Successful leaders work hard at building environments centered around four qualities that have been proven to be the most transformational for empowering people. Ask yourself whether your leadership influence is contributing these important attributes.
Our lives are made up of multiple social systems: families, marriages, work, businesses, corporations, churches, friendship circles, clubs. Like the natural world, these are all ecosystems where everything is inter-related and therefore everything is impacted by the other. There was a fascinating and insightful Linkedin article this week that used examples from nature to describe effective ways we humans can live within our social ecosystems (see "4 Bio-Inspired Tips to Create Better Teams" by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO). Several of his biology illustrations particularly stood out for me as I work with people and groups in guiding them to a more strengths-based way of living and being. Here's one of them.
Biologists are finding that
"successful organisms tend to collaborate more than compete."
Birch Trees and Rhododendrons. For example, birch trees and rhododendrons grow close by each other in the woods, not by accident but for specific purpose. "The birch provides shade to the rhododendron, keeping it from drying out. The rhododendron, in turn, provides the birch with defensive molecules that protect it from being eaten by insects. This symbiotic relationship allows both to survive longer."
A Win-Lose World. It's amazing how competitive our human social systems so often are. We've developed this win-lose paradigm: if I win, someone else has to lose; if someone else wins, that means I automatically lose.
So in this win-lose ecosystem, we end up having to protect ourselves all the time. Our walls are up. Our distrust is high. We're ready to fight to win. Because at stake is our own survival--there's only one winner.
Our conversations devolve into arguments where we all try to win. If we don't, we feel less than; we've been bested; we're losers. So we have to win at all costs.
If a friend gets promoted, we feel like we've lost something. If our significant other gets recognition, we feel like we've lost, we're diminished. If someone else's child gets into the best school and our's doesn't, we've lost, they've won. We're less than, they're more.
A Win-Win World. But imagine if we could live within our social ecosystems like the birch trees and the rhododendrons--in collaboration where there's a win-win belief and goal and worldview; where we come to each other bringing our best strengths to the system; where we each are contributing our best to each other; where we each embrace and trust the best from each other; where we stay with it long enough to work at developing a win-win outcome, refusing to take the win-lose easy way out.
A Strengths-based Approach. Imagine collaborative marriage relationships where each situation, need, and goal is approached via both spouse's top strengths. When a problem is being addressed, you ask your spouse for a "10 minute consult" where he/she uses his/her specific strengths (one or several that you might not have) in order to help bring effective resolution. Rather than competing, you collaborate; where you approach the relationship and experience mutually instead of hierarchically. Imagine that.
Imagine developing your specific roles based upon your strengths profile, whether in a marriage, family, work team, congregation; where everyone is asked, encouraged, validated, and affirmed to show up with their best; where people spend more time and energy focusing on strengths instead of weaknesses and deficiencies; where whatever gaps might exist in the relationship, they are overcome with each person leveraging his/her strengths together to effectively overwhelm the gap.
The genius of a strengths-based approach to life is that it's based upon the truth that no one of us is omnicompetent. We as individuals simply cannot do everything. We need others if we desire to truly be effective. We need everyone in our social systems to contribute their best strengths so that all together we can be as strong as possible. That's what creates a win-win.
Collaboration is a prerequisite for healthy ecosystems!
So are you living with a win-win or win-lose belief system? Which lens do you tend to look at your life situations through? Who do you need to collaborate more with from a place of mutual strengths in order to live more effectively?
If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for keynote speakers or workshop teachers for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My friend Jaime awhile back sent me this story. “A little boy was having difficulty lifting a heavy stone. His father came along just then. Noting the boy's failure, he asked, 'Are you using all your strength?' 'Yes, I am,' the little boy said impatiently. 'No, you are not,' the father answered. 'I am right here just waiting, and you haven't asked me to help you.'"
The more I reflect on my own life and listen to so many people talk about theirs, I'm struck by the truth that it is easy for us to get so caught up in our individual challenges--we're so lost in the weeds of our own lives, or so focused on lifting the heavy stones--we don't notice and take advantage of people around us who would be willing to support us if we just asked.
Ten Minute Consult
In my strengths coaching at Amazon Lab 126, one of the ways I encouraged teams to utilize strengths that the team didn't possess was what I call "Ten Minute Consult." Call up someone in the department who isn't on your team but who has the strength you need and make the simple ask: "Hey, would you be willing to give us 10 minutes of consulting time? We're faced with a problem we really could use your strength to advise us with."
It's a simply strategy that doesn't require a lot of time. But it continues to build on one of the most important paradigms for effective living: collaboration.
Collaboration & Interdependence
I think it's a genius reality that none of us is omnicompetent, none of us possesses all the strengths as our top strength. It forces us to recognize our interdependence upon others.
Successful people rely upon others and their strengths to lift their heavy stones. They choose to live by the truism,
We are stronger together than by ourselves.
One of the outcomes of this willingness to collaborate is validation and affirmation. It feels good to be asked to contribute from your place of strength. It feels validating to have one of your strengths affirmed and needed.
Don't Choose For Someone - Ask
It's sad that so many of us hesitate asking others for help because we don't want to inconvenience them or make them feel pressured in some way. We essentially make the choice for them by simply not asking.
And yet, truth is, we've consequently robbed them of affirmation and validation and the reward of using their strengths in a positive, productive way. Why not let them decide? Why not trust them to know what they're wanting to do in any given moment and give them the opportunity to say Yes or No? Why not give them opportunity to contribute their strengths to yours?
When a therapist was asked for one piece of advice he could give based upon all the wisdom he had gleaned from counseling thousands of people through the years, he made the profound observation:
"Know what you want, and learn to ask for it."
So what heavy stones are you trying to lift these days?
What strengths do you need that you don't have to help you accomplish this?
Who is around you that you could ask to assist you?
Have you been saying No for them without even asking? What's stopping you?
It's time to schedule your next Ask. Why not do what successful people do and get some help with your heavy stone.
