Saturday, October 22, 2016
“To wish you were someone else is to waste the person you are.”
Of course it is and why would you be so misguided? Of course you wouldn’t! Here you are, a unique, individual human being with your own personality, gifts and talents, which everybody who knows and loves you appreciates totally, because it’s YOU! So, instead of trying to emulate somebody else, who probably isn’t fit to lick your boots by the way, pay homage to your Creator by being the wonderful person you were made to be.
--by Andrew Hinton
We meet in the parking lot of a grocery store in Ashland, Oregon on Sunday morning.
It is the 17th of July, a date I’ve celebrated as long as I can remember. The day I was born.
I have driven 5 hours south to meet a group of strangers in anticipation of a different kind of birth. I am here, exactly 42 years after entering the world, to finally become a man.
Nervous hellos. Final checks. Cars and trucks packed with camping equipment, rations, and gallon bottles of water. We snake up into the hills in convoy.
Shops and signs and other vehicles gradually fall away until the tarmac becomes a dusty track. Huge pines tower above us, almost blocking out the clear blue sky. A dozen or so turkey vultures scatter from something dead as we wind our way up into the wilderness.
Out of my left window I glimpse a far off mountain through a break in the trees and feel a surge of recognition, like seeing an old friend.
When I return from here, I wonder, will I be altered forever?
We pull in to base camp.
‘Welcome to your home for the next seven days’ says Robert, our guide and mentor on the inner and outer journeys that lie ahead.
We scatter to pitch tents and I am drawn to find a view of the mountain. There’s still snow on the peak. It looks like the Paramount logo shimmering in the distance.
The small group, 50/50 men and women, gathers in a circle. My fellow adventurers. We each have half an hour to introduce ourselves and explain why we are here. To share what it is we hope this experience will bring.
I talk of wanting to let go. Of completing a mourning process. Of seeking clarity of purpose and where next to call home. Of thinking for some time how our culture lacks deep rituals that mark the transition to manhood, and how easy it is without them to get lost somewhere between boy and man. And of how, maybe twenty years late, I am here to finally step across.
The next day begins with sage smudging and a Blessing of the Seven Directions. Robert instructs us in basic survival techniques. The wildlife here is more likely to sting you than eat you, but there are bears in the woods and a pack of coyotes —Scattering, yelping, barking — that visits us in the night.
He teaches us the Native traditions that underlie the transformational process we will undertake. The rituals we might use to cleanse and purge and open ourselves to Spirit. The effects we might expect to feel, see, hear as we dive deep. His wisdom is calming. Time melts away as he shares tales of those who have gone before us.
We each form an intent and shout or whisper it to the valley — mine declares that I am a man (the word still awkward in my mouth) of integrity, a bridge between worlds.
Then he sends us out individually to find a site where we will shed even the thin layer of our tents and live alone in the wilderness for three days and three nights. We will subsist on nothing but a gallon of water a day, and a small sachet of soluble electrolytes.
‘How you choose your vision quest location tends to reflect your life’, he tells us.
Some choose quickly and relatively close to camp. I range widely, exploring all other points of the compass before hiking North across a ridge and searching until I find an even clearer view of my mountain.
Robert wakes us all at 6am.
He has created a stone circle that holds a staff in the center. This is the threshold. He blesses it and invites us to step in one by one. A final smudge. Whispered incantations. A ceremonial brushing of feathers and he sends us on our way.
From this point forward we will not see or speak to anyone else until we return in 3 days.
When I arrive at my solo spot, I thank the nature that surrounds it. I ask the trees and rocks and creatures to watch over me kindly. They have the capacity to hold or hurt me, to bend the days ahead toward insight or injury. The sun is high and hot. I begin drinking water and setting up camp.
I build my shelter using rope and a tarp and spend a long time figuring out how to do it so I can see the mountain while lying down. When it’s completed I’ve traded a flat sleeping area for a breathtaking view but I feel proud of how I chased this location, didn’t give up until I had found it and made it the way it had to be. I know I’ve found the perfect setting for my vision quest. At last, this is really happening.
Louis CK joked in his presentation speech at the Oscars that the winner of the Short Documentary category would be driving theirs home in a Honda Civic. I make documentaries for a living and no longer even own a car.
I’ve watched friends get rich in other fields and often wondered why I chose to pursue a career so financially underappreciated by society. But deep down I know why. If I’m honest I never wanted a job. After a few attempts I realized I never wanted to clock in and clock out, to give all my days to someone else, or feel the Sunday evening dread as another week in an office loomed. I wanted to live an interesting life, experiencing as much of the world as I could, finding people and stories that I felt needed to be heard, and not making creative or life choices motivated by money.
