Welcome to the IPF “Be Here Now” Bootcamp

•May 24, 2015 • 6 Comments

Having IPF is like being enrolled in a twisted sort of “Be Here Now” Bootcamp…  an advanced training on being present in the moment….  I will come back to that in a moment, but first some venting…

With the best of intentions well-meaning people sometimes say really, um,  stupid things to people who are navigating serious illness. Of the various things that make me just a bit crazy, one that particularly aggravates me is when someone looks knowingly into my eyes and informs me that the universe has presented me with this disease for some important cosmic reason and that there is a lesson I must learn from it — we aren’t given anything that we are not ready for, after-all….

Oh, my goodness…. If you are one of the ones that allows  words like these to fly from your mouth, please know that my impulse when I hear this is to vomit on your shoes and send you right out the door.   And, yes… I am hereby speaking for (almost) all the people on the planet who have a life-threatening illness….   It may make you feel better to adopt this stance, but know that the implication that I somehow deserve this path or have somehow created it for myself is very misguided…  for the person actually navigating the disease, it is neither uplifting nor helpful.

Ahh…. Feels good to get that off my chest.   There are others…. I shall wait for another time to share them ; ).

Although I am neither prepared to handle what life has given to me nor receptive to the idea that there is any cosmic reason for how life is unfolding…. I DO want to use ALL of my experience to grow, to make meaning, and to live life more fully every day.   The experience of having Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) is without even a close second the most challenging experience I have ever been forced to navigate…. And no matter how life unfolds I have little choice but to respond and create from the actual experience that I am having…

This past week I had the outrageous privilege of co-leading a Co-Active Leadership Retreat with my dear friends Raul, Karen, and Eva in Sitges Spain.

Connected and in love

Connected and in love

We were guiding a group of 21 very amazing and talented individuals (known as the Ostrich Leadership Tribe) to the culmination of their 10-month journey.   One of the things that I shared with them about my current circumstances is that I feel as though I am going through some sort of Advanced Training in how to  “Be Here Now.”

A paradoxical observation I have about having IPF is that two things are both true for me:

  • This is an unfair and devastating turn of events that in moments has me feel angry, remorseful, terrified and filled with despair.  It also has me in constant and increasing physical discomfort.  This is not how it is most of the time, but the truth is that this is “where I am” at certain moments during the course of every single day.
  • My sense of absolute joy, love for life, and presence IN THE MOMENT is overwhelmingly huge — I am experiencing the deepest love and most luminous joy that I have ever known in my life, and my sense of gratitude is deeper than ever.  And sometimes being fully present means allowing myself to feel the depth of my sorrow – that is a part of being fully alive, too. This is also not how it is most of the time, but I AM LEARNING to spend more and more time in this place — and it is certainly where I spend a part of every single day.

This is not about being “happy” or being “sad” – nor is it about “good” or “bad.”   It is about being present and alive versus being hijacked into a state of mind that is caught in the past or the future…. Neither of which are actually real.   The other trap that stops me from truly being here now is simply falling victim to the ever-present physical discomfort that I am in…   That, too, is part of what is present – but if it completely hijacks my awareness, then  it is all that I feel… and then I am not really “here now.”

One of the tips that I shared this week with the Ostrich Leaders as we were closing our activities was a pearl of wisdom that was shared with me by my dear friend and mentor Karen Kimsey-House some years ago.   If “Leadership” is a choice…. Why should we bother to choose it? After all, it is not easy and certainly not alsways comfortable or fun….often it is risky…  And sometimes the ideal of “being of service to others” just feels too difficult or burdonsome…. Well, the fact of the matter is that when I CHOOSE to step into leadership — and I CHOOSE to “be here now” — those are the moments when I feel most alive and fulfilled and joyful.   Said in a very simple way, making that choice brings me fulfillment…. I love it and it makes me happy!

'cause it brings my joy

’cause it brings my joy

A big challenge around this idea of “Be Here Now” – of course – is that I get lost and I am not even aware that I am gone…. I get stuck in some remorse about my past… something that I regret I did or didn’t do, or feeling sorry that I missed some opportunity or made (or didn’t make) some choice….   “If only I had or had not something-or-other…” I say to myself.   I can get lost there for awhile.

Or, I start to imagine the future.   Having IPF, imagining a frightening future is just not a helpful strategy.  This is an ugly disease without a lot of pleasant endings, and when I begin to dwell on those possible futures it just terrifies me, truth be told.   But those imagined futures are no more real RIGHT NOW than anything else that I might imagine… they are fabricated in my head.   As my buddy Rick says, it’s all made up.

The other place I can go is simply to succumb to my physical sense of weakness and discomfort.   It is part of what is present right now and it isn’t useful to pretend it is not there…. but I know that with conscious intention I can just “be with it” and allow it to be there in the background of my experience rather than at the forefront… it does not need to take over.

I am discovering that when I am able to CATCH those momoents of being lost or gone and not present  — to become aware of them, I can then ask myself the question “Is this what I want right now?   What would it mean, right now, to RECOVER back to this present moment and be willing to be fully alive RIGHT NOW in the only moment that is actually real?

I find that it requires, sometimes, an act of will. I must will myself to come present and get my attention off myself.   In the Co-Active Leadership Program we talk about the difference it makes to have a “Stake” (like a super-purpose or commitment) that genuinely matters to me and guides me….  If I have that “stake” in the current situation, then maybe it will be strong enough and matter enough to have me put my ego aside and be present right now.    What I know is that having something MORE IMPORTANT and MORE MEANINGFUL in the center stage is essential.

