“Perhaps you have heard the story of Christopher Wren, one of the greatest of English architects, who walked one day unrecognized among the men who were at work upon the building of St. Paul’s cathedral in London which he had designed. “What are you doing?” he inquired of one of the workmen, and the man replied, “I am cutting a piece of stone.” As he went on he put the same question to another man, and the man replied, “I am earning five shillings twopence a day.” And to a third man he addressed the same inquiry and the man answered, “I am helping Sir Christopher Wren build a beautiful cathedral.” That man had vision. He could see beyond the cutting of the stone, beyond the earning of his daily wage, to the creation of a work of art—the building of a great cathedral. And in your life it is important for you to strive to attain a vision of the larger whole.” – Attributed to Louise Bush-Brown, director of the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women, via Wikiquote
If you visit the sites in London it should be virtually impossible to have escaped the name of Christopher Wren, whom many of the short histories attached to various monuments would have you believe single handedly rebuilt London after the fire of 1666. I was curious about the man, having recently returned from the city, and found this little story attributed to his life.
How we see what we do has a tremendous bearing on how we hold its importance, as Ms. Bush-Brown tells it. Our small roles in greater ventures can be one way we see our lives and define who we are. It is alluring to want to be part of a great endeavor, to tie our own accomplishments to events and projects that will be remembered long after we are gone.
Anyone who works within a company, government, or organization takes on this type of agreement – one’s individual efforts funneled into the glory of the greater work. It is how great projects succeed. Yet, surely, Sir Wren, if he carved and laid each stone himself, would still be working on the project 400 years later.
The names of the of stone carvers, the carpenters, and other skilled or unskilled laborers are lost to us, just as the names of programers behind the expansion of Google or Facebook are known by few, just as the names of administrative assistants and bankers are lost in the annual financial reports of MorganStanley.
Most of us will not achieve the notoriety, or the longevity, of the projects we dedicate our time, skill, and energy to. Our reasons for working may be as simple as supporting our family or pride in our skill shaping stones.
Its where I disagree with Ms. Bush-Brown. The greater endeavor is a fine justification for the work we do, but no less important are the contributions of any of those involved. A worker who loves to cut stone, who takes pride in their work, will cut every stone with precision and focus. A worker who cuts to feed their family will make every effort to excel to care for the ones they love. One who cuts with a the desire to be part of a greater work may risk seeing their role as small and give less to it.
As a coach, many of the clients I have worked with don’t look for some connection to their role in the glorious achievements of history, they look for ways to connect with their work in a way that engages and excites them, that meets their desire to give to their loved ones, and gives them the freedom to express themselves fully alive and awake.
It is often inevitable that our lives are those of the masons and not the architect. As much as we may desire to be remembered by history, we are more likely to be remembered by family and friends, by those we interact with with integrity, who are impressed by our dedication and skill.
Real meaning is found by doing what we love, by being with who we love, now while we are alive. The monuments and achievements we contribute to may stand for a while. They may fail miserably. None of that does you much good if you are dissatisfied with what you have chosen to do with your life.
We all work for different reasons. Aside from greed, there is not one which is significantly more noble than the others.
It is how you see your self, your success measured against your joy for life that matters now, to you, while you are alive. Contribute to the greater good as you can. Remember that what drives us to do our work well doesn’t need to be an immortal monument. Love, joy, dedication to our skill or craft, will help us carve better stones regardless of if they are used for cathedrals or tenement houses, for boulevards or back alleys.
This article was originally published on a prior version of my blog.
This is fairly thought provoking interview with Stephanie Coontz on gender roles in work and marriage and the progress of feminism. What struck me most however was the ideas she discusses 1/2 way through the article, on paradoxes and trades:
“The same things that could be really helpful in constructing and sustaining a successful institution or relationship or sources of real power in your life may also set in motion dynamics that undermine it. This is a theoretical point, but it’s also personally empowering. They can look at their life or outside institutions and see that the things that make it strong can also make it weak.”
There is a lot of juice in this looking at society. I’m more interested in the personal development piece. This idea that over identifying with our personal or institutional strengths can distract us from where we may have weakness isn’t a new one.
