Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Hope Allowed

The season of Lent is traditionally, for many people, a season of quitting; of giving up something as a way of finding something else. My problem with Lent is that If there is anything that I am bad at (and I am bad at many things) right at the top of the list is probably the process of quitting. I am simply not a quitter. I don't give up. In poker, I never fold; in relationship, I keep pushing on through the place where things are obviously over; in business, I can't let go despite the fact that I am going broke, nothing is working, and all hope was lost long ago. After Katrina, in New Orleans there was a sign on the wall of one of the businesses that was struggling to come back to life. I found a picture of that sign while I was living in exile away from New Orleans and I adopted it's theme as my personal clarion call.

My friend Zach is constantly reminding me of the John Cleese line from the movie Clockwise, when he exclaims, "It's not the despair, Lord, I can stand the despair... It's the hope!" This really does tend to be my problem. Even when I know I need to quit, when I know I should quit, when I know it's really important to get moving and get going. I am still paralyzed by the hope that something will happen, something will change, something good will come out of the current catastrophic situation.

Last night, on my way home from San Francisco, after a wonderful day of doing not much of anything in particular with my daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, I listened to the Sondheim & Lapine show, Sunday In The Park With George for the first time in a very long time. At the heart of the musical stands the difficult problem of sticking with or leaving, hoping, or moving on; or perhaps, as it is explained in the penultimate number of the show, hoping and moving on at the same time.

I have always been plagued by George's frustration and struggle with coming up with a way of living and creating that is at the same time new and his own. One of the reasons this show so moved me 30 years ago, and continues to do so today, is that it reaches right down inside my soul and speaks directly to my biggest personal, life-long struggle, doing wonderful, original work, and living a life of heart and meaning and depth and soul.

I just don't know how to do both, but I want to so badly that there are times (like now) when I simply want to shriek in agony at the frustration of my ignorance and inability to figure out what to do and how to do it. Perhaps the best advice comes in Marie's comment at the beginning of this scene when she says, "You meant to tell me to be where I was, not some place in the past or the future. I worried too much about tomorrow. I thought the world could be perfect. I was wrong."

Right now, I am indeed seeking to be where I am, accepting the possibility of moving on despite an extreme lack of clarity, and hoping that in the process I can indeed discover what really is mine to be and do. I am also aware that this is really not enough. Life exists on a fulcrum between Be Here Now and Where Are You Going. Stay too long on one side or the other and all kinds of problems ensue. The true beauty of living can only be made manifest in that combination of elements that George recites at the beginning and end of the play, order, design, tension, balance, light... Harmony.

Somewhere between Never Give Up and Move On there's a place of Harmony and that is the place I'm hoping to find during this seasonal time of searching. It's a process of knowing when to stick and knowing when to quit. It's a place of living in the moment and dreaming of the future. It's a place of big dreams and daily realities.

As Bruce Cockburn sings... "It's hard to live."

For another take on all this, I've had Elton John and Leon Russel's song, Hey Ahab, on constant play in my head and on my iTunes for the past three months. Beyond the emotional connection that links both determination and wisdom with the real life struggles of Leon Russell in recent years, it really is just about the best rock and soul song to come down the pike in a very long time.

Deep in the belly of my own big fish these days, I keep looking for that sign that says "Hope Allowed!" I still want to hang onto that hope, but I also need to understand when it's time to "catch a ride outta here!" To move on to the next thing, while still honoring, and loving, and somehow being glad of what I have done and where I have been.

What do you think? Post a comment. Ask a question. Tell us something about you.

Monday, February 11, 2013

What does it mean to have MAIG?

This is a question that I have lived with personally, and nearly every day, for over thirty years. It was first posed to me in a counseling class in seminary, by a quiet scholarly professor with a big mind and an even bigger heart.

MAIG was the concept that Dr. J. Lyn Elder proposed to us at the heart of his personal “Elderology.” A set of concepts that he introduced in his Pastoral Care classes at Golden Gate Southern Baptist Seminary, but which had no resemblance to anything that looks or sounds like what people, at least today, understand Baptist theology to be about.

