I use a lot of quotes in my work but one of my absolute favorites is Einstein’s well-worn definition of insanity:
Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
What struck me the other day was that Buddhism has a similar description of insanity called samsara (which is so very related to karma). Simba from ‘The Lion King’ might call this the ‘circle of life’ (albeit with that anything-is-possible-if-you-wish-hard-enough fluffy Disney spin).*
*Yes, I am taking some liberties but I am also linking one of the greatest mind of the 20th century to records of an enlightened being to a song by Sir Elton John, one of the world’s greatest dressers. I am doing this because it amuses me. Continue reading “E=MCsamsara”
While looking through pictures for the Mongolia piece, I found a few shots of me in Japan and, damn, I sure do look even more like a giant than usual.
*Okay, this last picture is a bit misleading. This is a door to a restaurant (the curtain by my elbow is the top of the entrance) and it is meant to be overly small.
Amazingly enough, I fit through it by literally crawling in. Whilst not all doors are this small they are usually about 6’2″ high (i.e. the size of the wood-panel portion of that wall). This means, since I’m 6’4″, I hit my head about halfway between the crown and the forehead (roughly the location of the logo of my hat)
I can feel a slight indentation there and I can’t remember if I had that notch before living in the land of the rising sun.
Over the course of 24 hours, I twice mentioned my story of galloping across the Mongolian plains by moonlight. The first time was during a ‘what really cool stuff have you done?’ conversation and the second was during a ‘what was one of your scariest moments?’ conversation.
I could not ignore the juxtaposition.
I think I Khan. I think I Khan.
In high school, I did a report on Genghis Khan and became fascinated with a country that–armed with horses, bows, and bloodlust–managed to acquire the largest land empire the world has ever (or likely will ever) know.
That’s just badass.
Five years later (1997), while living in Japan, I remember thinking one day about the tenacity of the Mongolians (I mean, who doesn’t think, in passing, of Mongolian doggedness?) and I thought, ‘I should go to Mongolia.’ I then immediately thought, ‘I can go to Mongolia!’
Flights into Ulan Bator, expensive. Flights into Beijing, cheap. Trains to Mongolia (the Trans-Siberian to be specific), also cheap. Flight into Beijing, get visas, get train tickets, and get on the train. Easy enough. Continue reading “Be Afraid”
Recently my friend Jeff in Kansas City gave me a thought on which to chew. He said,
‘I always saw you as a Portland guy and never really as a midwest guy. I didn’t feel like you came to KC for something. Rather, I felt like you ran away from something.’
I said something glib like, ‘Yeah, I think you’re right’ and nothing more because, while I totally agreed, I couldn’t articulate what that ‘something’ was.
Last week, I wrote a missive entitled ‘Refocusing‘ about the perspective you get when you take yourself out of the middle of the picture. The next day, I figured out what the ‘something’ was:
I ran away from myself.
I ran away from a life lived almost solely in my head.
I ran away from a narrow, unsatisfying, and incomplete perspective.
As a result, I lived life in KC from my gut and from my heart. I perceived reality first through my feelings, then through my instincts, and never through my head. It was a hell of a ride.
All my life I’d done the reverse: I ‘made sense’ of something, decided how I felt about it (yes: thinking about feeling), and then checked my instinct. When I ran away in the fall of 2009, I ran from that way of living.
I ran from thinking about feeling to feeling about thinking.
As a result, I made my decisions without consulting the busy mind which had imprisoned me for 34 years. Many of those decisions were ‘foolish’ inasmuch as they didn’t ‘make sense’: keep me emotionally safe, bring in money, or advance my career.
They were the best decisions on my life.
In the late summer of 2010, I ‘let myself back in my head’ and began interpreting reality through my gut and heart, then conducting a single ‘makes sense?’ checkoff with my head. After I let myself back in my head, the money and the career naturally took off again.
Fortunately, now I see those trappings for what they are: traps.
