Seeing the Forest and the Trees

A mule and a camel were put in the same stall. The mule began, “Why do I come stumbling down the mountain frightened, with my pack saddle crooked, and the driver beating me, while you glide over the same grade in pure felicity? Have you been given a special dispensation? Why don’t you ever fall on your face like me?” The camel: “Every smooth descent is a gift. But also there are differences between us. Unlike yours, my head stays high, so that from the top and all the way down, I see the foot of the mountain and every hollow and rise, fold on fold. A true human being does this in life. Your animal eyes see only the next step, what is directly in front of you.”
(Rumi, Book IV, IX; translation by Coleman Barks)
Having just spent a truly nerve-wracking, wrist-whacking, bone-rattling five minutes descending a 20% grade on gravel on a bicycle better designed for flying down twisting, paved roads, I just had to ask my companion’s secret for his having taken half the time with twice the enjoyment accomplishing the same descent.  “Freedom”. Hmm, that was helpful! So I posed the same question to our third friend: “Trust”. This was not getting any better.
Begging a few more details, one took mercy on me and elaborated. ‘You pick a line and let the bicycle carry you down. You’re fighting every inch of the way, riding the brakes, and missing the flow.’ To be sure, both of my friends are avid mountain bikers, downhill heli-skiers, and, if their pocketbooks would support their fantasies, formula-1, race car enthusiasts — all sports where speed, split-second decision making, balance, and probably a hundred other variables mean the difference between an exhilarating rush and a rock, tree, or wall. Nevertheless, the comment resonated –  and I was reminded of Rumi’s story.
It seems to be very difficult indeed to ‘raise one’s head’ and see the larger picture. Back on Italian gravel, I was intently focused on the foot or so in front of my wheel (certainly not the ‘foot’ of the mountain!). Watchful for the next loose stone or eroded rut that might send me ‘endo’ as the parlance goes (polite biker talk for ‘ass over tea kettle’), tight, anxious, and decidedly resentful of having to endure this stretch of road. Relentlessly checking my cyclometer to see just how much longer it would last — not a recipe for enjoying some of the most beautiful, idyllic, and arguably bicycle-friendly (for all but those damned gravel roads!) landscape through which I’d ever cycled.
As coincidence would have it, this weekend my wife and I were discussing a book she’s currently reading, Harvard academic Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life?  In it he explores very similar ground: principally how to stay open to ‘the forest’ (in essence, seeing the whole way down the mountain) while remaining cognizant of ‘the trees’ (the next rock in front of the wheel). A particularly relevant section examines the differences between deliberate and emergent strategies in decision-making. The former refers to ‘the plan’ we all typically bring to a situation — from structuring our day to deciding on a career path. The latter to the serendipitous, accidental, unintended twists and turns that we might take on that path that really serve to determine a life direction.
For example, I’d accepted a one-year position with our local school board in 1974, fresh out of grad school and grateful for anything smelling like a job. The intention (‘the plan’) was to make a few bucks while I finished my doctoral research. In that year, I met Nancy Wilson, a psychologist who happened to be setting up a new department at Stratford’s hospital and happened to be giving a ‘lunch and learn’ presentation at the board office. We chatted briefly; she offered me an interview and 38 years later I’m still in town. No doctorate — but contentedly ensconced in a city many people retire to reside in!  The emergent strategy, the ‘unintended path’, had it been disdained or interpreted as a ‘departure’ or interruption, would have likely been ignored at my peril (perhaps).
What Christensen describes is a stepping back from the compelling, consuming immediacy of a situation — to become more the ‘observer’, open to possibility; and less the overly vigilant ‘participant’, caught up in the control of and reaction to those irritating, distracting departures from our ‘deliberate direction’ — the one we’ve carefully chosen versus explored or allowed. Rather like John Lennon’s famous line about life — that thing that happens, often just ‘out of sight’ (awareness), ignored, unappreciated, while we’re doing other things.
I was struck by the overlap in this approach with mindfulness practice. When we meditate, the extent to which we become absorbed, caught up, attached to the thought, the emotion, the feeling (the ‘rocks’ if you will), the less available we are to the ‘flow’, as my friend called it — less conscious of ‘what is’ and more concerned about ‘what isn’t’. We become constricted, agitated, resentful, preoccupied with how far we’ve ‘departed’ from the prescribed (desired or deliberate) path; less attentive to the actual. Our choice I suppose. Are we camels or mules? Do we ‘glide down with felicity’, heads high, seeing the grand display, the ‘line’ through our lives that’s always been there — but perhaps went unnoticed? Or do we stubbornly ignore the implicit ‘rhythm’, intent on ‘getting back on track’ — even when that track is full of wheel-grabbing rocks?
NOTE (to self): Start mountain biking.

