Think for yourself

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” – Buddha

It occurred to me while meditating on this wise counsel that we as a race have failed terribly on these points. This happens as much in secular living as it does in the psittacine rituals of the various world religions.

One of the more dramatic examples of this can be seen in the frequent repetition of the “Lord’s Prayer” by Christians around the world. While I certainly don’t fault and indeed respect their diligent reverence, I do have to wonder how many of them have read the context in which this prayer was set in the Biblical record. Both Matthew and Luke wrote about this prayer, though it is perhaps important to note that Luke was a disciple of Paul, not Jesus.

The context in which Jesus’ example of a properly framed prayer was recorded in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew as being:

[7] But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
[8] Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.
[9] After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name…

“Use not vain repetitions,” He said, yet how many billions of times has that prayer been uttered automatically in just about every language spoken on earth over the last two thousand years? Not to pick on religions, the same could be said about science, culture, government and every other field of human activity. Original thought has given way to mechanical repetition. Fidelity to the spirit of the laws of being has given way to a bullheaded devotion to the letter of man’s interpretation of those laws.

It’s easy to talk about mankind in a general sense or in relation to the hindsight time affords, but what about you, here and now? On what basis do you believe in what you believe in? Do you constantly apply analysis to your observations? Do you consistently move beyond recognition into actualization and thereby live up to the highest and finest standard of which you are aware? Or do you content yourself with accepting uncritically the beliefs of others so that you will fit in or so that you don’t have to face feelings of inadequacy that keep you from stepping up and out?

The greater part of my life has been devoted to encouraging others to think for themselves that they might be free of the lemming state that keeps mankind bound in repetitive mediocrity. There is a risk in this, of course, for whenever someone is inspired but then fails to move all the way through into his own, he tends to blame and accuse the original source of his inspiration for the misery and darkness he now feels. Nevertheless, it is a risk I am willing to take. The benefit to mankind of even one person thus inspirited makes all the contempt and obloquy you will inevitably endure unquestionably worthwhile.

The biggest obstacle I’ve found is not in inspiring others, or in being inspired myself. Neither is the chief impediment for most in observing or analyzing. The stumbling block I’ve found to be most prevalent comes in relation to accepting and living up to those beliefs that you discover, recognize and have acknowledged as being consistent with the good and benefit of all.

There is a false and fleeting comfort which comes from blindly accepting the beliefs of others without thinking them through yourself. The mindless approach to living is a narcotic that can be hard to get away from as virtually everyone around you is likely addicted to it as well. That said, remember this: you may fit in, but a certain part of you – the deepest, most important and meaningful part of you – will constantly remind you that you have settled and sold yourself short. And that, dear soul, is no way to spend the precious days of your life.

My Best Teachers

If you treat an individual…as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

One of the greatest privileges in life is that of teaching, coaching, mentoring or leading others in any setting or of any age. To do so requires an unusual combination of skills, chief among them are the ability to radiate a certain quality of knowledge or even wisdom and the willingness to be at rest in yourself while occasionally making others feel uncomfortable by your radiant presence.

Looking back, my best teachers were those who made me feel the most uncomfortable, challenged and capable of reaching that which was beyond my reach at the time. Their very presence compelled my finest expression – in thought, word and action – no matter how I was feeling or they were feeling at the time. They were empathetic and understanding without being sympathetic and subject to my limitations, both real and perceived.

Another common denominator to this rare and distinguished group was (and is!) the ability to help me navigate from where I was to where they knew I could be. Just writing this makes me realize that they believed in me more than I believed in myself at certain critical points. This is the very essence of an effective teacher, mentor and leader.

You cannot give what you don’t have and the wonderful thing about teaching, mentoring and leading is that you find yourself face-to-face with yourself as you are presently configured. You realize very quickly what you have and can therefore deliver and what you don’t and must therefore develop in yourself if you are to continue to provide guidance in that area. Luckily those whom you are guiding are typically consumed with their own process to the point that they do not see you addressing your own deficiencies, especially if you do not draw unnecessary attention to your process.

A great teacher will humbly admit that he is continually learning from his students and from the process of teaching and sharing, without losing his authority. A great teacher is, in this sense, a great student first and a great teacher second. Put otherwise, the way a teacher relates to the learning process will tend to condition the way his students relate to the learning process.

It’s a beautiful process when you think about it. It’s not so much the circle of life, where facts and information are recycled from generation to generation, but the spiral of life, where the ongoing revelation of wisdom is encouraged. This is the catalyst that transforms the human experience from history repeating itself to moving from glory unto glory.


Time to Think

A colleague and dear friend of mine gave me an excellent book the other day called “Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind” by Nancy Kline. I read it yesterday afternoon and I am strongly contemplating making this required reading for the entire company.

The author began the book’s introduction with a story about her mother, a woman who had a remarkable capacity for listening. She wrote:

This book is not about my mother. It is not even only about listening – not the way people usually do. It is, however, about what can happen if you listen expertly as she did, if you ennoble people with the depth of your attention and shake them to their roots by convincing them that they can think for themselves, if you take them into your heart, if you show them that who they are and what they think matter, profoundly.

Ms. Kline continues to describe the importance of creating a “Thinking Environment” where thinking for yourself is highly prized and encouraged. During her 15 years of research she identified 10 components of a Thinking Environment:

  1. Attention: listening with respect, interest and fascination
  2. Incisive questions: removing assumptions that limit ideas
  3. Equality: treating each other as thinking peers
  4. Appreciation: practicing a 5:1 ratio of appreciation to criticism
  5. Ease: offering freedom from rush or urgency
  6. Encouragement: moving beyond competition
  7. Feelings: allowing sufficient emotional release to restore thinking
  8. Information: providing a full and accurate picture of reality
  9. Place: creating a physical environment that says back to people, “You matter”
  10. Diversity: adding quality because of the differences between us

As the author notes, “Thinking for yourself is still a radical act.” I’ve often wondered why thinking for yourself is not a popular activity. Perhaps it is a vestigial tendency from the time before the Renaissance, where the individual was neither valued nor emphasized.

You would think that since the last three centuries of human progress were built on the idea that the individual mattered, the individual counted and the individual had a voice, the individual would exercise that right – beginning with the freedom to think freely – regularly. Strangely, though, children are taught through various means to learn to fit in rather than truly think for themselves and rare is the adult who overcomes the misgivings that most have about standing out in this way.

Two mentors in my past stood out for their ability to set things up for others to think for themselves: my high school French teacher, Mr. O’Donnell and my high school counselor, Mrs. Webster. Whenever I was in their presence I felt heard and generally understood. Never once did the pressures of life they were no doubt feeling from day-to-day get in the way of their concern to allow me to think for myself. When I was with them I thought big, I thought clearly and I felt challenged to grow.

There is an old saying “Teach a man to think that he thinks and he will love you. Teach a man to truly think and he will hate you.” Given the twists and turns of human consciousness and the desperate concern to maintain the status quo, creating an environment that encourages others to think for themselves, to know true inspiration, can be a dangerous business.

The human mind is wonderfully built, yet like most things that develop organically, it needs a medium with the right mix of nourishment, encouragement, parameters and activity to function to its highest potential. This is true, as the author notes, in the family, in politics, in our schools and in our love relationships.

The mind is a terrible thing to waste. If you find yourself too busy to take time from ‘doing’ to think, you are likely missing out on the the best part of living. Learning to think for yourself expands your horizons, catalyzes creativity, constrains to efficiency and makes the world a better place.

I highly recommend Ms. Kline’s book. The pace at which our world is changing requires those who can think for themselves.

You can and should be one of them!