In other moments, it is waking up to the people and world around me…. To let myself be touched by them…. Often is is to let in the beauty and miracle of nature that is around me… in other moments to open myself to really seeing and feeling the people that are around me – to love them and feel their love…, just as miraculous as nature!   More and more I know that the energy of love is THE most powerful force in the universe and if we pay attention we can discover that it is within and around us all the time.

And it some moments, it is allowing the pain that I feel or sorrow that I feel with others to come forward and express itself. In other moments in means summoning the courage to speak the difficult truth of what needs to be said in this moment now.  To “BE HERE NOW” fully means that my intention is not just on myself…. it must be OUT THERE, all around me.

breathing in the beauty of my garden

breathing in the beauty of my garden

Now, going back to my very first statement…. If you are one of those people that thinks the Universe has a special plan and agenda or that God hands out challenges only when we are ready for them…. Please do not misunderstand what I am about to say.

Just as IPF is making it harder for me to breath every day and presenting my family with challenges we never anticipated facing…. so too it is GROWING me every day…. I think that I am learning to be more alive more fully more of the time… and am learning to be more aware of when my inner grumpy-one lashes out at others and I can recover from that faster.    I am not sugar-coating or pretending that IPF is anything but awful, but I also am very much wanting to capture the blessings.

I do believe that the path of our human development is a path of growing our capacity to BE PRESENT — and I now am having very daily and very rigorous practice in being more able to do that.   Growing this capacity is critical because 1) there is nothing more important to me that experiencing the profound blessings of this life and, 2) the path ahead is sure to become more challenging and I know that I will be more ready to meet those challenges ahead through this practice today.

For those of your following my health status, here are some updates:

  • The next time you see me, I will be using oxygen.  Telling me how awesome and sexy I look with the oxygen tubes is welcome.  I don`t yet need oxygen all the time, but I do need it when I exert myself in any way (like, walking around the block), when I fly (in an airplane ; )), and at night.   It is so important to me to be able to walk with Mario…. and I can still do that as long as it is a flat trail or I have oxygen….
  • I am scheduled next month in Boston for a preliminary evaluation for a lung transplant — that is a big deal and the one and only effective treatment for IPF.
  • I have been on one of the two medications just approved by the FDA which in some cases have been found to slow the progression of IPF.   It comes with a basketful of side-effects (GI-related…) but I am tolerating it reasonably well.  I will know in a few months with my next round of tests whether or not it seems to be helping.
  • John and I are coping with this the best we can.   He is my rock.   It is really hard for us sometimes, and it is also true that it is allowing us to discover a depth of intimacy and love together that is beyond what we have ever known… another blessing.

Thank YOU for being part of my circle.    With love,

Art

Coming out of the Closet on this Glorious Day

•April 3, 2015 • 7 Comments

Really? I have to “come out of the closet” again? Well, yes, I do…. fortunately I do have some practice in this area.

First I just want to say…. GRATEFUL! It is 50-degrees outside and most of the snow has now melted from my ground — I can see the tips of Spring bulbs coming up in my garden (about a month late……). Most importantly for today — Mario and I just had a WONDEREFUL walk around Fellsmere Pond near my house…. I often think of it as a meditation — a practice in striving to be really present and aware during the whole walk. This morning we just had so much fun. I notice the duck families scurrying around on the water — they made me happy and reminded me of the farm where i grew up. Today I had Mario backing up tree-trunks with his hind legs which is great practice for body-awareness and has the added advantage of making passers-by smile and laugh….. and the highlight was that FINALLY on the way back the ball-field was at last free from snow and dry enough to have a rigorous round of “Chase the Tennis Ball” — (I stand still and throw… Mario runs, chases and retrieves) — which is the MOST FUN GAME EVER.

And so, at one point I just hugged Mario and shed a few tears of sheer joy and noticed how amazingly fu#*($gly grateful I am for THIS DAY. It reminded me of the work of Brother David Steindl-Rast on gratefulness and the video…. which I have watched at least 500 times, titled A GOOD DAY. Please check it out here…..

http://www.gratefulness.org/

(just scroll down and you will find the video)…

I want to share some important information with you, my reader my friend perhaps my family member or my loved-one. I have thought long and hard about this….. should I? Why? What is my motivation here? Is this coming from and about my Ego? Who is served?   Am I looking for attention?    Sometimes I just loathe facebook and similar things, and yet it is how I am connected to you….

Well, I just don’t know the answers to these questions — what I know is that it is time to come out of this particular closet because I can feel that I am now not being fully honest and authentic…. I am hiding. I am a stand for honesty and authenticity and being real. I am a stand for allowing vulnerability as part of that… and am so very reluctantly but truly a stand for allowing others to hold me… that is most challenging of all.

I have shared my process of undergoing double-bypass surgery in January — and I have just passed the 12-week mark since that procedure… (Halle-freakin`- luya….. it has been a rough ride). So, my coronary condition is greatly improved from where it was prior to the surgery.

This (the coronary arteries) needed to be handled before I could tackle and navigate a more serious health issue that I am facing.

OK, this is the hard part. So, here are the facts and then my perspective on it.