One of the most common challenges I’ve seen in the clients I work stems from this very issue. Its one of the places where a coach can offer real value. Consider this:
Fred at 32 decides he wants to start a family. Always successful and a hard worker he had found success by putting all his energy and available time into a project. His friends describe him as dedicated, driven and focused. Attending to his career for so long, Fred does not have much of a social life. The extra hours he has put in toward his success have kept him isolated to a large degree. He decides to try internet dating.
Dedicated, driven, and focused – these are all great qualities. Fred has relied on these tools and has been successful in his career. He has not however found a way to balance these qualities with some of the traits that might build great relationships. Qualities like patience.
Fred knows success through diligence and hard work. For as long as he can remember when he has felt uncertainty he has turned his attention to the things he knows he can accomplish – his work.
While this reminds Fred of his success he has been ignoring building some essential life skills.
So how do you think our theoretical friend faired in his quest for a meaningful relationship? Yes, dedication, commitment, these are good traits to have as a partner, and in life in general. But what are the weaknesses and paradoxes? Can he balance a relationship within his driven and focused way of tending to his career? What happens when he achieves his goal of marriage and a family? Can he tend to and maintain this kind of relationship? How does he deal with conflict when it arises in these relationships?
Coaching, and particularly Integral Coaching, is designed to address these kinds of challenges – to see the paradoxes and trades we make to be strong enough to accomplish what is important to us. Working in these areas, tending to the weaknesses and trusting that our strengths are still there and still valid. Finding practices and raising our conscious awareness of ourselves and the world around us allows us to create fuller, more meaningful lives.
What challenges are you facing? How do the tools you’ve used to get you where you are fail to expand your life toward what you really want?
Book a free consultation and let’s see if we can help you find a balance, trusting your strengths and strengthening new areas that need it.
Apologies for the long delay in posting, I am just returned from about 5 weeks on cross-country journey which involved 5 days skiing with my sister and nephew, apprenticing on a vision quest in Death Valley, and a visit with some old friends in the NW. Oh, and a lot of driving. There is plenty to tell, with many new ideas, integrations, and upcoming workshops, but more of that in time…
To the really important stuff… What did I read and listen to all that time?
- The Etiquette of Freedom – a companion book to a documentary I haven’t watched yet. Poet Gary Snyder and novelist Jim Harrison discuss art, poetry, and zen as “the practice of the wild”. Its filled with some great quotes and conversations.
- Letters to the River – more of a re-read, the book from my friend and sometimes mentor Sparrow Hart dives into our conscious and unconscious relationship to self and nature. I apprenticed under Sparrow on this quest in Death Valley and learned a great deal from him. He has been leading vision quests and men’s workshops for over 30 years (he estimates he has brought over 1,200 people into the wilderness) and his experience and wisdom come through in this writing.
- Podcasts – Joe Rogan Experience – the highlight for me was an interview with scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson (episode #919), but his interviews with Christopher Ryan (#913), author of Sex at Dawn, comedian Pete Holmes (#912), reporter/conspiracy guy Alex Jones (#911), and scientist Lawerence Krauss (#938) were all pretty enjoyable. Lore, Revisionist History, Myths & Legends, The Partially Examined Life, and History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, filled in a good amount of time also, along with some Mark Marion, who did a great Bruce Springsteen interview (#773).
- Audio Books – I decided to listen to 2 classics I had not read in a while. Joseph Campbell’s Hero With 1,000 Faces is very influential and its always worth a visit. In Audiobook form I found I was more focused on the mythological fragments rather than the academic focus of the book. I also took a listen to The 4 Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. I got more out of it than on my initial reading. He does a good job translating some problematic aspects of how “self” develops in society into the mythologic language of the older parts of the brain, but I still think he fails in providing real actionable steps to make progress on his path. “Impeccability of word” though, is a pretty good path.
- Misc. – I am a huge fan these interviews with poet Robert Bly back in the 1980’s. He does such a great job of demonstrating how myth, poetry and story can mirror and open our unconscious minds to our conscious. The ideas he communicates in them have been very instrumental to me as a guide and coach, and as a human being.
I should be back to posting regular daily reflections tomorrow. I have a few older articles scheduled to re-publish on the new site later this week, and some other good ones in the works.
Thanks for following my writing, and if you are interested in coaching, vision fasts, meditation classes or any of the other programs I offer please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally Posted June 2014 on an earlier version of this blog.