NOTE 2 (to self): Take (or, at least take note of) the road less-travelled

Karma at the OK Corral

In the few days’ run-up to his visit to Canada this time round, HRH Prince Charles published a letter in this week’s Globe entitled: Service to Others Builds Strong Communities. He defines service variously as ‘thinking about how we can use our own positions to help others’; and later underscores that ‘the most effective way to foster cohesion (amongst ourselves) is to build partnerships (generating) community capital — that invisible but vital element that holds communities together’.

Somewhat ironically, and standing in marked contrast to HRH’s lauding of ‘best practices’, modeling of community cooperation and sharing of ‘good ideas’ as the basic tool set for overcoming skepticism and deadlocked standoffs, is a saga unfolding in our own newspaper: the ‘dirty little story’ of the Haig St. joust. For those of you that may have missed it, dueling dentists lined up at 40 (or so) paces distance, armed not with picks and drills but with backhoe and entitlement, letting fly in the local press. At stake evidently is the right to ‘farm’ on Stratford’s waterfront row and, equally, the opposition to same cloaked in issues of child and public safety, trespass, noise-law violation, and all around dare met with double-dog-dare retort. My, my, my . . . what a mess (to borrow from a Tommy Lee Jones’ favourite line). 

Begged is the question: where did the violation and/or thwarting of the respective rights of each stop and the need to oppose, challenge, and dominate begin? With no intimate knowledge of either individual (or their entourage), I turned to first hand quotes of slashed tires, roofing nails (that ne’er saw shingle), and toxic cocktails in fuel tanks on one hand; and property infringement and denial of access on the other for some sense of history backgrounding this OK Corral tableau. And came away with a feeling that perhaps the current shootout had deeper roots; and that a pile of sand may just have been the straw that broke it (to allow some mixed imagery). Indeed it seemed that opposition to vs. cooperation with and accommodation of were more central issues with some longstanding precedent lurking in the shadows (of late night high jinx).

Be that as it may, and as this is purportedly a blog on mindfulness practices, I cast about for some alternate ways of proceeding — not all that different from HRH’s sentiments; and came upon this lovely little quote in Lama Surya Das’ Awakening the Buddha Within. ‘Karma means that you don’t get away with anything; we all reap exactly what we sow. . . (T)he word actually translates as action and reaction; there are no accidents (like nails or slashed tires). In very simple terms, the Buddhist Law of Dependent Origination means that every cause has an effect and every effect has a cause’ (p 109).

In a very similar vein, Bhante Gunaratana, as part of his commentary on Lovingkindness meditation, describes this process as an ‘antidote’ to two principle distractions to effective practice: greed and hatred (aka, attachment and avoidance; grasping and rejecting). He is quoted as: ‘if you sit down to meditate while in the grip of some strong obsessive attachment (my right to ‘farm’) or if you are in a black fury over some recent insult (tractor tire evidence on my property), mindfulness will have a very rough time’ (p. 90; Mindfulness in Plain English).

I found myself pondering the future of our little community and the choices with which we are frequently presented — when, as a friend used to query, what does one do when Captain Karma comes a callin’?  Well I suppose we could strap on the leather one more time, wait for high noon, and stride out into the street; bent on righting the wrong of some presumed insult. Or perhaps we could, in the spirit of HRH, model behaviours spawned in cooperation and service to others, compassion, forgiveness.