The initials stand for Maximum And Increasing Gratification and the question of what is MAIG in any given situation is the heart of a modified Utilitarianism that Dr. Elder proposed as the way to approach theology, counseling, ministry, and life.

After living with this material for thirty years, struggling to understand its fundamentals more deeply and seeking to apply the outward principles in my life, I decided that one of the best ways to explore the concepts personally, and to pass them on for the benefit (the Maximum and Increasing Gratification) of others was to struggle through the process of putting them down in print.

Seeking Pleasure Instead of Pain

Incalculable numbers of times, I have mentioned the central concept of this book to people only to receive a look of consternation and a shaking of the head. The inevitable reaction being one in which people cannot imagine setting a criteria for life development or personal improvement, or spirituality of any kind, with the central focus being personal, and collective, gratification.

I find this amusing on the one hand, and depressing on the other. We seem to have no problem basing religious belief on the idea of suffering and annihilation - suicide and/or mass homicide. We - almost universally - worship the war hero who can conceive of sacrificing his or her life for comrades, and violently fighting unknown, unspecified and often unproven enemies, but we have a much harder time honoring the peace warrior who seeks a common ground with “enemies” and opponents. The religious underpinings of personal sacrifice, self-mortification and guilt are well documented and widely accepted, but the idea that there could be a religious underpinning to support the pursuit of delight (both personal and collective) is a concept as foreign to most people as the possibility of breathing water.

In the wider culture as a whole, the idea of immediate gratification is not only accepted, but often widely and enthusiastically practiced. However asking the part of the question, what leads to truly increasing gratification - an actual life-affirming growth in pleasure and goodness - seems far from most people’s thoughts.

Religiously, we seem to be willing to accept sacrifice and pain (or the avoidance of pain) as perfectly reasonable motivators in the development of personal principles and behaviours, but to, instead, consider pleasure, delight, gratification, and ecstasy as equivalent or even superior motivators... that proposal often meets with deaf ears and stoney faces.

When it comes to how we feel about others the same issues apply. How many people are willing to judge others and condemn them to lives of meaningless frustration on earth and an eternity of suffering damnation in hell, rather than accept the fact that we - all of us creatures - are not only entitled to live healthy, happy, holy lives, but that all of us are better off the more of us are experiencing life’s delight? And that is the key to it all. As Republicans (and no doubt a few Democrats) are fond of saying,  “ a rising tide lifts all boats.” The underlying principle of all things MAIG is that each of us individually benefits when all of us are approaching a critical mass of happiness. At the same time, all of us as a collective (within a single group, community, nation, or world) do better when any one of us is reaching for their top potential.

And that is what MAIG is about. In every aspect of life, in all representations of connection; in every way that each of us lives, and moves and has our being, we are all the better for every way we build up our (and other’s) lives. We need to have the best we can get and we need to help that best get better.

That is my hope and prayer for this book, it’s insights and exercises. I believe that the five questions to be dealt with in the next few pages and 10,000 words will provide you with a basis for reflecting on a way of living that not only provides the opportunity for great meaning, but also great joy. Maximum and increasing gratification.

Good is not enough when you dream of being Great!


This is the introduction to a book I am working on (and a series I am developing). There's more to come as I approach the first release within the next couple of weeks. Your questions, comments, and critiques are very much welcome. Please post!

You can also find this post at my other blog, Coyote Dreaming

Friday, January 18, 2013

Like What I Think Matters...

For most of the last 9 years I've been wearing this yellow LIVESTRONG bracelet. I've taken it off from time to time, but it (or one of it's cousins) has been around my wrist since I bought my first one in the initial launch at the San Francisco Nike Store back somewhere around the Tour de France in 2004.

There were a couple of years where I wore a similar bracelet dedicated to the rebuilding of New Orleans, but I always return to the iconic yellow bracelet because it is filled with meaning for me, and most of that meaning has little to do with Lance Armstrong.

