Where the Heart Lives

There are places that we have a spiritual connection to, we have never been to this place, but it somehow evokes strong emotions and longing. As a kid, Scotland was one of these places for me. Pictures of Scotland would set my heart to soaring, I over-identified with my families Scottish history (at most I am one fourth Scottish, my family comes from about nine different countries, if the family oral histories are to be believed). This lasted right up through my college days.

While I wouldn’t say I don’t love Scotland anymore, it has been overshadowed by another place and another experience. In February 2011, I visited Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng, Henan, China. At this point I had been practicing martial arts for 7 years, and I wanted to visit the birthplace of all martial arts. I climbed 800 feet up near vertical staircases to the cave where Damo (Bodhi Dharma) Meditated for nine years and supposedly came up with the concepts that would become Shaolin kungfu.

I very vividly remember sitting on the mountainside, in front of that cave, looking out over Shaolin Temple and feeling as if I had been there before and as if my heart had come home. I don’t presume to say I understand this feeling. I don’t believe in reincarnation or past lives. I think that simply there are deep things placed in our hearts, and sometimes we are lucky enough to find them.

I didn’t grow up on a diet of kungfu movies, in fact I never really watched one until I was in college, but I have always had a deep interest in the martial arts and fascination with the discipline and skills of Shaolin monks. I think on that trip something inside me woke up, and I connected deeply with my heart. I think that if I were to return to that spot now the moment would be past.

I think there are places in the world that bring us that awakening, and they different for us all. I think that travel brings us closer to those deep things of our hearts and it our duty to find them. We should look deep inside ourselves and find those places that bring us wonder and go there. I have always believed that if God created the world with us in mind and for us to enjoy, then travel is an act of communion, a spiritual discipline if you will. Travel brings us into communion with the Almighty and with ourselves. We learn things we never knew about ourselves when travel, we awaken something long dormant. It is only in going that we find these things.

I currently have the desire to visit Cambodia and see the great city of Angkor. I wonder what my heart shall find when we get there. I close with this, Travel deeply, don’t go to check things off of some ten best list, go with the purpose of discovering yourself and you will never be disappointed.


The Broken Cup

I am a dedicated Christian, who loves God with all my heart. But, I am also a student of Chan or Zen Buddhism. This comes from both my interest in other points of view and my study of Shaolin kungfu. I like Chan, because it seeks simplicity. Sometimes there are big concepts in the world and the Christian theology of it all escapes me, but then I read something written by one of my Shifu (kungfu masters. In Shaolin kungfu, most instructors are Shaolin monks) and something clicks.

I had one these experiences the other day, while watching the American TV show, “The Middle”. In this particular episode, one of the characters, a neurotic fourteen year old is worried about everything, stumbles across an article written by a Zen master on impermanence and letting go. The story goes like this: “You see this cup?” the master says, “It is a good cup, I enjoy using it. To you it is whole, but to me it is already broken. Because this cup is already broken, I am free to enjoy it while I have it, I cherish the times I get to use it. But when the wind knocks this cup to floor and it shatters, I will not be sad, because the cup was already broken.”

I love this picture of the acceptance of impermanence. I have the belief that nothing can stay the same, it is always changing. We don’t always recognize this truth because when you are in the situation things seem to stay the same. But when you’re blessed with the perspective change of living a nomadic life style, like I am, you come home after three years and say “who the hell are these people? What happened to my family and friends?” Things change and often the changes are so small that we do not notice them for many years. But when you go away for a while and then comeback, the changes all seem to pile up and hit you all at once.

Remembering the broken cup can lessen the shock of the changes. In my case when left last, my niece was two years-old and followed me everywhere. When I return home in July she will be five, and will probably take some time to warm back up to me. My brother was newly married; he will be married three years and a home-owner. Our relationship will have changed. While I have been away, several of my friends have gotten married, a few have gotten divorced, and there have been great triumphs and great losses. When I return things will have changed. These won’t be the same people I left behind.

