Why Our Stories Matter

IMG_5348Matthew Fox, in his autobiography, Confessions: the making of a post-denominational priest, included this quote by Ellie Wiesel, “Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story.” I thank the heavens that Matt took this piece of advice to heart.

Matt and his stories have been instrumental in my professional and personal development over the past twenty years. If the Universe offer us clues where to find needed treasure, it has been far from subtle in urging me to pay attention to this brave and extremely brilliant being. I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin (Matt’s childhood home), was born on December 15th (the day he was famously silenced for a year by Opus Dei), and, although I went to Catholic high school, I was baptized Episcopalian (Matt’s past and current religious affiliation). The clues continue, and I am glad for the consistent nudging!

I want to recommend Matt’s story held in Confessions as we navigate how to fight for what is compassionate and right in these difficult times. Three key approaches in Matt’s life sing truth with me. First, I love his wicked sense of humor! He teaches me how to detach through not taking ourselves or greater tragedies too seriously. Detachment is a core cross-cultural skill for living well. Angeles Arrien described detachment as “caring deeply from an objective place.” Matt cares deeply and has suffered great loss, as you will read in his autobiography. When I first met him in 1998 it was clear how much he loved his Dominican brothers and was adjusting to being recently defrocked for his progressive views on the environment and feminism. The sense of loss was evident, and Matt had me hooked when he said something to the effect, “Five hundred years ago when you were branded as a heretic you were burned at the stake, now,” he added, “your books just sell better.” In his first speech after the year of silence, Matt began, “As I was saying fourteen months ago.… when I was so rudely interrupted …” Humor creates the space we need to survive and to be brave. As Mahatma Gandhi shared in his autobiography, “ If I had no sense of humor, I should long ago have committed suicide.”

Second, I wish to follow Matt’s constant search for wisdom through communing with saints past and present. He reached out to Thomas Merton in his early spiritual formation, searched out the best ritualists across the spiritual traditions including Malidoma Somé and Starhawk, and sought guidance from Fr. Bede Griffiths, Buck Ghosthorse, Joanna Macy, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalom and MC Richards. This is a purposeful list I add here if you wish to learn more about environmental or justice-based activism. His work is based in the writings of Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Aquinas to name just a few. Matt is a seeker of the larger whole. How can we all keep asking for more knowledge, ferreting out the greater truth and learning from the wise ones?

Last, I admire Matthew Fox’s courage to be a prophet. He has been willing over the past fifty years to speak truth to power structures that may not want to hear it. As you will read in Confessions, Matt seeks justice and equality for all and is willing to keep sharing this truth, regardless of the consequences. He tried compromise and working within the system as well and reminds me that this approach has its place, but truth is transcendent. We all deserve to be treated equally regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic class or ethic group. This truth cannot be watered down, or shouldn’t be ever hidden, and this often terrifies existing power structures. Matt is willing to stand up and in his standing, we are braver and know where to place our feet.

Thank you Matt for sharing your story and wisdom. Happy birthday and may all your days be blessed.

Encoding a Better Future

The Early DaysI began my  career as a software programmer at IBM. With a mathematics degree and just enough computer science classes from University of Wisconsin, I was chosen to write support tools for a new Federal Aviation Administration computer system. Thirty years ago, we coded in Ada on a main frame computer and would have to wait so long for a program to compile that I knit sweaters while I waited.

I continued in this world for the next 12 years, soon moving into program management (I am way  too extroverted to be a coder) and supported the release of healthcare software, including one of the first Hospital Electronic Medical Records programs.

Today, meanwhile, I have been considering how our belief systems affect our perception of reality. I witness students whose personal stories determine their success or self sabotage. I ache for young people who believe that they don’t deserve happiness or kindness. I see others, in contrast, who are wired for success. I will not be the first to call our stories “software of the mind,”  but am struck how our internal beliefs take in the data around us and spit back whatever results we seem programmed to expect.

As a program manager and as a coder, I lived in constant fear of severity 1 errors. When you release software for testing or to the public, when a program breaks, the error is given a severity level of 4, 3, 2 or 1. A severity level 4 (“sev 4”) error is a cosmetic fix that is rarely  resolved or maybe you would work on it during  the days when only you  had to work since we were a newbie you had long used up your vacation. Sev 3’s were more important, but didn’t affect overall operations and Sev 2’s had a work around, but were serious enough that you’d need to work a night or weekend to resolve. Sev 1’s took down the system and you weren’t going anywhere until they were fixed, especially if the software was out in the field.

I have applying this same error designation to my internal software and conflicts that affect my system. My brain seems to perceive most challenges as Sev 3 or  4 errors and if I have time to reflect on a lazy day, I might refine my belief systems a bit to incorporate.

Really surprising news I seem to log as Sev 2 errors and respond by heading to a journal, a wise friend or counselor to suss where I now stand.  I have had some Sev 1’s in my own mental software where life shocks have stopped me in my tracks and notice that I use those moments mark the end of an old identity and emergence of a new me.

Some times we as the coders would negotiate severity levels with clients when they identified an error. What seemed cosmetic to us would be considered critical to them. Playing with this analogy, I wonder when and why we incorrectly log the error severity levels within our mind software? Angeles Arrien would caution to pay attention when we might normalize the abnormal or abnormalize the normal. When do I engage in denial or overdramatize? Looking through a conflict resolution lens, where am I missing discord and not appropriately engaging in the change process? Or, where am I getting stuck in a victim stance or overwhelm needlessly?