I’ve more or less achieved this, but recently I’ve been asking filmmaking hard questions and wondering if a nine to five (or nine to nine) is what it takes to feel like a fully paid up member of the human race. I’ve become angry with my vocation, pushing it away and trying to turn my back on it.
A conversation with a friend a year ago left an impression. “I’ve tried to be many other things” she said simply, “but I have finally accepted that I’m a filmmaker”. Part of me is here to make similar peace, or find out how else I’m meant to spend the next 10 years of my life.
I’ve cheated on the quest in one small way. I’ve smuggled a book out here with me. Something told me this was the right time to read An Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. I open the cover and see that it begins with a quote from Shakespeare:
“This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man”.
I dive in.
The early light wakes me and I watch it shift behind the horizon. The black blues of night turn a deep orange that lightens gradually through yellows until the sun rises, drowning everything golden and lifting the mist from the trees. At night the process will reverse, bright blue turning to pink until the darker hues chase that away too.
I feel hungover. A dull ache throbs behind my eyes. But to my surprise I’m not hungry. I gulp down water. More water.
I have only one real obligation each day — to visit a designated buddy site in the morning and leave a sign that I’m ok. My buddy will then visit in the afternoon, see I’m alive and leave a sign that I’ll pick up the next morning. Each time we visit we add more decoration to the circle — twigs, pine cones, stones. On the second day my buddy leaves me a simple sketch: two wildflowers and a bee on watercolor paper. Receiving this beautiful gift through our primitive mail system makes me indescribably happy.
On my way back from the buddy circle I realize I am moving more slowly than normal. I reach a clearing and pause to catch my breath on a tree stump.
My mind turns to fear. All the things that have held me back ultimately lead there. I suddenly decide to take off my shyness like an old coat I no longer need and leave it behind.
I ceremoniously remove it, and set it down carefully before walking on.
I make guesses about the time from the sun’s position. Much of the day is spent in a dance between sun/shade/flies. When the bugs get too much I realize it’s time to move.
Then, sitting on a rock facing the mountain, I decide to simply talk it all out.
The nearest human is over a mile away, and most of those I need to communicate with are many thousands farther than that.
No matter. I offer sincere apologies to past partners and lovers. I seek amends for broken friendships. I pay respects to those who passed too soon, and tell them how deeply they are missed.
I know these conversations can’t be substitutions for the real thing, but dredging out everything unsaid leaves me lighter, emptier. Their charge is removed. I feel the way slowly clearing for something new.
It continues into the second night with a ‘Death Lodge Ceremony’ in which I prepare for my own death. I close my eyes and welcome friends and family who manifest silently in order to offer final goodbyes. I have no idea how long it takes, but I dialogue aloud with each and every one. I thank them for their kindness, their love, the ways they have enriched my life. The moon is full and high in the night sky by the time I finish.
The book dives deeper into the paradox of freeing yourself from your imagined Self. We are not the constant chatter, the voice in the head. We are not the collection of experiences. We are the witness to these things, the awareness that lies behind it all. The ‘you’ that has always been there — as a two year old, a twelve year old, a twenty two year old, a forty two year old. The you beyond labels and names, beyond even gender.
It invites a shift from mind to heart. To a constant lifelong process of opening and keeping open that mysterious organ, of letting go and “allowing yourself to experience every note the heart can play…Everything will be ok as soon as you are ok with everything. And that is the only time everything will be ok”.
The final night we have been instructed to build our own stone ‘Purpose Circle’ and sit awake in it until first light.
After gathering the rocks I smudge my circle with the last of the wild sage Robert gave us, light a candle, and wait for the moon to rise through the trees.
I try really hard but I just can’t stop from slipping into sleep. I fall in and out of lucid dreams. I realize that my vision won’t come dancing holographically in front of these tired eyes.
Suddenly they open and it’s the fourth morning.
Below the valley is carpeted in a blanket of white. I am literally above the clouds.
Photo taken by Robert Wagner at base camp on the fourth morning of the Vision Quest
As the sun rises I slowly pack up what I think I can carry on my shaky legs and see a sentence I wrote last night in my journal:
“Come on God, let’s win an Oscar together.”
I turn to head back to base camp. I am filled with a blissful sense of peace and accomplishment. “It could be like this every day” forms as a thought bubble that floats haphazardly across my awareness.
I pick my way back through the trees, down across the dried open area where the day before I’d found a small bird’s nest lying on the ground. It was fragile, perfectly intact and no longer in use.
