Leonard

As I’ve adjusted to retirement, it’s been yet another opportunity for personal growth and coming to know myself. I’ve become more aware of my need for connection and interaction with others. Also, I need a reason to get up in the morning – I need to interact with other living beings on a regular basis. This may sound odd for a person who’s been divorced for 33 years, and often described as a “fringe personality”, but it’s true. Fortunately, in the last few years I’ve come to interact with dogs well, especially my German Shepherd, Bella. In the process, I’ve come to enjoy other dog people. Given this segway, I decided to embark on training dogs as a retirement adventure. I found a school for dog trainers close to my house, that was accessible and affordable, and eagerly waited for several months to begin the 12 week intensive course in an Academy for Dog Trainers.

The course was divided into three main segments of four weeks each. The first was Basic Obedience, next was Intermediate Obedience, and the last was Advanced Topics. My initial intention, and enrollment, was for the entire course. I was committed for the “whole enchilada”. I was told, and it was clearly stated, that the course was demanding. This became a reality quickly as 32 of us, some from as far distant as India and the Bahamas, came to the Academy with a common love of dogs. As my days settled into a pattern synchronous with the Academy, I quickly found myself putting in 12 to 14 hours each day, about 70 to 80 hours per week. It can be amazing to fall into a routine where one’s heart is the driving force. However, these demands, no matter how hearty, can become overwhelming to the point of imbalance at best, perhaps dangerous to personal safety or well being.

Initially, Bella was given a pre-course assessment and deemed unsuitable for the first session of the course. She had already been trained, and was proficient at Basic Obedience. I was then assigned two rescue dogs, each of different temperaments, in order that I experience as much of a variety as possible in terms of dog training. The dogs that I was assigned, that I would get to know intimately, were purely a roll of the dice. And so it was that one of the dogs was a maniac, the other a neurotic. My maniac, estimated to be 10 to 14 months, appeared to be a Husky/Chow mix, and was incredibly outgoing, confident, and full of himself. He was extremely curious, driven, playful, and loveable. He was a handful at every turn. The second dog I was assigned, Leonard, was a neurotic, shy, and fearful character. The cards in the hand that I was dealt were from two polar opposite ends of the spectrum.

I was initially told that Leonard was a “fence jumper”, an escape artist. He had raw sores across his front legs. I was told that the sores were probably from someone putting a cone on him backward, in order to keep him from getting out of the fence. Eventually, as I got to know him, I realized that he was extremely frightful. The slightest shift in the environment could startle him, and in that state of excitement he was capable of jumping and running. I figured that the frightful element was probably part of what had determined his plight as a rescue.

It’s easy to cap, or redirect, an exuberant dog that is highly motivated, such as my maniac. It’s difficult, and can be nearly impossible, to generate drive in a dog where there is little or none. Taken a step further, when the shy and nervous dog has been “shut down”, their life force repressed and abused, they may never come out of it fully. It was obvious that Leonard was of the latter ilk. As I came to know him, I realized that he had been “shut down”. His effort at life had been quashed to the point that he was in a deep shell, hesitant to experience or try anything new. I decided to take a different approach with him, over and above simple training. I decided to focus on our relationship, I wanted to engage and encourage him. I put most, at times all, of my effort into pulling him out of that shell. I probed the course of chiseling away at, and opening up, the core of who he really was.

His name wasn’t initially Leonard. But we changed it. It happened one day while waiting to go out onto the Agility field. We were sitting around, several of us with our dogs, and the remark was made that he was starting to look better. I shared a few details about what we’d been doing together. We had walked in the field, and he started to run. In the field was the only time I ever saw him take interest in a toy. He was, for a few brief moments, playful and capricious. It was true, there was a brilliant side to him at times. It was in stark contrast to the side of him that seemed to take over any time we entered the Training Building. I could tell that he hated the Training Building. He became his old self, the one that was shut down. He did obedience when asked, mostly. Actually, obedience training was something he endured. At any rate, several of the girls noted that he had changed, and was starting to shine. They decided that his name should be Leonard. And so it was, from that moment forward, that we called him Leonard.

There are many approaches to dog training. Each approach becomes a school of thought for the trainers that embody the methods therein. There is the “old school” of “yank and crank“, which is becoming outdated due to it’s use of pure force and pressure, seen as inhumane by evolving standards. There is the purely positive approach, which has its place, albeit limited in certain situations. Then there is the balanced approach, or “Balanced Trainers”, supposedly somewhere in the middle, incorporating a variety of tools from rewards to corrective measures. The Academy where I was enrolled was of the Balanced Trainer approach. However, when considering that there was a rank and file of novice trainers, matched with a full spectrum of rescue dogs that were thoroughly green and raw, then given four weeks to bring all of the above into the harmonious rhythm of a marching band, one can surmise that there would be disharmonious moments.

Leonard had a knack for creating disharmonious moments. It wasn’t that he was unruly, much to the contrary. He was always personable and connectable. However, he came to dislike being trained in Basic Obedience. In fact, as I stated above, he hated it. He was resistant to some of the commands, and as he came to trust me his position of choice was at my feet. I continued with the approach of gaining his confidence and trust, hoping that he’d continue to emerge from his shell. We walked in the woods, and he slowly came to prance and dance. I took him onto the Agility field, where I was able to coax him into negotiating each and every obstacle. Agility is an excellent sport for dogs, it engages them and builds confidence. Leonard had a difficult time with the tunnel at first, but soon came to like it. In fact, he would go in and refuse to come out. Finally, in a moment of exasperation, I crawled into the tunnel with him. From that moment on, we were BFF, best friends forever.

