A Portal to the Infinite

I’ve been giving a good deal of thought about corporate development of late and it occurred to me that one of the most important opportunities if not obligations of any company is in relation to the growth and development of its people. My belief is that at the end of the day those who work for you should be better people as a result of their association with you, the sole exception being when they refuse to accept and act on the opportunities given to them.

A socially-conscious company cares deeply about its people. Managers in such organizations might occasionally spend more time developing their people than they do overseeing tasks and process flows. Moreover, people are not seen as commodities that are bought and sold for a price, but a portal to the infinite.

Every person on earth contains in himself a prism which refracts the spirit of life into a unique pattern of visible expression. Most come to you with their prisms coated by layer upon layer of paint – false identities which occlude rather than magnify the inner light. Your job is to help those you serve to slowly apply paint thinner to remove these layers, one by one, so that they are relieved of the exhausting and frustrating attempt to be something they are not and so that they can relax into being who they really are. It is then and only then that the full potential of creativity and productivity can begin to be actualized.

Your radiant influence and consistent example will slowly but surely influence those around you. There may be those who refuse to grow and develop and they will typically blame you or some unfortunate element of circumstance for their failure, but at the end of the day it is up to each one to decide for himself whether his inner light is liberated or kept in prison. You need not judge in either case.

Once refracted, that glorious, infinite light manifests as creative expression which proceeds from glory unto glory. There’s no mistaking it for the vapid life expression so common on earth.

The wonderful news is that everyone – even poor old you! – has this prism within. You may need to release a lot before the lot shines through, but if you stick with it, you’ll be in awe when it finally does.

Dethrone the Tyrant

Rebecca Gilliver, principal cellist of the London Symphony Orchestra tells the story of a conversation she had with Sandro Laffrancini, principal cellist at La Scala about a particularly challenging top shift he played flawlessly over and over again in her LSO Master Class for the Cello. She asked what his secret was and he said that he simply thinks about something else right before he has to play the shift.

Whenever you face that which you consider “hard” or technically challenging, you are wise to remember this advice. Whether it is a closing sequence in the sales setting, your opening line when making small talk at a cocktail party or the point in any activity in which you tend to disconnect yourself from the perfectly flowing execution, a careful analysis of the background factors will typically reveal an unnecessary and unhelpful inner tension with respect to it.

This unrelieved tension may be held physically, mentally, emotionally or in a particular (and eventually patterned) combination of all three. If you play back a recording of yourself in that moment you’ll likely notice that you are breathing in or worse, holding your breath. There may be other signs of physiological constriction and if you could see your thoughts or emotional state you would see a similar crystallization or bunching up of that which should be fluid, effortless and smooth.

Much of this unnecessary and unhelpful tension is caused by bad mental habits.

To continue the musical analogy, the mind plays an important role in practice. It allows you to gather and perfect, over time, the fundamental, individual building blocks of virtuosity.

Your mind in this sense is like the power transmission lines that criss-cross the country. It is not the power; it is simply the vehicle through which the power of electricity is carried. At a certain point you have to let your mind come to rest in relation to the task at hand so that the currents of inspiration and creative outpouring can move through the vehicle that is your mind, body and heart in its present configuration.

The mind, however, can be a little tyrant if you let it. It can try to take over the process, rule where it does not have authority and assert itself in areas in ways that restrict the flow of inspiration, imagination and genius instead of releasing it. Authority, wrongly asserted, invariably disrupts more than it facilitates.

To put it bluntly, there are times where your mind needs to learn to mind its own business!

And Laffrancini’s little trick is one way to dethrone the tyrant so that room can be made for the rightful flow of perfect expression in anything you wish to master in life.

The Spirit of the Method

The old and familiar maxim: “Knowledge is Power” shapes the way we look at education, marketing, politics, religion and many other areas of human activity. The idea that knowledge begets power is based on the limited view that humanity is meant to dominate his environment, rather than have dominion over it.

Domination is established through strength and power. It is the product of forced compliance and it is unsustainable because of its disconnection from the larger creative context of which it is a part. Dominion, on the other hand, manifests through agility and suppleness. It inspires a willing submission and compels agreement because of its synchronicity with the unifying pattern of truth.