I’d bent down and marveled at the intricate ways grass and twigs were woven together into a perfect circle, each blade carefully assembled by a little bird diligently building a place to raise their family. Finding this beautiful tiny home in my path felt like a sign that now is the time, and Oregon is the place, to create a nest of my own.
I reach the track that leads back to base camp. As I get closer the theme tune from The Great Escape appears unexpectedly on my lips. I begin whistling.
I am elated to have not only survived but embraced and loved this whole experience. I didn’t get eaten. I didn’t get injured.
Then about two hundred meters out the whistle falters.
I pause and try again.
All of a sudden I find myself leaning on my staff as a huge wave of emotion rises through me.
Out of nowhere tears start to stream down my face and I feel a sob explode from deep in my chest. Something in my heart cracks open and I can’t hold it back.
I am spent from all the letting go. The shedding of many skins has left me raw. I haven’t eaten in 84 hours. I’m suddenly overwhelmed by knowing that a few steps away a new future awaits. That when I step through the threshold again I will at last be on a path to true manhood. It is at once recognition, relief, and a final mourning for the overdue passing of youth.
I drop my backpack and step into the circle. My shoulders are shaking with emotion. I smell the burning sage as Robert blesses me, thanking Spirit for returning me safely. My eyes are closed. The tears keep coming.
He hugs me hard as I step out, “Welcome back, brother”.
The others are all back too. They clap and cheer my successful return. I feel their warmth. I’ve been thinking of each of them and I’m eager to hear their stories.
I smile and take a deep breath.
“Ok” I say, “What’s for breakfast?”
An hour later I’ve eaten fruit, some cereal, a big chunk of chocolate. The emergency energy bar in my bag with which I’d dialogued and bargained so extensively on the quest is now at last in my shrunken stomach.
As I walk back to my spot to collect the remainder of my gear I turn on my phone to let a few people know I’m alive. I’d wished I’d had it many times to take photos but being separated from technology for a few days has allowed me to drop into a different movement of time, and I have very mixed emotions as I watch my inbox updating.
I have 247 unread emails. I scroll through them quickly, looking for anything important. One catches my eye and I double take:
Subject: Congratulations on the Emmy nomination!
I open up Facebook. I’ve been tagged in a post. I click the link and scroll way down until I find confirmation. It’s true. Our film Tashi and the Monk is nominated in the Outstanding Short Documentary category of the Emmys.
I smile again.
I guess that settles it. I really am a filmmaker.
Robert says it takes a year for the vision to manifest fully. On the last morning together he invites each of us to write a letter to ourselves a year from now. We seal them in envelopes that he will mail to us in 12 months. I won’t share exactly what mine said, but if all goes to plan much will have happened by July 17th next year. I sign it ‘Your best friend’.
So, have I really become a man?
It was in the pockets of quiet beneath those giant trees whose rings showed over a 100 winters and summers that I got still at last.
I reflected on how the same intelligence or vision the seed holds for the towering pine is in us too. We grow and evolve and spiral upwards through an ever expanding now. We learn from those around us. Atmospheric conditions play a part. But it is a remembering of what we somehow intuitively already know that dances with the discoveries of the world outside ourselves. An acceptance of a process much older and wiser than we can possibly fathom.
These trees do not doubt their tree-ness, they simply are trees. I am a man. And if I act from the core of my being, I know those will be the actions of a good man.
My voice is not suddenly deeper. Like a birthday, I don’t suddenly feel a year older. But something has shifted. I stand taller. Eyes brighter. The weight of doubt or ambiguity is lifted. I feel decisive, purposeful. I know a door to different place is opened, and even though it may take years to fully fill my new (hu)man suit and truly learn to act with courage and heart, the process in underway.
Just before we part and head back down the roads that will lead to our old/new lives, Robert offers one final piece of advice.
“Whenever you hug someone” he says “don’t be the first to break the hug. And watch what happens to the energy”.
Like all of his teachings this past week, it is a perfect mix of light and serious.
Dust rises as the convoy of cars and trucks pulls out together. There are no visible signs on the landscape, but a lot has been left behind in this wild and beautiful place.
Tired, dirty and smiling, we all come down the mountain much lighter than we arrived last week.
Andrew Hinton is a filmmaker whose work showcases people and stories that offer hopeful solutions in the face of adversity. He co-directed the Emmy-award winning film Tashi & the Monk.