Instead, it has to do with the year I spent wishing, hoping, struggling with, injecting ugly substances into, cooking for, cleaning for, and praying for the recovery of my then partner from Stage 4 breast cancer (she's doing quite well by the way, 18 years on, but no longer is she doing well with me). Making it through cancer together never guaranteed that we'd make it through life together, and in fact, it's my feeling that the cancer, and the recovery, had as much to do with the end of our relationship as anything else. Even 7 years after that breakup, the bracelet reminds me of a time when I was strong, and good, and hopeful against very ugly experiences and very big odds. 

Wearing that bracelet has also had a lot to do with myself. The feeling that I had (and still have) when wearing that little piece of rubberized plastic is one that reminds me it is possible to do battle with the entropy of life in all its forms and come out somehow surviving it, and often doing better for it. I've worn the bracelet in 5K races and four and a half hour marathons, I've worn it in business meetings and presentations, and through long periods of hard writing that I thought was going to nail me before I nailed it.

It has inspired me both because of and in spite of the achievements, and failings, of the man whose life and work created it.

So what about Lance? 

As a long time believer and supporter (the only one I know these days), I've been asked by a lot of people to explain what I think. The problem is, I really haven't had a good idea about what I think. The simple fact is, I haven't really given Lance that much thought.

What I know is that what he did (failures and all) inspired me. I became a lover of cycling through watching him roll up those hills and speed through those time trials. The fact that I now know he was doing it juiced honestly doesn't take away the awe I felt, and feel, for those achievements. I still couldn't ride up Mont Ventoux no matter how many liters of my own blood I reprocessed, or how many vials of testosterone I absorbed. 

What I know is that those rides got my ass out on the road, and inspired me to make it through the most unpleasant struggle of running 26.2 miles of rugged road. It also inspired me to keep going through other hardships when what I most wanted to do was give up. I believe that inspired millions of cancer patients and survivors, for I have met some of them, and seen many pictures of others.

These effects don't justify what Lance Armstrong did to gain the reputation and status that allowed him to have that effect, but what he did in those races, practices, hotel rooms and clinics, doesn't diminish the positive results of what others received from those achievements. I was deeply inspired, over and over again, by Lance Armstrong, and that inspiration changed my life. Now that I know his reputation was built on an edifice of lies and some significantly despicable behavior, does it change the inspiration I received and that I used to better my life?

Absolutely not!

There are people in the world, and some of them are athletes, who are bigger than the reality of their own lives. Some of them, like Lance, know this and use it to pound other people into submission. Others are more humble and present and what they do, and how they do it, is more palatable to our more hopeful natures.

Many of our heroes and sheroes work hard and achieve great things despite their failings, or sometimes through their process of overcoming their failings. Some do beautiful things without revealing such boldfaced flaws. There really are as many ways of inspiring as there are people that inspire, and it is there where the real importance of accomplishment lives.

The fault, as Shakespeare wrote, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, and so is the goodness.  The real greatness of accomplishment comes through and with the people who are inspired by the great actions of others. The real effect of inspiration is in what such people and actions inspire us to accomplish. Those effects cannot be diminished because of the failings of the "hero."

The dishonesty, corruption and ugliness of the actions of Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones (another athlete who I found inspiring), Manny Ramirez,  Bill Clinton, or even Martin Luther King Jr. doesn't change the good things that came from the less than perfect lives they lived as less than perfect human beings. The real triumph of any life is found in the inspiration that life gives to others and that inspiration and its subsequent effect is not diminished by anything another person has done, or does. We are the keepers of our own inspiration and our lives become the legacy of the actions that inspire us.

Yeah, I am disappointed to find out that what I believed about Lance Armstrong (and his team members who I most admired, George Hincapie and Tyler Hamilton) turned out not to be true, but it ain't the first time I've had such disappointments and it certainly won't be the last. All of the commentators riffing on what a horrible disappointment it all is however, just don't do anything for me, because what I take away from it all has become mine. The reality of my life is different because of the inspiration of Lance, and many other very flawed people. I do not intend to allow that inspiration to be diminished because of the rabid obsession of the diminishment news cycle, because that doesn't hurt Lance, it hurts me.

