Archive for October, 2012


My friend George sent me this photo.  I have been sitting with it for a few days savoring what emerged into my consciousness.  I have decided to share with you, gentle, read some of what has emerged for me.  I also invite you, gentle reader, to sit with the photo and savor what emerges for you.

There is much darkness in the world today; it surrounds us.  Is the light that appears so far off fading or emerging?  In order to reach the light it appears as if I have to emerge myself into even more darkness; I must step into the darkness and travel in the darkness before I reach the light.

This journey will require me to have courage.  The Japanese Kanji symbol for courage is:

It is pronounced Yuuki.  Two symbols represent ‘courage.’  The top symbol – yuu – represents ‘courage’ and the bottom symbol – ki – represents ‘heart or spirit.’  Thus courage is nurtured by ‘heart and spirit.’ Thus, if I am going to journey into the darkness I must not only have courage, but I must also have the heart and spirit necessary for such a journey.  Since I do not know if the light is fading or emerging the journey also requires that I take a risk; the risk of journeying into the darkness without the guarantee that the light will be on the other side.  This risk requires faith.  Or to put it another way, if there is a guarantee that the light will be there then the risk is not as great.  I have choice.  I can stay where I am and pray that the light is actually emerging and not fading (or is it hope or is it trust) or I can choose to enter into the darkness, risk becoming lost in the darkness, and journey towards the light.  Both are risks.  I cannot avoid the risk but I can choose which risk to embrace and live into.


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In his autobiography, Nikos Kazantzakis, author of The Last Temptation of Christ, described an incident in which he came upon a cocoon nestled in a tree.  The butterfly was making a small hole as it was attempting to emerge.  Now Nikos was not known for his patience; in fact, he had a reputation for being impatient to the tenth degree.  So Nikos, the impatient, gave into his own temptation and decided to help out.  He bent over it and warmed it with his breath, by which he succeeded in speeding up the process.  It was as if the breath of the Holy Spirit had helped breathe life into the butterfly.  Unlike the breath of the Holy Spirit, our breath produces unintended consequences.  The butterfly did emerge, alive.  However, its wings were hopelessly crumpled and stuck to its own body – it had needed the sun’s patient warmth not Nikos’ impatient hot breath to love it into life.  Moments later, after a desperate struggle, the butterfly died as Nikos held it in the palm of his hand.

‘The little body,’ he wrote toward the end of his life, ‘is the greatest weight I have on my conscience.’ 

Each of us does great self-violence by not being patient with our own development, which by design and necessity needs time, care, love and compassion.  When we ‘rush’ into life we communicate to our own souls that we don’t have faith in them and in their direct connection with the breath of life that sustains them and that nurtures us into life.  We want to be in control and so we give in to our own temptation and adopt impatience as our middle name as we try to ‘make’ our life happen.  Life requires our ‘being’ more than our ‘doing.’

We suffer from a cultural dis-ease: waiting means doing nothing.  We don’t trust the process; it is, in many ways, counter-cultural for us to trust the process.  We misunderstand examples that the universe provides us.  For example, we don’t discern that Isaac Newton ‘s apple experience only bore fruit (yes, I did just type those words) only after years of development; we don’t understand that Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem Kubla Khan, which is said to have popped into his head in complete form, had been slowly nurtured into life during many years of preparation (he was, in fact, preparing himself without knowing what he was preparing for).  In our own haste, we miss the reality that great insights generally emerge after long periods of observation, meditation, experimentation, frustration and re-starts.  In our culture we love the answers and we suffer, perhaps even tolerate, the questions.  We do not love the questions into life.  We see challenges as ‘problems to be solved’ rather than as paradoxes to be embraced or dilemmas to be engaged (we seem to dislike, or is it ‘hate,’ paradoxes and dilemmas).  We worship the diamond and forget the coal and the time and pressure it took for the coal to transform (remember, ‘transformation’ = a fundamental change in character or structure).  Given all of this, it makes sense why individuals, relationships, teams and organizations seek first to shift or change and shun the process that would help them transform.

What is the butterfly within you that needs to be slowly and patiently nurtured into life? 

Here is a photo of Nikos Kazantzakis; I love this photo – it speaks to me of warmth, care, love and, perhaps in older age, patience.

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Discernment and ambiguity go hand-in-glove and hence seeking clarity of discernment becomes a challenge for us.  The Quakers have provided us a process that can help us – ‘clearness committees.’  In addition to helping us clarify our discernment(s) the committees also powerfully demonstrate to us that we don’t have to go it alone.  They remind us that community is closely linked with discernment.