Last October I was diagnosed with a lung condition called Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis or IPF. This is a progressive lung disease of unknown cause in which the capacity to breathe and to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream diminishes over time. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this condition, nor any treatment which improves or reverses its progression. The one possible treatment in some cases is a lung transplant. There is also one medication which was newly approved by the FDA last year which may slow down the progression of the disease somewhat. (For those of you who have done the Leadership Program, it may make you chuckle to know that as I write this, in my head, I want to now write…. “These are the facts of the situation and will not change….. You now will have one minute to speak to your ship-mates…..” Hmm….. I notice that I give this hard information and then move into making a joke…. so, I pause a moment, to let it sink in that I have just come out of the closet to you, and to know that you are now sitting with this information.

That’s the thing about Coming Out — as soon as you do, you put the other in a sort of Closet of their own. It has an impact. I remember 35 years ago when I told my Father that I was gay, and then realized that I had put him in the closet — he needed time to adjust and understand and grapple and be angry and mourn.

So, I realize that for some who read this, it has a big impact. As I write this, and I think of you reading this and reacting to this — I feel you, and I feel your love and concern.   I am so sorry to be giving you this information.

I don’t want to go into the details of the disease here — you can google it and get the synopsis. Transplant option aside, it is a terminal condition that will progress at some rate of speed in the years ahead.   I have begun taking the new medication, and am working with my Pulmonologist to prepare a case for a lung transplant (it is a long shot but not out of the question).

For now, my functioning is somewhat diminished but I am able to do the things that I love the most. I am able to do my work — in fact I am finding a new degree of “full permission” amidst my Leadership groups (so, watch out….) that I have never experienced before. I am cutting back on the amount of work and travel that I am doing – but I do want for everyone to know that I am not and have not retired!

My most joyful practice is being outside doing just about anything with Mario. This has created a profound sense of gratitude for the most simple moments of everyday.   My walks are shorter and inclines are tough to do, but I can still do them…  (I use a fitbit and walk about 11,000 paces each day with Mario).

My most cherished blessing is my time with my husband John. This has presented us with the most challenging times we have every faced — and most difficult conversations we have ever had. We are sharing a very deep sorrow together and separately that we never anticipated we would be experiencing. And, we dive into a depth of intimacy and tender closeness now that I never knew was possible. I am so very blessed to have him sharing my life.   We are also seizing the moments that we have NOW — our most fun project at the moment is wildly decorating the little condo that we purchased in Rockport to enjoy this summer….

I go up and down…. it is easy as I write this to sound like I am navigating this so well and so thoughtfully — as I write this I am in a reflective space, and I imagine you my friend here with me. What you don’t see is the moment that I feel exhausted and hugely cranky and I snap at an innocent store clerk who did absolutely nothing wrong. I have not (yet) written about how I fall into a feeling sorry for myself and feeling angry at the world place. These moments are every bit as true as the moments of being in touch with my gratitude.

For this, I must do an added salute to John — I know he is proud of me and in some moments I inspire him — but he also more than anyone else experiences the brunt of my most foul and nasty moments. He is a hero.

And so, my friends, there you have it —- I am breathing a bit freer having come out of this closet — and with that know that I perhaps have now placed a burden onto you that you did not have. It matters to me that I be able to be honest with you. If my life has been committed to one thing always, it has been learning and growth and being conscious. And so with this, too, I aspire to learn and to grow and to be conscious.

In our Leadership Program we talk a lot about the idea of “recovery” — of being about to become quickly aware when we have lost ourselves or our connection and to RECOVER. And so, I want to learn about a whole new sort of recovery. I think that in the difficult moments when I feel that I am suffering, I have lost touch with WHO I MOST TRULY AM. Those moments of suffering are moments of confusion when I think that I am my body or my disease, or my professional role or my physical ability or  any of the many other things I think about my identity….. and none of those are who I truly am. Recovery is about returning and recovering back to the very essential nature of WHO I AM and WHO YOU ARE. If I can become just a little bit better at that sort of recovery I will be a very satisfied and grateful man.

I am wondering if there is an “ask” here of some sort….  hmmm….  well, I ask that you not shy away from this or from me even if it makes you uncomfortable.    I have noticed that for some friends and family it is difficult to be with such difficult information, and some have virtually disappeared from my life.    I ask that you hold me as whole and unbroken, which is the case…. and not hold me as a victim.    What is happening to me is not exceptional — it is part of being human.  It is far worse than many experience, and far more easy that many others experience.  I need to be able to both acknowledge that this REALLY SUCKS and also how profoundly grateful and lucky I am at the exact same time.   Now, there is a paradox.

With love,

Art

Pink Powderpuff Powerlifting — Hurray for INCREMENTAL growth!

•February 10, 2015 • 1 Comment

For years I have espoused the virtues of TRANSFORMATIVE growth and CREATIVE change…. in my clients, in leaders, in teams, in organizational systems…. They type of growth that comes along with unfolding new ways of seeing ourselves and the world, and the process of becoming aware of the limitations of old perspectives and beliefs. The magic of being able to create powerfully from an internal sense of passion and vision rather than fear-based reacting and problem-solving. And, I have dutifully paid lip-service to the importance and benefits of “incremental” learning and change — the step-by-step improvements and growth that happens as we practice a skill or try a slightly new approach. While not-so-secretly valuing “creative transformation” I have made sure to present the value of reacting quickly to resolve urgent problems.