Back to my bracelets... These days (and for the last year) I've been wearing a second bracelet next to my LIVESTRONG one. That bracelet, which I picked up last December at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. reads "WHAT YOU DO MATTERS." I bought it as I was leaving the museum because it spoke to me of the fact that even in the midst of the truly horrible events that can take place in the world, it is the actions of each individual person - great or humble, nearly perfect or desperately flawed - that make a difference in what happens to us all. 

My bracelet doesn't say WHAT LANCE DOES MATTERS... It's speaking to me, and it's reminding me several times every day that WHAT I DO MATTERS. Frankly, that's all I really care about. 

Monday, October 19, 2009

I'm Walkin Here!

I had a truly startling moment this afternoon. A strange audio synchronicity like I have not had in quite some time.

As I mentioned on one of my other blogs last week, the demise of my latest commercial endeavor in New Orleans has me finally falling back in to a deeper sense of home and a softer, gentler state of mind about being in California instead of New Orleans. This is a state of mind that began two years ago when I last left NOLA, but it's been a long, uncomfortable process... fighting a battle that I think my limey friend pegged in his comment on that blog the other day.

The simple fact is that I've been fighting a long hard emotional battle since I evacuated from New Orleans on August 28, 2005 and the most difficult part of it has been the emotional struggle of the last two years... not giving myself permission to settle into home and place and love, but instead continuing to struggle with soul and place, and probably even left over guilt about love.

Because of several other things racing through my mind these days, I wound up having an extended email conversation with an old friend who passed on a link to the City of Refuge church in San Francisco. There I fell upon a brilliant sermon by church pastor, Bishop Yvette Flunder. A sermon that feels like it was presented to be heard by me today, but which made it's way into the world several years ago.

You'll find the whole amazing sermon right here and for those of you who aren't used to this kind of preachin' you might have a bit of a time with it. But stay with it... It'll bless ya.

If you don't have the time (or the patience) to walk through this sermon, you can listen to this little short portion that I pulled out because I think it's important.

The long story - short on this, is that this sermon, which was posted to the website on the day after my birthday two years ago, right at the exact time when I began the part of the journey that I'm just now ending, feels like a strange flash forward from the outer edge of the spirit. It's as if the sermon was sent to me right at the time when I began to need it... but didn't get here until I could actually here what the preacher had to say.

To summarize the point... I seem to have come to a place where I am no longer flying... and where I don't have to keep running... I've come to a place where my war seems to have ended and I can actually rest in a settling and safety that I have not felt in a very long time.

As Ratso Rizzo says in Midnight Cowboy... I'm walkin' here!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Time and A Place

In the lectionary passage for last Sunday (the fifth Sunday of Lent for those following along in your hymnals), Jesus asks the question and then makes the statement, "And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour." (John 12:27)

This passage echoes my very favorite passage in all the Bible, Mordecai's appeal to Esther, "Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)

Most of the time it seems like there is no right time for anything. Most of the time it seems that something... anything... or at least almost anything... is better to do than the thing that we are typically engaged in doing. Why?

Because busy-ness works. Keeping busy is a way to keep the fears at bay. It may or may not be successful with the wolves that are at the door, but it damn sure does a good job with distracting one from the scratching and baying that is going on outside. You can pretend that you are working, pretend that you are effective, pretend that you know what you’re doing and that a better day is right around the next bend, whether it actually is, or not.

I’ve been very good at this over the last few weeks. I can post at facebook and tweet on twitter. I can send out emails, add contacts and content to my LinkedIn pages and read countless articles on how to be a better internet marketer, seo maven, wonderboy, guru or rock star. I can even send out new proposals, spec articles, resumes, and samples with the best of them. I can check the weather, the surf, the time, and the stock market with the press of the F12 button for my widgets.