As someone diagnosed with a chronic pain condition, this quote (often attributed to Buddha), is one of those helpful pieces of advice often given by people who really don’t want to listen to how you are feeling, but asked anyway.
It is something both profoundly true and utterly impossible to see when overwhelmed by pain – physical, mental or otherwise.
As I’ve mentioned before, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at age 18, over 20 years ago. I’ve had my fair share of practice with pain and suffering, chosen or not.
It was this condition that, in many ways, led me to begin exploring more spiritual approaches – something suggested to me at the time by folks with way more life experience than an arrogant 18 year old.
In the early years it didn’t stick too well. I tried to cover up the pain and it would take much suffering to bring me to the point of getting back into basic practices, healthy habits, and healthier ways of thinking. When the pain and suffering decreased I would rush back into my life with abandon – only to end up repeating the process all over again.
Over time I learned, somewhat the hard way, even though for someone with a chronic pain condition “pain is inevitable,” it is also true that “suffering is (mostly) optional.”
Whether chronic pain, a lost relationship, a failed goal, or some other physical or psychic blow, I’ve danced “pain and suffering” shuffle often enough to see many of the ins and outs, where we can get caught up and how to develop habits to overcome the aspects of this that can set up back.
What is suffering?
I used to believe that suffering was best described as the loss of hope. Hope that things would change, that the pain would become less. Then, someone suggested I look up the word.
The OED’s 1st definition of “suffer” is “to undergo or endure… To have (something painful, distressing or injurious) inflicted or imposed upon one.” Other online sources don’t differ significantly.
This is why I used “mostly” above in “suffering is (mostly) optional.” We all have something, sometime, in life that we need to endure. (a topic for another time)
Still, the word’s meaning has a very negative connotation in contemporary use. Someone who “suffers,” in our collective contemporary use of the word, is someone who is miserable at having to endure. A victim who can not move beyond their burden. A quick survey of a few people, and suffering is no longer “enduring,” but closer to “enduring with a prolonged victim mentality in a depressed or agitated state” – especially in the context of the quote.
The first part of the quote, “Pain is inevitable,” actually is equal to “suffering” in the proper use of the word. (Proper usage of words – another topic for another time).
‘Suffering,’ in the context valuable to us then, is probably best defined as “a prolonged sense of grieving or victimization that leads to the multiplication of the pain we are already in.”
Why don’t I want to suffer?
Well, it kind of sucks.
Aside from the reasons you can come up with on your own?
I would also say that culturally it is an unwanted trait. It can lead to poor productivity and strained relationships. Many of our religions and spiritual teachers, most of our philosophers, and pretty much every “self-help” book you can find, focus on creating life without suffering and points us toward some idealized state where all this will be, or can be, removed. In this life or the next (if your up for the gamble).
Most psychologists tell us that grieving is a healthy response to pain and loss. Prolonged grieving, or a prolonged sense of victimization, is usually classified as pathological.
There also is, I feel (particularly living this close to New York), a belief happiness is a sign of success. If I am sad, or miserable, or show suffering in some form, there is something wrong with me. Our advertising certainly points that way.
As human beings we have a range of emotions. Its healthy to be able to express all of them. Its when one or the other becomes so overwhelming we can’t move or can’t socialize that this can be unhealthy.
So do I have to suffer?
Well, this website, and many others, say you should. Though I’m not advocating this.
In the sense of the proper definition of the word, if you mean are there things in life I will have to endure, then yes.
In the sense I have defined above (“prolonged grieving or victimization”), maybe. Probably. But you don’t have to continue to the point where it becomes overwhelming and it doesn’t have to hold you back from living your life.
If your condition is particularly bad, seek professional medical or psychological or spiritual support in whatever tradition feels right for you. All of these things can help, sometimes separately, sometimes in combination.
So what should I do?
Well below are some suggestions…
It can be so much easier to see in others. Recognizing our own suffering, let alone admitting it, is often a genuine challenge, regardless of if this is cultural or biological. I know for myself, I would be face down on the floor in pain, refusing to seek out help, and still believe I could handle it on my own.
Its a fine line between enduring something we can handle (it doesn’t have much impact on our daily life) and something that is overwhelming (it has a major impact on our lives).
