Children as Practice

Maybe nothing in life is more painful or rewarding than raising children.

As a parent, I wanted to teach my children all the things I had learned from life.  Instead, my children taught me all the things I had yet to learn about it.

I acted as if my children were lumps of clay I could fashion into my own idea of beauty, of character, and of excellence.  They acted as if I knew nothing of beauty, of character, or of excellence.  They seemed to think my ignorance was only exceeded by my arrogance.

Nothing has humbled me more than being a parent.  Nothing has taught me patience like being a parent.

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned from being a parent is when to bite my tongue, which is often.  When it comes to words, less is more.  There is no quicksand like that created by an exchange of angry words.  What started out as a misdemeanor is quickly turned into a felony; what was at first a consequence is shortly made into a bombing run; what was a life lesson becomes a lifelong scar.

The other important lesson I’ve learned is to accept who my children are, and not try to turn them into who I think they ought to be.  This is a hard lesson, one I am constantly in the process of learning.

Sometimes it is hard to separate “the good,” “the beautiful,” and “the true” from our opinion of what those are vis-a-vis our children.  The best I have been able to do is to model what I believe the “three verities” are, and to discuss them with our children when I have the chance.

Our children are a constant source of feedback to us, as we are to them.  If we keep that channel of communication open, we can all grow as individuals, and grow as a family.  But if that channel is closed, we lose the feedback, lose the connection, lose eventually our sense of family altogether.

Interplay Between Domains of Practice

The different domains of practice inform and strengthen one another.  My spiritual practice involves my mind, my mind is invigorated by the practice of my body, my body is relaxed by the stilling of my emotions, etc.

The book Spark discusses the connection between aerobic exercise and cognition.  In nearly all of his books, Mortimer Adler explores the relation between a liberal education and “the good life.”  Plato thought mathematics so important that he inscribed above the door to his Academy the words, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.”

Life is a systemic network of connections between disparate entities, even in our own quintessence.  We function best as chorus singing in harmony, whether as facets of the self, or as facets of the community.

When one part grows out of control, or out of balance, a cancer develops.  Unregulated growth is almost the very definition of cancer.

Oftentimes we want to group like with like.  We may seek out those who share our interests, our beliefs, our culture, etc.  I have talked at some length about doing that very thing in this blog.

However we need the balance of opposites to keep our lives in proportion, to give perspective to our world view, to bring our melody into harmony with the world around us.

Wisdom is a melting pot of praxis, of faith, of art.  It is seeing, listening, and feeling at multiple levels, with multiple modalities.  It invites challenge, invites discussion, and allows for disagreement.

Seek out a variety of voices to sing in your group.

Circling Domains of Wisdom

Have you ever wondered where wisdom is found?

Where are you and your group of seekers going to look for wisdom?

I’ve come to believe wisdom dwells nearly everywhere and nowhere; kind of like the idea of quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

There’s a scene in The Last Samurai where Tom Cruise describes with awe these Japanese people who have turned nearly every aspect of life into an art form; whether it’s arranging flowers, drinking tea, writing, fighting, or planting, everything is done with discipline and an eye toward beauty and simplicity.

I want my life to be like that.

I tend to think of my own life in terms of domains: spirit, mind, body, and emotion; social, vocational, financial, and household.  I have “practices” I associate with each.  I would like to discuss each of these in the context of a “practice group.”  But how?

Consider for a moment the scope of these domains:

  • Spirit: scripture, prayer, service, worship, vision, planning
  • Mind: reading, writing, art, math, and science
  • Body: athletics, fine arts, martial arts, yoga
  • Emotion: meditation, aerobics, therapy
  • Social: family, friends, acquaintances, and affiliations
  • Vocational: formal education, certifications, continuing education
  • Financial: budgeting, financial statements, investing
  • Household: meals, organizing, cleaning, and maintaining the home

The point is, I think wisdom is present in each of these, but perhaps isn’t necessarily predicated of any one of them.  Do you discuss all of these under the auspices of one group, or many?

The idea of having one group address all these ideas appeals to me, because I think one circle informs all the others.  Franklin’s Junto addressed many of these, and was very active in the community.  The goal is for the group to act on these conversations.

Why is it Important for you to be here Today?

OK, so we are a group of seekers who have come together whose intention is to practice wisdom.  We are familiar with talk dancing, and the marginal cost of bandwidth on our conversation.

Now what?

I believe the title of this post is one of Peter Block’s six questions or conversations he developed in “A Small Group.”  I am familiar with Peter and “A Small Group” only by second hand.  But I read a post that refers to this question, “Why is it important for you to be here today?” and its follow-up, “What cross-roads are you at?”