All of the activity brings with it a certain feeling of accomplishment. I’m doing SOMETHING… even if that remains somewhat unfocused and totally undefined. I AM doing something.

Or am I?

Perhaps instead, the noisiness, chaos, and frenetic activity is actually a replacement for really doing something. Perhaps it is a way of avoiding doing the one thing that might actually make a difference in everything. Staying put… sitting still… Being There. How often is the philosophy of Do Anything actually a replacement for Do The Right Thing?

A few weeks ago, Twitter gained a sudden sweeping tsunami of publicity when it was revealed that a number of senators were Tweeting during President Obama’s congressional address. The incident gained a lot of buzz for Twitter, and perhaps even a good deal of buzz for those congress persons engaged in the activity, but was it really the best use of their congressional time? Was Tweeting, instead of listening to the new president, really the better option? Was somehow snarking one’s own agenda into the greater reality of our collective citizenship a valuable use of consciousness, time and bandwidth?

Last night, a good friend of mine attended the opening concert of the new Springsteen tour. He spent the entire concert texting the songs played and occasional notes on his reactions. This while spending the evening, next to his wife, in front of The Boss. Now, while I enjoyed getting the texts and having a bit of a vicarious experience of the show, I am hard pressed to believe that the busy-ness of texting was an improvement over the true experience of soaking in the words, music, sights, sounds, smells, and experience of the event.

I KNOW for a fact that the busy-ness of reading the text was not an adequate substitute for either being at the concert myself, or more fully being with the family and friends who were sharing my Twitter-space at the time.

My dad used to tell a joke about a family visiting the Grand Canyon. The car pulls up to the side, everyone piles out of the car and rushes to look at the magnificent colorful earthen gash in front of them. Dad runs around the car, over to the edge of the canyon, back and forth around the family, click click clicking away on his camera. A few moments later, he climbs back in the car, turns the key, hits the radio and revs the engine. When nobody gets the hint he jumps out and yells, “Come on!” One of the kids turns around and says, “Wait, we just got here and I haven’t really seen it yet!”

Dad shakes his head, motions for everyone to climb in and says, “Don’t worry about it! You can see it when you get home!”

I used to take a lot of photographs myself. I still take a fair number and I am regularly distressed when - on certain road trips in the wine country in particular - I forget my camera. However, I believe I was forever cured of my obsessive shutterbugging one time on a solo drive up Highway 1 through Big Sur when I kept stopping to shoot photos of the sun setting into the Pacific. Somewhere along about the actual town of Big Sur, right near Esalen (perhaps there was some sort of awakened power point nearby) it dawned on me that I was doing - even by myself - exactly what the dad in the joke was doing. I was living inside my camera; I was not experiencing the life around me. At the time I was even pretty good at fooling myself into thinking that I was experiencing the outer reality even more deeply by absorbing it through the lens, and mediating it with my artistic consciousness.

Hogwash! As they used to say.

I put my camera into the back seat. Parked the car and climbed out onto a rock to watch the sunset. I then kept that camera in the back seat of the car for the rest of the trip. It took years before I even began to pick it up again. For the most part, I didn’t miss it.

For me, this is the change of life that I am most seeking as this Lenten season comes to a close. In the frenzy of economic meltdown, job insecurity, confusion, frustration, and disorder I want to learn to ask the questions that address the place I might take at the table, the ways I might add to the conversation, the truly worthwhile actions I might engage in. Not just do some thing… Do the RIGHT thing.

What is it I am truly here for? What is my real task? Why have I been brought to the kingdom at such a time as this?

What about you? What is it that you will say now? “Father save me,” or “It is for this reason I have come.”

Don't just do something... Sit there.

Friday, December 12, 2008

"There is no easy way out of love..."

December 10, 2008, was the 40th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton. He died, on the same date as he entered the monastery at Gethsemani 27 years earlier. He died of electrical shock in a bathtub in Thailand, only a few hours after he had spoken to a conference of Benedictine and Cistercian Abbots in Bangkok. His last words at the conference are reputed to have been, "so I will disappear."