One of the training tools, a method of communication with the dog, is pressure. They are systematically taught that forms of pressure on the collar can be released and removed by their compliance with the request being made. Leonard did not respond well to pressure, in fact it tended to push him further into his shell. Therefore my use of pressure had to be very judicious and compassionate. I took extreme care in this balance of coaxing him out of his shell, using rewards, and the light punishment of pressure that he would respond to when necessary. This was the most difficult part of our relationship.

Dogs are inherent gamblers. Their wager, in any interaction, is “how much can I get away with?”, “what’s in it for me?”, or “how far can I push it?”. I came to realize this syndrome with Leonard. I realized that he was playing me as far as he could in some of the obedience commands, particularly the “down”. Granted, it’s a difficult position for most dogs, it is a position of vulnerability. In all this, dogs also crave, demand, and respond to certainty, routine, and authority. And so it was between Leonard and I with regards to the “down”. He pushed me to my limit, and I finally pushed back. Given all of the above, I came up with a plan. My plan was to take Leonard for a walk in the field behind the Training Building and “generalize” the down command. So, one bright and sunny morning, away we went. We walked for about a quarter mile across the field, reinforcing the mechanics of the down command, about every 10 paces. I would command “down”, then mold him into position. When we were all the way across, we turned around, and repeated the entire process for the full quarter mile back to the kennel. Finally, at the end of this process, his resistance to this command faded and he performed on cue. We had “come to Jesus” on the “down”.

And so we came to the day of reckoning, the four week Obedience Test. I arrived at the Academy at my usual 5 AM. After my typical roll out, I worked each dog lightly, more of an effort to review, reinforce, and connect with them. I decided to test Leonard in the morning while he was still fresh. I rationalized that my more energetic “maniac” would still have plenty of steam for the afternoon test. If all went well, this would be a light day, and we’d spend the weekend celebrating our triumph after all the effort and grind that we’d endured. It had not been an easy trek. Indeed, the long days and mountain of information had brought us into many difficult moments. At any rate, I felt confident that I had done my best, that I was well connected to my dogs, and that we would do well.

The beginning of the test seemed to go well. There was a slight hiccup in the “place” routine, but Leonard sat upon command and stayed for the duration of the trial. Then came the “down” part of the test. Leonard was in a sit at my left side, in the standard heel position. Upon request, I authoritatively issued the “down” command. I could see from the corner of my eye that he did not move. I was told to “down” him again. I turned in his direction, and our eyes met. More authoritatively, I said “DOWN”. Neither his eyes nor his body moved, we remained with our eyes locked for a brief moment. He simply refused to “down” upon demand. I was told to remove Leonard and myself from the training area. We stood contritely on the sideline, and watched in disbelief as the test proceeded for those who were more successful.

I could tell, when the test was finished and we were at the moment of Final Reckoning, that something was terribly wrong. I had gone over the math in my head, and had calculated – on the edge of panic – that we were sure to have passed with enough points garnered from our stronger sections of the test. However, when the assistant tester took us aside for a conference, I knew that we were doomed. We had scored 52 points out of 100. We needed at least 60 to pass. Both Leonard and I were now members in the Rank and File of Life’s Failures. I was told that we could retest in 48 hours. I was too shocked to have a reaction other than quietly leaving the Training Building and finding a reclusive place for the both of us to cower.

Life has a way of periodically shaking and shocking us out of our comfort and predetermined expectations. I had just been forced into one of those moments. I was in a complete state of exhaustion from all the effort I had put into this failing endeavor. My entire world had been rocked. I was at the point where I could only think of what to do next, within the framework of the immediate moment. I managed to put Leonard back into his run in the kennel. I then made it to my truck. I took Bella out of her crate, and the only thing I could think of was to go down to the creek. I had previouysly found a remote and refreshing place down by the creek that had become my sanctuary. I often took Bella down there to grab a moment of solitude and communion. I was now direly in need of one of those moments, so away we went to the creek.

Some decisions make themselves. One’s position within a set of options becomes more and more limited based upon seeing clearly those options that are not workable. So it was for me at this particular moment. I was fixed in clear memory of the moment that Leonard and I had locked eyes, and he had refused to down. I didn’t realize it at that specific moment, but he was showing me the clear path forward. It was as if the entire Force of the Universe was embodied within his 52 pound frame, and melding into me that we were of One Mind and Heart. He was telling me that, no matter how I approached it, he did not like, nor could he be forced, to do Basic Obedience. As I weighed my options, I realized that there was no amount of force, or pressure – nor coercion of any type – that I could apply to him within the next 48 hours that would change our position in the Rank and File of Life’s Failures. Further, I realized that if I went that route, it would be OVER AND ABOVE the 70 to 80 hours per week that I was already enduring. All these conclusions came effortlessly within about 10 minutes of clarity by the creek. I was on a hell-bound burn out course, and I could not bring myself to force Leonard to crash and burn with me.

Still in a state of shock, and capable of making only one single decision or three minutes of action, whichever was smaller, I put Bella back into her crate in the bed of my truck. I then walked directly into the front office of the Academy and requested to withdraw. I filled out the paperwork, and returned to my truck. Bella and I drove home, and I took a nap. It was WONDERFUL to relax. It took days to decompress from the pressure cooker that I endured at the Academy. I have not looked back, but I have thought about the dogs and my classmates. I can only hope that they fare better than Leonard and I. Or should I hope that they fare as well as we have?