The Tiger and the Fox An old Sufi story* tells about a man walking through the forest who saw a fox that had lost its legs and the man wondered how it lived. Then he saw a tiger come up with game in its mouth. The tiger ate its fill and left the rest of the meat for the fox.
The next day God fed the fox by means of the same tiger. The man began to wonder at God's greatness and said to himself, "I too shall rest in a corner with full trust in the Lord and he will provide me with all that I need."
He did this for many days but nothing happened. He was almost at death's door from starvation when he heard a voice say, "O you who are in the path of error, open your eyes to the truth! Stop imitating the disabled fox and follow the example of the tiger."
Three Nonnegotiables for Healthy Spiritual Living
This ancient story reveals several secrets to effective spiritual living and why we need people to become truly self actualized.
One, spirituality is deeply relational.
The fabric of our being is communal and relational. We thrive the most when we learn how to live effectively within the context of our relationships.
There's no such thing as a Lone Ranger spirituality.
There's this myth about spirituality in contrast to religion that says that spirituality is personal and private, while religion is communal. Not true!
Effective, transformational spirituality is not about living up on the mountaintop in direct communication with the Universe, like the stereotypical picture of the monk or guru who sits up on the peak alone receiving and dispensing the wisdom of life to intrepid and interested mountain climbers or spiritual seekers.
Effective spirituality is like the tiger in our story---taking what feeds us and sharing it with hungry people. And the truth is, everyone in our circles of relationships are hungry in various ways.
Spirituality is essentially relational because our growth as people is directly impacted by our ability to relate to people. It's in our relationships where the rubs of life so often take place. So unless we learn how to navigate those "rubs" - our journey toward becoming more actualized humans on this planet of people by living life well among people - we isolate our spirituality and it eventually withers into ineffectiveness.
Two, relational spirituality reframes faith and trust.
The man in our story was rebuked by God for trying to imitate the passiveness of the fox rather than the active sharing of the tiger.
Many people have the view of spirituality as mostly sitting and waiting on God. "It's just you and me, God," they say. "God will provide. I just need to have enough faith in order to experience God's intervention." It's the "monk in the cave" or "guru on the mountaintop" approach.
The problem with this kind of spiritual paradigm is that it leads to isolationism. If God only acted directly, why would you need others? If you could become completely self-actualized in a vacuum, why would you need others? God could simply put each of us in a sealed off vacuum chamber until we finalized achieved perfection, and then let us free.
Trust in God or the Universe is not just sitting in a corner trying to convince yourself that you will be provided for if you simply have enough faith.
I've discovered in my life that most often the way God has provided for me is through other people who have shared their love, generosity, and support with me. God has used "the tigers" in my life to bless me time and time again.
My willingness to open myself up to other people, to be willing to receive from them, is an act of radical trust in God and the humanity that God chooses to work through. My willingness to stop trying to be "superman," mister omnicompetent superhero in life who can go it alone very well, thank you, and instead realize my need for other people to help me grow into the man I'm meant to be, is an act of radical trust in God and the people God chooses to use in my life.
Three, spirituality demands a relational environment because at the heart of spirituality is forgiveness and love.
All spiritual traditions describe the fundamental nature of God with the word love. God is love.
Here's the way the Christian scriptures state this reality:
"Since God loved us that much [Jesus giving his life to forgive us], we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and God's love has been brought to full expression through us...God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them." 1 John 4:11-12
In the one of the most concise descriptions of the divine nature, we are reminded that God is love. And notice that central to the attribute of divine love is forgiveness. And the natural progression of that spiritual experience is that we are then people who love and therefore who forgive others.
Our spiritual development, the process of becoming more and more self actualized as human beings, is to learn how to love more deeply and more completely. We learn to love ourselves. And we learn to love others. Spiritual growth is about growing in the process of loving well.
But you and I cannot truly love either ourselves or others without learning how to forgive. The point is, it is only within the context of relationships---where we experience the bumps and bruises of life---that we learn how to love and forgive. That's where healthy spirituality is developed.
Loving and Forgiving Without Judgment
One of the obstacles we often face with loving and forgiving is our tendency to judge people. Notice in our story, the tiger gives food to the disabled fox without condemning or judging the fox. The tiger refuses to interrogate the fox about how it lost its legs. Was it being irresponsible? Who's fault was it? Did the fox make bad or unwise choices that led to this tragic loss?
No, the tiger saw the need and without judgment gave of its own abundance.
Divine love and forgiveness are always without conditions. They are simply given, no strings attached. That's why those actions and predispositions with God are called grace.
The truth is, you and I as human beings simply cannot grow spiritually to our most actualized selves outside the context of our relationships. Why? Because it is in our relationships where we are forced to rub up against others and they with us in a way that prompts and teaches us what it means to really love and forgive in every context of our lives.
So which do you find yourself modeling or identifying more with in your spiritual life? The man who tried to be like the fox, or the tiger?
* Adapted from Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, p. 79.
I'm offering a cycle of 3 spiritual retreats, starting in October, anchored in the seasons of Fall, Winter, and Spring. These retreats are designed to provide you the time, space, and resources to shape your spirituality in deeper and more meaningful ways that honor who you are and where you are along your journey of life. This will be a transformational experience for you to reflect and explore a more relational, and more self actualized spiritual journey. Click this link for more information: Spiritual Retreats.
There's a fascinating story in the Hebrew scriptures about the Jews during their wandering in the desert. They've just been freed from slavery in Egypt. God is taking them to the Promised Land where they will "set up shop" in a land they will call their own, learning how to live out their identity as children of God. On this journey through the wilderness God engages them with numerous ways to learn the art of trust and faith. They must lean into a new identity, from slaves to free people. In the middle of the desert, they cry out to God for food. God ends up feeding them with what comes to be called "manna," bread from heaven. It falls on the camp every morning for the people to gather and enjoy.