--by Homaira Kabir
Over the years, we’ve had a love-hate relationship with self-esteem, writes Homaira Kabir. There was a time when we believed self-esteem to be the royal road to flourishing. We had Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live provide us with Daily Affirmations to make us feel special. We tried to reinforce it in our children by letting them know how exceptional they were when they failed.
However, later studies showed that such increases in self-esteem did little for our happiness or performance, but ample for our egos. Professor Roy Baumeister’s work with self-esteem showed that we’d been raising a generation of narcissists who went on to wreck havoc in their lives and in their workplaces.
It now appears that we’d been building the wrong kind of self-esteem – the kind that is contingent on external factors such as social approval, success or attractiveness. And as Professor Kristen Neff has shown, this comes at a price. Feeling better about ourselves as a result of social comparison ensures that our self-esteem takes a nose dive every time someone more popular, successful or attractive crosses our path. And in the global and competitive world we live in, it also sets us up for negative competition, unethical behaviors and a dearth of empathy.
However, authentic self-esteem is different. It’s a feeling of worth in our abilities and qualities. As such, its not conditional upon external evaluations – instead its an inner security that provides us with the courage to step out into the world and do the right thing. And research shows that people with this form of self-esteem go on to live happy and productive lives where they are able to cope effectively with challenges and rise to their full potential.
This is especially important for leaders of today. In an increasingly uncertain world, having a sense of self-worth that stems from being a human worthy of respect, leads to courageous decisions that may not always win other people’s approval. It also leads to investing energy in people and their growth, rather than in feeling superior and infallible, and safeguarding a faltering sense of self-worth.
A Skill of Resilience
Leaders with authentic self-worth come from a place of congruence where their daily activities are tied to long-term meaningful goals. Momentary failures are taken in stride as they encourage their people to continue striving towards a higher purpose that brings them hope and meaning. Dr. Richard Davidson’s work in neuroscience shows that the ability to recover from adversity through a positive outlook builds the neural structure of resilience and leads to wellbeing.
A Culture of Compassion
Authentic self-worth and self-compassion go hand in hand. People who compassionately accept their imperfections are tolerant of those of others. As such, they recognize a common humanity and feel connected with others in the experience of life, rather than critical of their failings. This instills an environment where employees are motivated to do what they do best rather than push themselves beyond their window of tolerance and become disengaged at work.
A Practice of Mindfulness
Leaders with high self-esteem are able to be present in the moment rather than preoccupied with perceived personal slights, the need to be right all the time and other unhealthy behaviors to protect an inflated ego. They are also able to appreciate the vast flow of life and take perspective every so often to return to a state of homeostasis when caught in the stress response. Research shows that these skills are what integrate the neural fibers of the brain towards greater wisdom.
There is one caveat though. For better or for worse, authentic self-esteem grows in our very early years through the interactions we have with our primary caregivers. When those interactions are not attuned with our inner worlds, we grow up with feelings of self-worth that are contingent upon whatever external influences we grow up with. And studies over the past 30 years that led to the attachment theory have shown that sadly, that makes up more than half of us.
The good news is that the three qualities of self-esteem also build self-esteem. When we practice the skills of resilience, compassion and mindfulness, we step out of what Professor Jennifer Crocker, who researches this construct, calls the “ego-system” of contingent self-esteem into the “eco-system” of authentic self-worth.
And there is more. In their book Resonant Leadership, professors Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee show how these three traits are also indispensible for compassionate leadership. They not only bring out the best in employees, but also allow leaders to sustain themselves through the relentless demands of work and life and renew themselves physically, mentally and emotionally.
Now that’s an upward spiral worth aiming for!
Sunday, October 16, 2016
“Learn to say “no” without explaining yourself.”
I think we all find it natural when we say no to follow it with a reason, i.e. “I’ve a dental appointment, visiting a friend, short of funds, a previous engagement, etc. Just force of habit really, believing that we need to explain as our refusal needs justifying by softening the blow for whoever is asking. However, this can become tricky as there can’t be many of us who haven’t been caught out in a white lie at some time or another? Even if you have a legitimate reason for refusing, there’s no rule that says you have to explain yourself or else! So, if you want to say no, just say it. No excuses. There, feel better? Good.
I was recently the recipient of an incredible act of anonymous kindness. It came from out of nowhere, at exactly the right time. The magnitude of the gift moved me to tears, and I was so grateful and profoundly moved by the generosity of my unknown benefactor. But I was also sure there had been a mistake. In the midst of this beautiful act, I am ashamed to admit that I was momentarily overcome by feelings of unworthiness. I simply couldn’t believe I was deserving of such radical kindness. Had I been face to face with my benefactor, I would have given them 100 reasons why they “shouldn’t have”, attempting to convince them that they were wrong about me—that their generosity was misdirected. Fortunately, I quickly realized that to focus on my feelings of unworthiness would be to dishonor the gift and the beautiful spirit in which it was so lovingly given.
