Palestra

Gosh, I have been in a relationship for soooo long, a relationship in which I was doing ALL the heavy lifting. Everything depended on me. All the energy, all the love, was coming from me, and while I was being drained of my energy I was still coming up with more. I sacrificed everything, and asked for nothing.

“That’s called being a parent,” my mom says.

And that’s how I finally tapped into this inexhaustible source. I was like those musclemen pulling tractors behind them. I was pulling for four, for five people, giving and giving and then going back to give more. I would get knocked down and just pop right back up again.

It makes me grateful, right now, to think that I kept it up for so long in this palestra (gym); it used to be hard for me to pull even for myself, but these days I’m as strong as an ox. I know now how my parents got so strong, too. Somehow, we counted on this energy to always be there, and it was.

And that’s what saved me. Saved me from thinking it was only my energy or my love that I had to give.

Goofy

What always cracks me up is that sometimes we think we are deciding something – and we are – but just not in the way we thought we were. In other words, sometimes we’re a little like Goofy. We go into the mad scientist’s laboratory to sweep the floor, accidently hit a button with the broom handle and end up in a spaceship to Mars.

I remember once in 1999, for example, when I had left my old job in Treviso, Italy and had flown home for the holidays. I had bought a round-trip ticket but was unsure as to whether or not I was ready (or willing) to go back to Italy just yet. In short, there was no hurry to decide, and anyway I had a few weeks to see how I felt about my future.

This wasn’t really sitting well with my mom. She and my dad still had the big, four-bedroom house in Atlanta, so I don’t think that space was the problem. No, the main problem was that she couldn’t believe that I wasn’t able to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I should know these things, shouldn’t I?

Anyway, about a week before the return flight, I remember her coming into my room, waking me up and asking me to make up my mind. “I have to take you to the airport, I have to make plans,” she said.

“Oh, don’t worry about me, please,” I replied. “I can just take the bus to the airport.”

“I can’t believe this. You have to decide!”

A few days later the scene repeated, her again at the foot of my bed. “I can’t believe you. You need to make plans. I have to take time off from work to get you to the airport!”

“Mom! I told you, I’ll find a way to the airport. Just let me decide, please. I still have a few days.”

Every day I was packing a little, preparing to go back, but also waiting for my intuition to kick in. So far it hadn’t. Maybe at the last minute I’d find a job in the states. I had shown my portfolio around a little. The morning of the flight, however, I was still undecided. I was relaxed about it, but mom was furious.

“I can’t believe how SELFISH you’re being. All I asked you to do was decide.”

She didn’t say anything new to me that morning, but something in her tone was EXACTLY what I needed to hear. I was trying to learn how to trust my intuition, but I also had to find the right classroom for it. This wasn’t it. I promptly got out of bed, finished packing my suitcase, and we went to the airport after lunch.

We like to think of ourselves as independent agents of our destiny. My mom and I had thought that I had to make that decision myself. But in the end, we needed each other to make it.

Catching Snow

We are all starving for love, we just don’t know how to get it. As the masters say, “the love you are looking for is so vast and so deep that no one person would ever be able to give it to you.”

So last night I was talking with friends about these mind maps we have, these systems of beliefs that we have about the world, this network of tubes that we cover the world with, thinking it will bring us understanding. Thinking it will be enough to catch love.

And just like snow falling on a tree accumulates only on the branches, we think love can only be “caught” by the people or circumstances that we expect it to come from. Family. Lovers. Books. Music. Art. We think it can only come from the branches we already have. So as we mature we try to “enlarge” our maps of thinking–by allowing different kinds of thought, conflicting thoughts, even painful thoughts–until we’ve pretty much covered the whole forest with our mental net. Now we are hoping that love can come to us from many different directions.

But still we are not catching enough snow. There are too many holes between the branches.

Was has to happen – what we have actually been waiting for – is that the sun comes out one day and starts to fill in the spaces between the branches with intuition, with heart, with feeling. We’ve laid the foundation, now the true building can begin.

All we needed was the patience and humility to ask for, and wait for, the sun’s help. Then, all the accumulation on the branches starts to melt and come together… until all the holes are closed. At long last, our forest is no longer a net, but has become an enormous satellite dish.

A dish that catches ALL of the snow.

Paid in freedom

I just had a great talk with my friend Giulia, who was telling me that she had to organize her life, she needed to find a new identity, she wanted to reinvent herself.

I felt a heaviness. I felt an inner rebuke.

All my life I’ve been in love with branding, with logos. I loved this idea of having an identity, of helping companies create messages, slogans, ideals. I guess I’m good at it, in a kind of twisted way. Before my publishing career I had been in big advertising agencies and had even taught marketing and creativity in advertising schools.