Significantly, God tells them about a unique quality of this manna that will forever engage them in an act of faith and trust--the manna will last only for one day. "Gather of it, each one of you, as much as you can eat." But no one is to leave any of it till the next morning. No one is to try to stockpile it for future days. Whoever tries to keep it overnight will discover that by the morning it will breed worms and become spoiled. There will be enough for each day, but one day at a time. Every morning, the people will need to go out and gather as much as they want for that day.
This is a genius system that God is reinforcing with these newly liberated people. God is emphasizing the necessity and significance of daily sustenance. God gives enough for each day. Which means that each new day requires intentional "gathering" and "eating." You can't live on yesterday's sustenance!
This has led spiritual traditions to emphasize the development of daily, regular spiritual practices that nourish the soul, heart, mind, and body.
My wife and I have found indispensable our daily morning spiritual practice of sacred readings, reflections, and prayer. We have found spiritual transformation is taking place in rich, deep, and grounding ways from that daily foundation.
Most people would never consider that eating one meal would fill them up so that they never have to eat another meal again. In fact, eating food is actually a daily habit for most of us! Our bodies are designed to need this regular routine. And what's more, we enjoy eating!
Why is it that when it comes to the spiritual life so many people allow themselves to go for long periods of time without "eating" and receiving nourishment? This explains why there is so much spiritual malnourishment in our culture--people are so hungry they can't see straight (the ability to see spiritual reality and truth is hugely diminished in our culture); they feel weak often; and sometimes they even collapse when some exertion is called for. They simply need to eat more, and especially eat nourishing meals.
There's something quite powerful about acknowledging hunger and doing something about it to fill that need. There's a kind of humility that comes from a recognition of our need. Try as hard as you might with as much will power as you can muster, you simply can't go forever without food. Death results if you try.
We are dependent upon nourishment. And when we accept this reality, it builds a kind of trust and faith in the process of life. We take responsibility for what we can in our lives and then trust the rest to the providence of Life.
God required daily manna-gathering to establish a daily discipline/habit of trust and faith in God's providence. The spiritual cycle was: God provides, the people gather and enjoy, the day ends; then God provides again, the people gather and enjoy enough for the day, the day ends; then God provides again with enough for that day, and the people gather and enjoy.
The whole point of a daily spiritual practice is to help reinforce both our sense of dependence as well as our reliance upon spiritual nourishment to fully and deeply live life for each day. The cycle of faith and trust in the Providence of Life is this: every day has just what we need for that day--so gather it, eat it, enjoy it, and live it.
How is your practice of daily spiritual eating?
"Today, I have everything I need. I will choose not to be obsessed about yesterday or tomorrow but just about today. I have enough from God to provide me with everything I need for this day. Tomorrow's a new day. So I will take God's manna to me today and live this day as fully, as passionately, and as purposefully as I have the strength to. I will enjoy God's grace that comes just for this day. Tomorrow will bring a fresh supply. And I'll enjoy that, too! Thank you, God, for your daily manna."
[If you like these posts, feel free to share them with others - click on the share button to the right. If you would like to receive each new blog post as an automatic email, please subscribe at the right.] So what does it take for you to live in the moment - to be truly present in a place of peace?
Karen Armstrong is a former nun and now one of the world's foremost authorities on comparative religions with her latest book A Case For God topping the best-seller list. She is also the recent creator of the "Charter for Compassion," whose signatories (like Prince Hassan of Jordan and the Dalai Lama) fight extremism, hatred, and exploitation throughout the world. She was recently asked by Oprah's O Magazine what it takes to live in the moment, to seize the day. She replied:
"Sometimes you wake up at 3 A.M. when everything seems dark, and you think, 'Life isn't fair. I've got too much to do. I'm too put-upon.' It's a rat run of self-pity! But when you feel compassion, you dethrone yourself from the center of the world. Doing that has made me a more peaceful person."
It's amazing how much stress we put ourselves under when we sit on the throne of our lives, trying to be in control of everything. Rather than producing peace, this worldview contributes to anxiety and distress instead. It's kind of like trying to spin multiple plates on sticks. The first few plates we seem to handle pretty well. But as the plates get added, we're running around trying to keep them all from falling and breaking into pieces. It isn't long before the task is simply too much for us, no matter how gifted or full of energy we might be. So much for ruling our kingdoms with ease.
I like Karen Armstrong's perspective - what helps to dethrone us from the center of the world is compassion - having an outward focus of empathy and caring toward others. Counter-intuitively, including more people in our lives that we give love to actually decreases our dis-stress and anxiety and centers us more in a peaceful frame of heart, mind, and spirit. It's almost like we were designed to live with compassion.
And actually, we were! Neuroscience research in fact reveals that compassion, helping others, triggers activity in the portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. Every compassionate act causes a pleasurable physiological response. In addition, behaviors associated with compassionate love—warm smiles, friendly hand gestures, affirmative forward leans—actually produce more oxytocin in the body which is the hormone that promotes feelings of warmth and connection to others and enhances feelings of trust.
And the compassionate act doesn't have to fancy or extreme or complicated at all. Dr. Lorne Ladner, a clinical psychologist in private practice in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., wrote: “I just recently read one research study that found that people who pray for others tend to live longer than those who do not. The point is that when we develop feelings of love or compassion, we may not always be able to actually benefit others in a direct way, but we ourselves do always benefit from such feelings. They serve as causes for our own happiness.” When's the last time you chose to actually pray a blessing for someone else? How difficult is that?
So Karen Armstrong seems to be on to something when she talks about her personal experience of how compassion actually helps her live more peacefully. The act of dethroning self with our obsessive need to control life by giving authentic love and compassion to others is a eustress rather than a distress - the positive, energy-producing kind of stress rather than the debilitating kind. And the long term affects of this are truly transformative.