The Psychology of Quitting Sense

I once had a friend who headed up a very popular Bluegrass band for several years. He was a musician all his life, and he was very successful. During the time that his band was at its peak of success, the personnel changed a lot. This bothered him, to a degree, and one day when we were talking about the people he had in the band and why they left, he said “Everyone pretty much does what they want to do, all the rest is just the excuses.” I’ve thought about this quite a bit since the day he said it.

I’ve thought of all the things I’ve started and not finished. It leads me to a conclusion: there are real reasons to quit an endeavor, and there are trivial reasons to quit an endeavor. As I write about my process, it may seem cognitive, or overly thought out, but I find this analysis necessary in order to reach wise decisions. Therefore, I’ll focus on my current undertaking, which is hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Sometimes we dream. Sometimes those dreams are big, perhaps bigger than what we think we can achieve or accomplish. However, when we find ourselves taking steps, practical and tangible actions, toward realizing those dreams the dreams take on a life of their own. It’s in dreaming, and stepping into the realization of those dreams, that we find purpose and connection. When we stop stepping into those dreams, the dreams don’t go away, we go to sleep. As I look back on the times I’ve stopped stepping into my dreams, I’ve become numb. Therefore, as I step into this dream of walking the Appalachian Trail, when the temptation to just throw the pack away and return to comfort and safety of my ordinary life, I tend to remember all the times in my life that I’ve gone numb. Therefore, I’ve concluded that if I’m going to quit, it needs to be for a real reason.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll list what I consider to be the trivial temptations that I face:

  1. I’m sweating, it’s too hot.
  2. I’m too cold.
  3. I’m sore and tired of walking up and down mountains.
  4. I’m tired of being rained on.
  5. There are too many bugs.
  6. I’m tired of carrying this heavy pack.
  7. I miss my loved ones.
  8. It’s Friday evening, I should be somewhere other than deep in the forest.
  9. I’m tired of eating trail food, I want real meals.
  10. Why did I ever think up this absurd undertaking?

I’ve only listed 10, and there are many more, but you can begin to see what the diversions are.  I consider these reasons to be trivial because if I want to make my dream come true, if I really want to realize this dream, I will deal with these reasons and give my dream priority over them.

In contrast, I’ll list what I consider real reasons to quit:

  1. I’m sick or injured to the point of jeopardizing my health.
  2. There’s a family matter that requires my attention.
  3. I have, or there has come up, a situation that requires my presence.
  4. I have given the endeavor adequate effort and attention, and realized that it is truly not for me.

Continue reading “The Psychology of Quitting Sense”

Difficulty, Part 2

Many years ago, while driving late at night, I passed a church that had a sign out front. It was the type of sign that had changeable letters, where the message could be rotated. The message that was posted said “A person meets their true self in adversity.” I’ve remembered that sign, and the saying, all through the years, and I believe it to be true.

There’s plenty of adversity to be encountered on the Appalachian Trail. It’s not every day that I climb a 1500 foot mountain, walk over countless boulders and rocks, or swat hundreds – perhaps thousands – of black flies. Another adverse circumstance is crossing rivers.

There are several approaches to crossing rivers, each person develops their own. Some people have two sets of shoes, changing into their wading shoes before crossing. Others take off their shoes and cross barefoot. Still others wear shoes that they simply wade in, and wear them wet until they dry. I’ve given up on carrying two sets of shoes because I don’t want the extra weight, so I switch between options b & c, above, depending on circumstance.

There’s also a protocol for fording deep and swift rivers that minimizes the chances of falling into the current. Here’s that protocol:

  1. Survey the stream carefully for the best, safest route across.
  2. Place all valuables: phone, wallet, maps, etc. in ziplock bags so that they will remain dry no matter what happens.
  3. Loosen and/or unsnap the hip belt of the pack.
  4. Loosen the shoulder straps of the pack.
  5. Unsnap the breast strap of the pack. (#3-#5 is so that, in case of a fall in mid-stream, the pack can be shed and won’t drag one under water.)
  6. Enter the water slowly, and face uptream, into the current.
  7. Using the trekking poles for stability, slowly and safely move across the stream to the other side.

On one particular crossing, deep and wide, I did all the above – at least I thought. The first thing I noticed when entering the water was how cold it was. Then, as I moved out into the water, I felt how strong the current was by the way it pushed against my feet as I struggled to maintan balance with the trekking poles. Whenever my feet turned slightly from pointing directly upstream, into the current, I could feel the strength of the current pull me sideways. It was a particularly testy crossing.

About half way across the river, as the water inched above my knees and toward the cargo pockets of my pants, I realized that I had not ziplocked my phone. The water was only inches below the phone, and I rely on it for the GPS application that’s installed. I started to berate myself, but finally reasoned that it was what it was, and I couldn’t change anything at that moment.

To add insult to injury, a few steps further, just about at the middle of the river, a mosquito landed on my nose and began to draw her measure of my precious bodily fluid. So there I was, balanced precariously in swift current, pack on my back, leaning on trekking poles for dear life, watching cross eyed as the mosquito had her way with me. My only thought was “You blood-sucking bastard!

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m recovering from excessive use of profanity. At one time I was an proficient connisseur of the “blue streak” practice. It took me many years, untold embarassment, and countless tries to curb the terrible habit of a foul mouth. However, I did bring the habit into check, and – thankfully – it remains so to this day. However, in the adversity of the river, I let loose. There was nothing I could do about anything, and the default behavior took over.

So there it is, full disclosure of my past and present condition. Also, for those who would undertake the Appalachian Trail, a hint of the adversity it contains.

