Bar-headed geese are some of the most remarkable birds in nature. It’s estimated that at least 50,000 of them winter in India. And when summer nears, they undertake the two month 5000 mile migration back to their home in Central Asia. What makes this trip remarkable is that the route they choose to take every year is the world’s steepest migratory flight—they fly over the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest in the Himalayas.
Amazingly, this route is where the air is thinnest and oxygen level lowest. What’s more, the thinner air means that less lift is generated when the birds flap their wings, thereby increasing the energy costs of flying by around 30 per cent. And yet they still fly the same route over the highest place on earth.
Scientists now find that these geese do not make use of tailwinds or updrafts that could give them a boost up the mountain. They choose instead to rely on several other remarkable resources:
(1) Muscle power—these geese have a denser network of capillaries that reach oxygen-carrying blood to the cells. So their blood is capable of binding and transporting more oxygen to where it’s needed most, their wing muscles.
(2) Large lungs—they also have larger lungs for their size and breathe more heavily than other waterfowl. Unlike humans, bar-headed geese can breathe in and out very rapidly without getting dizzy or passing out. By hyperventilating, they increase the net quantity of oxygen that they get into their blood and therefore into their muscles.
(3) Team work—geese are famous for utilizing in flight the V-formation which helps reduce individual energy consumption by up to 30%. The whole flock gets over 70% better mileage than if each bird flew solo. When the lead bird gets weary, it drops back and a new one takes the lead. As the birds vigorously flap their wings, it creates lift for the bird behind. These geese actually choose to fly over Mt. Everest at one time rather than breaking up the trip, typically a grueling eight hour marathon. And in addition, if one of the geese gets too tired or gets injured or sick, two of the other geese shepherd the weaker one back down to the ground and stay with it until it either gets stronger or dies. Then they rejoin the group or find another group to fly with to complete their migration.
(4) External conditions—many scientists had thought the geese were taking advantage of daytime winds that blow up and over mountaintops. But recent research showed the birds forgo the winds and choose to fly at night, when conditions tend to be relatively calmer. They’re potentially avoiding higher winds in the afternoon, which might make flights more uncomfortable or more risky. The birds could potentially head east or west and fly around, rather than over, the mountain range, but this would add several days to their trip and would actually use up more energy. So they go straight over the highest point on earth in an attempt to manage their energy as efficiently as possible. It’s counter-intuitive.
So what can we learn from these geese about how to develop a strong, sustainable, enduring spirituality—the kind that can face great risks and obstacles and complete the journey well? What does it take to enjoy spiritual sustainability?
THREE LESSONS FROM GEESE ABOUT DEVELOPING SPIRITUAL SUSTAINABILITY
Lesson One, Maximize your spiritual oxygen—breathe deeply. Like the geese, we all have the inner capacities to develop spiritual sustainability—we have good muscles and good lungs. But for those to be maximized, we have to breathe deeply to get the most amount of oxygen possible to our spiritual muscles.
These geese have the lung capacity to be able to hyperventilate when they need it for Mt. Everest. When they’re at home, they certainly don’t spend all of their time hyperventilating. But when they need it the most, facing their arduous migration, they’ve developed the capacity for it.
So how can you and I increase our lung capacity to breathe deeply and get life-giving oxygen to our spiritual muscles? This is what spiritual practices are all about—engaging regularly in activities that involve spiritual breathing, breathing deeply of the divine Spirit, accessing the power that is greater than ourselves—Prayer, meditation, scripture/inspirational reading, journaling [for example, the direct method of communication with your Trusted Source—based upon Carl Jung’s model of active imagination], spiritual conversations, sacred rituals, sacred objects, building altars of remembrances, nature immersion. This is about engaging in ways to “wake up” to God’s presence in you and all around you, ways to “pay attention” to That which is greater than your self, ways to “breathe in” the divine spirit.
PERSONAL APPLICATION: What do you currently do spiritually to breathe deeply? What sacred rituals do you intentionally engage in? What kind of plan do you have for regular spiritual breathing?