The more important the need for discernment the more it is, almost by definition, an affair that is more public than private.  Why: because it is going to affect more people rather than just one or two.  For example: If one’s work begins to take him/her away from home and hearth for long periods of time or if innovating at work is going to affect many stakeholders or if scaling back your profession is going to affect those whom you currently serve then this moves one more to the public domain.

Please note: Clearness committees are not meant to represent the interests of the publics; they are to help you find clarity.

Let’s say that you desire to engage a clearness committee.  Before the committee gathers you, ‘the focus person,’ compose a brief synopsis of the issue or challenge about which you seek clarity.  This document is then given to each committee member (members, by the by, consist of 6-8 folks that you invite from among friends, colleagues, mentors, and even ‘strangers’).

When the committee meets the first observance is ‘silence’ (or for most of us, it is a period of ‘quiet’).  This is not the ritual ‘silence’ that so many gatherings use to begin a session (many use this time to figure out what they are going to say or advocate).  This period of silence involves a sincere attempt to shift the center from the personal to the transpersonal (or transcendent if you will); it helps move the focus from the individual to the communal.  This type of silence also affirms that discernment is a mysterious process and that ‘absolute’ clarity is an ideal to be sought, not a goal to be achieved.  Nevertheless, it is amazing what can be accomplished; Douglas Steere – one of my favorite Quaker authors – puts it, by listening each other’s souls into disclosure and discovery. [NOTE: If you are not familiar with his writings you might check out his little book, ‘Where Words Come From’]

After the period of silence, the guidelines are offered; they are so simple they are radical for many of us: Ask Questions Only!  No fixing, analyzing, story-telling (‘Let me tell you what happened to me.’), no challenging, no directives or advice in the form of a question (Have you tried this. . .?).  Questions from a deep place of not-knowing can be the most powerful.  Questions are rooted in deep caring more than curiosity; they are offered in order to call forth rather than impose ideas.  The goal is not so much to comprehend (to understand) as to apprehend (to become conscious of).

Generally, people find it difficult to believe that questions can be so powerful (we are a culture of advocates after all).  Yet, again and again, that’s what participants discover – people are wise far beyond what they believe themselves to be and this type of inquiry allows them to tap into this inner wisdom.  We are a culture that values ‘fixing’ and the clearness process, because it seeks clarity via inquiry and deep listening, is truly counter-cultural.  Inquiry and deep listening engages the focus person in a way that enables him/her to access the teacher that resides within.  Even ‘simple’ questions can trigger great insight.  A number of years ago I was a member of a committee.  We had gathered to help a woman, I will call her Jane, decide whether to take on a new role at work.  She had already described her life as living in a tsunami.  After some time, a member asked her what appeared to be an ‘off-the-wall’ question: How large is your garden?  Jane paused, then burst out laughing; her laugh was the laugh of deep recognition.  It turned out that her garden was much larger than she could handle.  Garden became a metaphor for her and it helped her with her discernment and eventually with her decision.  Jane, like many folks who have engaged in a clearing committee process, experienced the gift of inquiry.



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I spent a year in a monastery; I was 18 years old.  Among other things, I learned about ‘silence’ and I also learned about ‘meditation.’  I learned that silence takes guts to face and embrace.  Experiencing ‘silence’ requires us to ‘find it, embrace it, and then, sustain it.’  All of this is quite daunting, challenging and stretching, for me at least.  At its best, Word and Voice are rooted in deep silence.  To paraphrase Robert K. Greenleaf, when I speak how will that improve on the silence? 

I have a bias.  I believe that we each need to teach ourselves to sit quietly and listen, just listen long enough to leave our butts a bit sore.  Our lives are, more and more, whelming us over with both internal and external noise and because of this when it comes time to tap into and then convey to ourselves and perhaps to others our deepest intuitions, our deepest yearnings, our deepest hungers and when our lives demand, cry out for, inner guidance we will find ourselves speechless.

Many of us don’t even recognize silence.  Silence lacks stuff – background noise, internal noise, chatterings of all types.  This type of silence requires discipline over time.  Silence is not easy to find, nor experience.  I used to invite participants into ‘silence;’ two years ago I shifted and now I invite them into ‘quiet.’  For many, if not most, of us ‘relative quiet’ is the only kind of quiet known; silence is not known.

This challenge of finding and experiencing silence is exacerbated by the fact that, as Thomas Merton noted so insightfully, our culture loves noise; we are a noisy culture.  We do not like silence; people cannot sit in silence for but a few moments at a time [I am reminded of the searcher who went to Nepal to learn about silence and meditation; he was gone but a short time.  A close friend saw him out walking and stopped him and asked what had happened that he had left and returned in such a short period of time.  The man replied that indeed he had gone off to Nepal in search of silence but left within a day or two.  Why?  Because every where he went, Yak, Yak, Yak!].