The Hitchhiker

Bella and I had a hitchhiker for a few days. I’ve came to call him “Grandpa”, because he reminded me of Grandpa Jones. He was quite the character. He seemed to be part Beagle, perhaps a mix of Beagle and Australian Shepherd. He acted a lot like a Beagle, and Beagles haven’t made the list of my best dog experiences. In fact, they’re on my B list of stubborn and stupid knot heads to avoid. We didn’t seem to be on his B list, in fact he adopted us, and stuck like Velcro. I have no idea what his plan was, if he could possibly have made a plan. I got the feeling that this wasn’t the first time he “ran away from home”.

We first met him as we walked past a farm house. There were three dogs that cautiously came out to greet us. Two of the dogs seemed like they could have been related, perhaps siblings or offspring of each other. Grandpa was one of those two. He was the only one of the three that came close to me. Bella went through all the normal dog protocol of sniffing, being sniffed, tail stiff then wagging, all the normal stuff. It was rigid and stiff at first but very cordial. Dogs have a way of sensing each other out. Two of the dogs held back from me, but, for some reason, Grandpa cautiously approached on my left. I let him sniff the back of my hand. That was all he wanted, that one small sniff. The next thing I know, the others returned from whence they came, and Grandpa was with us over hill & dale, as if we’d been together forever.

I tried several times to shoo him away. I doubt that he could have found his way back home, even if he was inclined. He was slow with his trust, but after a short while he started acting like we’d been together for years, always under foot. When he wasn’t under foot, he was off sniffing or chasing some animal. He was a tracker, sometimes taking off on the scent of a deer, or some other animal, howling and barking confidently, like a dog that has found his True and Highest Purpose in life. He didn’t have a collar or a tattoo in his ear, so I had no way to call or contact the owner. He was neutered, healthy, a bit chubby, and looked like he’d been well cared for. I doubt that he’d been neglected or abused, and when we stopped he’d sit peacefully near my feet. He and Bella came to play together, she was ready for some company of her kind.

We had a Beagle when I was a kid. My dad bought him for $5 from a man up the street who had several Beagles. We named him Rex, and he was to be our hunting dog. We were going to train him to chase rabbits. My grandpa had a couple of dogs that were good at the routine, and we were trying to follow his tradition. Rex, however, had other ideas. He wasn’t about to chase rabbits, no matter how much we trained or taught. He never learned to come when called, or any of the other basic dog obedience regimen, and it wasn’t about lack of effort or diligence on our part. He was just obstinately stubborn and plain stupid. He was good at eating, barking, and frustrating us. He seemed to innately know just how to play us along as the saps and suckers of his game. Just when we were tired of his stubborn and obstinate foolishness, ready to change his address, he’d chase a rabbit for a couple of hundred yards. We’d be ecstatic, congratulating ourselves on the success of our effort, even if only for the moment. But then, for however long Rex could pull it off, he’d fall back into his torpor. My dad sold him when he was about 10 for $5. Talk about a commercial failure. I’ve since given up hunting altogether, and never looked back.

I tried once to vehemently shoo Grandpa away. I wasn’t being cruel, but I was strong and forceful. “GO! GO HOME! GO BACK HOME, WHERE YOU BELONG!” It was hard to watch as he cowered and ran, frightened, just outside my reach. I was trying to act in his best interest, with no cruel or malicious thought or intention. I got the sense that he wanted something from us, from me. He obviously trusted us. I had no idea what was the purpose of his entry into our journey, even whether there may have been a purpose for his presence there with us, other than the simplicity of his presence. I can say with certainty that he made me think, made me think deeply, about trust. I was touched because the action of my best intention to send him home showed me the look of betrayal in his eyes. That look, the look of one who has trusted without reserve, then found that trust to be betrayed, troubled me. It still bothers me. In that moment, I decided to accept Grandpa into our lives, for whatever he may bring to our journey, whatever may unfold from his presence.

I am sensitive to interactions that may have betrayed or abused the trust given by another. In essence, we all betray, and we’re all betrayed. It’s part of the human condition, an unavoidable consequence of human interaction. However, consciously seeing the harm of my actions, as well as having endured the pain of betrayal, makes me much more conscious of its presence, and I’m willing to correct my actions. Betrayal has many forms, from lying to physical betrayal. I’d like to think that the years have seasoned me into a person of integrity, a person whose words and actions can be trusted and are in alignment.

There’s a concept on the trail, called “Trail Magic”. Things happen that one doesn’t expect, and can’t explain – typically they’re good things. I’m thinking that’s what Grandpa was for us.

As I close out this account, there’s a final word on this chapter that further underscores the magic involved. As the three of us walked into Elizabethtown, the eastern terminus of the River to River Trail, a red pickup truck screeched to a halt in front of us. The passenger side door opened, and out stepped a young man who looked straight at Grandpa and said “That’s my dad’s dog!”. It turns out that Grandpa’s true name was Sauce, and he was now headed back home. I asked “This isn’t the first time he’s done this?”. No, but it was the furthest he’d ever gone. He came into our journey for a purpose, and he left us all better for it.

Passing By the Issue

I’m on a tangent today with a concept that I was exposed to some time ago called spiritual bypassing. While the general definition given is a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks“, I don’t want to dig into the psychological aspect of this concept. I’m more concerned with the functional level that is implied, notwithstanding the potential psychological causes or foundations. In other words, I want to look at the face value of the concept, in the world of interaction, and I leave it to the reader to dive “below the hood” into the causes that may lie in store as they may deem appropriate or necessary.

In order to get to the point, I’d like to expand on a few concepts that will serve to support my case. Among these concepts are the Buddhist viewpoint of the world of “karma” and the realm of “no karma” or “Nirvana”, human integrity, a touch of “dysfunctional behavior”, and spiritual practice.

