Archive for March, 2013

My son is an artist and I awoke yesterday thinking about him and about art.  The arts are activities that require specific knowledge and skill.  Some require what we call ‘common sense’ knowledge; others such as the art of engineering or medicine require an extensive body of theoretical knowledge.  If I want to build a tall building I must build it according to certain principles of physics.  It seems to me in ‘all arts’ a system of objectively valid norms is required.  While there may be different ways of achieving excellent results in any art, norms are by no means arbitrary; their violation is penalized by poor results or even by complete failure to accomplish the desired end.

But not only medicine, engineering, and ceramics are arts; living itself is an art.  It seems to me that this art is the most important and the most difficult and complex art to be practiced by we humans.  There is an ‘object’ to all art and in living, the object is to develop, via a process, into that which one is potentially.  The art of living is a paradox.   We are both the artist and the object of our art; we are the sculptor and the marble; we are the clay and the pot; we are the physician and the patient; we are the gardener and the garden.

One way of looking at living as an art is to view it through the lens of humanistic ethics.  Humanistic ethics, for which ‘good’ is synonymous with ‘good for man’ and ‘bad’ with ‘bad for man,’ proposes that in order to know what is good for man we have to know his nature.  In the art of living, as in the other arts, the excellence of one’s achievement is related to the knowledge one has of the ‘science of man’ and to one’s skill and practice.  Activities are chosen in relation to aims desired.  For example in medical science it is desirable to cure and heal.  The activities of the doctor are (should be?) directly connected with the desired outcome.  The desired outcome for man is life.  The drive to life is inherent in every organism, and so man cannot help wanting to live regardless of what he would want to think about it.  Consider that the choice between life and death is more apparent than real.  When it comes to the art of living the real choice is that between living a ‘good’ life and living a ‘bad’ life.

Why have we lost this concept of life is an art?  We seem to believe that reading and writing are arts to be learned; that to become a ceramicist, or a physician or a skilled wood worker requires considerable study and practice, but that living is something so simple that no particular effort is required; we can all do it.  In fact, we see ourselves as experts.  Even with the emphasis we put on happiness and individuality (especially in our culture), and self-interest we continue to learn that the aim (the desired outcome) of life is not ‘happiness’ (or ‘salvation’) but is success, money, prestige, power.  It seems that everything has become important to us except our life and the art of living.  As Eric Fromm notes, man is for everything except himself.

All organisms have an inherent tendency to actualize their specific potentialities.  While I share the core of human qualities with all other humans, I am also an individual; I am a unique being.  I affirm my ‘human potential’ by realizing my individuality.  I have an obligation to live and I have an obligation to become the person I am meant to be.  The question is: How will I prepare myself to be the artist of my own life?  And once I am prepared: How will I use my knowledge and skill so that I can become my potential? 

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Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (referred to as “the wise”) was Emperor of the Roman Empire from 161 to his death in 180. He was the last of the “Five Good Emperors”, and is also one of the more important Stoic philosophers. His two decades as emperor were marked by near continual warfare. Marcus Aurelius’ great work called Meditations, was written by Marcus in Greek, not Latin.  He wrote this journal while on campaign between 170 and 180. Marcus wrote to himself; his goal was to reflect and remind himself of his own life-challenges as a Stoic; it appears as if he did not intend his journal to be read by others.  It continues to be revered as a literary monument and has been read and savored by hundreds of thousands of people.  Marcus’ Meditations provide us a deep insight into both a human being who was striving to live a certain way (the Stoic way) and into an Emperor who at that time was the most powerful man in the Roman world. Today I quote again from Book 8.  Marcus writes:


Do not be sloppy in your actions; in conversation, do not be dragged into confusion; and do not allow your thoughts to wander aimlessly.  Do not allow your soul either to contract or inflate; and in your external life, do not be overly busy.  “But they kill us, hack us to pieces, and pursue us with curses.”  What does any of this have to do with keeping your thought pure, composed, restrained, and just?  It is as if someone standing by a fountain of pure sweet water were to yell curses at it, yet the fountain never stops bubbling with fresh water. . . How, then, can you have such a fountain within yourself?  By guarding your freedom each and every hour with kindness, simplicity, and self-respect.


Do you desire to be praised by a man who curses himself three times every hour?  Do you desire to gain the approval of people who do not even approve of themselves?