Whereas domination divides, dominion divides but also connects. Domination coerces control by introducing an arbitrary and inflexible restraint on true creative expression, while dominion extends control in lockstep with the wheels within wheels of creation. A horse, for example, can be held artificially in a desirable frame or he can be brought progressively into a state of fitness and understanding which allows him to hold that frame willingly and even proudly, if that can be said.

Likewise, a child can be educated in one of two ways. The first, and most prevalent is based on the notion that knowledge is power. To that aim, facts and figures are pasted on from the outside, typically with complete disregard to the inner wisdom of the child. The second, yet more desirable sees knowledge as the means of unlocking the true creative expression already resident in the child. Knowledge in the former is an end and in the latter is a means to an end.

Knowledge is not power, but the agility and suppleness that attend a well-organized system of knowledge do allow for a safe and contained increase in the expression of power. Loosely arranged or poorly organized knowledge is dangerous in that it does not provide a safe container for power. Power inevitably leaks through holes in understanding.

I have found this distinction to be an important one in every field of human activity I’ve explored. While there are many examples that could be given in support of it, I am privileged to share an example that comes from the field of classical equitation. General Decarpentry, a distinguished scholar of artistic equitation who served in the venerable Cadre Noir from 1904 to 1913 and again from 1925 to 1931 as the school’s second-in-command, provided a useful explanation of how dominion can be established in the field of equitation in his book Academic Equitation, A training system based on the methods of D’Aure, Baucher and L’Hotte:

The methods employed in Academic Equitation are in no way different from the ones used ever since the beginning of training, and they are in fact the only means man disposes of to train any kind of animal.

They consist of progressively developing applications of the principle of submission, by substituting for the means primitively employed to obtain it, other more convenient means that give scope for wider and more subtle applications.

The conventional language which has been thus gradually established between rider and mount becomes enriched with new signs. The understanding of the horse develops. The combined use of the signs, the isolated meaning of which has been established separately, allows the rider to enlarge the scope of his teaching, which always proceeds from the known to the unknown.

This is the spirit of the method. It uses conventional language to apply to the body of the horse the gymnastic progression of a series of movements intended to develop his agility rather than his strength, and his suppleness rather than his power.

An Open Mind

I’ve often been asked what it takes to keep an open mind and while I have no magic answer, I do feel that you can govern your heart and mind as a gracious host would his household.

You’ve no doubt had the pleasure of visiting such a host whose penchant for hospitality made you feel special, no matter how untimely your arrival or unexpected your visit. Such a host would never compromise the spirit of welcome simply because you were improperly dressed, unfashionably late or traveling with mixed company. Hospitality begets graciousness and graciousness is the seed of magnanimity.

You have the capacity to be a larger person than you are, but you have to believe in yourself and do the work required to make it so…outside as within.

To begin with, you must learn to be accommodating in mind and heart. One way of achieving this is by making room for new colors, shapes and patterns that may not match  your decor, but yet have intrinsic merit. In other words, you must practice at deliberately relaxing your confirmation bias. You need not be so open-minded that you lose all sense of process, continuity, and control, but become too strict in your approach and you will eventually paint yourself into a corner.

Next, you must get outside of yourself. The best way I know to overcome the tendency to withdraw inward is to serve outward. Look around you and there will be ample opportunity to help others, that is, to embrace the spirit of hospitality. Serving others restores the flow of life through you and life always looks to establish conditions which are conducive to an even greater expression of life.

It is so easy to get backed up, to become frustrated by that which is beyond and outside of you. The world will give you a million and one reasons to withdraw. Please don’t! The world needs your originality and that creative expression of who you are and what you are here to bring cannot take root if you retreat into the shadows of your heart and mind.

Take a chance in life and be willing to entertain new thoughts and fresh ideas as a charitable host would shake your hand with both of his. Do so and your world will expand by virtue of a growing network of connections, contact points in the world around you that will likely return the favor of your warm reception. There will, of course, be those guests who will never be invited back, but you won’t know until you give them a try!

The invisible made visible: It’s what you do!

Oscar Wilde, photo from Wikipedia

“The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.” ~ Oscar Wilde

From whence cometh humanity? Have you given much thought to that question? Are we the result of chance or divine order or as with most alternate of choice questions, are the heavily marketed options masking the truth of the matter?