Compassionate acts as simple as loving, sympathetic touch are powerful, too. According to experts in a study about emotion and touch, sympathetic touches are processed by receptors under the surface of the skin, and set in motion a cascade of beneficial physiological responses:
"Female participants waiting anxiously for an electric shock showed activation in threat-related regions of the brain, a response quickly turned off when their hands were held by loved ones nearby. Friendly touch stimulates activation in the vagus nerve, a bundle of nerves in the chest that calms fight-or-flight cardiovascular response and triggers the release of oxytocin, which enables feelings of trust. Research by Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney reveals that sympathetic environments — those filled with warm touch — create individuals better suited to survival and reproduction, as Darwin long ago surmised. Rat pups who receive high levels of tactile contact from their mothers — in the form of licking, grooming, and close bodily contact — later as mature rats show reduced levels of stress hormones in response to being restrained, explore novel environments with greater gusto, show fewer stress-related neurons in the brain, and have more robust immune systems."
The practice of compassion has the potential of radically transforming the life of the giver as well as the lives of the receivers. No wonder Jesus, in concluding his public discourse about the values of God's kingdom, connected the giving of compassion, living a life of unconditional love and care for all others (including even our enemies) with a life characterized by freedom from worry, anxiety, and distress (Matthew 5-6). Compassion, one of the most godly things we can do in life, puts us in place of inner peace and tranquility, a state of trust and unselfishness in the very heart of the Divine Life.
So what empowers you to be able to live in the moment, to seize the day, even in the midst of stress? Have you tried compassion lately? As the spiritual and scientific experts reminds us, it just might help transform your heart, mind, spirit, and body.
[If you enjoy this blog, please SHARE it with your friends and others who might be interested. You can click in the column to the right and choose how you want to share this.] This last Saturday, the topic at my spiritual community's service was how Springtime is considered by almost every major religious tradition as a sacred portal to experiencing God and opening one's self up to deep personal and spiritual growth. Spring is a time of year that many consider a "thin place" - an opportunity to have the curtains of our hearts and minds pulled back a bit to provide us meaningful glimpses of and encounters with the Sacred.
"Spring naturally makes us see the renewal of life," writes the Rev. Jerry Hirano whose Buddhist tradition celebrates the festival Ohigan during the spring and fall equinoxes. "It makes us appreciate the circle of life, so to speak. We see that even in the harshest of winter, there is rebirth, renewal. One naturally follows the other."
I'm especially thankful for this reality. It reminds me that life has seasons to it - that's a natural part of life for every living thing. So when my life feels like it's in a deep dark winter, where nothing significant seems to be happening, where it doesn't feel like my life is growing or that I'm making a difference in any tangible or visible ways, spring will come! The Creator God has structured life to be that way - the cycle includes both times of apparent desolation when things seem to go into hibernation, as well as times of new life, new birth, growth and transformation and productive activity.
One of the profound illustrations of this in nature is the butterfly's cycle of life. It's called metamorphosis. That's a Greek compound word, meta - change, plus morph - form, literally meaning change in form or transformation. When you take a look at the butterfly's metamorphosis, you can't help but notice not only how intentional but also how important every step of the journey is. Transformation involves every phase of the cycle. Here's a short trip back to your high school biology class (remember those good 'ole days? Look how much has "metemorphed" since then - thankfully!).
The butterfly's metamorphosis involves four stages:
Stage one: Egg
One thing worth mentioning here is that, female butterflies are very choosy about the plants they would want to lay their eggs on. The reason is that the caterpillar has to survive by munching away the leaves of this plant. For instance, the female Monarch butterfly would prefer to lay eggs only on milkweed plants. This is because the caterpillars of this variety of butterflies can feed only on this plant. Similarly, each variety of butterflies has its preference when it comes to laying it egg. Laying of eggs commences the first phase of butterfly metamorphosis. The underside of the leaves is where you find the butterfly eggs. These are white in color and are very small. It takes almost a week for the eggs to hatch. The larva develops inside the egg and nourishes on the yolk of the egg. Finally, they make a small hole in the egg and emerge on the leaf. Here the second stage begins.
Stage two: Larva
The larva of the butterfly is called caterpillar. This is the second phase of the metamorphosis. Initially the caterpillars are very small and hardly weigh 0.55milligrams. The length of the caterpillar is merely 0.1 inch. However, the caterpillar grows fast feeding on the leaves. In two weeks they become an adult caterpillar. Now the size of the caterpillar is around 2 inches. This is a very interesting stage. The adult caterpillar has eight pairs of legs. As the caterpillar grows longer it outgrows its skin. It sheds the skin. This process is called as molting. In this stage of butterfly metamorphosis, caterpillar molts its skin around five to six times. The fully-grown adult caterpillar, starts crawling away from the plant it was feeding on and keeps crawling till it finds a safe haven to pupate. Once the caterpillar finds a place to pupate, it makes a silk-like mat on the surface and hangs upside down. The last pair of legs is attached to the silk-like mat. It hangs for one whole day like this and takes the shape of the alphabet "J". Caterpillar sheds its skin for the last time before it moves into the next stage of butterfly metamorphosis.
Stage three: Pupa
When the larva enters the third phase, it has already shed its eight pairs of legs and the head capsule, which had housed six eye lenses. The skin of the caterpillar is shed for the final time and the casing takes the color of jade. This casing is called chrysalis. Though initially chrysalis is soft gradually within an hour it hardens to form a protective shell. Within the chrysalis the caterpillar slowly turns into a butterfly. There is a transformation taking place within the pupa. The body parts of the caterpillar disintegrate to form the body parts of the butterfly. The transformation period of chrysalis to butterfly takes around 10 to 15 days.
Stage four: Adult
The hardened chrysalis cracks and the butterfly emerges from it. The wings of the butterfly are small and wet. It clings onto the shell of the chrysalis. At this juncture, a life-saving fluid known as hemolymph is pumped into the body of the butterfly. Hemolymph spreads slowly throughout the body and the wings. This crucial spreading is assisted by the struggle of the butterfly to emerge from its small cocoon opening. This helps in enlarging the wings and the body of the butterfly. Remember that the wings are wet and the butterfly is unable to fly. However, within an hour the wings become dry and the butterfly is ready to fly and ultimately to mate and start the cycle all over again.