When we travel we change, and yet we are tempted to believe that everything will be the same when we return, even if we are not the same. This manner of thinking can be devastating. I have heard said that life is like a river, it is ever flowing. I have also heard it said that you cannot step in the same river twice. So it stands to reason that we cannot step into the life twice, what was will never be again. All we can do is cherish the cup while have it, remembering that it will break, and enjoy the memories we have of it once it is gone. Then out and buy a new cup, and let the process begin.

We can mourn the passing of the up, but we should not dwell in that place. By not moving on from the place we were, we risk stagnation. Stagnation for a river and for a life can be a death sentence. When a river stagnates, it becomes a swamp, a fetid, disease ridden, mosquito plagued swamp. So too, when we stagnate, we become bitter and unpleasant to be around. This results in further loss, and further bitterness.

As travelers, we revel in the changes that occur in us from seeing new things. We must also revel in the changes in those leave behind for that signals growth, and life is all about growth. The point of our story, dear friends, is evolution. We must always remember that. We live in moment and love every minute of it, but we also remember that the cup is already broken.

You won’t See That in New Jersey

You Won’t See That in New Jersey

I lifted this title from a quote in the Adam Sandler movie “Blended”. I won’t review the plot of the movie here (because it basically has nothing to do with what I want to write about), but I will set the scene for you. Sandler is in Africa at a resort, it is early morning and he is grabbing coffee. He looks across the river to see two rhinos mating, at which the African bartender exclaims “You won’t see that in New Jersey!”

I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and my normal is probably different from that a lot of people, my normal is also completely different from that of most Nebraskans, as Nebraska is primarily made of small rural towns, and Omaha is the largest city in the state. Growing my normal included regularly seeing large scale FBI drug and gun busts, avoiding certain parts of town after dark, and knowing how to identify gang territories based on graffiti.

As I got older, my normal got turned on its ear, as I started to travel around the world. I started see things that you see in New Jersey. I have seen sun set over Tiananmen Square. I have the sun rise over sacred mountains. I have seen a man have explosive diarrhea into a storm drain in a back alley in Changsha (not everything you see on the road is pretty). I think that having insanely mind-boggling experiences and seeing things that you would see in a million years in your hometown are what travel is about. It’s what I love about living in a foreign country.

Travel can be terrifying, irritating, dangerous, and nerve-wracking, it can also be wonderful and enlightening. I find that it is the moment that that I didn’t plan, or were came upon through some inconvenience that I best remember and most treasure. So travel with both eyes opened and seek the moments that you won’t see in New Jersey.

More Than Conquerors?

I sometimes struggle with the words of the bible and how the relate to the reality of my life. Certain verses don’t always appear true in my daily struggle. One verse that has really bugged and provoked some anger at God is Romans 8:37, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us”.

The problem is that I have taken the phrase “more than conquerors to mean that there is a point when things will get easy, when I can stop fighting and start relaxing and everything will be awesome (even as I write this, I cringe at the childishness of the sentiment). But, in my life I have often felt like Romans 8:36 is truer,” As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered’, end of story.

I was meditating or angrily stewing (the second is probably a better description) on Romans 8:37 one morning a couple of months back, and I had a revelation. The revelation was that being a conqueror doesn’t mean you ever stop fighting, or that we get to enjoy what we fought for. If we look at the great conquerors of history we see the truth in this. Genghis Khan died on campaign. Alexander the Great died on campaign. Attila the Hun died on campaign. Napoleon died in exile. Do you see a pattern here? They never stopped fighting, there wasn’t a point where they just sat down and said, “Well, I’ve done enough here, time to hang up my sword and relax a little”.

I read a book recently where the author quoted a line from the Bhagavad Gita (an ancient Hindu hymn of scripture) that said that the warrior is entitled to his labor, but not to the fruits of his labor. This idea may seem crappy to most Westerners since we are born with a sense of entitlement and have the idea of fair wages for fair work instilled in us from a young age, but I like the idea that we don’t always see the reward of what we work for, because whether we a rewarded or not we still must labor.