Spiritual Practice

The realm of Buddhist endeavor makes a distinction between the world of “karma” and the source of the “world of karma”. The world of karma is anything that is physical, mental, psychological, emotional, tangible, visible, etc. In other words, the world of karma is the stuff of our daily lives. It’s the place where we interact with others, where we eat, sleep, drive, breathe, and so on. In the world of karma, anything that begins will have an end. Anything that comes will go, anything that can be seen as “same or different”, anything that is born or dies, these all are within the realm of karma. However, this entire world manifests from a source, or dimension, that is not affected in the least by any of the comings or goings, birth or death, or any other duality we can observe. Indeed, it appears that the ultimate source of all this karma is inexhaustible. This “other realm” is called “Nirvana”.

The central practice of an aspiring Buddhist is to come into touch with the source, or Nirvana. Indeed, along the path of development of one who is committed to this practice, one comes to see past the limitations of all this coming and going, arising and depleting, and all other forms of manifesting and un-manifesting. Typically this will bring about a sense of serenity and compassion within the practitioner, an overwhelming and visible sense of equanimity. Indeed, it’s inevitable for one who commits and is dedicated to the practice, that they will eventually see into and come into touch with Nirvana. This does not mean that they are free of karma. It only means that they are not bound by the delusion that the world of karma is ultimate or permanent. Indeed, the world of karma has the hallmark of being impermanent. This is not difficult to observe, even from a logical and analytic approach.

Fortunately, or unfortunately – as you may choose to place your viewpoint – we are all born into the imperfect world of karma. This means we all manifest at birth into a set of causes and conditions that are beyond our individual control, at least at that moment in time. We are then nurtured and further conditioned by those who have lived and known that world of karma, both physical and psychological, for quite some time. The inevitable outcome of this process, for each of us as individuals, is that we inherit a certain degree of “psychological baggage”, or more. In other words, we come into this world as products of all that has gone before us as well as all that exists when we are born. For most of us, this inherited baggage comes with a degree of dysfunction, or lack of healthy functionality, in a psychological sense.

Developmental Psychology

There has been a large movement in the last few years of developmental psychology that has been applied to the ubiquitous world of material wealth that we currently see unfold before us. This development approaches the individual limitations that we often impose upon ourselves, helps break them down, and encourages us to move out into the world to attain or acquire things that we desire. This approach is process oriented, and helps us move beyond self limitation, personal doubt, and self sabotage. However, there is one approach that has come to the forefront that runs a parallel but distinctly different course. It is a principle based approach exemplified in a book called “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. Ultimately, this approach focuses on the development of personal integrity, and places the results of growth as secondary to intrinsic character development.

Integrity

Personal integrity is technically defined as “the state of being whole and undivided“. More specifically, and personally, it is defined as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness“.  In short, integrity is a personal quality of fairness that we all aspire to. Having integrity means doing the right thing in a reliable way. It’s a personality trait that we admire, since it means a person has a moral compass that doesn’t waver. We can trust and predict a person of integrity. In a functional sense, a person of integrity has a characteristic blend of honesty and compassion. It is
a person who “does what they say” & “says what they do” with fairness, patience, and kindness. It is a person whose “outsides” match their “insides”, and who does the right thing, even when no one is looking. At the very core, it is an uncompromising balance of honesty and compassion. This is the inevitable outcome of the 7 Habits.

Spiritual Bypassing

There are points along the spiritual path where, developmentally, each person “sees into” and touches upon the Nirvana realm. By virtue of this insight, enlightenment, perhaps awakening, it comes with no guarantee that the person is free of, or unbound by, the world of karma. Indeed, as stated by Suzuki Roshi, “Strictly speaking, there are no enlightened people, only enlightened action.” As I’ve forged my way through the often barren and dismal spiritual path, digging and groping for a leadership example that can be trusted, I’ve come to look with close scrutiny at the person who puts forth teaching of various caliber. Do their actions match their words? Do they attempt to “hold a copyright” on Truth, as if they are the ones who “know”, and others don’t? Does the person “do what they say”, and “say what they do”? Do they seem to be immune to the mundane limitations of honesty, commitment, patience and kindness? If there is a mismatch among the above, it’s possible that you’re experiencing a functional spiritual bypass. In this instance, I have found it fruitless to attempt to “go under the hood” for a look, or – worse yet – an attempt to fix, the underlying psychological causes. When all else fails, don’t overlook the obvious. The situation is what it is, and it is not what it is not. Attempts to make it into anything else are bound to be painful.

Crucial Questions

One thing that the spiritual path should produce as a matter of consequence is a developed conscience. Here are a few questions that I’ve come to ask myself when interactions are difficult or testy:

  • Am I being honest with everyone involved?
  • Am I being compassionate and fair to everyone involved?
  • Do I think that I’m immune from being honest or compassionate or fair because I’m spiritually immune or superior?
  • Am I cutting corners or ignoring any of the above?

True Spirituality is remarkably simple and clear, and excludes no one regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or any other discrimination.  There is a distinct ring of authenticity to a spiritual person who is acting with integrity. The degree to which one acts with means that are of diminished integrity also portrays a spirituality of less illumination.

My Brother’s Keeper?

I was recently riding my bike to work in the early morning hours, well before dawn, when I came across a man laying on the curb next to the road. It was a shock to see him there. I stopped, leaned over, and saw that he was alive and awake. I asked him “Are you OK?”. He said yes, he was OK. I puzzled over what to do, and he was talking to himself as I continued.

