Begin the Adventure

An adventure takes us out of ourselves.  It removes us from who we thought we were, and places us in situations we didn’t expect to face; demands from us a strength we didn’t think we possessed; gives us wounds we didn’t expect to receive, or thought we could recover from.

An adventure changes us.

How does a person with a day to day job have an adventure?  We think of Jason and the Argonauts, or the Odyssey, not Bill at his 9 to 5 desk job.

To some extent, Harry Potter and his buds are in a situation like this.  They go to school every day.  They have homework.  They play sports.  Sure, they’re magical, but even the magic is routine in the sense that they have to learn and practice to be able to use it.

Harry had Voldemort and the Death Eaters to contend with.  But our lives aren’t without fears or monsters, or even forces seemingly out to destroy the world.  Our life is an adventure too, if we can only see it that way.

Our practice is preparation, an initiation to our own adventure.  To some extent our adventure chooses us, but we also choose it.  Each of us has that dragon in our minds that we need to face and subdue in order to move forward, to get past that gatekeeper and move on to the next level.

We each of us know what that obstacle is that is holding us back, that makes us afraid, or that keeps us from doing our work.  The adventure begins when we start to practice, when we learn discipline, and endure the pain of facing our fears.

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.

Pain and Practice

Industry need not wish, as Poor Richard says, and he that lives upon hope will die fasting.  There are no gains, without pains…(Benjamin Franklin)

Pain is an indicator.  It warns us of disease.  It tells us when we’re hurting ourselves or being damaged in some way.

It can also signal when our practice is leading to growth and when it is not.  Muscle growth results from microscopic muscle tears that cause pain, but also result in muscle tissue that is rebuilt with greater density.  We get stronger.

Deliberate practice focuses on those aspects of our work where we fall short, that we don’t do well, that are hard.  This in turn creates frustration, a kind of psychic pain, or anxiety that we won’t accomplish the goal our practice is meant to accomplish.

Mastery is learning to stay with the pain long enough to achieve breakthrough to the next level.  It’s learning to continually work the edge between growth and damage, between faith and discouragement, between where we are and where we want to be.

Working that edge is always hard, is always painful, because there is always a gap between where we are and where we are going.  And working the edge means working on that part we haven’t yet learned to do, lifting a weight we haven’t lifted; working till the pain is nearly unendurable, but not quite.

That is hard to do alone.  The experts nearly always have a mentor, a coach, someone to push and pull them along, to encourage them when they get discouraged, to build faith in them that they can accomplish their goal, to point out the best steps to take along the way.

But no one can do the work for us.  No one can take away the pain for us.  Pain is the price of breakthrough, of transformation.

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.