We fear silence.  Silence reveals. It reveals our deepest longings and our emptiness, if not our inner wasteland.  In silence we hear the sound of our own suffering.  This is the type of suffering that results in tears flowing.  There have been times in my life when I was afraid that if I tapped into this suffering in myself that my tears would never cease flowing.

Sitting quietly is also counter-cultural.  We love activity.  We value doing not being.  Sitting in silence requires us to embrace ‘doing nothing;’ it requires of us just to ‘be.’  Perhaps silence is, for us, a glimpse of what death is all about.  Death is our enemy, we seem to believe.  Perhaps if we are noisy enough death will not open the door to the coach and invite us in; some perhaps!

Silence is an antidote to language; words cannot capture nor describe the mystery, the transcendent, the wonder, the awe, the magical.  Silence  provides us the space for these to enter into us, to surround us, to nurture us.  Silence, indeed, is golden.

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When I was six years old I had a hernia operation; I vaguely recall being told that I had tried to lift something that was too heavy for me to lift; or it could have been that I lifted it in the wrong way.  Consider that sometimes the big questions that we try to hold alone, or even ‘lift’ alone will cause us an emotional or spiritual hernia.  We might try to bench-press questions that truly weigh us down; people who bench press ‘free weights’ usually have someone who stands over them to protect them from the weights falling on them – I like the image.

We are a culture that seeks, or is it ‘demands,’ that each question have an answer and that each question, indeed, has an answer.  We forget, perhaps we haven’t realized, that answers can easily devolve into ‘dogmas’ and that dogmas lead to the degeneration of the search.  Questions, the burning questions I wrote about yesterday, are rooted in doubt not in surety; in this sense they are like ‘faith’ which is also rooted in doubt, not surety.

Burning questions, for the most part, don’t have answers at best they lead us to ‘hints’ of possibilities; these hints might come to us in images or whispers or other questions.  In my experience, burning questions generate multiple possibilities.  Some burning questions can be reframed and hence can open pathways of response that we might not be aware of.  For example, a powerful burning question is ‘Who am I?’ might be reframed as: In how many ways can I be myself today?  If I am true to myself today, how will I behave?  Instead of asking, ‘Where do I belong?’ I might ask, What can I do today that reflects my sense of belonging?  How can I act today so that others have a sense that they belong? 

 We are a culture that loves answers; we, at our best, seem to tolerate questions.  We will accept, it seems any type of answer rather than ‘no answer’ (politicians know this and feed us simple answers to complex questions seldom do they even share the question).  We are not a patient people when it comes to wanting answers.  Thirty years ago I guided a number of student sessions at a university.  Each session was supposed to have an equal number of men and women.  These were day-long sessions and one exercise I invited them into was as follows: For one hour, the men could only ask questions and the women could only make statements.  At the end of the hour many of the men were exhausted and many of the women were energized.  Could it be that it takes much more energy to frame questions than it does to give directives?  Could it be that ‘those in charge’ would rather be directive than inquisitive because being inquisitive requires more energy?

Framing certain kinds of questions can be exhausting – and at times dangerous (in some quarters they can be fatal – physically, intellectually, emotionally, and/or spiritually).  Once one begins to seriously frame questions that are burning questions one can find that all topics are in play and that is not only dangerous to our assumptions, beliefs, prejudices, principles, values, etc it is also ‘scary’ for we might have to shift, change or, YIKES, even transform.  The most powerful questions can make the bravest of us ask for a night-light to help us live into the darkness that some questions lead us into.

One hindrance to our asking these types of questions is also rooted in our culture – the fear we have of asking ‘stupid questions’ or the fear that we will be shamed by others for asking such a question because we ‘should know the answer to that;’ I experienced this recently in my own life. I had done something to offend a person I considered to be my friend.  He demonstrated that he was angry by a variety of behaviors; finally, I asked him if I had offended him.  He exploded, if he had been a bomb I would have been decimated.  He ranted and raved but never ‘named’ my behavior.  I said that I was not aware of what I had done – ‘What did I do?’ I asked.  He replied, with good vigor, that I did know and that my question was stupid AND if I didn’t know I should have known and he concluded with ‘If you don’t know, I am not going to tell you!’  Silence quickly engulfed us.  Our questions are not always welcomed.

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I love to play golf.  Yesterday was a beautiful day here in Central Indiana and I took the opportunity to enjoy myself on the links.  I was teamed up with Jack, a fine fellow from Oklahoma.  Jack owns his own company and as we shared stories he told me that although his company is quite successful except for the first 18 months of its existence he has not been ‘happy’ at work.  Later on as I was reflecting on his story I began to wonder what ‘burning questions’ might serve Jack.  Since I am searching, seeking and musing about this today I thought I might as well write a few words about what is emerging for me.

