Humility and Mastery

Last evening I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful surprise 60th birthday party hosted by friends of mine in honor of a man who is deeply loved and respected by his friends and whose life has been shaped by his evolving relationship with the most tenderhearted of nature’s creatures, horses.

It’s rare these days to meet a man in whom humility and mastery walk freely, but my friend, Jamie, graciously evinces both. He speaks a language that both horses and riders understand and his love for both makes him a nonpareil as both a friend and a teacher and I find the precious few hours spent in the ring with Jamie to be the most engaging and convivial of my entire week.

I’ve occasionally heard Jamie voice a sentiment similar to something Colonel Alois Podhasky said in his insightful book My Horses, My Teachers:

From all these episodes and experiences within a space of time longer than a half a century I learned to understand and appreciate the horse. I have come to value his qualities and to tolerate or to pass with indulgence over his weaknesses, which are so insignificant compared with his honesty and affection, his good will, loyalty and undeniable share of intelligence. My horses not only taught me riding, but they also made me understand many a wisdom of life besides.

and I cannot help but share with you this morning that what Jamie has learned from his years of experience with these marvelous creatures and their peculiar owners and riders has had a significant influence on my life over the last few years.

Thank you for doing what you do, Jamie, for being who you are and for making such a difference in the lives of so many and…Happy Birthday!


Branches and Roots

Every once in a while you hear of unusually creative friendships. Such friendships have the dual effect on my consciousness of restoring my faith in humanity and sparking my imagination relative to our collective future. I stumbled across a lovely passage which describes one such friendship between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in Robert D. Richardon’s Emerson: The Mind on Fire:

A visitor in 1852 named John Albee has left the fullest description of how Emerson and Thoreau got along together in public. Thoreau was already at Emerson’s when Albee arrived. “He was much at home with Emerson: and as he remained through the afternoon and evening, and I left him still at the fire side, he appeared to me to belong in some way to the household.” Emerson continually deferred to Thoreau, Albee recalled, “and seemed to anticipate his views, preparing himself obviously for a quiet laugh at Thoreau’s negative and biting criticism, especially in regard to education and educational institutions.” Albee had come to find out how to get the best kind of education.

Emerson pleaded always for the college; said he himself had entered at fourteen. This aroused the wrath of Thoreau, who would not allow any good to the college course. And here it seemed to me Emerson said things on purpose to draw Thoreau’s fire and to amuse himself. When the curriculum at Cambridge was alluded to, and Emerson casually remarked that most of the branches of learning were taught there, Thoreau seized one of his opportunities and replied “Yes indeed, all the branches and none of the roots.” At this Emerson laughed heartily… in the evening Thoreau devoted himself wholly to the children and the parching of corn by the open fire.

If the friendship provided kindling for the fires of my imagination, Thoreau’s comment was the spark for this upcoming series of posts on the subjects of medicine, art and philosophy. Having worked in the field of medicine for the last twenty years or so, I must say that medicine, like any science provides endless opportunity for exploration and consideration. The branches of medicine are becoming increasingly well-defined and as such are more differentiated from one another than ever before, but I have to wonder if our obsession with the branches has left us out on a limb, metaphorically-speaking, to the point that we’ve forgotten about the roots which support the whole structure.

All systems of medicine are concerned with restoring health at the physical, mental or emotional level, or some combination of the three. The design and interactions of these three levels is incredibly complex and despite our progress in mapping out its various components and their inter-relationships, the unknown significantly outweighs unknown. Our various parts are animated by forces biological, mechanical, chemical and energetic and as a result, the science of medicine is necessarily multi-disciplinary, including but not limited to sciences such as biology, chemistry, biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, physics and more.

More to come…

The Inclination of Expectation

March is the Month of Expectation by Emily Dickinson

March is the Month of Expectation.
The things we do not know –
The Persons of prognostication
Are coming now –
We try to show becoming firmness –
But pompous Joy
Betrays us, as his first Betrothal
Betrays a Boy.

March is here, which means that despite the unusually mild winter in this neck of the woods, the season of expectation we call “spring” is not yet here, but just around the corner. I love the springtime, the season of love and rebirth, when all things are made new.