So on this particular day, why I was so excited? Because I could see clearly that I had changed. I saw that my old tendency was to try to combine my intuition with the marketplace. Sounds normal, right? A guy needs to make a living, after all. But I had to admit that, as long as I did this, my mind was always going to belittle my intuition. It gave him the opportunity to be the leader in my life, and not my inner knowing. I can hear its voice now:

“Your intuition is not right, It’s not market-ready! It needs to be adjusted. Thank goodness I’m here. I can fix it. What would you do without me?” And so on and so forth. It sounds so innocent, but in reality, my mind was keeping my intuition small and discouraged. After all, the mind can only allow that which has already been seen. And he does this, inside of me, by limiting the voice of the intuition to what will be acceptable to others and how much it earns.

Suddenly, I wanted to go back to teaching. If I could just get young creatives to go beyond their minds, they would see that the highest value they can give to their intuition would be that of integrity, not money. Integrity means that they can decide the value of their intuition by listening to it, not by selling it. Jeez, that’s what the stepmother (the mind) does with Snow White (the soul): she doesn’t value her, she uses her. Had I been using my intuition all these years?

And what would be this new value that I was able to give my intuition? Freedom! Freedom from the bullying limitations of the mind, with its inability to tolerate paradox. Freedom from the curse of monetization, the prostitution of my creativity. Freedom for the intuition to guide me someplace new, someplace unseen, unsellable and unexplainable. Maybe even, dare I say it… to take me to a place I’ve never been before… to guide me HOME.

Yes, my friends, now I was really excited. This is what my new currency is going to be. And my heart was telling me that everyone’s going to want to get in on this freedom. This is where the market explodes. Because if I am really listening to this inner guidance, I see that it will take me places, will tell me things, will make me feel a love and respect for my inner self that my mind could never know… something that the marketplace could ever provide me.

Yes, I was being asked to step out of my branding, my comfortable identity… I won’t be limiting myself to what you think about myself anymore… and in exchange, I began o receive ideas that are full of grace, love and beauty. Ideas poured into me that are so personal and transformative that every time I shared them with others, the hairs on my arm stand on end. Ideas so powerful that my mind finally bowed down before them; it admitted defeat, it relinquished its power over me, it stepped aside IN AWE.

Which brings me to integrity: By finally believing in my inner voice for its own sake, I was actually starting to believe in myself for the first time. I didn’t need the market to tell me my worth any more.

And that, my friends, is what I call being Paid in Freedom.

HappyUnhappy

Once I noticed that I was passing most of my day checking in on myself, like a babysitter: Are you OK? Are you happy? Oh, I’m sorry, you must be unhappy. Too bad!

I saw my day as if it were a large desert with two tanks on it, facing off against each other. One had a happy face on the top of it, the other a sad face. There was a dotted line between them to show where the territories were, to show who was winning that day.

The joke was that the dotted line only extended a few feet beyond the sides of the tanks. Since there were no other points of reference in sight, it was impossible to say who was winning. And as much as I wanted a “resolution”, it was obvious that there would be never be a Final Score. It was like an endless child’s game, played by two idiots.

It also occurred to me that if I have to decide between happiness and unhappiness, I would choose happiness, obviously. But you know what? My answer would be wrong. That’s is because the minute I choose happiness, I automatically invent unhappiness. Such cruel fate!

Similarly, the minute I choose being “right”, I invent “wrong”. By staking out a position, any position, and calling it “right”, I will have to go out and find someone who is “wrong”. In fact, if I need to, I will attract (or actually create) that opposition in my mind. And that’s what we do, unconsciously: we find someone within reach and simply misunderstand and misrepresent his or her point of view until we are like the two tanks in the desert.

In short, by accepting one side of any coin, we accept both sides. And sooner or later these two extremes are going to have to meet up with each other, because if they don’t… what’s the point of being “right”? Don’t I get to “prove” it to someone?

In fact, now that I know this, I might even find myself going in the opposite direction right away. People may say I am not coherent – Bob Dylan talked about being a different person in the evening than the one who woke up – but actually it can be quite efficient: it saves me the trouble of having to wait for my opposite friend to show up to argue with!

Eventually, I believe, this duality is meant to keep us in balance, because arguing with others is so exhausting that it makes us desire rest… and so we return back to our calm center. Once we learn that, we simply don’t venture out too far from our centers – no use creating enemies everywhere!

We go out just a few steps… and then turn back. And we stop trying to resolve things, one way or the other, out there in the hot, burning desert.

Hiding behind a straw

In college psychology I studied something called cognitive dissonance. It means your brain is unable to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time, as it creates dissonance, or confusion. To relieve this, the mind will simply change one of the thoughts, in order to reconcile the problem. This might mean even changing information, so it gets quite… interesting, as you can imagine.