Did you notice not only how intentional but also how important every step of the butterfly's journey is? Metamorphosis / transformation involves every phase of the cycle not just the final stage of adulthood. Here are a few lessons:
- Everything has its place, its reasons and purpose, its timing.
- Everything is provided for the butterfly in each stage to experience optimum health and growth for that stage - whether from its own DNA code written into its make-up or from external support systems.
- Nothing is wasted (notice the effective recycling that takes place).
- In order for growth and transformation to take place, multiple "sheddings" (or molting) have to happen. It's amazing how difficult this step is to humans - we have a tough time letting go of something we've clung to at certain stages. But if the caterpillar never molted, it would never continue transforming. In fact, did you notice that it even drops its 8 pairs of legs and its head capsule with its six eye lens? Does that mean it will never walk or see again? No. Its final body will be for a different purpose - it won't be crawling anymore, it will be flying. So it will need 6 legs and 2 wings and 2 antennae. And eyes? The adult butterfly has 2 eyes with 6000 eyelets or ommatidia in each eye. An ommatidia is like an eye within an eye. It actually divides the eyes in the shape of a disco ball which helps the butterfly to locate things easier. They work like the pixels of a camera.
- So with each new stage, new systems and structures are needed for the newly developed form because each form has a new purpose with new needs. And before the new structures and systems are in place, the old ones have to be shed and let go of.
- Crisis, difficulty is an inherent part of the transformational cycle. The emerging butterfly with its new wings has to go through the small opening in order for the hemolymph to get spread to all parts of its body and wings. Cut the opening wider so the butterfly doesn't have to work as hard to emerge and it is damaged irreparably, never able to fly, its death hastened.
In my next post, I'll talk about how this metamorphosis process applies to our spirituality and personal development. Stay tuned!
A man once asked God for one thing – something to add beauty to his small potted garden. So God presented him with an ugly, prickly cactus plant and a wrinkled up, alien-looking caterpillar. The man was surprised, because he had asked for one thing and God gave him something else. After many days, the cactus bloomed with spectacular flowers and in the place of the caterpillar, there was a beautiful and stunning butterfly.
God seems to know what metamorphosis and genuine transformation are all about. I'm discovering that the process of life for me is more and more about learning how to trust God's wisdom for life, and how to trust the process and the journey. This Spring is a good time to embrace this kind of Life.
[If you enjoy this blog, please SHARE it with your friends and others who might be interested. You can click in the column to the right and choose how you want to share this.] A RECAP FROM MY LAST POST: Remember Walt Kowalski (from the movie Gran Torino)? Walt is living a lonely, isolated life in a world that looks so different from his past. He's turned himself into a gruff, crude, angry old man who pushes everyone away. His defense mechanisms (his ego defenses) are so strong that he's placed himself on a trajectory toward a lonely, painful ending. His only legacy will be the perfectly kept, spotless car from his past - a Gran Torino - which has come to symbolize the way he wished life still was - something good from the past he religiously hangs on to.
Is there any hope for a man like Walt Kowalski? Is the Gran Torino all there is? Here-in lies the power of this contemporary story, especially in light of this Season's theme of death and resurrection. There are two spiritual traditions centering on two powerful stories that both Jews and Christians celebrate this time of year. Both stories have a lot to say about the important dynamics of spiritual growth and transformation. Both center around the experiences of death and resurrection.
Notice THE STORY OF THE JEWISH PASSOVER. There’s an existence of bondage and slavery in the foreign land of Egypt (with an accompanying loss of a sense of true identity and purpose) – there’s weeping and wailing and death and status quo and survival. The people have gotten use to living with a certain frame of mind (with strongly developed defense mechanisms) and a corresponding way of life – victims, hopelessness, death – as the chart in my last post shows, fear-anger-shame. Then there’s an appeal by Moses on behalf of their God to exit this life of slavery and bondage and enter their true Life (a life promised by God that will be lived out in the Promised Land). And God will provide a way of escape. How? They must choose to trust in this Life-giving, Nourishing God by spreading the blood of a killed lamb over the doorposts so the angel of judgment on the Egyptian slave empire will “pass over” their homes; then they must leave their homes and follow Moses out of the country; then they must willingly escape across the Red Sea (once God divides it) in the face of the enemy army to “pass over” to the other side away from their land of bondage and into their resurrected new life.
Notice the process: God promises – they choose to trust – they follow specific directions – they walk away from their old life – they go into the unknown, face pain and danger – and they finally choose to keep going, all the while learning about their reclaimed Identity, until they arrive at their New Life (the Promised Land) where they can finally live in complete alignment with their God-given identity. Cross – Resurrection. All along the way, their egos are dying on the cross as they follow God and God provides what they need to make intentional choices. And the result is a resurrection to their New Life. The point is, you can't have a resurrection to a new life without also choosing to leave something else behind.
NOTICE THE STORY OF THE CHRISTIAN EASTER. In this Christian story, the Way of Jesus is all about the confidence with which he lived his life all the way to the end. In spite of all the voices trying to tell him who he was, who he should be, whom he shouldn’t be, he developed a powerful security in his identity as God’s beloved son. Only a really secure person can serve so unselfishly and compassionately and courageously. Right? That’s why the Gospel of John (chapter 13), when it describes Jesus in the upper room the night of his betrayal celebrating the Jewish Passover service, says about Jesus, “And Jesus, knowing who he was, where he had come from, and where he was going, took off his outer garment, took the servant’s pitcher of water and a towel, and washed his disciples’ feet.”