Whatever our origins, it is clear to me that human beings have a remarkable ability to translate invisible thoughts, feelings and ideas into visible, tangible form. No matter what your vocation, what your upbringing, your race, creed, color or what your skills or beliefs may be, you are constantly giving form to the invisible.

A friend of mine was telling me yesterday that he is particularly useful when asked to fix something that isn’t working, be it a piece of equipment or a business process. Earlier that day a co-worker told me that she loved our company strategy sessions as they provided an environment where her ideas could more easily take form and be expressed. Both were describing the same process of shepherding invisible essences into visible form, yet they recognized that they were more effective at the process in some cases more than others.

I imagine that some people limit their creative abilities based on preconceived notions or assumptions that they hold, i.e. “I am good at translating the invisible to the visible only when xyz…” while all of us have natural predispositions or proclivities that make us more effective in some scenarios versus others. In any case, I believe that the greater limiting factor is that the majority of people hold back their creative potential for one reason or another or perhaps better put, our natural limitations and specializations limit us far less than those self-manufactured constraints which we impose on ourselves.

Yesterday I asked my senior management team “If you were not holding back, what would you be doing?” To my delight, everyone immediately had a list of things that came to mind and that they were willing to humbly open up in the group. It was as if the cork had been removed from the champagne bottle! I have no doubt that much will come of that uncorking.

The world is indeed a stage and I am not so sure that we are badly cast as much as we are just simply in the habit of holding back. A riding coach friend of mine mentioned to me the other day that he saw 45 minutes of an old musical starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The point he made which got me thinking was that he doesn’t ever watch musicals but there was something electric, alive and inviting about their performance. I’m not sure if this was the clip he was mentioning, but I think you’ll agree that they were a dynamic duo:

Wherever the invisible is effectively, dynamically and artistically translated into the visible, there is genuine life expression. Such translation is invariably attractive, electrifying and uplifting.

It is, what the Japanese call, “shibumi.” More on that concept tomorrow…

Have a great day!

Natalie Merchant sings life into old poems

Natalie Merchant’s singing career spans nearly three decades.  Whether you remember her from the 10,000 Maniacs or from her solo work, you will likely enjoy Merchant’s new album, Leave Your Sleep, a fascinating and diverse collection of poems set to music in true Merchant’s unique creative style.

The album is an examination of life, centering on the themes of motherhood and childhood.  Enjoy her presentation, filmed at TED2010:

Merchant played at a small concert I had the good fortune to attend while at the University of Michigan.  Her emotionally nuanced music and voice inspired self-reflection in a way that poetry does.  If you have another moment, NPR recorded a wonderful piece on her on Morning Edition several days ago.  You can find it here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125857459.

As a father, I ca’t help but marvel at the wonders of childhood and motherhood.  The innocence, the love, the tenderness, the warmth and inspiration.  It is a precious sight to behold! 

Mothers are among the fiercest creatures on earth when their cub is threatened, the toughest on earth when the safety of their cub is in question and the gentlest on earth when their cub is in need of a hug.  Motherhood is an enormous responsibility and a sacred privilege.

Children, on the other hand, are (as they say in the Midwest) a “hoot.”  A parent’s greatest hope is to have children that live to their fullest potential.  For some that may mean that they excel in every aspect – in education, in achievement, in humor and in love.  For others it might mean that they make the best use of their capacities.  Children can be the funniest thing on earth, the sweetest thing on earth and the most charming thing on the planet.  Childhood can and should be a time of exploration, discovery and growth – physical, mental and spiritual.   

Each one of us has a mother to thank for giving us the opportunity of life.  No matter what your mother provided or didn’t following your birth, you can be thankful for at least that fact.  You have the privilege of adding value to the world around you. 

People never cease to amaze me.  The more you get to know people the more you begin to see their unique capacity for the expression of creative expression.  Hidden talents abound.  You can, if you so choose, give stage to the creative genius in those around you.

Whether you are a mother or a child, or were one or both, I encourage you to see the world as a mother sees a newborn child: with love, tenderness and hope for the future.  Thank you, Natalie Merchant, for your inspiring new album!