I’ve grown tired of lectures from experts on how to live.  But I am energized by self-revealing conversations with other people who talk about their passions and struggles.  I want to learn from their practice.  I want to be inspired by their persistence.  I want to discover what keeps them on the path, with the hope that together we can all stay on the path.

I want to learn from other learners how they push through to the other side of transformation and transcendence.

Maybe these questions can get us started on the path together.  We learn to listen to each other’s story, about what matters to each person, and the decisions they face.

I say path, but there could be many.  Yet they will have threads in common; seen in different perspectives, maybe painted in different colors.  But wisdom is justified of all her children (Lu 7.35).

Building the First Circle of Wisdom

I take as my model for a “community of wisdom” Benjamin Franklin’s “Junto”, a club of about 12 men who got together weekly for their mutual improvement.  They would take turn about in leading a discussion on morals, politics, or science, and committed to produce and read to the group an essay of his own writing once every three months.

Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

The first step is drawing up a list of likely candidates to form such a group.  Alternatively, you might use a resource such as meetup.com to find a group of individuals so inclined.  Or you might resort to joining a formally organized group such as Rotary or Toastmasters.

Franklin also drew up a list of questions (see questions under the link above) that I believe are indicative of what is a matter of concern to an “elder” or “wise one.”

In order for the group to be well run, for its members all to take part in the discussion, and for the group to eventually become viral, I believe the first meetings should address the ideas of channels of communication, of talk dancing, hand signals, and self-organization and self-replication of groups.

Why viral you may ask?  The group should have the goal of going viral so that the wisdom of the group can be shared with the world.  As the group grows and divides the elders become mentors to others seeking meaning and significance in their life.  This later became a goal of Franklin’s group as well, which eventually evolved into the American Philosophical Society.

Building a Community of Wisdom

What are we working for?  What is the end of practice?

Some writers, like Buford or Rohr for instance, talk about two halves of life: the first half that seeks success, and the second half that seeks meaning or significance.

I was in middle school when Kung Fu came out.  The fighting got my attention, but it was the mastery and wisdom of the old men that filled my heart with longing.

It is mastery and wisdom I seek now.  I want to seek it in community with other seekers, not alone; much like the monastery in Kung Fu, only one that is in the world and not shut off from it.

Is there a community of “wise ones,” where one can go to be trained in the ways of mastery and wisdom?  Why am I even putting these two words “mastery” and “wisdom” together?

I suspect that the two somehow go together.  That wisdom somehow grows out of the discipline and focus required to pass the trials inevitably required for one to become a master of anything sufficiently difficult.

Does that mean that our community of wise ones should consist of practitioners of the same art?  It could, but I think it could also consist of masters of different arts; that one art could inform another of its own particular species of wisdom; or even masters of science with masters of religion, with masters of the arts.

What if you don’t know any masters to hang out with?  Is it enough to hang out with seekers of wisdom, or seekers of mastery?  How do we build a community of elders, of wisdom?

Could we build such a community ourselves?

Marriage as Practice

Marriage may be the most rewarding and most difficult relationship a person can experience.  This makes it an ideal place for transformational practice.

What makes marriage so unique is the nature of the commitment.  We go into marriage with the expectation that it is for life.  You might argue that is no longer true.  But it is true that most people believe they are making a “long term” commitment, at least on the order of buying a house.

Most of us go into marriage expecting to create a family.  We want to leave a legacy of ourselves to the world in the way of children, either by blood or by adoption.  And by so doing, we take on the mantle of responsibility for those lives.  We make an implicit covenant to love them, provide for them, socialize them, and raise them to be independent, productive adults.

My dad says you’re never done being a parent.

Marriage is an everyday practice.  Even when our spouse is away, the commitment is present with us.  Will we reach out and touch them?  Will we think kindly or critically of them?  Will we bless as they come through the door from work, or greet them with our own anger and frustration?  Will we bring our work home, or give our family our full attention?

But I think the hardest and most rewarding part of the marriage practice is vulnerability.  We’ve got so much riding on this one commitment.  What happens if I lose face?  What happens if I humiliate myself right there in front of my partner?

What’s the alternative?  What if you don’t talk about the one thing you think you need but aren’t getting?  What if you don’t help your spouse get that one thing she needs?  What if you express yourself in a way that is emotionally upsetting to your partner?

We have to find a way to talk with, and reveal ourselves each other.  We have to find a way to compromise, so that each person gets some of what they need and want.  This isn’t easy.  But so much is riding on it.  It takes practice.  It takes forgiveness, because inevitably you’re going to hurt each other.

But the reward is the web of connectedness, goodwill, and love that come from a successful marriage.