The classic example is that you stand in line for two hours to see a terrible movie. Your brain takes that information and comes to the simple conclusion: I’m an idiot. But the brain doesn’t want to think this. So he “changes” reality. He will either convince you that the movie was better than it actually was, or else he will tell you that you only stood in line for a few minutes.

The point is… your mind is trying to save his job, so he will often hide or change information to suit a version of the story in which he comes out the winner. Moral of the story: be careful trusting this devil.

This can be soooo subtle that you don’t even notice it, so stay alert. Here’s one that­–once I share it with you–you’ll start to see it everywhere. Let’s say someone says something rude to someone else, it might even be me talking to you, and this makes us both feel bad for a minute. Obviously you know why you feel bad–some nitwit just offended you!–but I feel bad, too, only… I don’t know why.

Of course, if I knew why I felt bad, I would simply apologize. But that takes a level of consciousness that not everyone enjoys.

So let’s say that I do know why I feel bad, but I’d rather not admit to myself that I’m a bad person. It would cost me too much, maybe. So I have to hide it from myself. Enter cognitive dissonance, stage left.

Watch carefully, because if I go this route, my mind has to do something akin to a quadruple axel in ice-skating, a veritable miracle of dexterity and complexity. It has to change the story of what happened, right in front of my eyes.

So get this: instead of apologizing, I have to somehow get the listener to react angrily to me–I’ll probably have to push harder than I did originally–while at the same time somehow manage to forget everything that I have said to them. In fact, the whole purpose of this exercise is to distract the both of us from what has taken place. This takes both total concentration and total ignorance at the same time. This takes artistry.

Yes, our brains are capable of this. I can actually pretend that you started all this, treating me badly, and convince myself that I’m the victim here. Remember, any explanation will do – Ah, so that must be why I feel bad! – to relieve myself of cognitive dissonance. So be on your guard, and don’t forget to applaud your mind. All this is, as we say in Italy, “roba da matti” (stuff of madness).

Ready Player One

In the movie eXistenZ, the protagonist declares, “You have to play the game to find out why you’re playing the game.”

In my thirties I was in love with a video game called Myst, and it’s three or four follow-ups. It’s very different from most video games. There’s no violence or weapons. There are no time limits. Basically you wake up on an island and walk around. You don’t know what you’re supposed to do, there are no instructions; you see a lever here and there but you don’t know what it’s for. Later you find a drawing in a book. Hmm, that looks a little like the lever next to the clock tower. Wow, it opens the door! And on like that. In later incarnations of the game, as the technology got more intricate, these games became even more sensorially complex: you heard a sound, or saw a reflection, and you had to remember it. Even things that didn’t look like clues were clues. It was like learning to be attentive to everything. I was discovering the purpose of the game as I went along.

And that’s what I think is the great beauty of life. No one really knows what we’re doing here. We often adopt our ideas from our parents, and pass them to our kids, but have you really sat down and wondered what YOU yourself have come here to do? What if it was different from everyone else’s purpose?

Would you be willing to strike out on your own to find out what that is?

Karma Yoga

One of the tenets of progress on the spiritual path is Not Being Attached to The Fruits of Your Labor. In Sanscrit it’s called Karma Yoga. Saint Francis, for example, never accepted food from the same farmer whose fields he had freely labored during the day. He didn’t want to think that what was given to him came from any other source than God. The minds can play tricks, you know.

Another aspect of Karma Yoga is non-attachment to work itself. You might not think about it much, but I can assure you that almost all of us are desperately trying to figure out what we’re getting out of our work all day. Are we being properly repaid? Are we being appreciated? Are we relaxed about our jobs… or resentful?

This brings me to Marcus and Mariella, two friends of mine who live in the nearby ashram here in Umbria. Both are American and both have lived here in Italy for over 30 years. Marcus is what the Italians call a “monello,” a naughty boy. God bless him, he’s the youngest 60 year-old you’ll ever meet. Mariella is about the same age; she works in the “boutique” where yoga clothes and spiritual books and salt lamps are sold. She works long hours and is quite happy with her job.

From time to time we’d see Marcus walk in and say something to Mariella, then Mariella would get upset and follow Marcus around for an hour, trying to explain something. None of us ever knew what Marcus was saying to her, but more than a few considered his behavior unfair. I was on the fence.

Then one day, as I was preparing a flyer in the mailroom, Marcus popped his head in. “What’ya doing?,” he asked. “I’m just cutting these flyers for the meditation classes,” I said.

“I’m not sure we need those anymore,” he remarked.

“OK,” I said, “let’s go get a coffee.”

“Welllll,” he said, “maybe since you’ve already started it you should finish it. I’ll see you later.”

And he popped out.

I would have completely forgotten about this incident, had I not found myself a few days later in the back of the boutique when Marcus came in. “What are you doing, Mariella?”

“I’m opening these new lamps that just came in,” she replied.