Today as I walked my 7,500 steps around the indoor track of my local YMCA, clutching my 2-pound pink dumbells…. I thought about how ESSENTIAL is this period of VERY INCREMENTAL change for me and my recovery. I pondered this idea of transformative change versus incremental growth — of creative change as opposed to reactive problem solving.   All the while listening and bopping along to Meghan Trainer’s “All About That Bass…”

The experience of bypass surgery is a bit like playing one of those board games as a child when you land on the square that says “TAKE A THOUSAND STEPS BACKWARD AND BEGIN AGAIN….” Remember that feeling that you have been plunked back at the very beginning and must start all over again?

GRRRR!  Powerlifting my powderpull dumbell and REACTING!

GRRRR! Powerlifting my powderpuff dumbell and REACTING!

In so many ways I feel that I am starting all over again….  and must build back up one very incremental step at a time.

At 5-weeks after surgery, I am just now at the point where I can begin cardio rehabilitation. I have very little stamina, and the simplest of tasks exhausts me. My very big step forward this week was to begin holding 2-pound dumbells and doing very simple arm exercises with them as I walk. My aspiration is that each day…. very very very slowly….. I will be able to make very small improvements and changes to what I am able to physically do — slightly increase my pace…. do just a few more arm raises than the last time…. be slightly less winded when I climb the stairs. I need to repeat the same exercise again and again and again to notice a very slight improvement.   It has always been far easier for me to jump out of an airplane than it is to prepare for a marathon…

And I wondered as I moved around the track…. “Am I in a creative or reactive mode here?”   I am proud to say that I am REACTING  and PROBLEM-SOLVING.   I have an intense internal conflict that makes me ANGRY, DISHEARTENED, sometimes feeling DESPAIR, and way-too-often very GRUMPY.   I do not like it and it needs to change…. it has me REACTING and PROBLEM-SOLVING.   In general, I am not “creating” and my action is not inspired by my high dream of possibility….  I am focused on SURVIVAL.   And, at times a catch a glimpse of the vision that I have for the life I long to live and I have not lost tough with my passion and love for life…  they remain.  But, I am growing a new-found and genuine appreciation for how essential it is to take BABY STEPS toward our growth — to try SLIGHTLY new things…. to make SMALL ADJUSTMENTS…. to build a new muscle one step at a time.

I believe that TRANSFORMATIVE LEARNING and INCREMENTAL GROWTH are like distinct instruments in a co-creative symphony and both have their part to play.    Up until now, I have not been valuing all the parts of the orchestra.    I know that as a leader and educator, this insight will change me — it will have me not ONLY strive to catalyze radical change, but also to pay careful attention to the ways in which steady and continuous improvement happens.

Now, back to the track.

Cosmic Meaninglessness and the Chance to Choose

•February 1, 2015 • 7 Comments

You may have seen pictures recently of me clutching this red-heart pillow….  and wondered what the heck it is….  well, when you have heart surgery you are given a heart pillow (or teddybear, or whatever….) to hold tightly to your chest when you need to do anything that impacts your breastbone, like breath or laugh or cough or God-forbid sneeze.   So, if you see someone walking slowly around your local mall or grocery store clutching a heart-shaped pillow, know that they have just had some sort of open heart surgery and are doing the very best they can!

My and my constant companion heart-pillow after surgery.

My and my constant companion heart-pillow after surgery.

On January 7 I had open-heart surgery.  The surgical team took an artery from my right leg and a vein from my left forearm and grafted them onto two of my coronary arteries which, although previously “stented,” had become blocked again.   After a few days in intensive care and a few more days in the hospital, I came home on Sunday January 11th…  Today it is 3 weeks later…. Sunday February 1…    I have made it through the most difficult part of the recovery process, and have about 5 more weeks until being fully back “in the swing” of my life and work.    It has been a rollercoaster of intensity and I have had moments of utter despair, triumph, excruciating pain, surrender, gratitude, fear…. experiences all over the map.

It seems like there should be some WISDOM and MEANING that comes from all of this, doesn’t it?    If you are like me, when really bad things happen, you somehow can get through it all more easily if you know that it is happening for some worthwhile reason.

We like to believe that the forces of the universe deliver circumstances to our doorstep when we are ready to handle them…  that life is a series of events that come to us so that we can learn from them and grow.   We hold on to the notion that there is some sense to be made of the sometimes confusing way that life unfolds around us — that it INHERENTLY holds some truth and meaning.   Particularly when events cause us to suffer, we take some solace in the notion that there is some reason or logic or meaning in why things are as they are.   I have watched myself in this same inner struggle, striving to have my suffering be mitigated by the meaning and deeper truth of what was happening, if I could only see it.    What I discover, however, as bleak as it may sound, is that the events of our lives are inherently MEANINGLESS —  there is no inherent sense to be made of the tests and challenges that we must navigate on our journey.  It seems a bit blasphemous to say that….  somehow we are supposed to think that life inherently has meaning and purpose.   But, this conclusion is not just bleak and hopeless — it is actually a liberating paradox.

One of the experiences that is commonly reported by people who have had open-heart surgery is emotional upheaval in the weeks following surgery.  In particular, deep dips into despair or depression, and moments of uncontrollable tears happen regularly.   Being a ten-year veteran of heart disease and the proud vessel for 12 coronary stents that were implanted a decade ago – I had some understanding of the possible depression that might follow surgery.   I’m glad to say that I have not yet experienced bouts of depression this time around.   However…. during the first two weeks at home I have experienced wild emotional swings and periods of uncontrollable tears that seemingly well up from nowhere in any moment.   This happens in any setting and just happens….  my care-takers, bless their hearts, can attest to this having been with me in all sorts of setting when it has happened.