So I rode up a little and stopped, then looked back. He was still lying there, perhaps moving a little. He was in a very precarious position, and it was a modest industrial area with 18-wheeler traffic. If a truck hopped the curb while turning the corner, he would be smashed.  So, in my conscience, I couldn’t continue. I dialed 911.

The operator was cool. She wanted to know specifics: Can you describe the man? Does he seem to have a weapon? Does he need an ambulance? Does he appear to be drunk or mentally ill? The questions seemed to continue for a while, but finally she got an accurate snapshot of the situation and said that she’d send someone by to get him out of the street and to a safer place.

As I rode away, I thought about the interaction. I found it interesting that she would have me make an assessment of whether he was intoxicated or mentally ill. Truthfully, who am I to determine these things? What if I was wrong? Well, let’s think this through.

I remember a time when there weren’t nearly as many homeless people as I see today. I pass entire communities of people living under bridges and on the street regularly. The number of people who are pandering on the street corner seems to have skyrocketed in the last few years. What is going on, and what has brought all this about?

In short, what it comes down to is that no one wants to pay for a solution to the problem. Numerous studies have shown that a large percentage of homeless people are mentally unstable. However, both federal and state budgets have  deinstitutionalized and released these people to their own care. Indeed, the accompanying anosognosia, or “lack of insight,” prevents the same people who are responsible for their care to see that they need care.

Here are a couple of interesting facts:

  • Homelessness among mentally ill is associated with fewer psychiatric hospital beds.
  • “Dumping” patients out of hospitals, saves mental health system money but increases overall cost to taxpayers by shifting care to more expensive jails and prisons.

Well, at least for today, I’m relatively certain that there’s one man who won’t get run over because he had nowhere to sleep. Yes, in this instance, I will step up and help “keep my brother” safe.

 

Finding the Solution

I once had a mentor. He was an older, kind and patient gentleman. We would get together every Friday and have lunch. Over lunch, we had delightful conversations. He was the pastor of a modern, progressive church and had an attitude and aura to match.

On the first time we got together, I told him of a problem that I had. I don’t remember the specific problem, but I remember telling him about it. He listened attentively, nodding and affirming my position.

The next week we got together, I told him of the problem again. After listening, he asked me “Do you have a solution to this problem?”. I said no, I don’t have a solution.

The week after, we got together again. Once more, I launched into a discourse of my problem. However, this time he stopped me short. Once again, he asked “Do you have a solution to this problem?”. I remembered hearing that question, but hadn’t given it much thought. I was so stuck in the problem that solutions weren’t visible. Then he said these words:

“When you have a problem, take 5% of your energy and clearly define the problem. Then take another 5% of your energy and define a solution. Then take the remaining 90% of your energy and live the solution.”

That admonition changed the entire course of my life. It’s been several years since this encounter, and I am grateful every day for this wisdom.

The Deadliest Words

The Owl lives in a Cypress tree near the Creek. It seems that he has lived there forever. Since all things have a beginning and an end, this cannot be so; but it does seem that way. It feels like he has lived there forever.

The Cypress tree is large, it has roots that go straight into the water. It is planted in such a way that one would never expect it to give way to anything. Why the Owl chose this particular tree has always remained a mystery to all in the Woods. There are many other trees which are more shapely. There are other trees that flower so beautifully in the Spring. There is an Oak tree in the middle of the Woods that is much larger and more majestic. But, by his own volition, and for whatever reason, the Owl chose the Cypress tree for his home.

The Owl is predominantly a solitary fellow. He has friends, but he spends most of his time to himself. Sometimes he goes to visit the Beaver, or the Otter, whom he likes for their playfulness. Sometimes the Deer visit the Owl. The Deer always enjoy a sense of safety under the branches of the Cypress tree. Together they spend hours, sitting together in the lazy afternoons, the Owl on one of the lower branches and the Deer napping underneath. The Owl has always fancied himself a family Bird, but it has never come to be.

Not all the creatures in the Woods are comfortable in the presence of the Owl. The Raccoon is one of these. The Raccoon feels restless when in the presence of the Owl. I always thought that the true nature of the Raccoon could not be concealed from the intense gaze of the Owl, and that this was enough to make the Raccoon feel uncomfortable. Surely, the Raccoon is guilty of an abundance of trickery and foolishness, any little bit of which would make one’s conscience turbulent. But, Raccoons will be Raccoons, and so it is. The Owl knows that it is best to not interfere with the natural inclination of the other Creatures. He has learned the hard way that it is best to accept them all just as they are.

Which may be why there is an occasional knock on the trunk of the Owl’s tree. The Fox visits one clear, October morning. She, too, is not always comfortable in the presence of the Owl. However, today she is in dire need of consolation and advice, and her discomfort is secondary to her troubles.

It seems that the Fox has had a row with the Raccoon. At some time in the past, the Fox raided the den of the Raccoon, and took her store of Winter Food. The Raccoon lost one of her babies to starvation during the long, cold Winter, and ever since has blamed the Fox. The Fox complains about how her den has been vandalized, and her Winter Store is diminishing. The Owl asks if the Fox knows who is doing it. The Fox admits that there were Raccoon prints outside the door. The Owl listens carefully to the concern in the Fox’s voice.

Finally, the Fox finishes her account. The Owl pauses, and after a moment of reflection offers this advice to the Fox: “You must go to the Raccoon, and you must admit your misdeed. You must apologize.” This concept has never entered the mind of the Fox. “How can I do such a thing?” asks the Fox. The Owl listens to this question, then offers that, in essence, it will be no more difficult than the conversation that they are having at that moment. The Owl offers encouragement to the Fox, and sends her on her way.