Lesson Two, Exercise your spiritual muscles—act on faith. I love this definition of faith: “Faith is daring the soul to go beyond what the eyes can see.” William Newton Clark
Spiritual teachers remind us that faith is the language of the soul. And the soul is what both holds our life purpose and catapults us towards it. Our egos care most about happiness, security, safety, success, status. The soul cares about aliveness, courage, purpose, effectiveness, faith. And faith is the language of the soul.
So, when you act on faith, when you intentionally choose to take a step forward in your spiritual quest, when you say “yes” to faith, your spiritual muscles strengthen, and new resources become available.
That’s why, in the story of the Hebrews needing to cross the flooded Jordan River in order to get over to the Promised Land, God gave instructions for the priests carrying the ark of the covenant to lead the way into the river. And it wasn’t until they stepped into the river that the waters parted all the way across. Those first steps were steps of faith—choices to follow God’s instructions even when their eyes couldn’t see the way.
Indiana Jones, in the movie “Temple of Doom,” had to step out in faith, putting his foot out into the nothingness, the chasm of the abyss, in order for the bridge to appear so they could cross it to the other side where the coveted Holy Grail was hidden.
The way many people live is by playing it safe, or shrinking from difficulty, or refusing to act unless all the ducks are lined up in a row or the future can be clearly seen. It’s true, we need to be smart when we’re faced with choices. But sometimes, the counter-intuitive smart choice is to act even when you can’t see the end. Our paralysis of fear atrophies our spiritual muscles. What you don’t use gets lost. Muscles get flabby and lose their resilience and strength.
We can breathe deeply all we want, we can learn to hyperventilate and get rich oxygen to our muscles effectively all we want. But if we never use those oxygenated muscles, none of that makes a difference.
When you act in faith, taking a step forward, new resources become available. And that courageous act strengthens the spiritual muscles, empowering you to take the next step. Faith is acting on the belief that you have what you need, like the geese, the necessary equipment and inner capacity, to fly over the Mt. Everests of life. So use it!
I can honestly tell you that when I look back on the crises I’ve gone through and see where I am today, I am in awe of the inner resources I was able to call out of myself that I didn’t even know I had. That awareness has helped me to learn not to be afraid of or to avoid the Mt. Everests because it’s only in flying over them that we can see what our spiritual muscles are truly capable of.
PERSONAL APPLICATION: So what steps of faith are you being called to take these days? How is your soul being dared to go beyond what your eyes can see? What is one step forward you can take right now to exercise your spiritual muscles?
Lesson Three, Leverage the support of others—ask for help. The genius of the geese’s V-formation flying style is the way it leverages the power of team effort. Getting over Mt. Everest is almost impossible solo. Drafting with others maximizes energy and productivity.
Richard Bolles is the author of history’s best-selling book about job hunting and career change, What Color Is Your Parachute. He was interviewed once about the subject of being self-employed. He said that self employed people can hire out just about any skill, even, to some degree, discipline; you can get someone to call you every week to help keep you on track. But, he said, the only trait you cannot hire out and without which you’ll “die on the vine” is the willingness to ask for help.
Trying to go it alone in life is, as one author described it, like “stringing beads without tying a knot at the end.” Without having the help of other people to secure the end, we simply keep slipping away.
Spiritual sustainability, the power to endure in the long run, requires asking for the support of others—inviting trusted people into our lives for accountability, vision, wisdom, encouragement, strength. We have to be willing to ask for what we need and want.
I remember when I first moved here to San Francisco all by myself—after having gone through a huge personal crisis that shattered my self confidence and sent me into what I was tempted to see as a fatal tailspin—I called up three guys who had been my friends for years—they all lived in different parts of the country—and I asked each of them if they would “fly the V-formation” with me for a long while—“Would you be willing to call me every week and talk with me, encourage me, support me, and let me draft you.” That was one of the most spiritually strategic steps of faith I could have taken during that Mt. Everest time for me. I had to summon enough courage and initiative to ask for help.