During my first week at home my husband John took me out to our local Whole Foods Market so that I could do my 10-minute “walk.”   Somewhere in my slow trek down the snack food aisle I suddenly was overcome by deep despair, and a sense that God had forsaken me….  that I was being rendered helpless and left defeated by a very cruel and unfair universe.   Poor John watched as I turned, sobbing and gasping for air, into the bags of whole-grain organic tortilla chips.   I felt angry and defeated — I thought “OK, God… you have brought me to my knees…. I surrender…..”   I wanted to know  WHY?????   Through my tears, I wanted to shout out to God that I was willing to be brought to my knees as long as there was some MEANINGFUL PURPOSE in it!   If I knew that I could learn something useful or gain some shred of wisdom, then I could more readily accept being brought to my knees.

Bargaining with God…  it feels familiar to me.  I want for this human life to be somehow “fair” and to “make sense” — for there to be some inherent karmic law that balances everything out at the end of the metaphorical day.   And, what I realized in that moment is that these notions are all a sort of wishful thinking that we construct so that we can more easily navigate the suffering of life.    There is no inherent meaning, and “fairness” does not factor into how life unfolds.   There is no purposeful lesson to be learned.  It just is.

The very strange thing is that as I realized all of this,  I first felt such a dark and hopeless sense of gloom —  and then I started to giggle.  Yes, I started to laugh.  Part of me was noticing how intensely melodramatic I was being.  A voice in my head was saying…. “Well, duh… Art…. you already know this….  you have a blank canvass here of circumstances and experiences and it is your opportunity to create meaning from it… you get to make it up….  It means NOTHING, which means you get to decide what it means for yourself.”    Because, you see….  we have the agency and wisdom and creativity to construct the world we experience and live through in every moment.    Life does not dictate meaning to us… it does not come with pre-packaged meaning…. rather, we construct the meaning of life in every moment.   One one had that can seem devoid of any hope but at the same time is incredibly liberating.

And so, then…. what does it mean?  What meaning am I constructing from the events of my life at the moment?

  • I am courageous and can navigate pain.   People do not generally like to expose their vulnerability or disclose how difficult their struggles might be — including the reality of what it is like immediately following open-heart surgery.   This has been the most difficult and physically painful process I have ever navigated and it rendered me HELPLESS following surgery.  I learned that I can surrender to the difficult things…. I can accept being a very wounded animal and can gracefully allow others to care for me and hold me up.   I can accept and move willingly into the pain and suffering that must happen and I can navigate it and construct meaning from it.
  • I am not the circumstances nor roles nor well-though out plans of my life.   When I learned that I needed to urgently undergo bypass surgery, one of my reactions was “But wait…. this can’t be happening now because I have PLANS.  I have work projects scheduled and groups to lead and this just isn’t a convenient time!”   It is quite a jolt to, within one week, need to cancel EVERYTHING on my schedule for several months ahead.   I was confronted by huge discomfort that — without all those work projects — I would somehow cease to be.  Without the roles that I play, who would I be? I was struck by how much I have defined my identity by my professional activity and role.  It forces me to dig deeper to a more essential sense of who I am and what matters in life.
  • I am not invincible, and neither are you.  I like to pretend that I am some sort of invincible super-hero who does not need help, who is strong and independent… who always helps others but is not vulnerable himself.  This experience reminds me in a new way of how human we all are, and of the power that comes from a willingness to be vulnerable and to yield.   Many want to help and support and provide care in times like these, and this experience provides repeated constant practice in allowing others to give — in accepting love and support with grace and with gratitude.   I have been very blessed to have a core group of friends around me that have loved me and cared for me during these weeks… I have had acupuncture treatments and massages and meals and visits and errands and hands to hold, and am deeply grateful.
  • And, this is practice as well in having compassion and understanding that everyone is different and has a different way of responding in situations.  For some, it is immensely uncomfortable to “be with” the suffering of a seriously ill or injured loved one.   Some of my closest friends and family have needed to take a step back during this difficult period… to distance themselves from it in some way.   I notice how quick I am to judge when others who are friends or family seem to be unable to reach out or be present with what is happening.   It is all too easy to take offense or interpret their reactions personally, rather than to have compassion and recognize that they are doing the very best that they can.

This has been a time to take stock of life with my husband John — to ask ourselves what really matters and to assess how we most want to live our lives in the years ahead.   I made a decision to travel less and take more time at home, which means transitioning out of the business that I have helped to create in Colombia South America.  It prompted a somewhat impulsive saying YES to purchasing a vacation condo in Rockport on the North Shore of Massachusetts as a get-away place for me and John and Mario.

More to come.  This is just week 3 of an 8-week recovery period.   My intent is to keep navigating this process consciously… to not expect there to be logic or meaning or justice in the circumstances but to use every moment as an opportunity to CHOOSE the meaning that I construct from the ongoing unfolding of life.

Momentary Smiles

•July 2, 2014 • Leave a Comment

We walk along Fellsmere Pond and I spot an elderly man sitting on the bench.  His head is down and I make up that he is perhaps lonely.   Mario Antonio Doodle walks by my side, sniffing all that he can along the side of the pond… not yet aware of the man on the bench.   As we approach, the man looks up and I see his face light up as he spots Mario — ahh…. he is a dog-lover.  And, Mario notices too — he senses a friendly being and wants to say hi.   We approach and Mario sits in front of the man… stretching his nose out to sniff, wanting to lick his hand, and bowing his head for a scratch.   As the man scratches Mario’s neck, he comes alive in that moment and smiles broadly, his eyes twinkling.  “Oh, what a good dog,” he says.