Only a really centered person, who has learned to move from a small-s “self” to capital-S Self, who has learned who he truly is, who God has called him to be, can face the powerful religious and political systems of his day and oppose them for all the right reasons – in spite of their vigorous persecution and vitriolic aggression against him. Only a truly centered and secure person can deliberately break the unjust rules and boundaries of his time and proclaim a message about the Kingdom of God being a world of justice and compassion for everyone, knowing that this message, along with all of his courageous acts of love, will be dangerous and potentially life-threatening.
Here’s the way one author puts it: “The way of Jesus involves not just any kind of death, but specifically ‘taking up the cross,’ the path of confrontation with the domination system and its injustice and violence. His passion was the kingdom of God, what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers and systems of this world were not. It is the world that the [Hebrew] prophets dreamed of – a world of distributive justice in which everybody has enough, in which war is no more, and in which nobody need be afraid … Jesus’ passion got him killed. But God has vindicated Jesus. This is the message of Good Friday and Easter … The way of the cross leads to life in God and participation in the passion of God as known in Jesus.” Marcus Borg, Jesus, pp 291-292.
The Way of Jesus shows what can happen when a person is so centered on God and God’s passion, is so centered on God’s calling and one’s true Identity, that they are empowered to let go of every image and defense mechanism that isn’t the truth about themselves, and then live with courage and boldness to love and give no matter what and no matter who they’re confronted by.
The power of the Jesus story is how it illustrates the Way to New Life, the abundant and joyful life, the divine life that we’re designed to enjoy. Two powerful symbols that describe this Way: the Cross, and the Empty Tomb; death and resurrection; the laying down of the ego, in order to find, to reclaim the Essential Self.
It’s interesting how so many of us want the new life without the pain of the cross. We expect there to be a “silver bullet” that suddenly launches us into our true Selves without having to go through the “grave” of the ego. We are constantly tempted to project a certain image of ourselves in order to protect ourselves – so we make choices to protect that image at all costs. Instead of living out of our core truth, instead of having the courage to be who we really are, to live in alignment with who God has created and called us to be.
BACK TO “GRAN TORINO”
So how does this way of the cross and resurrection, this sacred portal and thin place, get lived out by Walt Kowalski in the movie “Gran Torino?” What happens with the central metaphor of his prized and perfect Gran Torino, that symbol of escape from the real world into his safe, secure, predictable fantasy world?
Walt has spent multiple decades shining and polishing and nurturing his Gran Torino – he has invested himself in this car because it has come to represent the way he wished life still were. That car has become his ego defense mechanism and he continues massaging it, hoping for a better world.
But haven’t you noticed that often the very things we do to get what we’re really looking for are the very things that keep us from getting it? Walt’s anger, shame, and fear – and the ways he lives those feelings out – are not helping him get what he’s really seeking – autonomy, security, and positive attention. His Gran Torino is a powerful symbol of misguided focus.
Until that prized Gran Torino one night almost gets stolen by who Walt thinks is one of the local gang members – and then finds out that it’s his next door neighbor’s teenage son. Which then catapults Walt kicking and screaming into the whole life of this Asian family who has been to him up to now a foreign enemy. As they respond in humility and kindness and graciousness, mortified over the shame from their boy’s actions, Walt begins to get to know them. In ever so slight ways, he lets his guard down and his heart opens up to this new world around him. He ultimately begins trying to mentor this boy who has no father at home, bringing him into his world as well as going into the boy’s and his sister’s world. Walt begins to see that there’s another way to look at and experience life in this new reality – that there are people who can see him for who he really is – who accept his grumpiness and crudeness as just an exterior he’s gotten use to using that in truth masks a gentle and kind heart, a grandfather’s heart.
Their love and kindness pursue him in spite of his angry attempts to deflect them. Love wears him down. And what he begins to feel, he begins to like. What he sees of himself when he looks through their eyes, he begins to like. He finally finds his true Self evidenced by his final act of selfless giving. True to what Jesus once said, "The one who gives up his life for my sake will find it."
In the end, Walt’s Gran Torino, the very symbol of his insecurity, becomes a symbol of his resurrected life. He gives this prized car to this Laotian boy – the very boy who tried to steal it now gets to use it and then ultimately own it. Walt has gone through the cross of letting his ego be transcended by his truer Self and has experienced a resurrection of love, compassion and kindness. The very Gran Torino he hung on to as his old way of survival and security becomes transformed into a symbol of his expanded life – a sacred portal, a thin place.
QUESTIONS: So where might you see yourself in Walt Kowalski’s story? What are your ego defenses – how do you tend to respond when you don’t get your way or when you feel threatened? What is your Gran Torino that you’re using to protect your ego? What do you tend to hang on to that symbolizes your desire for security, autonomy, attention? Where in your life do you need the resurrection of your true Self? What does the cross look like for you – where does your ego need to die so that your truest Self can be resurrected?
[Please SHARE this blog with people who might be interested! Hit the button on the right to subscribe or to share the post] The word "faith," especially to Westernized Christians, has come to be seen as a primarily notional experience - having to do with what you think about God. It tends to mean holding a certain set of "beliefs," believing a set of statements to be true, whether cast as biblical teachings or doctrines or dogma. Your faith is judged by how much you believe and how accurate your beliefs are. If you possess this "right" kind of faith, you're called a "believer."
As a result, this concept of faith as primarily an intellectual exercise has turned faith almost exclusively into a matter of the head, too often with disastrous results by heartless, nonloving "believers."
But significantly, that was not the central meaning and usage of the word "faith" in the history of human religion (including early Christianity). As Karen Armstrong, in her powerful book The Case For God, states, "Religion was not primarily something that people thought but something they did ... Religion [from its very inception in human history] was always a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart."
It was a way of being and living, not simply a way of thinking. The stories and sacred scriptures of every religion emphasized the journey of heart and spirit in learning the sacred art of self-forgetfulness and compassion. As a result, religions developed powerful rituals and practices that, if followed and wholeheartedly engaged in, would enable adherents to step "outside" their egos and experience the Sacred and Divine, empowering them to live more compassionately and unselfishly toward others.