Expectation, or the strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future, is a uniquely human capacity. In my observation, most people lower their expectation of newness as they age. They eventually feel they’ve seen it all, that there is nothing new under the sun and that the “same old” is much more likely to occur than anything new and exciting.

The likely reason they draw such a conclusion is that people usually see what they’re looking for. This confirmation bias is a form of prejudice or myopia, where habits of observation wear ruts in the consciousness of the beholder. It’s not that newness doesn’t continue to occur, it’s just that it doesn’t get noticed anymore.

You’re always expecting something. Realizing this, you are wise to remember that you, and only you, have control over the inclination of your expectation.

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Simplify, simplify.

Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

I had an impromptu meeting the other day that brought to my attention the importance of simplification. The fellow I was meeting with and I were discussing how best to train another person on a particular system we had developed many years ago and it dawned on us that the system was in desperate need of review in advance of the training.

The system did what we needed it to, but unfortunately in an involved way. We picked it apart and soon realized that we could do away with more than two-thirds of the steps and achieve the same result. Before we make any changes to the system we will make sure that everyone affected by it has a chance to put in their two cents, but my expectation is that we saved hundreds if not thousands of hours of future work by putting our heads together for thirty minutes and asking the right questions.

How much in life is cluttered by unnecessary detail? I imagine a good deal of it is, especially now that creating records of detail is so easy in the digital age. It was a lot harder to keep extensive records when we were working with hammers, chisels and rocks or even film cameras. Remember those!?!

Don’t be afraid to question everything you do in the spirit of simplification. More often than not I’ve found that you can get something done just as well if not better in half the time, with half the work, provided that you look at it correctly and again, ask the right questions.

The right questions tend to relate to the discovery of limiting assumptions that you’ve held in relation to a particular area of function. Tasks you’ve been doing for years are usually a good place to start as they often contain a number of assumptions that may have been valid in days past, but that no longer have any bearing.

Enjoy the process of simplifying your life. It is as refreshing as a breath of cool, fresh mountain air!

The Struggles of Man

Religion, Society, and Nature—these are the three struggles of man.” ~ Victor Hugo

If all the human activity undertaken in the course of a day, month or year were put in a pot still and reduced to its fractions, there would be but three fundamental components: religion, society and nature. Every man who has ever lived has wrestled with these matters. Every book written, every movie produced, every opera composed deals with one or more of these three topics.

They present themselves to the mind and heart of man at every turn, begging understanding and attention. Some try to cultivate their understanding from the bottom up, building layer upon layer of the bricks of understanding in an effort to reach the highest levels of knowing. Others espouse a top-down approach, believing that comprehension comes not from mental strain, but from yielding heart and mind to a less tangible fountain of wisdom and inspiration. Most fall somewhere in between.

Living is, in a word, the process of dealing with these struggles. Great scientific thinkers, spiritual leaders, prophets and the like offer occasional and intriguing glimpses beyond the veil of usual human understanding, yet most spend their lives bouncing from pillar to post without ever really overcoming the struggles which guard the gates of understanding in religion, society and nature.

Henry David Thoreau once declared: “I have no designs on society, or nature, or God. I am simply what I am, or I begin to be that. I live in the present. I only remember the past, and anticipate the future. I love to live.” In a way you must relinquish your designs to be able to see the true design clearly, just as you would see a friend more accurately if you were to release all prejudices and judgments about him.

I see this as one of the greatest challenges that face our educators, leaders, and parents today: how to provide sufficient starting points in truth so that all truth can be known in these areas. Too few starting points and the individual will be lost at sea, adrift in wave after wave of mixed information and likely to be swayed by the strongest influence coming along – true or not. Too many starting points and the person’s heart and mind are no longer an alembic of creative thought, instead, they become megaphones for a dogmatic if not fanatic perspective. This imbalance occurs in religion, society and the study of science and when it does, it is devastating to the individual and a terrible loss to the whole of which he is a part.

The way you handle these struggles in your life define you. Acquiesce and accept another’s view on these components and the unique perspective you bring on the eternal truth of the matter is lost. See life as being strictly a mental exercise, a matter of mind of matter, and you will fail. Simply follow your heart, after swallowing the foolish notion that your heart alone can guide you into all knowing, and your life will likewise come to naught.