The sun seems to pour itself down, and pours itself in every direction, but it is not emptied.  For this pouring is an extension, and its rays are so named because of their extension.  You can observe this if you watch sunlight shinning through some narrow crack in a dark room.  It extends itself in a straight line until it encounters some solid body which stops its extension.  There the light rests, and it does not move or fall off.

   This is how the pouring and diffusion of the mind must be, for it is not a pouring ‘out,’ but rather an extension of itself; and it should not make a violent or angry impact upon whatever stands in its way; nor should it simply fall away, but rather it should stand firm and illuminate whatever receives it.  Whatever does not accept it and help it on its way only deprives itself of the light.


Humans have come into being for the sake of each other; so teach them or learn to bear them. 

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This morning I was waiting in line at my favorite coffee shop.  There was a woman who was standing in front of me, next to be served.  When she stepped forward she asked for tea.  The server asked if she wanted chai tea.  The woman laughed.  She said, In my country, India, the word for tea is ‘chai.’  So to her, the server was asking her is she wanted ‘tea tea.’  We all laughed and began to make up different combinations of ‘tea tea’ or ‘chai chai’ or ‘tea chai.’  As I settled in my usual spot the following story came to me.

Many centuries ago, tea was not known outside of China.  Stories of a ‘celestial drink’ called ‘tea’ were carried about however.  Both the wise and unwise of other countries tried to find out what this drink was and did so in accordance with what each wanted or what each thought it should be.

The King of ‘Here’ sent a person to China and he was given tea by the Chinese Emperor.  On his way out of the city he noticed that everyone was drinking this same tea; he concluded that this was not the celestial drink spoken about but it was a ruse by the Emperor and so he did not take the tea back to his king.  Later on a great philosopher from the Land of ‘There’ collected all of the information he could about tea and concluded that it was a rare substance and its true essence could not be known.  Why?  Because his information told him that this ‘tea’ was a ‘herb,’ was a water, was green, was black, was bitter, was sweet.  The wise philosopher decreed that tea was a ‘mystery’ not to be known by man.

In the Land of Sectarianism a small bag of tea had been found in a cave.  It was carried throughout the land and people stopped and said prayers as it was carried past them.  Many religious observances appeared throughout the land as a result.  All were convinced that the tea had magical powers and prayer would unleash them.  One day a stranger from the East came into the land; it was the day of the great tea procession.  When he saw the tea bag he said My friends, pour boiling water over the bag and you will be able to drink of the tea.  If you like the taste I can bring you enough tea bags for all.  Now this was good news to some and was quite disturbing to the clergy and those who made money from the procession.  So they labeled the man as a heretic and killed him; he was an enemy of their religion and a threat to their surety.  Before the man was killed he told his secret to a few and told them where they could obtain tea bags.  A cult grew up; it became the Secret Society of Teaers.  When they were confronted by the religious police they simply stated that they were taking a certain medicine and were thus left alone.

Then one year there came a Person of Knowledge.  He spent years traveling the caravan routes and he would tell the caravan merchants, who knew about tea already, to not speak about it but to simply prepare it and serve it at night when the caravans would stop and rest.  Soon teashops opened all along the many routes and tea leaves were brought to India where they were planted and where tea became, as in China, a national drink.

Today, tea is common in many cultures and the roles have been reversed.  When the truth was known, and when tea was brought for all who would taste, a role reversal occurred.  The only people who spoke as the people from ‘Here’ and ‘There’ as well as the ‘Sectarianists’ were considered to be fools.  And so it is today.  What is the ‘tea,’ that is, the knowledge, that is available to us today that we refuse to seek, embrace and learn; the knowledge that can be common as tea; the knowledge that would enable each of us to be a Person of Knowledge? 

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Fear!  I’m not thinking about a response to immediate threat or danger; that’s a survival instinctual response; that response is built into our hard wiring as human beings.  Many other animals also have this.  Psychologists call it the flight-fight response (I add the deer-like response of ‘freeze’).  I’m talking about the fear of what’s going to come, the fear of what’s going to happen (actually this is really anxiety but in our culture we have substituted the word ‘fear’ for anxiety).  The mystics tell us that this feeling doesn’t exist in their minds; they are not fear-full nor are they anxious-full.  I often think, ‘what a great state to be in’ how extra-ordinary.