With something like a chronic pain condition, where the pain is present constantly (sometimes low, sometimes high) many of us make the choice to endure as best we can, especially over time. The people close to us become sick of hearing our complaints, or excuses for canceling plans. We suck it up and push through or, worse, isolate so we do not have to continue to disappoint people.
I’ve also seen the same behavior in myself, in family and in friends going through breakups, missing a loved one, or after a career failure – holding on too long to something without finding a healthy resolution.
If you are not sure if you are in the midst of unhealthy suffering, ask the people closest to you. Not the ones you see every day, necessarily, but the people who know you best. Ask them, do I seem happy? Would you say I seem like I am suffering?
If you can’t think of someone to ask, there is a good chance you have isolated yourself so no one can see the pain you are in. You are probably suffering. Its a great way to start a deeper conversation, and most people will be happy to tell you what they think of you.
How to start to change it
First, acknowledge it to yourself. You know if you are carrying something that is too heavy for you. If you don’t try talking to some people in your life about what is making you sad, or anxious. Sometimes when we talk aloud we can find truths that we can’t see in our internal dialogue. Its the old 12-step approach – “admit I am ____, and it is making my life unmanageable.”
Second, talk to someone about it. The very nature of suffering, according to both definitions I mention here (the proper one and the colloquial one) is isolation. Whether you endure you burden in silence or with a great deal of complaining telling someone its too much to carry alone is the first move toward not having to carry it alone.
Take suggestions and follow advice. If you are going through something and some one hasn’t been through it before, and come out the other side, you are in a very small minority. Doctors, healers, support groups, friends and family, someone you know at least knows someone who knows someone who has been through something similar. Reach out to them. very few people will say no to someone they can legitimately help. Search on line and find books that may be helpful.
Then, the real trick is following the advice once you get it.
In future posts, and in a forth coming book, I will get more into some of the practices that can be supportive for chronic pain.
For now though, remember:
•How do I take action when I don’t feel motivated?
•Acknowledge the current limit to yourself and those impacted by it.
•Seek out support.
•Be realistic, for today.
The following article appeared on an earlier version of this blog.
“I have been given a taste for what is beautiful….”
Trans. Barks, Coleman; Moyne, John (2009-10-13). The Drowned Book. HarperCollins.
Our distinct way of finding peace with ourselves and the world around us, we are of this world.
Regardless of what our story of creation may be, regardless of where we believe we are headed toward after death, the one unarguable fact is that we share this earth with other forms of life, that this earth supports us and that can both impact its wellbeing and we are utterly connected to it through our own experience.
Today, like may other days, we may be under pressure, rushing, working.
And it is within our power to pause and recognize that within each of us is a capacity to experience the beautiful.
Within us, within each of us, this basic gift of being human is always accessible. We can find the beauty of where we live and of how we live.
It doesn’t matter how this gift came to be – by some God or gods, or as a freak of genetic mutation or side-effect of the development of consciousness, It is part of who we are as human beings.
You, I, have this sense.
This ability to appreciate what is.
And we are, for better or worse, deeply woven in the fabric of this beauty.
Don’t forget it!
The Drowned Book is the book of Runi’s father, a sufi and mystic teacher. The translation is Coleman Barks and John Moyne’s published by Harper Collins. While rooted in the Muslim tradition, the text transcends the wisdom and morals of any one people. The Sufi view that the Divine, by any name, expresses his/her/its magnificence in the world we live in resonates with tantric and pantheistic roots in other traditions. That the bliss of an etherial heaven may await us – but it should not be pursued at the risk of refusing to see the beauty in our present circumstances and in the experience of being human.
I spent some time this week with my 3 year old nephew is just learning to ski, and it had me thinking about the attitude or energy we call confidence.
There are 2 basic types of confidence. The first is earned with years of practice, knowledge, and experience. The second is sheer bravado.
Its probably the 1st, hard earned, version that deserves more attention, I’m spending some time here, thanks to my nephew, to think through the value of the second.
Bravado looks good on beginners.
After a day or two up and down the beginner’s “magic carpet” run, my sister decided to take him up on his first lift. He could snow plow to a stop and kind of, sort of turn. We got him up to the top of the most basic lift and he slowly made his way down. On the second run he flew down the hill in about 2 minutes, looked up at me and said, “I got this one. What’s next?”