Several days hence, there is a knock at the trunk of the Cypress tree. Again, it is the Fox. Her den has once more been raided, and Winter is close at hand. She is gravely concerned. The Owl asks “Have you spoken with the Raccoon?” The Fox admits that she hasn’t, and freely admits to her fear. The Owl repeats his words, and offers that the Fox must make the effort if she is to be rid of this trauma. She goes away, but is not comforted.

On the very next day, the Fox knocks hysterically. The Owl is patient, for he has an uncanny way of understanding these things. He goes down to where the Fox is pacing, and he sits next to a large Toadstool. The Fox frantically offers that the Raccoon has come in the night, and was carrying away not the Winter Store of food, but one of the Fox’s babies. The Fox was able to wrestle the baby from the Raccoon, but in the darkness, she saw the glare of several other pairs of eyes, all from other Raccoons. The Owl listens until the Fox is finished talking. Then, the Owl repeats his simple question once again: “Have you spoken with the Raccoon?” The Fox replies:

“I know what I need to do, and I’m not going to do it.”

The Owl says that it’s the only way. He says that there’s nothing more that he can do. The Fox leaves, slowly, with much anguish.

Within a week, the Buzzards circle the Fox’s den, for there is no life within.

The Beast

There is a black Stallion of tremendous strength and beauty. Indeed, this is a remarkable animal. His majestic grace is truly unequalled in the kingdom of horses. He has sired many horses that have become famous and noble in their own right. He has incredible stamina, and the magnitude of his sheer raw strength is simply overwhelming.

However, among all these positive attributes, there are negatives: two which are in the forefront. He is headstrong, and he is unpredictable. Of these two latter qualities, the unpredictability is exceedingly the worst. It is for this reason that the Stallion must be confined to a well fortified corral.

Indeed, the corral is a monument to itself. It is spacious, and it has a high fence all around, which prevents this incredible animal from jumping to the open, uncharted spaces beyond. The fence is not of ordinary material, it is of a thicker, more durable quality than the general run of fence, as the Stallion is known to find the weak spots in the fence, and persist in exploiting them until they surrender to his will. He has escaped from his corral many times, and the Master of the Stallion knows all too well the ordeal which must be endured when the Stallion escapes. For among all the attributes which the Stallion embodies, when he escapes from the confines of the corral, he becomes violently wild, as well as unpredictable.

The posts of the corral are strong, and there is a gate. The gate is made of above average material with regards to strength, for the Stallion loves to stand near the gate and push it with his nose. It’s almost as if he is waiting, testing, just to see if the Master has been vigilant, and latched the gate properly. The Stallion seems to have as his life purpose a vigilance of the vigilance of the Master.

The latch to the gate, as one would suspect, is above average too. It is made of stainless steel, and is a hasp and hinge type piece of hardware that was made by the hand of the local Millwright. The Millwright was chosen carefully by the Master for the construction of the latch, because of his thorough commitment to superior quality workmanship, and also for his exceeding respect for the Stallion. The Millwright and the Master have known each other for many years. They have known the Stallion since the time when the Stallion did not present such a potential threat. However, today, they both know all too well the total mayhem and havoc which is inevitably unleashed by the escape of the Stallion. The Master and the Millwright have patiently and diligently collaborated many ways in which to best contain the Stallion. The Master and the Millwright both understand that there is no defeat of the Stallion, only containment.

Once, when the Stallion escaped, he was gone for many weeks. This particular episode was several years hence, and to this day, the Master has still not recounted all the damage that the Stallion imposed during that particular binge. The Master spent many weeks looking for the Stallion during that time, and the trail was not hard to follow. Patiently, persistently, the Master followed the trail of destruction that the Stallion had visited upon the people of the village, and the property that they valued. And one by one, the Master visited them, and offered his apologies for the destruction that the Stallion was visiting upon their lives. During all this, the Master made a solemn vow to himself and to the villagers to never, ever let down his guard and vigilance when it came to the proper keeping of the Stallion. Actually, the key to keeping the Stallion was an irony that the Master had contemplated many times. It all came down to the pin in the latch.

For all the fencing that holds the Stallion, for the strong posts, for the gate, and the latch are nothing without the small pin which fits into the latch and keeps it all in place. This one small pin holds the latch snug and sure, which holds the gate, which closes the fence, which contains the Stallion. Just one small, tiny pin. The Master has spent many hours contemplating the irony of how small is the pin, which has the power to contain such an incredible Beast. And ultimately, the Master knows that contemplation is nothing without vigilance. Keep that pin in place.

And there are those among us who know that the pin is no more than the slightest indulgence in foolishness.

The Stone

Once upon a time there was a Stone. Upon casual glance, the Stone may not appear out of the ordinary, especially to one who may not be attuned to sensing the non-ordinary. However, this was no ordinary stone. The Stone was heart-shaped, small enough to fit comfortably in the palm of the hand, extremely smooth and glossy,  and made of rose quartz. Whenever anyone held the Stone in the palm of their hand, they tended to rub and caress it, almost as if the Stone begged to be rubbed and caressed. It had a small defect on one of its heart-shaped lobes, and when most people held the Stone, for some reason, they tended to be drawn to the area with the small defect. The area with the defect was completely in contrast to the smooth and glossy finish of the rest of the Stone. The rough area was, in an oddly attractive sense, abrasive and bristly.

The Stone had been in existence in the Kingdom for quite some time, at least several thousand years. It had been in existence for so long that the true origin of the Stone was now purely a matter of conjecture. No doubt the Stone had originally been forged and honed by a craftsman of great skill. Indeed, this was what a person who could sense the value of the Stone tended to be first impressed by. Through the history of the Stone, which to this day is hopelessly lost, it had undoubtedly passed through the hands of hundreds of individuals. And upon further scrutiny, it was the individual interpretation of each of these nameless, faceless, and uncountable individuals throughout the pages of history where the True Meaning of the Stone lie.