I return to the Art of War for guidance here. When discord occurs, we are counseled to step onto the battlefield like a Sage Commander and survey where we stand. Objectively assess, who are my opponents? What resources do I have at my disposal? What does this battlefield look like and what might I be missing?  What are my strengths and weaknesses?

Returning to the software analogy, how can I be a sage customer service representative who listens carefully to a problem as it is described and be willing to return to my belief system coding team and calmly explain where we might need to do some updating?

May you find each problem that arises as an opportunity to create the best darn mind software available. You’ve got a large market waiting; we could use your help in processing the data we receive daily from these polemic times.

Awakin Call on June 13th at 12 pm Eastern, 4 pm GMT

I hope you will join me as the speaker on June 13th at 12 pm Eastern, 4 pm GMT for an hour call entitled Conflict as a Call to Sing Our Proudest Souls’ Anthems.  ServiceSpace, who hosts these calls, describes these gatherings as “a weekly conference call that anyone from around the world can dial into. It is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Each call features a unique theme and an inspiring guest speaker.” I am very honored and humbled to be chosen as an Awakin Call speaker especially as I note that the Jacob Needleman is the next speaker. Check out awakin.org for more information on this wonderful resource and click here to RSVP for the call.

What do you pray for?

For the past few  weeks I have been walking the Camino de Santiago. This ancient pilgrimage route runs the width of northern Spain taking you to the Galician cathedralimage where St. James’ bones are reportedly entombed.  Walking the whole  500 miles in one fail swoop has been on my bucket list after walking it in halves three previous times.

Lighting candles for others, and your journey, in the myriad of churches along the route is a common ritual. I have been holding a set of loved ones in my thoughts along this path and lighting candles for them has made sense. I appreciate that a friend recently sent me  an article on the value of prayer for secular and religious people alike, and of just holding gratitude for those around us in this manner. One of my mentors, Angeles Arrien, asked that we honor her after her death  by lighting a candle each month for a year on the 24th, the day she passed, and send along a prayer. I will complete that tradition tomorrow.

But, what do you pray for?

There are prescribed prayers in all the spiritual traditions, but what am I to wish for when praying for another? Walking hundreds of miles, you have time to think and this has been a point of deep consideration. I found I initially want to pray for health for those who are sick, that friendships are mended where suffering exists there, or that someone will get a good job. These wishes fall apart quickly when I think about how I am playing god as I start to guess how another’s life should turn out next. I am the conflict lady who likes to remind, at least herself, that we need discord to grow. Often my initial prayers were selfish requests to keep those I love with me in a way that makes me comfortable.  My  candle prayers, with hours to consider them, have needed to get away  from specific solutions into the essence of what I want to send out to another.

Drawing from the Taoist and Buddhist play books, I found that what feels responsible is to wish for another’s well being. What form that will take is not my call. I started to modify a  Buddhist metta prayer that goes, “May you be filled with loving kindness, may you be well, may you be peaceful and at ease, may you be happy.”  Praying for well being, may not mean someone is cured of an illness necessarily, or a friendship is rekindled, since well being may come through these  challenges. Sending thoughts of well being to someone who is no longer in physical form seems to fit better too.

What does this have to do with leadership and playing life well, which is blog’s theme?  I can easily get focused on form when coaching or teaching another. It is a constant temptation to hope for what others should learn or how they should behave.   Not only  arrogant, I close down possibility when I get into specific solutions. Yet, if I am holding a more detached  yet engaged wish for their true well being, I am much better at my job.  This begs the question, how might we live our work as an effective prayer?

A Call to Presence

My winter held a unique tour of the spiritual traditions. I attended a neuroscience workshop at the Upaya Zen Center before working with Presbyterian ministers/trainers, then on to a workshop on indigenous wisdom with Patrick O’Neill. Last, as you read earlier, I supported a conference of primarily Muslim participants in Morocco. That’s my version of wonderful season!


This special tour deepened my understanding of cross-tradition beliefs. I began February sitting in meditation twice a day, which included hearing the following advice sung each evening, “Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost. Let us awaken, awaken take heed. Do not squander your life.”

The minister trainers all engaged in communal prayer multiple times a day ending in a short, but profound service. Indigenous practices include the use of morning prayers and drumming, and of course, every day in the Arab world was framed with 5 calls to prayer over loud speakers beginning before sunrise to sunset. Study the world’s religions and you must study ritual.

Rituals very practically call us to stop a busy mind and be in the moment. Cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien described this cross-cultural goal as “Show up, choose to be present.” We don’t want to squander our lives and ritual is our crutch to make this a habit. Whether it is breath, a service or bowing with our head to the ground, the religious traditions figured out that a daily requirement of committed ritual can help us get back to the here and now.

When we understand how precious each moment is, we can treat each breath, each moment, as a newborn baby.
Michelle McDonald

I had a long layover in Minneapolis as I returned from Morocco, which gave me 5 hours reconnecting to my childhood haunts. A ritual walk around the lake near my growing up house with a friend of 39 years called me to show up where I now stood and notice from where I had come. Some rituals may be prescribed by our cultural traditions, but we can develop others to support our wellbeing.   For some it might be saying “I love you” while looking in the eyes of a child or spouse every night before sleeping. For others it might be appreciating the sunrise and sunset each day. IMG_3513

What might bring you back to the present? Where might you commit to making a simple ritual your daily centering habit? Life is short, let’s play this well.