‘In order to see, you have to stop being in the middle of the picture’
Our perception of reality is self-centered. This is natural; after all, focusing on yourself–a la self-preservation–is what perpetuates the species.
However, once we get out of survival mode, what’s next?
I started answering this question in 1994 during my year of college in Helsinki, Finland (a lot of abroad, a modicum of study).
I looked back over the Atlantic to my community in Raleigh, North Carolina and saw my life and community as the rings of a dart board. I was the center and each circle surrounding ‘Bullseye Me’ was a layer of loved ones. The closer the circle, the closer the relationship.
One can learn much when they see their life without them in it. I learned that I was a construct of all those relationships. They formed me. They were me. After all, in the absence of all our relationships, what are we? How do we define ourselves?
This memory came back to me recently as I listened to a speaker discuss Buddhism. He noted that Buddha, upon awakening, stopped seeing himself as separate. Rather, he was all and all was him.
To see that veil drop, to feel that shift occur–even if it is just a glimmer–is quite disturbing.
Think of a time when you stepped away from your life and looked back from a different place. What did you learn when you were no longer in the center of the picture?
Think of a time when you loved someone else so much that you thought of their needs, their happiness, and their safety before your own. Parents know this feeling. Lovers know this feeling.
Now imagine if you felt that way toward everyone and everything… and it never turned off.
Infants don’t know make a distinction between themselves and their surrounding. Is this what we call childlike innocence? Is that then reality? Reality not filtered through the brain? The transcendentalists thought so and I feel they’re on to something.
As the brain develops, so does identity. As identity develops, so does perspective. As perspective develops, so does ‘differentness’. It gets harder and harder to not see yourself perpetually in the middle of the picture. With so much of our life spent in this state, it is no wonder that we gravitate toward this self-preservation, survival mentality. It is no wonder that so many of us are lonely… even in the company of others. It is no wonder there is so much selfishness and ‘me first’ thinking out there.
I used to see this Son Volt quote as quite foreboding…
‘You may be quite sure you know where you’re going, But sooner or later you’re out of the picture’
But what if where you’re going is intentionally out of the picture? What then will you see?
As a self-professed very private/guarded person, a fascinating aspect of choosing to chronicle the realities of life for all to see is that many of my friends and readers have said to me variations of, ‘Given that I don’t really know you well… it’s very interesting to be allowed into your thoughts and experiences.’
These kinds of comments, understandably, come from people whom I really don’t know all that well. But they also come from people whom I personally consider close friends.
The Rarity of Revealing
Every time I hear such comments, I also ask myself (and now others), ‘Why is it a noteworthy exception when we choose to share rather than guard, bury, and hide who we really are, how we really feel, what our shadows look like, and what makes us feel broken and jagged? Why do we notice when someone is open and honest rather than doing something about that troubled feeling we have when someone is closed off and disingenuous?’
This journey of honesty and revelation has always been particularly tough for me. I reflect on all my old workplaces and think about how little my colleagues knew about my personal life, especially in comparison to how much I knew about their lives. I think of friends and lovers who have commented on my reservedness, the ‘walls I put up’, and my ability to always turn a conversation back to questions for them. People at parties often say they ‘really enjoyed our chat’ and I think, ‘That’s because I got you talking about yourself the whole time and most people like that. What did you learn about me?’
These forms of deflecting attention from myself are ingrained behaviors. I still struggle mightily sharing more of myself with others–which explains both why writing is a safe haven for me (I’m ‘telling all’ while looking at a glowing rectangular screen and not someone’s inquisitive eyes) but also how, by writing for the world to see, I am opening up more than I would through my conversations, speaking, and teaching.
But that doesn’t answer my question: why do we celebrate openness rather than treating it as that which we all can and should do? If we don’t share, open up, and be honest, we bury, file away, and let who we really are fester inside. The world is awash with people rotting away internally and lashing out externally as a way to cope with their inability to be authentic.
Who else thinks we should do something about that?