And I think that’s the beauty of an anonymous gift. It gave me the time and the space I needed to process the feelings it stirred up inside of me. I was able to sit with the discomfort of unworthiness and ultimately see it for what it is— a lie—something I came to believe long ago, that no longer serves me. Now, it is nothing more than a habit. It is a “go-to” response that I can either choose to feed in the moment, or not. This revelation was a gift within the gift. As I was unable to speak to my anonymous benefactor and enumerate the ways in which I did not deserve the kindness they showed to me, the only way I could honor them was to suck it up in all its beautiful glory and put my faith in THEIR belief that I was, in fact, worthy.
But how do you thank someone for such a gift? How do you show them even a fraction of the gratitude in your heart when you have no idea who they are? How do you pay them back? Sometimes the only way to pay it back is to pay it forward.
And once again, the timing of life was perfect. While contemplating just how to capitalize on the wave of gratitude and hope I was riding in order to send it spinning out into the world, I was invited to participate in a 40 Days of Giving practice with others at my spiritual center. It was a new take on a familiar tradition. Lent had always been a period of sorrow, penance and self-denial, but this year I would approach it with an attitude of abundance, joy and generosity. And in doing so, I would begin to fulfill a promise I made to an unknown friend, when I vowed that the kindness shown to me would find its way out into the world through my words, my hands, and my actions.
During the 40 days, the gifts I gave were diverse and mostly simple in nature. Some were tangible, like the can of dog food and spare change I gave the young homeless man cradling a puppy so lovingly in his arms. Others were immeasurable in the traditional sense, like the time I bit my tongue and offered compassion in response to an angry outburst from a fearful soul. Or the gift I gave two unknown parents the day I slowed down and allowed their teenager—who was making terrible choices behind the wheel—to dart in front of me and exit the freeway. By consciously choosing to alter my course so that he could safely change lanes, I diffused a dangerous situation, where tragedy might otherwise have been the outcome from his momentary lack of sound judgement.
And now, as I stand on the other side of the 40 days of giving, I can clearly see how transformational the whole practice—from both sides of the giving/receiving dance— has been. I now understand that I had to first learn the lesson of worthiness in order to
appreciate the gift that is innate in the act of receiving with an open heart. When I receive joyfully and gratefully, Iallow you, the giver, to experience connection, compassion and grace. And you in turn do the same for me when our roles are reversed. The lines distinguishing the giver from the receiver are blurred, as the giving becomes the receiving which becomes the giving. This infinite loop is where magic happens. By engaging wholeheartedly in this dance, we create exponential possibilities from one tiny little ripple.
I learned so much during this season of giving. In all cases, the commitment to the practice and the mindfulness it created made the difference in how I approached each giving opportunity. Taking a cue from my benefactor, I learned that anonymity can be a form of kindness when it allows the recipient to maintain a sense of dignity, or to practice the gift of receiving in their own time and space. But when applying anonymity to my own practice of giving I quickly learned that it can be self-serving, too. For someone like me who craves intimacy but has also been fearful of it for many years, anonymous giving can easily become just another way to avoid connection. And that kind of defeats the purpose. So my litmus test—or my compass—was to simply ask myself, “In this situation, is the anonymity a gift for my recipient or a crutch for me?”
I learned that any act of kindness, regardless of how big or small, has the potential to change not only the giver and the receiver, but all of those in close proximity to the people on either side of the equation. Because once engaged in the giving/receiving dance, the way in which we interact with our environment and those we share space with changes. We operate from a higher plane of gratitude, enthusiasm and hope, and the ripples we send out gently build in momentum with every soul they touch. This is truly how we will change the world.
And I learned that now, when someone gives me a gift and I find myself struggling with feelings of unworthiness, I can no longer allow those untruths to poison the atmosphere surrounding the exchange. I will not project. Instead, I will allow myself a moment of grace, and I will remember the anonymous soul who challenged me to acknowledge and accept my own beauty as seen through their eyes. And rather than shrink from the light, I will simply say, “Thank you. You and your gift are precious to me.”
Jennifer Merlich is a writer and an artist with a love of nature, drums, animals and big, bold, beautiful souls. Her blog, WeWereWild.com, where this article originally appeared, is about the re-wilding of spirit, as we consciously choose our path and navigate back to our true north, charting the course with wisdom, courage, grace and joy.