In this case, when I say labor, I mean live, we would be fools if we just sat down and cried when life doesn’t go our way. That being said, sometimes we need a good cry, but we must get back up and keep going. I read a great quote from Bruce Lee that said, “He who wants to succeed should learn how to fight, to strive and to suffer. You can acquire a lot in life, if you are prepared to give up a lot to get it”. I think this is the essence of what it means to be “more than a conqueror”.

I don’t think this is easy lesson nor do I think it I one I will never have to learn again. We humans tend to like to take the path of least resistance, and we freak out when we can’t. Struggle and instability have been a huge part of our history and evolution (micro-evolution, not macro-evolution, so don’t freak out) as a species, and yet we still expect it all to be a bed of roses. Plato said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war”, and I think this sums up the human experience well. I also think that this quote serves as a warning that shouldn’t seek to eliminate struggle from our lives.

I have met people who seem to never struggle, and they seem dead. I am not talking about people who seem to handle whatever life throws at them with a sort of calmness and stoicism that makes it all seem easy. Instead, I am referring to those whose lives   have been so sheltered that they that literally haven’t lived. Sure they do not know great pain; neither do they know great adventure, great love, or great heartbreak, the things that enrich our stories. When other’s talk about these things, they sit and listen, blissfully unaware of what they are missing out on.

I used to envy these people. I knew some folks who never wanted for anything, was handed to them or came easy. This used to piss me off, until my Mom pointed that these people had had to give some bit of personal autonomy, freedom, and adventure. I wouldn’t trade what I have gained through struggle for anything. Struggle made me who I am; it makes all of us who we are. Hopefully, I’ll remember that the next time I am feeling sorry for myself.


Staking Claim

Staking Claim

So I just finished rereading The War of Art by Steven Pressfield for the umpteenth time. I read this book once or twice a year to get my bearings and remind me why I write. I have shared thoughts in previous posts that came to me as a result of reading this. I have written no less than three posts about the concept of resistance, as set forth in The War of Art.

The Idea of resistance is what stuck out to me the last time I read this book. This time, the concept that stuck out to me was territorial thinking versus hierarchical thinking. .  In the book, Pressfield says that: “We humans have territories too. Ours are psychological. Stevie Wonder’s territory is the piano. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is the gym. When Bill Gates pulls into the parking lot at Microsoft, he’s on his territory. When I sit down to write, I’m on mine”. Hierarchical thinking is basically comparing yourself to others and acting in a way that maintains your place in the tribe.   Territorial thinking is where you adopt a territory, something that you are passionate about, and living from that, rather than giving a shit about what anyone else thinks about it. “If you’re all alone on the planet, a hierarchical orientation makes no sense. There’s no one to impress. So, if you’d still pursue that activity, congratulations. You’re doing it territorially. If Arnold Schwarzenegger were the last man on earth, he’d still go the gym. Stevie Wonder would still pound the piano. The sustenance they get comes from the act itself, not from the impression it makes on others.”

I started to think about this, what would I do if I was the only person left on earth? The answer surprised me (and yet I knew the answer before the question was even asked), of course I would continue writing because I draw energy from it, but the real answer, the big answer was I would brew beer. Obviously, if there was no one else on earth, I would have to brew, or I wouldn’t have beer (obviously I would have already raided all the great breweries in the world). Beer is a substance that brings me enjoyment, and I am not just talking about drinking it, the entire process that goes in to it fascinates me. Talking about it energizes me in a way nothing else does. In short, I am passionate about beer.