This happens a lot along Fellsmere Pond…  now there are various people who call out “Mario!” when they see him coming around the bend.    As much as I try to prod Mario into becoming an ace frisbee dog and agility champ – his true gift is simply eliciting smiles and creating moments of joy in people’s lives.  

And so, I made it official…. took a class and exam to get him certified as a Therapy Dog.  No rigorous obedience or tricks required, simply a loving stable friendly presence.   

 

I had some doubts today as I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic making our way to visit four of Mario’s new “clients” at Marina Bay.  Each an elderly patient in a hospice setting, each approaching the end of life.   I suspected that the bigger challenge would be with me, not with Mario.   I felt unsure of how to be and what to say.

I learned that my role in this is secondary — I am the handler and facilitator.  I can help to set the stage and manage the interactions — but my biggest job is to be unobtrusive and stay out of the way.   What if the patients feel uncomfortable?   What if I don’t know what to say?   I noticed pretty quickly that Mario did not seem to have any of these apprehensions on his mind — he just showed up being himself.

We’re back home now after visiting with four patients.  I find myself with tears welling up, which I cannot entirely explain.   We spent perhaps a total of 45 minutes actually visiting with patients.  Of those 45 minutes, the patients probably spent 30 of them lost in their own world, unresponsive.  It is the other 15 minutes that moves me deeply.  For each patient, there was a moment of coming alive… of coming present…. of having a brief encounter with this pooch named Mario.   A minute of remembering and telling me about that dog that they had.   A momentary smile lighting up their face. 

I am grateful for the gift that they each gave to me today — the gift of remembering who we are, just for an instant.  And of reminding me once again that this moment is the only moment that we have.

Who Will Catch Me?

•September 12, 2012 • 1 Comment

Funny how sometimes the biggest learnings come from unforeseen places.  I have decided, finally, to hang up my tights and bring an end to my Flying Trapeze career, much to the relief of my heart and sore shoulders.   You see, throughout the seven months of Trapeze classes, a tiny soft voice kept nudging me in various moments…. “uh, excuse me…. are you sure this activity will be good for you?  You, um, have heart disease, remember?”   As is often the case in life, I tend to push that voice to the side until it screams more loudly for recognition…“OK, bud….  how about if I rip some of the tendons in your shoulders…. will that get your attention?”    On a deeper level, the process had me grapple more directly with my tendency toward reckless stimulation at the expense of taking better care of myself.  It raised the question — on the Trapeze and in Life — Who Will Catch Me?   I will come back to this theme, but first want to share what I have learned about the RELEASE part of the Flying Trapeze.

One way or another when doing the Flying Trapeze, there comes a moment when you must release the bar…. either to fly into the air, to reach for the catcher, or simply to let go and drop into the net.   Hmmm…. sounds a bit like life.  One way or another when living a life there comes a moment when each one of us dies… a moment when our physical life ends and somehow we let go and release.

In my brief career as a Flyer, I have experienced many swings where I have mostly just clung to the bar, chalky palms gripping as tightly as they can all the while saying to myself “just hang on, it will be over soon…”  During these swings,   my main focus is to hang on tightly to the one thing that I think is secure – namely, the bar.   And then…. yes, every single time…. comes a moment when I have arrived at the end of the swing and there I am still clinging to the bar… either to linger a bit longer or not…. but ultimately with just one option and direction to go.   On some other swings, I allowed myself to actually BE in the swing – to immerse in it, to feel it, to experience it. These swings, some with tricks and some just for practice, were exhilarating and alive and truly wondrous with a savoring of each brief moment in the air.  But…  I notice that either way I have chosen to do it, the swing still ends up in the same place — with the need to let go.

I relish the experience of freedom.   I feel grateful to experience a sense of freedom often in my life — they are the moments when I am connected to everything and to nothing all at the same time.   It happens in the quiet moments in the early morning when I sit outside in my garden and something catches my eye.   It happens when I connect deeply with another and feel the intimate human thread that connects us all… every single one of us.   It happens in transcendent moments when I gaze out to the sea… when I gain the biggest picture possible.   I notice that “free” does not mean the same thing as “happy” — it comes in moments of grief as well, particularly when people who I love have died and I feel their spirit around and within me.

I am aware, too, of the vast amount of time I spend in a state that is far from the experience of freedom — when I feel trapped in some sort of spiral that is hard to escape.  As I think of those times, it seems that fear is most common element — fear of losing something…. my family, my financial security, my health, my reputation, my status or power.   As I reflect on myself in that state, I see that out of that fear I cling tightly to the identities that I have created to define me to the world around me — like ivory castle towers that now must be maintained and defended against some unknown threat.   If I just cling tightly enough I will somehow survive until the end…

I have been lucky to have found several soulmates in this life.  One of them and the first, Cydney, taught me very valuable lessons about living and dying before she lost her battle with breast cancer twelve years ago.   Death was an ally that woke her up in the final years of her life, that prompted her to knock down the ivory towers of her identity to live her life fully before leaving.   I read this poem at her funeral, and it is always close to my heart:

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible;
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.

