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.

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.

Visualizing an Excellent Life

Can meditation speed me on my way to an excellent life?

Two friends and I spent several weeks reading and discussing Mastery of the Mind East and West a few years ago.  In it Dan Brown contrasts peak performance with a continuous way of being in the world.

He identifies seven factors of enlightenment from the Buddhist literature: mindfulness, intelligence, balanced energy, light-heartedness, sustained concentration, calmness of mind, and equanimity (non-reactivity).  These were considered prerequisite to making progress in meditation.

When one of these factors is absent, he says the Buddhists visualize a deity or Buddha embodying the virtues the practitioner wants to possess.  The examples he gives here weren’t very clear to me, so I looked for others on the web, and found some on this website.

Now regardless of your religious predilections, it’s hard to argue with the intended outcome: radiating wisdom and compassion in all directions, transforming all sentient beings into enlightened ones, all environments into pure lands.

In other words envision your ideal self, blessing those around you, even nature itself.

Perhaps you’re uncomfortable with the particulars of the visualizations given.  Alter them enough to fit your own faith.

Sometimes I think we are all pursued by the same god, but we don’t see god the same way, or hear god the same way, or feel god the same way.

We don’t see paintings the same way, or hear a poem the same way, or feel music the same way, even when we speak the same language or live in the same culture.

We get so caught up in right and wrong that we don’t listen to one another, or learn from one another.

I suspect the Buddhists have something powerful to teach me here.  I haven’t put this practice to the test, but I’m going to.

An Ordinary, Flourishing Life

I think of my life in terms of these domains: spirit, mind, body, emotion, family, community, vocation, finances, and household.  A flourishing life exhibits health and vitality in each of these domains.

If we suffer a collapse in one of these domains, it becomes difficult to flourish.  If two or more collapse, we are well on our way to a train wreck.

I keep a practice for each of these domains by which I can improve or maintain the well being of each.  It is particularly important for householders to keep their balance, and especially difficult as well.  The life of a householder is full of obligations, commitments, and stress.

If we are determined to become “the best” in a particular domain, that translates into at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, or three hours a day for ten years, while still maintaining enough gas in the tank to keep the other domains in a state of health.  That is no mean feat, especially if you’re a householder.

What happens to someone like me if he lets go of excellence, and chooses instead to flourish? 

His practices teach him what’s important, teach him discipline, and give him a sense of accomplishment.  His practices lead to emotional and behavioral stability.  He is a blessing to his family, and blessed by them in turn.  He practices vulnerability, reaches out to others, and serves his community.  He becomes skilled at his vocation, financially secure, and lives in a clean and organized home.

He is an ordinary person, flourishing in an ordinary life.

Judgment Day

We debrief extensively. We go through every single flight, every turn. What did you do here? What cues were you using, how did you do that, how did you make the airplane do that? And we try to learn from each experience. The reason we all do that in peace time is so that we know we’re as competent as anybody can be so that if we have to go fight with those things, we’re better than anybody else. (Elite Fighter Pilot)

How do we get feedback on our performance, and how do we make that feedback actionable?  Patting ourselves or someone else on the back and saying, “Good job!”, when we both know it wasn’t doesn’t do anyone any good.

We need to be weighed in the balance.  We need an honest evaluation of our performance, the bad with the good, in order to get better.

For me, it helps to have a partner or coach, or even better, a community of practice.  I need people who watch me perform, who are knowledgeable in my area of performance, and whom I trust and can be vulnerable with.

It’s often hard to see ourselves in an objective light.  It is helpful, if painful, to see our performance through the eyes of others.

At the same time watching them perform, or listening to their ideas of how an expert ought to perform, can teach us what to practice, how to practice, and how to perform better.

The pain of evaluation leads to the joy of success.