The Most Powerful Person in the World is the Storyteller
"The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the values, mission, and agenda of an entire generation that is yet to come." -- Steve Jobs
While this may seem just a bit exaggerated, there is something very TRUE about what Jobs was on to. The Hopi Indians said the same thing: "He who tells the stories rules the world."
This goes far beyond the Creation myth and "Once upon a time." This is about the way we perceive, conceive, and construct reality -- then share that construction with others in a way that is immediately grasped.
What is YOUR story these days? What story are YOU telling -- to yourself and to the world? We are, methinks, as a species, in the difficult time BETWEEN stories. The old story is dying and a new one is being born. Like any birth, the experience is both ecstatic and painful. Me? I am toggling back and forth between these two poles -- not the POLITICAL polls, but the far edges of the two narratives that rule my life.
Here's what I invite you to do in the next 24 hours. The next time someone approaches you with the DOOM and GLOOM story, after listening with compassion, see if there is ANOTHER story that will emerge from either of you -- a story of possibility... a story of awakening... a story of courage... or resilience... or breakthrough... or whatever you feel guided to say.
Stories are like water. We can drown in them or they can give us life. Choose life. Drink deep. And share your water with anyone you cross paths with who is even just a little bit thirsty.November 21, 2016
Give the Gift of Story
Wonderful book of stories November 12, 2016
An Unforgettable Night with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach
I am Jewish. My parents were Jewish. My grandparents were Jewish and all their parents and grandparents were Jewish. My father's father's name was "Abraham". His brother's name was "Moses". I was circumcised, went to Hebrew School, was bar mitzvahed, and ate more than my share of bagels, lox, gefilte fish, and matzoh balls. Like any good Jew, I celebrated the High Holidays.
Wait... hold on a minute... I don't think "celebrate" is actually the right word. Make that "endure" -- me, as a young boy, being far more devoted to baseball and playing with my dog than fiddling around with that silky, red prayer book marker separating one section of indecipherable Old Testament text from another. My Rabbi, the very forthright, wise, benevolent, Rabbi Alvin D. Rubin, always seemed, at least from my adolescent point of view, to be wondering if he had, somehow, lifetimes ago, taken a wrong turn out of the Sinai desert, finding himself, as he was, these days, shepherding a flock of polyester-wearing suburbanites way more interested in their golf game than the unpronounceable name of God.
These were my roots -- not the grey roots my canasta-playing mother religiously turned blond the day before each family visit to the temple -- but roots, nonetheless. The hand I was dealt. My karma. The surreal, slightly salty smorgasbord of my not-yet-enlightened life.
Please don't get me wrong. I am not complaining. My introduction to Judaism was not a bad experience. On the contrary, it was good -- full of warmth, comfort, and the safety that comes from hanging out with "one's own kind". But the older I got, the more it dawned on me that it wasn't religion I was looking for, but whatever it was it was that inspired religion to come into being in the first place -- not the Ten Commandments, but the feeling of amazement that preceded them being inscribed on stone tablets.
And so, on the day I went off to college, I decided to take a break from Judaism. Though I still found the word Deuteronomy quite intriguing and knew, in my heart of hearts, I would miss the rugala after each irregularly attended Sabbath service, it was time for new adventures.
Fast forward seven semesters to my senior year of college.
As I crossed the threshold into my parent's house for Christmas vacation (notice I didn't mention "Hannukah"), my mother greeted me with three words I will never forget: "THE RABBI CALLED" -- a phrase that could only mean one thing: I had done something terribly wrong.
"He wants to see you," she continued. "Tomorrow morning."
While not quite a burning bush moment, I was definitely feeling the heat, as the echoes of my mother's words fanned out into the vast suburban horizon: "The Rabbi wants to see you... The Rabbi wants to see you... The Rabbi wants to see you".
Though I hadn't been to Temple in five years, I still remembered where it was and made my way there, dutifully, the next morning. Nervous? Yes. But more than that, curious.
The Rabbi was sitting behind his desk, smiling. Behind him were shelves of many books.
"Mitchell", he began. "Welcome. I'm going to cut right to the chase. We've been following your progress for years and... well... you see... there is shortage of Reform Rabbis and I want you to seriously consider entering the Rabbinate."
"Deer in the headlights" could not begin to describe the feeling I was having. More like "wildebeest at sunrise".
The rest of our conversation was a blur -- me half Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and half Lenny Bruce on speed. The Rabbi mentioned something about me not having to pay taxes on my future house and I mentioned something about a motorcycle.
Later that night, my father, whose belief in God seemed be escalating exponentially the closer I got to losing my Vietnam-phobic college deferment, wanted to talk.
"How'd it go?" he asked. "What did the Rabbi have to say?"
"Umm..." I replied, stalling for time. "It was... interesting. The Rabbi wants me to become a Rabbi."
"That's great," my father blurted. "You'll make a great Rabbi."
"But Dad," I protested. "I don't believe in God."
My father looked up. "That's really not important," he said. "You like PEOPLE, right? You like to READ, right? You'll make a great Rabbi."
"Dad... I don't think that's how this stuff works."
Five years passed. I went to Graduate School (in poetry, not medicine). I married a Shiksa (not a Jew). I took LSD (not the law boards). And I, blissfully, became the student of a 13-year old Guru from India. My parent's response? A kind of dark night of the upper middle class Jewish soul punctuated with words like "tsuris", "mishuggahah", and a ton of other Yiddish words they used whenever they didn't want my sister and I to know what they were talking about -- which was often.