For example, as Armstrong points out, the early Chinese Daoists (over 300 years before Jesus and the early Christian followers) saw religion as a "knack" primarily acquired by constant practice. They, like the earlier Buddha and even Confucius, refused to spend lots of time speculating about the many metaphysical conundrums concerning the divine (as Buddha once said to a follower who constantly pestered with those kind of questions: "You are like a man who has been shot with a poisoned arrow and refuses medical treatment until you have discovered the name of your assailant and what village he came from. You would die before you got this perfectly useless information!").
Zhuangzi (c. 370-311 BCE), one of the most important figures in the spiritual history of China, explained that it was no good trying to analyze religious teachings logically. He then cited the carpenter Bian: "When I work on a wheel, if I hit too softly, pleasant as this is, it doesn't make for a good wheel. If I hit it furiously, I get tired and the thing doesn't work! So not too soft, not too vigorous. I grasp it in my hand and hold it in my heart. I cannot express this by word of mouth, I just know it."
Like the Chinese hunchback who trapped cicadas in the forest with a sticky pole and never missed a single one. He had so perfected his powers of concentration that he lost himself in the task, and his hands seemed to move by themselves. He had no idea how he did it exactly, but he knew only that he had acquired the knack after months of practice. This "self-forgetfulness," Zhuangzi explained, was a "stepping outside" the prism of ego and experience of the sacred. (from Armstrong, The Case For God, pp. xii-xiii, 23.)
No wonder Jesus, centuries later, reiterated this paradigm of spirituality and religious experience when he called his followers to "take up your cross and follow me." He's not simply talking about believing in your head the right doctrines and the core truths. He's talking about a "way" of living. Referring to his own experience as the example for his followers, he said, "I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who is willing to give up his life in this world will keep it forever." John 12:24-25
Genuine faith is not just about your head, it's about your heart, it's about your journey, it's about life transformation that comes from self-forgetfulness and an experience with God the Sacred and the Divine.
SO IN THIS SERIES, we're taking a look at the four words that are translated as "faith." We're unpacking each word and exploring what it means and what the differing nuances suggest about developing a faith that works in real life, a faith that transforms life, a faith that defines ourselves and produces a rich and deeper experience of both God and Life. It's a return to the core of what religion was always meant to facilitate but has too often lost along the way: a transformation of the heart. In my last blog, we explored the 1st word for faith, “fiducia,” from which we get our English word "fiduciary" (a person in whom we place our trust to protect our finances and estate). So “trust," is the central definition, which in the realm of faith then conveys a profound kind of relaxed, solid, worry-free confidence in God as a power that can be trusted and relied upon to have our best interests in mind.
Today's word for faith is "fidelitas," which is the Latin word for "fidelity." It literally means loyalty, faithfulness – originally referring to a vassal's loyalty to his Lord; a steadfast and devoted attachment that is not easily turned aside; constancy, steadfastness. Faith as fidelity means loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at its deepest level, the commitment of the “heart” to the experience of God not simply to statements about God. A radical centering in God from your heart and soul not just your mind. So what does that look like in real life terms?
There are two metaphors that the sacred scriptures use in describing our faith relationship with God that I'll unpack in my next blog post. These metaphors describe what "fidelity" is NOT and so help to increase our understanding of what genuine faith as fidelity and loyalty is. Stay tuned!
[Please SHARE this blog with people who might be interested! Hit the button on the right to subscribe or to share the post] Marcus Borg, a professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University and a prolific author and speaker about the importance of a progressive Christianity, was on a plane trip sitting next to a woman who said, "I'm much more interested in Buddhism and Sufism than I am in Christianity." When he asked her why, she said, "Because they're about a way of life, and Christianity is all about believing." She continued: "I don't think beliefs matter nearly as much as having a spiritual path and following a way."
He commented later in one of his books: "I understood her comment, even as I silently disagreed with part of it. To begin with the disagreement, Christianity is about a way of life, a path, and it has been from its very beginning. At the center of Jesus' own teaching is the notion of a 'way' or a 'path,' and the first name of the early Christian movement was 'the Way.' Indeed, seeing Christianity as a 'way' is one of the central features of the emerging paradigm." (The Heart of Christianity, p. 31)
The woman's statement does reflect the most common understanding of the word "faith" in modern Western Christianity: that faith means holding a certain set of "beliefs," "believing" a set of statements to be true, whether cast as biblical teachings or doctrines or dogma. If you possess this faith, you're even called a "believer."
As a result, this concept of faith as primarily an intellectual exercise has turned faith almost exclusively into a matter of the head. But significantly, that was not the central meaning and use of the word "faith" in scripture and among followers during the centuries from the time of Jesus to the Enlightenment. Faith was not a matter of the head but a matter of the heart - that deep level of life below our thinking, feeling, and willing (intellect, emotions, and volition), deeper than our conscious self and the ideas we have in our heads.
And faith was always seen as central to experiencing the God-life, accessing the divine spirit and allowing It to transform existence. One of the authors of the Christian New Testament even stated this spiritual reality in strong terms like this, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” (Hebrews 11:6) He’s not suggesting that God hates us if we don’t have faith, or that if we don’t believe the right things God thinks less of us. No, he’s saying that “faith” is central to the spiritual journey – it’s a key to accessing the divine life and living a transformed life. In fact, that verse is in the context of a whole chapter that tells the stories of how various people in the Bible journeyed with God – some of them knew a lot about theology, others knew very little. But all of them chose to stay on the journey with God through thick and thin, successes and failures. That was called “faith” – the willingness to be in presence (in synch) with the divine spirit
OVER THE NEXT FEW BLOG POSTS, we'll take a look at four words that are translated as "faith." We'll unpack each word and explore what it means and what the differing nuances suggest about developing a faith that works in real life, a faith that transforms life, a faith that helps define ourselves and produces a rich and deeper experience of both God and Life.