And so it was that the Stone came to be in the hands of a rather unsuspecting Young Man. It was such that on a completely unsuspecting day, in the midst of a terrible storm the Young Man was trudging the creek bed near his home in an attempt to return to his dwelling. Through this terrible storm, and within what was typically a murky and cloudy pool of water, there was suddenly a pool of clarity that opened. There, in the pool lay the Stone. The Young Man, completely unsuspecting and thoroughly ignorant of the greater surroundings and meaning of the moment, reached down and plucked the Stone from the clear pool. He took a casual glance at the Stone, placed it in his pocket, and continued to trudge through the stream and the storm toward his home.

When the Young Man reached his humble dwelling, he placed the Stone on his mantle, and thought no further of it. After warming himself near the fire, he went to bed and didn’t give the Stone another thought.  That night, the Young Man had vivid and clear dreams about the storm of the day, about the clear pool, and about the Stone. He awoke in the night, went to the mantle, and took the Stone back to his bed. The Young Man slept no more that night. At that point, the Young Man realized the meaning of the Stone. He remembered the legends that he had heard as a child about the Stone, and how it had affected the people upon whom it was visited. To many the Stone was a blessing. To some the Stone was a curse beyond tolerance. And it all came down to the meaning that the individual placed upon the Stone, for none could escape the clarity, honesty, and purity that the Stone embodied. Upon realizing the meaning of the Stone, the Young Man became overwhelmingly troubled.

The next day, the Young Man began to plot the way that he would relieve himself of the Stone. For, you see, as the Tradition of the Stone would have it, once an individual possessed the Stone, the Stone would not release them.  Or, from another perspective, they could not rid themselves of the Stone. The Stone came into one’s life for a purpose, and until that purpose was fulfilled, the Stone released no one. Knowing this, and firmly believing that the Stone was a curse to him, the Young Man plotted to destroy the Stone.

The Young Man vowed to break the Stone into fine sand and scatter the grains along the road in front of his house. He went to his workshop, and gathered his largest sledge hammer. He placed the Stone upon a large rock behind his house, and drew the sledge hammer to his heels to make a full swing and destroy the Stone in one blow. Alas, at the moment of impact, the handle of the sledge hammer broke, and the steel head of the sledge hammer was diverted and hit the young man’s left foot. The young man wept silently and bitterly in his pain. He limped, favoring his left side, for several years after this incident. For quite some time, the Stone lay back on the mantle of the Young Man’s house and collected dust. During this time, the lament of the Young Man increased in a slow and painful fashion, for he alone held the key to the meaning of the Stone in his life.

Slowly, the Young Man became troubled by the Stone again. He plotted another method to rid himself of the Stone. He took the Stone from the mantle and flushed it down his commode. For about three days, he congratulated himself on his brilliance. How could this benign act possibly haunt him? No sledge hammer, no Stone, no consequence. After some time, his commode stopped up, and there became a terrible stench all about the Young Man’s house. Sludge and dung from afar began to back up into the Young Man’s house. His neighbors came to chastise him for whatever misdeed he had committed. He could not face the truth of the situation, he could not possibly tell them that he possessed the Stone. Even worse, he could never admit in all Honesty what he had done with the Stone. All within the kingdom knew the Stone, many sought the Stone for the magic it carried. However, for reasons that only the Young Man could discern, to him it was a curse beyond comprehension. Finally, he dug the Stone out of his plumbing pipes. Begrudgingly and with much cursing he cleaned it, and he returned it to his mantle.

Once again, some time later, the Young Man plotted a way to rid himself of the Stone. He carried the Stone far away to the Mountains where there was a deep Spring of clear fresh water called the Oracle. This was a sacred place of much Spiritual Power, and the Young Man prayed with all his heart that the gods on high would relieve him of his burden and bless his effort to be rid of the Stone. He climbed the path on the mountain for days to reach the Oracle. After fasting and praying three more days he tossed the Stone into the deep abyss that opened below him. He immediately felt a tremendous sense of relief. The Oracle could not maim his body, it could not back stench into his house. And the Oracle had not refused to accept the Stone. Finally, the Young Man was relieved of the Stone. Happily, and with a gleam in his eyes, he started the long journey back to his home.

When the Young Man came within sight of his house, he noticed that there were several dozen buzzards circling slowly and intently in the sky above his home. He did not know what this might mean, but immediately  he had a deep, nauseous, and overwhelming sense of despair. He knew, somehow, deep within his Soul, that the Stone was not finished with him. He approached the house slowly and when he arrived at the  house, the buzzards all came to light on his rooftop. There, on the threshold beneath his front door, lay the Stone. The Young Man took the Stone into the house, placed it back on the mantle, and he wept bitterly and uncontrollably.

At this point, the Young Man was troubled by his troubles. In his effort to rid himself of The Stone, he had completely lost touch with why the Stone troubled him. The treacherous malady that his effort to rid himself of the Stone far exceeded whatever was his initial trouble. In a single moment, he simply considered the Stone to be the Stone.  He slowly, and without resistance, came to accept the Stone in his life. He began to consider that perhaps the Stone might be a blessing, and it could come to something good if only he would not resist the Clarity, Light and Love that the Stone may embody. Perhaps the only problem was his Fear of the Stone, and not the Stone itself? Could it possibly be that there is no Earthly control to be forced upon the Stone?