Percy Ross authors a column called “Thanks A Million” that is syndicated in more than seven hundred newspapers around the country. This Minneapolis millionaire is trying to dispose of the fortune it took him nearly 60 years to accumulate by working to redistribute his wealth among people who write to him with their stories of need and sometimes greed. He gets 2000 letters a day. Those that touch him he responds to with a check.
In an interview, he talked about the importance of asking. He said, “Asking is in my opinion the world’s most powerful—and neglected—secret to success. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t convinced many, many people to help me along the way. The world is full of genies waiting to grant our wishes. There are plenty of people who will gladly give you a hand.”
Knowing what you want is one thing—a very important thing, to be sure. But that doesn’t really matter in the end unless you learn to ask for it. As Richard Bolles said, the willingness to ask for help is a nonnegotiable component of successful living. Spiritual sustainability and strength require us involving others in our lives in crucial, significant ways. There’s no such thing as a spiritual lone ranger. The mighty Lone Ranger had Tonto. Even Jesus the Son of God had Peter, James & John (and nine others to follow him around).
PERSONAL APPLICATION: Whom do you have in your life to draft with, to fly in V-formation with? Who do you need to ask? What do you want for your life and are you asking clearly and confidently for it, asking for help?
So what does it take to develop spiritual sustainability, a spirituality that endures the long run with strength and vitality? What lessons can we learn from the barheaded geese? First, Maximize your spiritual oxygen—breathe deeply. Second, Exercise your spiritual muscles—act on faith. And third, Leverage the support of others—ask for help.
One of the Old Testament stories that provides a sort of comic relief to the serious messages of the prophets and yet offers a deeply encouraging view of the divine reality swirling around in the midst of our stories—one of the ultimate resources for spiritual endurance–is the legend of Jonah.
God calls him to go to the fierce people of Ninevah—the most feared enemies of his Jewish people—and preach a message of impending divine judgment. Now preaching judgment to anyone is uncomfortable. But to the Ninevahites? Considering that these fierce warriors skinned their enemies alive, I can understand Jonah’s immediate hesitancy to accept this calling. He doesn’t just say No to God, he jumps on a ship that is sailing in the opposite direction from Ninevah to try to outrun both God and his mission.
No one ever promised there would be no risk in following our spiritual destiny. In fact, truth is, there is always fear involved in flying over Mt. Everest. Our temptation is to capitulate and cave in to the paralysis of status quo.
On the way to far away, Jonah falls asleep in the bowels of the boat. A fierce storm comes up. The captain finds Jonah and wakes him up. “Better come on deck with the rest of us—we’re trying to decide our fate.” The sailors cast lots to see who among them is bringing on this wrath of the gods. That’s when Jonah speaks up with his story of fear and failure, saying, “I’m the one at fault here. Throw me over board and that’ll solve your storm problem.”
He’s thinking that he’s not even safe from God and his calling on a ship going in the opposite direction from Ninevah. If he’s thrown overboard, at least he’ll drown and never have to worry again about facing God or the Ninevahites.
But when he’s sinking to the depths of sea, God sends a huge fish to swallow him to keep him alive and save him for his mission. “Thanks, God!” In the belly of the fish, though, Jonah recognizes what God is calling him to do, accepts God’s promise to empower him with courage and strength, and repents of his cowardice and fear. “If this cup cannot pass from me, Your will not mine be done,” he utters.
After three days and three nights, the fish spits him out onto the beach nearest Ninevah, wouldn’t you know it. And he marches into the city and ends up causing a massive revival among those enemy people who end up treating him like a hero who has saved their lives from judgment.
Spiritual sustainability, spiritual strength and endurance, take place not just from us breathing deeply, acting in faith or even in fear, and asking for help from others—but also from a Divine Presence that swirls and blows and moves in the midst of our stories, a Divine Presence that believes in our destiny even more than we do, who believes in us even when we’ve given up. That Sacred Spirit breathes into our lives hope and courage, engaging other players on our behalf, turning failure into fertilizer, redeeming our cowardice for courage, staying with us until we fulfill our holy destiny. It’s the Wind beneath our wings, the Oxygen streaming into our muscles, that empowers us over Mt. Everest safely to our promised land.
Now that’s a Resource to keep holding on to!