Your heart and your mind must cooperate in the process. A pure heart, a keen, supple and well-trained mind capable of original and rational thought are the means by which the wisdom which seems to sit so elusively on the other side of the veil of human understanding is made available to you.

The truth of these matters is at hand. To know the truth, you must share the truth and this, my friends, is not a laborious chore but a profound pleasure.

Stand upright, speak thy thoughts, declare The truth thou hast, that all may share; Be bold, proclaim it everywhere: They only live who dare.” ~ Voltaire

Improve the Silence

Do not speak unless you can improve the silence.

I’ve often wondered what Twitter feed, the blogosphere and Facebook would look like were there to be a filter that removed any content that did not improve the silence. Take Twitter, for example. Users post roughly 1,200 Tweets per second. Facebook has 500,000,000 active users – 1 in every 13 people on earth – and roughly 50% of them log on every day. Over 700,000,000,000 (yes, billion!) minutes per month are spent on Facebook and every ten minutes 500,000 links are shared, 1,000,000 friend requests are accepted and almost 1,500,000 messages are sent. We human beings are social animals!

Joseph Conrad once quipped that “To a teacher of languages there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot.” I have nothing against parrots, in fact I am thinking of getting a couple of them when the time is right, but I do wish that my fellow human beings would take more care with the words they speak, speaking only when their words would truly improve the silence.

Silence is an increasingly valuable and rare commodity in the world today and I have to wonder if we’ve forgotten how important it is to maintaining sanity, perspective and creative momentum. Many of the great minds throughout human history offered compelling perspectives on the value of silence and here a but a few of my favorites:

  • True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” ~William Penn
  • Silence is a source of great strength.” ~ Lao Tzu
  • Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointment.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

What does silence mean to you? Do you consider its worth from time to time? It is so easy to get caught up in the noisy and frenetic desperation and to overlook and underestimate the long pauses, the short silences and quiet moments alone or with company. When you reacquaint yourself with the benefits of silence, however, you’ll find that time opens back up for you, space naturally emerges between thoughts, words and deeds and the rhythm of your life, no matter how chaotic and discordant you may have allowed it to become, is restored.

Take a few minutes this morning to enjoy the silence. What do you hear?

You aren’t learning anything when you’re talking.” ~ Lyndon B. Johnson

Fahrenheit 451

Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the minds of his audience.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

You may recall Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, which tells the tale of a hedonistic and anti-intellectual American society. While the novel’s title describes the flashpoint of paper, the approximate temperature at which it ignites and burns, it also refers to the fact that firemen in this futuristic city start fires, typically to burn books, rather than put fires out. Given that this is my 451st daily consecutive post, I find Thoreau’s quote on fire and writing (discovered serendipitously earlier today) and Bradbury’s book to be a delicious juxtaposition.

When creative inspiration comes your way, take the time to give it expression. A friend sent me a poem written by her brother written when their father passed away, obviously in a moment of deep feeling and I was touched by the lyrical nature of this non-writer’s verses. Another friend of mine posted a photo of his son’s Lego creation on Facebook the other day, the obvious product of uninhibited creative expression. In both cases the iron was struck while hot and both inflamed the minds of their audiences, though neither were aware of the effect they had on others touched by their work.

That which you create reverberates out through the minds and hearts of present and future generations. I wish that we could instill in our children a greater sense of ownership for everything they create, for in so doing it is likely that more care would be taken in relation to every thought, word and deed wrought in a lifetime.

Whether Bradbury imagined the hedonistic and anti-intellectual society or foresaw its coming I cannot be sure, but looking around I see evidence of both types of cancer everywhere I look in our society. At the same time, I meet people whose lives are dedicated to the revelation of original thought, creative inspiration and responsible living on a regular basis, a fact that comforts and encourages me as I seek to serve my fellows.

You are not here to leave a tepid impression on the minds and lives of those you come in contact with. You are here to magnify the infinite variety in the expression of life. But to inflame the minds of your audience you yourself must be ignited.

What are you waiting for?