For me, the abiding image of this whole affair — and quite possibly the only redemptive element therein — was that of an eight-year old child, broom in hand, sweeping up the remnants of ‘the dirty little pile on Haig’. Helping daddy — perhaps; or just finding the middle ground and doing her small bit to heal the rift that older (and presumably wiser??) players had insisted on widening.

Congruence: Fitting with Yourself

To thine own self be true.
While Polonius is not perhaps the most stellar of role models, his advice to his son has some resonant value in this piece — despite both father and son ending up a little worse for wear at Hamlet’s hand. I suppose my interest in ‘being true’ (not to be confused with ‘telling the truth’) surfaced for me in a definitive way in early grad school. I’d been approached by my supervisor to examine some possible reasons for a disproportionately high attrition or drop-out rate amongst first year engineering students — when compared with their parallel numbers in other faculties. Once the more obvious factors were accounted for and statistically removed (differential difficulty of the course material, academic ability of applicants, too much beer and partying, etc.), I was left with an interesting variable: congruence. 
Back in the bad old days, when math made sense (for me, in mid-high school), I had the, at the time, questionable good fortune of studying plane geometry. Of all those propositions and corollaries, the proof that stuck was one dealing with ‘congruent triangles’.  And so my fascination with how two things — be they geometric shapes, statistical distributions, or people and their chosen paths — show compatibility one with the other began to emerge.
For our less than fortunate engineering ingenues, I speculated that the expectation a particular student brought with him or her into first year might have some bearing on the measure of success they experienced in the early going of the program. Specifically, I’d identified two very different views (well three, if you include the opportunity to party hardy!) of engineering as a discipline: one being that of the hard core scientist (lots of chemistry and physics!) and a second, that of a glorified auto mechanic or draftsman, closer perhaps to a designer. It seemed that those newbies with the former orientation tended to do better than the latter group — quite possibly because they were greeted with course work that was more consistent with, more congruent with their preparation and expectations coming in. The latter group tended to be left with a ‘that’s not what I thought I’d be getting into’ kind of disillusionment; with an attendant measure of increased dissatisfaction (which I also measured as a part of the study) and decreased interest and motivation in applying selves to the material. The ‘blind-sided’ crew didn’t necessarily fail — but they were more open to the idea of shifting to other areas of study — and out of engineering.
The material I’d considered in an earlier blog around solitude in general and the introversion – extroversion dimension in particular finds its way into the congruence issue as well. When we identify ourselves as living in a particular way (alone rather than in partnership) or experience our measure of social comfort and mode interaction as ‘less valued’ (shy or introverted versus ebullient and outgoing), a tendency can be to become disenchanted with, even critical of that way of living or that style of connecting — and ‘buck the system’. In short, entering some form of denial around ‘what is’ and investing large amounts of energy into being something or somebody we’re not. I don’t suppose there is a ‘law of congruence’ in the sense of a ‘law of gravity’ or other universal, physical truths. But if there were, it might read something like Polonius’ words to Laertes. First figure out who and what you are — no mean task in itself. Secondly, cultivate an attitude of compassion and acceptance of that identity. And thirdly, identify those places where you best fit — that lovely and elegant sense of congruence between self and environment; self and choices.
Having spent a good many years assisting people with ‘job 1′ — bless all those wonderful personality tests and typologies — I’ve come to realize that that might just be the easy part. Job 2, as it were, is the real challenge. Helping people with self-acceptance, particularly when the ‘news’ is not what they, a parent, or a partner, might want it to be, can be an unpopular task. The obsession is much more directed at change, re-invention — not that these are undesirable ends in the right spot — but always accompanied by a measure of denial of an existing (and just maybe, immutable) ‘truth’.
My oft-referenced mentor spent a great deal of his professional life facilitating the search for congruence. In his language, helping individuals identify when they were on ‘their path’ — and equally, when not. And eschewing the negative emotion attaching to, once again, discovering that ‘I’m not where I want to be — but I am where I am’.

A mindfulness practice provides a number of invaluable tools in this endeavour: awareness, acceptance, compassion.