“I’m not sure that needs to be done anymore,” Marcus quipped.

“What!?,” screamed Mariella. “Who told you that!? I’ve been working all morning on this, it’s supposed to be my day off, Giovanni was supposed to do it and I’ve been here all by myself with no one….”

Marcus popped out, Mariella hot on his heels. I heard her from the parking lot, just like old times: pleading, cajoling and justifying.

All Marcus had said was a single phrase. That’s all it took to set her inner dialog free.

Self Meeting

As Mark Twain says, “I would go on vacation, but that darned Mark Twain follows me everywhere.” Where are we going to run to, if we don’t take care of our inner problems?

The other day I stumbled on something called the Enneagram, have any of you heard of it? It’s basically an ancient system that identifies nine different ways in which an expansive, omniscient and omnipotent consciousness reacts when it suddenly finds itself limited inside of a little body. I like the way that sounds. Can you imagine yourself as this infinite consciousness, stuffed like an enormous King Kong into a tiny stuffed bear? It shouldn’t be hard to do. It happened to me. It happened to you. The question is, how do each of us deal with it?

According to this research, there are nine different strategies for reacting to the fact that we were stuffed down here. Then, each of us in our own crazy way, devised a childish strategy for trying to “get back” to that original unity. We trust our minds in this endeavor, but its blind attempts to cover over that initial fear, confusion, rage and hatred actually take us farther away from this unity than we would find if we actually just sat still and just let these emotions course through our veins.

But those original reactions are too scary for us, as kids, to handle… so we run away from them. Then we devise a justification, a “story”, to explain why we have to keep running away from them and why it’s not our fault.

A “one”, for example, explains his “fall” as being a kind of punishment for not being perfect enough. They do this because unconsciously they believe that if they were to become perfect again, they would be reaccepted into that Beautiful State of Unity. These people become the organizers and crusaders of the world, trying to set high moral standards for everyone.

But each personality type also has a blind spot, like a backpack that you carry, that everyone but you can see! The blind spot of the “ones” is that they tend to be perfectionists and preachy, and so they often clash with others, ironically creating the opposite of the harmony they seek. They unwittingly and unconsciously create conflict. And since they don’t notice that they do this, they go through life confused, until someone points it out to them (to which they understandably react with anger). The challenge of the “ones” is to relax and to try to see perfection in the world as it is. This means also accepting themselves as being perfect just as they are. Which brings them back to unity and creates harmony around them, and finally there is joy in the heavens.

What’s so funny is that it really is no one’s fault that we are flailing here. Sending a man to find his original unity with just a mind, a body and a soul is like sending a cavalier to fight a fire-breathing dragon with a pink balloon. It’s an enterprise Destined To Fail. And fail we do, and exhausted we become, and surrender we must. And then we ask to be brought back, and like the Prodigal Son we are welcomed back with open arms.

My favorite part in all this is the idea that we all started from infinite awareness. We didn’t get lost, or get punished, or fail. We just got tricked into believing that we weren’t infinite, like having to turn twenty times in a circle with our foreheads pressed to a baseball bat before being sent off in search of something that’s always been right here. In fact, it is suddenly clear to me that being both an infinite soul and a physical body here on the earth is not an either-or proposition. It’s a both-and proposition.

So I was talking to a friend about this yesterday and a girl came over excitedly and asked, “Did I hear you correctly? Did you say we can be both Everything and Individual at the same time? How does one do this?”

A wave of grace flowed over me. I looked her straight in the eye and this sweet, sweet voice within me answered, “You tell me. You’re doing it right now.” And her big brown eyes got large, as big as saucers, making way for the beautiful infinite consciousness which–suddenly free to show itself–poured out and joined hands with my own, spilling out from my eyes all over everything.

It was an exquisite moment. Like a “one” finally getting to go home.

Person Box

The Greek word persona–from which we get the word “person”–is usually translated as “mask”, and refers to the way we operate in the world, as mask-wearing actors in a theater. As our awareness of ourselves expands, it becomes clearer and clearer that this mask is an imposing limitation on a much more expansive, innate consciousness.

In Indian scriptural analyses, they often use the sanscrit word upadhi–meaning “limited adjunct”–to describe the way we are socially conditioned to fit into a group, at the expense of losing that expansive awareness. The more I read, travel and meditate, the more I find that I “loosen” that conditioning and begin to respond to the world in more authentic and “improvised” ways, instead of by mere repetition or the copying of others’ behaviors. I occasionally respond in ways that surprise even myself, which I love.

Today, all of this for some reason makes me think of the simple cable box next to my TV. I like to think it receives channels, but in reality the signal sent out by the cable company is going everywhere, all over the country, for free.

No, my friends, what the cable box actually does is, it scrambles all the channels–except the ones we pay for!