I couldn’t stop smiling.
When we are beginners we have no idea what comes next. Mastering a few basics gives us the confidence to rush head-long into more difficult terrain.
I can point to close to 20 examples in my own life where I thought I knew it all after learning some of the basic steps. I’m sure those who know me well can point to 20 more.
One of my favorite examples of this is talking to someone who has just been through a yoga teacher training. I’ve met so many that have been so positively impacted that they believe yoga can solve pretty much any problem anyone, anywhere can explain to them. (And before anyone blames me for throwing stones, I’m sure I’ve done the same with countless practices I’ve picked up, yoga included…)
There is excitement and confidence of the kind that comes before cynicism. It is what propels us to share our experience and launch into the next, more difficult phase. Without it, most of us would just walk away thinking we had a good time, but didn’t see anything worth committing to.
I think this kind of confidence is an essential phase in our development. In simply being human, most of us, sometime between 8 and 25, think we know everything, then, we encounter some difficulty that completely knocks us on our ass. Life is much more nuanced, complex, and difficult than we initially believed, and there our confidence can shift into cynicism, conformity, or embracing the kind of distractions that can lead us to a kind of aimlessness.
Without that initial sense of beginner’s confidence though, its unlikely many of us would forge ahead.
The real test is when that beginner’s confidence hits the wall.
When things fall apart…
I could easily point my own experience as a coach, poet, yoga and meditation practitioner and teacher, or earlier in life as a competitive swimmer. In all aspects of my life, from professional to interpersonal relationships, fitness, managing money, even staying organized, I’ve never had lasting success without first experiencing beginner’s confidence and then having to face the reality of things being much more difficult than I could fathom when I first began.
In my more than a decade of experience coaching it also the place I see clients struggle the most.
Everything you think you know isn’t enough. When we hit that wall we have usually have 3 choices.
The easiest one is giving up. When things don’t go as planned throwing in the towel is the cleanest break. Its closely related to the second path, which is blaming someone or something else, usually the thing itself.
When my nephew 1st fell down he could have just said skiing is stupid, I don’t want to do it any more, or “someone got in my way”, or “it was your fault”. All of these would have given him an out. The chances he took and the skill he learned to get as far as he did would be just pushed aside for the benefit of just feeling “ok” with himself – justifying his effort by resigning the failure to forces outside of his control.
We all do it. I see it most often when clients are taking risks changing careers and in romantic relationships. Something didn’t work and so its not really worth the effort to forge ahead.
This is the moment most of us have to decide if we will continue on, learning new lessons and progressing to the next level, or simply walk away claiming “I tried, but it just wasn’t for me”.
Its also the moment when we need to decide if we are going to walk the path to true mastery or hold on to our beginners bravado forever – its about choosing to grow up and moving on vs. embracing a fantasy or simply giving up.
All good things take time and work…
I’m sure, like me, you can all point to someone in your life who talks about something they have little or no experience in their lives as an expert.
This moment, where a beginner’s confidence breaks, is where those attitudes are formed.
We either continue develop the skills needed to master something or pretend we have no need to.
We either move into mastery or have a fool’s bravado – always unsure and holding back because we do not want to face the reality of our own short coming.
If there is a skill or goal that you really want to be part of who you are, that you really want to master, there is no pretending. If you do pretend you are likely to live in the delusion that you are something you are not for a long time. You are likely to convince others of your fantasy, doing everything you can to make sure they do not find out you weren’t able to put in the hard work to move through that great first shattering of your confidence.
Find out what it means to stick with it. Be a beginner all over again. Your authentic self will appreciate the effort you put in, and you ego will survive admitting you don’t know everything.
“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” – Annie Dillard
Sometimes its easier to see the ugly truth – all of the pain, suffering, and bad behavior, along with our fears, can be overwhelming.
& whether that comes from the media we consume, the people we surround ourselves with, or our own sense of cynicism it makes for a very small and dark world to try and live in.
It becomes easy to forget that for all the ugliness there are stories and moments of true compassion.
Easier to forget still, is that YOU can chose to approach these problems by drawing on the “beauty and grace” rather than responding with disgust and anger.
When the news, worldly or personal, feels too dark or overwhelming ask yourself what YOU can do to bring more beauty and grace to the situation.