I am reminded of a story.  Once there was a camel trader who was taking his camels across the Sahara Desert.  As they settle in the first night the party pitches its tents and some men begin to tend to the camels.  Each camel is tethered to a peg that is driven into the ground.  A man appears before the camel trader and informs him that they have twenty camels but only nineteen pegs; one peg was lost during the day’s travel. They were fearful that the camel would wander off during the night and then that the camel trader would be angry with them for he would have one less camel to trade. The camel trader paused and then said, ‘These camels are not smart, just go through the motions and the camel will think it is being tethered and it will remain where it is all night long.’   The men did so and so did the camel. When they awoke in the morning the camel was where he had been ‘tethered.’  Their fear and anxiety was abated.  After having breakfast the caravan set off again.  A few minutes into the trip a rider approached the camel trader; he was again, agitated and anxious/fearful.  He said that he just noticed that only nineteen camels were in line.  The camel trader paused and said, ‘Go back to where we were this morning and you will find the camel.  Go through the motions of untying the camel and he will follow you.’  They did and so did the camel.

This story reminds me of our human condition.  We are fear-full of things that do not exist and we are also controlled by things that we believe exist, just as the non-tethered camel was.  We are tied to things that don’t exist.  We are tied to illusions.  We are tied to falsehoods.  We are tied to prejudices.  We are tied to deep assumptions. We are tied to stereotypes.  We are tied to certain beliefs.  All of these are illusions.  Because we are tied to these we are easily seduced into being fear-full and anxious-full.  We are both afraid of losing these (or letting go of them) and we are afraid because we know that they don’t bring us comfort or ‘happiness’ or contentment.

The mystics have shown us a path (perhaps one of a number of paths); their path is a path of non-attachment and a path of letting go of. . . I am now recalling another story.  A man comes to the Master and says I am seeking ‘freedom..’  The Master remains quiet and smiles that certain smile (why are these folks always smiling) and says: ‘If you seek freedom then seek first who binds you.’  The man goes on a search.  Today, I am asking myself, Richard, what are you searching for?  Richard, why do you continue to hold onto all that binds you?  Richard, how are you like the untethered camel?

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Since 1964 I have been intrigued by what is known as the Iroquois Confederacy.  In the cosmology of the Iroquois, sickness is seen as the soul’s way of indicating that something is missing in one’s life.  A body in pain is a soul in longing.  I love this idea.

To the degree that a body in pain is a soul in longing, consider the following example; I experienced this in 1996 during my third trip to The Netherlands.  I was guiding a four day session for senior level managers and executives.  As we were settling in for day four my host, Tjeb, told me that after we finished that day he and I were going to meet with four men who owned third generation family businesses.  I asked Tjeb about the purpose of the meeting; he responded, as he was wont to do with, ‘We’ll see what unfolds.’  The six of us met later that afternoon and we began talking; ‘getting to know you’ was the theme.  As each man told his story it became clear that each had accepted their role in the family business out of loyalty to the family; out of duty.  Each also manifested chronic physical issues.  One of them informed us that he had chronic lower-back pain and it started within a month of his taking over the family business.  After the third person finished his story the first man interrupted and said ‘I hate where I am sitting.’  And he began to cry; this was no small thing for a male in Holland, especially a male of his stature.  After some time of crying (we were all crying with him for his pain unleashed pain that we each were carrying) he began to compose himself.  He said that he had always wanted to be a chef.  His father and his grandfather made it clear that he was to carry on in the family business however.  Tjeb informed me a few months later that this man had resigned and had gone to Cooking School and that within a week of entering the cooking school his lower-back pain vanished.  As it turned out, each of the other three men believed that they were called to something else in their lives and that they had sacrificed themselves for the family business.  Tjeb informed me that another of these men had also resigned and went off to do what he truly loved and that his health, too, had dramatically improved.

Dr. Benie Siegel provides us with a number of examples, here are two of them:  An adoptee had been searching for his mother for years and was suddenly stricken with an inability to blink.  After some deep searching he reported to the doctor that ‘If I blink, I might miss my mother.’  Then there was the man who had a cancer in his backbone and he noted that he had always considered himself to be ‘spineless.’  Dr. Siegel insists that our bodies know what we are to become.  We can trust our bodies he says to bring us into alignment and we can trust the soul to speak through the body.  The body is a channel to the soul – I like this idea too.  One of the ancients, Paracelsus, put it this way: The body’s sufferings are the midwife of very great things.  Decay is the beginning of all birth, the beginning of the Great Work, that of spiritual transformation.’ 

Recently my soul has been calling me through my body; specifically through my face.  I have yet to discern what my soul is longing for.  Perhaps this entry today will help me as I search for an insight if not an answer.

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