I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

In the “here and now” objective world we live in, I am many things and wear many hats, each bringing  aspects that construct my identity.  Some aspects have well honed skills and others – by design – do not… some hats I relish wearing and others frustrate me.   In some moments these parts of me are happy, satisfied or proud — and in others are terrified or sad or lonely.    I am a husband, a brother, a man, a neighbor, a consultant, a coach, an uncle, a friend, a competitor, a student, a teacher, a citizen… lots of identities that overlap in various ways… each with its own set of expectations and hopes and fears.  These “real” aspects of me are sometimes content and sometimes not – but rarely experience what I would call freedom.  When it seems to me that “I am” these things – that they represent who I am – a potential suddenly also exists that I might somehow lose them… that they could be lost or stolen or discarded.  And then, of course, if that were to happen, who would I then be?   This illusion creates a frightened clamoring and clinging and striving to hang on… to build the ivory tower walls higher or make them more impenetrable.  For this reason the shaman Don Juan counsels his student Castaneda that he must “lose his personal history.”   This clinging to identity feels much like clinging to the Trapeze bar high above the net.

On another level, a more dreamland and fantastic level — I am an adventurer, a romantic, a lover, a wizard, a dare-devil and risk-taker, a dog-whisperer, a dancer, an activist and an alchemist.  These are aspects of who I imagine and dream myself to be, and they bring a zest and meaning and color to life.  As I notice these dreamy parts, I notice too what seems to be missing from this list… where is the self-nurturer and caretaker and steward?  Somewhere along the way, that part got marginalized and cast aside.   These parts reach toward freedom… they stretch me and grow me… they bring a rich texture to life that transforms in from a series of events into an unfolding mythic story.  While I approach the doorway to freedom in these dreamlike states, these figures do not quite carry me the whole way through.

Then, there is another level even deeper than dreams of sentient essence and transcendent experience.  This is an ineffable state and the moment that I describe it with any words it becomes diminished from what it is… I can only point to it.   I know that it is state that I have always known.  My earliest memories of it come from when I would walk down to the beach as a young boy late at night and find an empty Lifeguard Chair.  I would climb up to the seat, way above the deserted beach, and gaze out over the sea to simply look at the moon and its reflection on the water.

Soon my fixed identities and even dreamlike figures would disappear and I someone knew that everything made sense and that I was a part of it all… as though part of me was the moon reflecting on itself in the water.   That was a space of freedom.

I have written before of my fascination with flying and love for figure skating on ice or springboard diving… early precursors to the Flying Trapeze.  Sometimes I dream of those moments and have the experience of disappearing into the movement and the music… of somehow becoming it.  In those moments too, I know freedom.

And so, this brings me back to the question:  Who Catches Me?

My ally Death helps me to answer this question, because he keeps me vigilant and conscious that this life is fleeting and precious.  Death will come as it does to all it its time, but it is not here quite yet.  He has introduced me to a new idea of The Catcher… the one who cares for me, nurtures me, sustains me.   In the “here and now” level of things, it is the part of me that is aware enough to recognize choices I make every day of how I  eat and move and sleep and work and relax.. who has attention on what actions serve me and the parts I want to grow, and what actions do not.  He is learning to pay closer attention to the subtle signals poking me for attention.   On another level, the more dreamlike one, there is a new archetype present that I do not know very well… the benevolent, compassionate, and nurturing one who values this life I have…. who knows that I deserve to be here and that life is worth living… who knows that regardless of what may go on around me, that I myself am trustworthy.  I plan to spend more time getting to know this one.

And, beneath all of that…. when I realize that ultimately there is not really anyone here to catch me (or any of us) in the end and I ask myself, well then Who Catches Me?   I think of what indigenous tribes refer to as the Sacred Hoop of Life  that contains us all — the place that I know well from my time atop the Life Guard Chair as a young boy.   In the Sacred Hoop of Life I am and we are all held.  I have always been shy about acknowledging the spiritual essence of who I am and how I experience life, and yet I know it to be the most rich source of freedom available.  And that is the essence of it, of freedom, and it is here around us and in us in every moment… It is freedom here and now in life, not an imagined freedom that may or may not come in death.   I plan to spend more time knowing this place, too.

Surrender Presence & Intention… and my friend FAILURE

•June 22, 2012 • 3 Comments

What does it mean to SURRENDER oneself completely?   Falling in love with my husband.   Being swept down the river rapids in a raft.   Body-surfing the crest of a wave.   Facilitating a hot group dynamic when I am “on.”   All of these have a quality of surrender for me — of letting myself go into and embrace a greater force that PULLS me.   It is a force that is greater than I am — the force of love, of rushing water, of a group process and the human spirit that wants to express itself.    On the Flying Trapeze I have progressed to being an “advanced beginner,” which means that I am now working on taking off from the platform on my own,  building my SWING, and learning some basic “back-end” tricks.   It may not appear to be as fancy as a trapeze catch trick, but the SWING is an amazing and magical thing — and the most challenging and disorienting thing I have yet experienced.  It is, well, a wild rush.   It is teaching me to recognize my ways of responding when I step or leap or dive into a force that is greater than I am.

In these situations in LIFE or on the TRAPEZE….

…. Sometimes I close my eyes, grit my teeth, pretend it is not happening, and I shut-down until it is all over.   My body tightens, I go into survival mode, and I tell myself to hang on until it is over.    Hmm…. sounds like what sometimes happens to me in a difficult conversation with someone I care about,  or say, when I am confronted in a challenging way by a group I am leading.  The first few times that I tried the Trapeze Swing this is what I did —- held on tight and shut down until I heard someone yell “let go!”    This is what I would call RESISTING THE FORCE.