In the book, Pressfield talks about how we shy away from staking out our territory for “fear of losing our place in our tribe. Fear of the consequences of following our heart. Fear of bankruptcy, fear of poverty, fear of insolvency. Fear of groveling when we try to make it on our own, and of groveling when we give up and come crawling back to where we started. Fear of being selfish, of being rotten wives or disloyal husbands; fear of failing to support our families, of sacrificing their dreams for ours. Fear of betraying our race, our hood, our homies. Fear of failure. Fear of being ridiculous. Fear of throwing away the education, the training, the preparation that those we love have sacrificed so much for, that we ourselves have worked our butts off for. Fear of launching into the void, of hurtling too far out there; fear of passing some point of no return, beyond which we cannot recant, cannot reverse, cannot rescind, but must live with this cocked-up choice for the rest of our lives. Fear of madness. Fear of insanity. Fear of death… We fear discovering that we are more than we think we are. More than our parents/children/teachers think we are. We fear that we actually possess the talent that our still, small voice tells us. That we actually have the guts, the perseverance, the capacity. We fear that we truly can steer our ship, plant our flag, reach our Promised Land. We fear this because, if it’s true, then we become estranged from all we know. We pass through a membrane. We become monsters and monstrous.”

This sums up my situation with entering into my territory. I grew up in a Midwestern, conservative, Christian house, where drinking beer, let alone thinking about it, put you in danger of the fires of hell. I was thoroughly indoctrinated and believed alcohol to be bad. That all changed during my first year of college, I met a group of Christian guys who loved God, and had no problem drinking. Around the same time, my Mom’s view of alcohol changed, and soon after so did mine. I had my first beer at 12am February 22, 2005 (my 21st birthday), and the rest is history.

Up until recently, I was afraid to stake my claim. I was afraid to say, “I love beer, I am passionate about beer. And I want to spend the rest of my life working the beer industry.” I was afraid it wouldn’t be socially acceptable, I was afraid people wouldn’t understand. I now know it doesn’t matter if they understand, it only matters that I am doing my work within my God given territory.

I love beer, not just drinking it, but reading about styles and innovations, talking about it and introducing to the fact that beer can be more than Bud Lite. When I talk about beer stuff, a completely different look comes over my face; I get so excited it’s hard to understand what I am saying sometimes. When I go to a bottle shop, I’m like a big alcoholic kid in a candy shop, I stand there for hours just admiring the variety and talking the counter guys (who usually love beer as much as me).

We all have a territory. We need to find that territory to find fulfillment in our lives. Our territory can be anything, I have friends whose territories are accounting, or business, or music, or working with the homeless.

There are two steps we must take to find our territories.  The first one is easy, we must ask ourselves what we would still do even if we were the last person on earth, even if we could claim no recognition or glory or wealth from it, and then go do it. As John Eldredge says in Wild at Heart, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive”.

The second step is even more important, but infinitely more difficult, we must stake our claim and step out into the unknown. We must live and work in territory, regardless of the opposition or criticism, if I may quote John Rambo, in Rambo IV, “This is who we are, what we do. We either live for nothing or die for something”. It is pivotal that we brave the possible outcomes and step out. As Eldredge says, “Let the world feel the weight of who you are, and let them deal with it”.

Sometimes when talking to a person whose territory I don’t get, I am tempted to say “well that’s boring, why would you like that”, and then I think of all the times I have been accused of being an alcoholic, or being irresponsible or just plain weird, and instead I say “go for it, it ain’t my pint of stout, but tell me more.” This is a key response, once we’ve found our territory; we must encourage others around us to find theirs. Otherwise we risk becoming pretentious, hipsteresque assholes musing on our barstools about how awesome we are and how lame everyone else. Or worse, we add to the culture of criticism and shame that is currently developing, by sitting behind or computers and pointlessly commenting on other people’s journeys, all while stalling our own. The creative soul thrives in the company of its own kind, and therefore we must breathe life into the stories around us.

Find your territory and live in it. Bask in the knowledge that that is what you were made for. The world needs more people living from their true hearts, instead of more masked cowards hiding from their true hearts. I can’t wait to see what we can do.

All quotes from: Pressfield, Steven (2011-11-11). The War of Art. Black Irish Entertainment LLC. Kindle Edition.

Eldredge, John (2011-04-19). Wild at Heart Revised & Updated: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul. Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.