TODAY’S WORD: “fiducia”
This is the Latin word for “faith” which literally means trust, confidence. It's where we get our financial word “fiduciary” - a person to whom property or power is entrusted for the benefit of another. Of, based on, or in the nature of trust and confidence. I mean think about it - if you're going to give another person access to all of your money and estate, you want to be able to trust that person. Right?
In a biblical context, this word for “faith” is describing a radical trust IN God. This trust "faith" may not mean you know everything there is to know about God. There will still be lots of questions, maybe even doubts about the metaphysical issues surrounding the divine, the universe, how it all came into being, who or what started it all and how everything is sustained. But faith as trust is the willingness to connect with God (as you know It/Him/Her) and has a degree of confidence that this Divine Force is, as Albert Einstein put it, a friendly Universe - that God has your best interests in mind.
So let’s look at a couple of metaphors and illustrations of what TRUST is – how TRUST relates to our experience of God and the spiritual life – what are some of the dynamics of TRUST?
Floating in Water:
Soren Kierkegaard, one of the pre-eminent existentialist philosophers and spiritual writers in the 20th century, described faith like this: “Faith is like floating in seven thousand fathoms of water in the ocean. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.”
So, if God is the water, and we’re floating in It, what does this metaphor mean? Floating in water (without struggling and thrashing about) describes a kind of relaxing quality to trust – you can hold your life without struggling – you relax with yourself and with the Unknowns in your life (after all, you don’t know or understand everything about the fathomless ocean you’re floating in but you can still be there) because you’re being “held up,” supported – the physics works whether you understand everything about the principles and dynamics or not.
Fighting and struggling and thrashing about only tire you out and facilitate your sinking. Trusting means letting go of your fears and anxieties and uncertainties and simply letting yourself live life in the embrace of God and God’s love; relaxing in the truth that the Universe is friendly and is on your side and will bring what’s good to you and will redeem what’s painful and evil and bad by bringing good growth to you.
So would you describe your personal spirituality or style of life with the word "relaxed?" Would your faith be described as a "relaxed confidence" in Life or God or Goodness? Do you feel that the Universe is fundamentally friendly (as Einstein once said, the most important question we'll ever ask ourselves is, Is the universe friendly?). Faith as TRUST is about relaxing, holding life with an open hand (rather than a clenched fist that tends to signify our desire to control, to hang on for dear life from fear of losing something). A relaxing confidence!
Rock and Fortress:
The Hebrew poets of sacred scripture, especially in the book of Songs (Psalms) often used two other metaphors to describe faith as trust: God is both Rock and Fortress. Notice this piece of poetry:
5 Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him. 6 He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken. 7 My victory and honor come from God alone. He is my refuge, a rock where no enemy can reach me. 8 O my people, trust in him at all times. Pour out your heart to him, for God is our refuge. (Psalm 62)
What do these metaphors – Rock, Fortress - say about trust? God is secure, solid, able to be counted on. What’s that insurance company that uses the “rock” in their advertisement? Prudential. What’s their point: you can count of them when you need to – they’re reliable – “rock solid.”
Notice the phrases about “trust” in these verses: waiting quietly before God, putting hope in God, not being shaken, resting in a safe place, pouring out our hearts to God. The poet's point is that he can trust in God as the one upon whom he relies, as his support and foundation and ground, as his safe place. A solid confidence!
Does this kind of "solid" trust mean that you never have any doubts about God? That God always comes through for you by protecting you from evil or harm or danger or pain and suffering? This is certainly the kind of theology (picture of God) that many religious people have - it's very simplistic though real to them. But, as I've experienced personally, the danger of this belief is that when you go through the storm, the tendency is to question God and wonder what the heck is going wrong? Where is God? Why am I going through this? God really must not care about me after all! When I lost my job, went through a divorce, experienced great failure in my life, I wondered where the Divine Rock and Fortress were for me. Either I had failed so miserably that God had left me and wouldn't have any more to do with me or God simply wasn't going to come through for me and couldn't be expected to. Either way, I was on the losing end! There wasn't much solid in the swamp I was in.
The psychiatrist and spiritual writer Gerald May once wrote: "I know that God is loving and that God's loving is trustworthy. I know this directly, through the experience of my life. There have been plenty of times of doubt, especially when I used to believe that trusting God's goodness meant I would not be hurt. But having been hurt quite a bit, I know God's goodness goes deeper than all pleasure and pain - it embraces them both."
The naive belief that if God is truly good and solid in that goodness then your trust in God will be rewarded with lack of pain and trouble and suffering. God's goodness = no pain. I learned that, as Gerald May wrote, it isn't true. God's goodness, God's solid rock and fortress, can be counted on to be a reliable presence in the midst of ALL of life's experiences (self-imposed or externally imposed). God showed up for me during those dark times most often through other people who chose to come along side me and support, love, care for, and journey with me. And as the dark tunnel finally emerged into the light, I saw that God's goodness was involved in helping to redeem the pain in my life by ultimately bringing good out of it, by doing a work of transformation in me, maturing me, establishing my confidence in myself, in others, and ultimately in God.
So would you use the word "solid" to describe your confidence in Life or God? What would you use the words "rock" and "fortress" to describe in your life? What power outside yourself can you count on to bring you redemption and transformation or is it just up to you alone to muddle through the swamp? Is God a "safe place" (as the poet described) you can be with or be in?
Faith is about trust; and trust is about both a relaxed and solid confidence in Another. And that kind of trust can only come from a journey ... together ... through the bumps, bruises, hurts, joys, sorrows, ecstasies of life ... where you begin to discover that nothing you do minimizes or maximizes the Divine love or Goodness for you. It continues flowing like a River all the time, in you, around you, through you, enveloping you, embracing you. Trust is about choosing at some point to relax, to give in to the Flow and embrace It back and let it carry you along the winding waters until It empties out into the boundless and deep Ocean.
Stay tuned to word two for faith.