….Other times I surrender to the force and get completely lost and disoriented… it sweeps me away.    Hmmm….. sounds like when I find myself on an emotional ride and become completely confused and uncentered, or when I work with a group and get bounced around so much that I become completely ineffective.   On the Trapeze, my Swing attempts after the first few were like this.   I would leap from the platform, surrender to the momentum of the swing and a rush of dizzying disorientation would overwhelm me.   Each time the Trapeze would reach its top height and begin to fall again in the other direction, my stomach would swoop up to my throat and the “Whoooaaaaaaaaa!” of vertigo would take over.   In this state which I call SWEPT AWAY I am lost and at the mercy of whatever the force is that has me… be it love, anger, rushing water, or the swoop of the Trapeze.

…. I am just beginning to now get a glimpse of the magic of the swing and what is possible, and the incredible power that can come when SURRENDER, PRESENCE, and INTENTION occur simultaneously….  when I am aware of the force and of myself at the same time that I embrace it, surrender to it, and allow it to carry me.    When that happens, I become one with the force… I can create from and with it…. I can impact it as it is impacting me.    So I think of my relationships — the people who are dearest to me — and moments that we enter into a conflict or difficulty.  In the best moments, I surrender to it and embrace it — and move forward towards it with presence and a conscious intent to deepen the relationship.  Or, I think of a tense group dynamic that I am facilitating and moments when I am able to move right into the energy that is happening while at the same time noticing what is happening and holding one level of awareness on my role or intent to have some sort of impact.   In these scenarios if I can surrender to what is happening it  becomes a force that I am able to create from.   On the Trapeze, I am beginning to see that the SWING is all about this force and my ability to become one with it, rather than being about my strength or ability to “force” it to happen the right way.

I am very much a beginner at this SWING, and suspect that I have merely scratched the surface.   This feels like a really worthwhile muscle to build, and I wonder in my life…. if I were able to more fully SURRENDER with PRESENCE and INTENTION to the situations around me, what might become possible.

FAILURE.  Often as a leader of teams and groups I can inspire others about how wonderful it is to learn from failure, and how wonderful it is to risk failure… some reading this have heard me say that.  OK, guess what.  I think failure sucks.   True Confession:  The reason that I usually have succeeded with many things in life is because I have made sure that I quit before I failed.  Uggh.   I hate failure and most things related to it… I hate being afraid of it…. I hate being viewed as it….. and I have always worked pretty hard to avoid it.    And, OK, yes….. boy it sure is a good teacher.

On the Flying Trapeze I am experiencing lots of failure — and rather than avoid it I want to share it right up front (see my Blooper video below).    A few weeks ago I had what felt like a disastrous Trapeze class…. I just could not get it together, and just about every time I leapt from the platform something went wrong.   Finally, I told the instructors that I had had it and was leaving… it just wasn’t my day.   As I was leaving, I slowly became aware of how I was feeling and of the thoughts racing through my head.   I felt angry and frightened and very discouraged — the Trapeze is getting a bit more difficult and I am afraid of hurting myself.   I felt very angry with myself for failing.  And I said to myself “I cannot do this…. it is too hard for me…. I am too old, too fat, too weak, too inflexible…. if I keep doing it I will look like an idiot…. I might get hurt…. I need to quit now….”

I stopped in my tracks because I realized that often in my life I have found myself in that very same state — and on various important occasions I have surrendered (been swept away) by that state and have quit.   It took me right back to the moment in 10th grade when I quit the High School Diving Team because I was too afraid of getting hurt or failing on the more difficult dives…. I knew that if I continued I would have lots of painful failure and I wanted to avoid it, so I walked away.   Professionally I have declined complex opportunities when I have been too frightened of failure, or too discouraged when things have not gone my way.   Personally there have been too many occasions when my fear of failing or being hurt in a relationship has compelled me to walk away, or consider doing so.

And so, I chose to sink more deeply into that experience of failure…. down down and down more to explore what I might find at the bottom.    It is, for me, a dark abyss, like being at the bottom of a very deep well.   And there at the bottom is a very frightened little person, surrounded by the menacing dangers of life that loom large and threaten to destroy.   It feels very primal to me… the terror of being obliterated, and the raging force of destruction — perhaps forces that are fundamentally embedded into the human DNA and emerge in me in my own particular way.   As I explore these energies more I find that they transform, one into a sense of open vulnerability, sensitivity, fragility, and innocence; the other into a ferocity, passion, and white-hot WILL TO LIVE.  Ahhh… transformed, these are energies that I can make good use of when I find myself in my own moments of wanting to give up and abandon my quests.  Actually, it seems like what I am learning in the Swing of the Trapeze — there is a surrender involved to the discomfort and pain of failing — there is an energy to it.   My intent is to bring more presence into that experience, and allow it to bring forth the creative force of intention.

Please do feel free to chuckle as you watch this one…you will not be the first to do so ; )

I did “climb back up the ladder” and returned for two classes last week — very determined to improve the “Back-End Straddle Whip” that I had so much difficulty with before.   I found myself laughing and enjoying the failures more, and made some improvements with the trick…. I am filled with excitement about continuing this journey — on one level it is simply fun.  On another level it is serving as a great structure to strengthen my resolve to work out, eat well, do yoga.  And more than that it is working for me in a profound way to explore what makes me tick, and what makes me more free — and that is my quest.   If you have reactions to my musings, please leave them with a comment — I appreciate it greatly.