertising proves this one most effectively. How many makeup and lotion ads are out there promising to make a woman look younger, or not her age? My opinion is, if you want to wear makeup because you feel better or look better, fine. Otherwise, celebrate your wrinkles and gray hairs and such – a lot of living went into earning them.
We are always changing, always growing, and so is society. Being a man or woman now means something different than it used to, even within modern America. Correspondingly, the paths and rites we go through to become who we are change also – sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Ultimately, it is up to each one of us to determine the path we will travel to become the people we will be. Like Robert Frost, I will continue to walk the road less traveled. Which road will you take?