Thomas Merton's death was labeled an accident, though given the circumstances it could have been murder, or even suicide. To me there seems to be something a little odd about the symmetry of the end of his old life as he entered the monastery and the end of his life on earth sharing the same date, but that's something to consider some other time.

On the same day, at his home in Switzerland, theologian Karl Barth died. Merton had written about Barth some years earlier, and they both shared a commitment to extracting the heart of christian faith from the cultural prison in which it had been placed (a lesson a goodly number might consider learning once again), Barth going so far as to stand up directly to Hitler at the beginning of WWII. Both men were far more conservative in their various perspectives than I am comfortable with in my own life and in our present world, but they both struggled (in concert with so many others) to move humanity in the direction of deeper spirit, and heart, and love.

Just before his death, on a trip through Asia leading to the conference where he died, Merton met with the Dalai Lama as part of an ongoing search for commonality and comunication between kindred spirits on different sides of geographical and spiritual divides. It was just one part of an ongoing struggle for Merton that waxed and waned through his 27 years at Gethsemani, and certainly would have continued to who knows where had he lived.

In another interesting connection, December 10 is also the anniversary of the International Declaration of Human Rights, a document that was heavily influenced by Jacques Maritain (quoted in the previous post), a friend and mentor for Merton and a man of eloquent, spiritual humanism. Maritain's spirit resides behind the brilliance of that document and is echoed in writings from Merton like this one from his book, Faith and Violence. "I am on the side of the people who are being burned, cut to pieces, tortured, held as hostages, gassed, ruined, destroyed. They are the victims of both sides. To take sides with massive power is to take sides against the innocent. "

Merton's thoughts, his writings, and his life all depict a deep abiding struggle to fit the bigness of love into the framework of life.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Innumerable Universes Carried Within...

A daily reading from Thomas Merton this morning quotes Jaques Maritain on "the importance of a purely immanent activity," something taking place in the mind but without any necessary outward demonstration. Merton follows up the comment with the marvelous double negative, "the contemplative does not do nothing."

Many - and boy do I mean many - years ago I had a conversation with a dear friend of mine on a hot afternoon in a tiny radio station control room just outside of Phoenix Arizona. My friend was proclaiming the fact that contemplatives (monks in particular were the topic of this conversation) did work in the world by what they did behind the walls of the monastery. He insisted that their prayer, contemplation, and daily work were actively changing the reality of the world outside. Being the basic practical activist, misanthrope, and loud mouth, that I was (and pretty much still am) I insisted that this was crap.

So the long and the short of it is... I'm not feeling like that anymore.

These days, every day, every moment, that I spend on my cushion (and I've been doing it now for more or less 40 years) is a moment when I grasp a glimpse of that mysterious inner universe where all the world plays out, and changes (personal, communal, even universal) happen on a moment by moment basis. Despite my continued interest in, and work for, CHANGE in the "real world," I am presently convinced that the greater liklihood of real change will not come from an election on November 4, or a U.S. "regime change" on January 20, but will in fact only come as people come to terms with the change - the daily change - necessary inside themselves. Inside OUR selves. The fact is that it is the possibility of this inner change, and the call to make it happen, that is most compelling to me in the candidacy of Barack Obama. I do not see this man as the savior of America; I really do believe that "we are the ones we have been waiting for."

The Merton reflection continues with a further quote from Maritain, "The human being down here in the darkness of his[her] fleshly state is as mysterious as the saints in heaven in the light of their glory. There are in him[her] inexhaustible treasures, constellations without end of sweetness and beauty which ask to be recognized and which usually escape completely the futility of our regard. Love brings a remedy for that. One must vanquish this futility and undertake seriously to recognize the innumerable universes that one's fellow [companion] being carries within him [her] This is the business of contemplative love and the sweetness of its regard."

If we could, even just some of time, truly see this multitude of possibilities in each person, in all people, would it not COMPLETELY change who we are?