Many of us are familiar with the ‘search for the Holy Grail’ story.  What we are not as familiar with is the knight who was called to this search – Parsifal.  One of the challenges he faced along his search was the challenge of asking ‘the right question.’  Not any question, but the ‘right question,’ the ‘burning question,’ if you will.  He did not have to find the answer, he just had to ask the question; he had to ‘hold the question’ or as the poet Rilke offered us, ‘he had to live the question itself.’  Oh, the question: Whom does the Grail serve?

My current belief is that life stories, like all good stories, have at their core a central question and if we can discern the question and begin to understand its meaning in our lives – like Parsifal we don’t have to find the answer – our lives, our life-stories, will be enhanced.  The English poet Abraham Cowley reminds us that ‘curiosity, no less than devotion, makes pilgrims.’  Part of being fully human is to be a bearer of questions – questions from a deep place of not knowing; questions that are essential to our life.  Emerging, or is it discerning, and then framing these questions is integral to our journey and story.

What question is at the heart and soul of our pilgrimage, our life?  What question were we put here to understand and then to live?  This is a burning question that arises from a crying need (sometimes a literal crying need) – an existential thirst.  We may, for example, have questions about a call we seek: What is my purpose?  To whom do I belong?  What can I deeply believe in?  Who are my teachers?  What is the name of the ‘ghost’ that haunts me into awareness?  How can I use my talents?  How can I serve the world? 

We might have questions about ‘calls’ we’ve received: How do I learn to forgive?  How do I learn to love?  How do I co-create community with you?  How can healing and laughter be combined?  How can conservatives and progressives work together for the common good?  How can I raise my children so they are more compassionate? 

How would our lives be different if we were motivated, if not propelled, by the question: How can I serve others so as a result they grow as persons? 

I cherish Annie Dillard’s writings and she once wrote that the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.  Part of this ‘depending’ rests with the questions we ask.  Each morning, during my period of meditation, I ask: How can I love today?  Depending upon which word I emphasize on a given day the question takes on different meanings for me: HOW, CAN, I, LOVE, TODAY.  Today the emphasis was on can – as in ‘Can I love, today?’  How about you, gentle reader, what one burning question might you hold for today?

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NOTE: See my posting from 18 October, 2012 for my initial positing.

During these past months as we move closer to our national election in November I have been reflecting upon the increased incivility that permeates our election process (which does not stop after the election).  At its worst, incivility morphs to dehumanizing the ‘other’ and then to ‘demonizing’ the other; it reveals the evil that resides within the American ethos.  A historical sketch of the development of a sense of national community in the United States can provide us with a helpful background for understanding.

Our nation began with the covenant communities of the early settlers, of which the Plymouth Colony and its Mayflower Compact have become an archetype but of which the much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony was a more powerful example.  From the beginning key segments of our society were rooted in the voluntary compact of equals and were governed democratically; not a bad beginning.  Ah, hold on a minute.  It is crucial to note and remember what kind of democratic voluntary society this was.  In early Massachusetts church membership was a prerequisite for voting.  This was a ‘community of saints,’ a gathering of the elect.  And there was a sharp dichotomy not only between the ‘elect’ who had come to the New World and those sunk in sin and left behind, but also between the elect and the reprobates in the New World.  The reprobates, those not morally upright or religiously orthodox (doesn’t this all seem too familiar today in 2012?), were excluded from full membership in the community and were forcibly controlled and repressed by the ‘elect’ (a position, it seems, that some in our democracy want us to return to).  There was indeed a close relation between the inner repression of the Puritan Protestant character, which guaranteed the responsible behavior of the elect (elect = the full members of the community), and the outer repression of the nonconformists who did not behave as the community wished or expected.  From the beginning this relation between a democratic social order and personal and social repression resulted in a peculiarly sharp distinction between the saved and the ‘damned,’ both religiously and socially.  The result was not freedom, but license to guilt-free marginalize, punish and ‘kill’ the ‘damned.’

It is worth, it seems to me anyway, contrasting this social order with that of hierarchical societies which remained Roman Catholic.  From one view such societies remained authoritarian, nondemocratic, and non-voluntary.  Each person had his/her place in an infinite series of levels both in the church and in civil society.  No one was free, though all had some degrees of freedom, but no one was excluded either.  Indeed the Roman Catholics kept a sense of total community which the Protestants had shattered.  It remained a living ideal which Protestants sought to replicate and yet was unattainable because the Protestant notions of individual saintliness and the rule of the elect provided them no basis for a genuinely inclusive community (Political and Religious conservatives today still struggle with the idea of an ALL inclusive community for inclusiveness means that disparate voices will demand to be heard and honored and included as ‘equals’).  [To be continued]

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