But then a funny thing happened. The plot twisted. My good friend, Steven Ornstein -- also Jewish and also a student of the same young, Indian Guru -- invited me to an "Evening with Shlomo Carlebach", a Jewish Rabbi, who was one of the leading lights of the "Baal Teshuva movement" -- a movement I knew nothing about -- one that was apparently designed to attract secular Jewish youth back into the fold. Shlomo, Steven assured me, was the real deal -- not your run of the mill Rabbi, but a true "keeper of the Jewish flame..."
So I went. What else was I going to do? Eat a salami sandwich?
The first few minutes of Shlomo's presentation are unremarkable. What I see is a disheveled man with a beard and a guitar mumbling a few words of introduction to a very conservative audience wearing their well-pressed Sabbath clothes. First he starts strumming. Then he starts singing. Then he starts smiling as if the Red Sea is about to part.
"OK, fine," I say to myself. "We're in for a Yiddish Hootenanny with a non-traditional Rabbi just back from Israel. Cool".
But the next thing I know, Shlomo is jumping up and down. Not just a little. A lot. This is not shtick. This is not some Borscht Belt Vegas act. This is a man plugged in, on fire, and all of us can feel the heat.
With each deeply moving song he sings, Shlomo gets more animated, more out there, but the "out there" he gets isn't out there at all. It's IN THERE. Something is going on inside this man and we can all feel it. His own private Idaho? His own promised land? It's hard to tell, but what isn't hard to tell is how much he's enjoying himself and, even more than that, how much he wants the rest of us to join in.
It's clear now, that Reb Shlomo Carlebach, wide-eyed, soulful leader of the still forming Jewish renewal movement, is polarizing the room. Half of the congregation is with him. The other half is squirming in their seats, planning their escape. But Shlomo doesn't seem to mind. Like some kind of crazed bar mitzvah band leader in an alternative universe, he makes a few gestures and gets everyone standing, holding hands, and moving in unison up on stage and then down again -- a curious mix of hora and suburban conga line.
I have never seen anything like this before in a temple. Never. We aren't praying, we are PLAYING -- and the play is sparking the experience that prayer is supposed to take us to. Freedom. Joy. And gratitude. The last time I had been on a stage in a temple I was reciting my Haft Torah -- 14 lines I had painstakingly memorized for months so I could "become a man". Now it's all improv. Nothing is rehearsed. Nothing is memorized. Nothing is at stake. The only thing happening is joy.
Shlomo walks to the ark, takes out the Torah, and hands it to a smiling, young man who immediately starts dancing with it. Dancing with the Torah! Yes! Yet another phenomenon I have never witnessed before.
"My Holy Brother", he calls to the young man to my left. "My Holy Brother", it is so good BE with you. "My Holy Sister", he intones to the woman to my right. "Do you know what a blessing you are on this Earth"?
And the amazing thing? Just by saying these words it becomes instantly true. Whoever he hugs, whoever he directs his spontaneous declarations of love to suddenly FEELS holy, suddenly FEELS blessed, suddenly FEELS totally alive -- touched as they've been by the kind of "Lo, I say unto you" energy that has the power to instantly turn words into reality.
And then, with no absolutely warning, he turns to me. "Oh my Holy Brother", he exclaims, tapping his mic three times, "go find the Rabbi and tell him I need more power! Go!"
Man on a mission, I descend the stage and begin my search for the Rabbi. It doesn't take long. I find him in the kitchen, with his wife, rapidly putting on his overcoat. Very rapidly. If this was the Wild West, the Rabbi is, most definitely in his "get out of Dodge" mode.
"Rabbi", I ask, with as much respect as I can muster. "Shlomo needs more power".
The Rabbi says nothing. He just stands there, looking at me, shaking his head. The next thing I know, he is out the door, his wife trailing behind.
I return to the main room. "Shlomo!" I exclaim, "the Rabbi has left the building. He wasn't willing to give you any more power".
"Fine, my Holy Brother", he says. "I have my own power!"
And with that, he unplugs the mic and begins singing even louder than before, his jumping up and down some kind of unhinged call to prayer to anyone in the general vicinity.
Five minutes pass. Many people leave. Those of us who stay are all on stage now, spinning in circles, laughing, singing, arms outstretched, or simply gazing into a distance that is becoming increasingly closer.
"Shlomo!" calls a bearded young man in front of me, his shirt untucked. "Let's take this to my apartment! I live only two miles away".
And so, in a few minutes, the evening's caravan of love continues out the door, into cars, down a road, up some stairs, and into a book-lined, dimly lit abode of a local Hassid now kvelling, beyond belief, that Shlomo -- Reb Shlomo Carlebach -- charismatic, rule-breaking, wide-eyed leader of the still forming Jewish renewal movement, not having slept in God knows how long, is going to be holding forth (and fifth and sixth, no doubt) in just a few minutes, without a break and without a single complaint -- a motley crew of Hassids, hippies, and holy fools by his side.
Standing next to my Holy Brother, Steven, in the middle of what no one has a name for, I have no clue what the protocols are -- or if any exist... or if it matters... or why I am even thinking at all. Shlomo certainly isn't. He is just taking his seat, the one he is offered, surveying the room and sensing, once again, that this -- this HOLY MOMENT -- is the perfect time for a STORY. And so he begins.
I remember nothing of the story he told that night, not the plot, not the setting, not the characters. All I remember is the feeling -- the feeling of wonder, the feeling of awe, the feeling of being absolutely in the right place at the right time and being so utterly glad to be alive.
And when he is done (which, by the way, is something he never is), a great laughter fills the room, followed by a flood of Talmudic references I have no clue about, and the voice of someone, from the back, calling out, "That reminds me of a story".
And so another one begins... and then another.. and then another, waves of spoken love and wisdom bubbling up from a buoyant ocean we are all swimming in.
But even ecstatic Rabbis get tired, and Shlomo certainly is, his nodding no longer a sign of his unabashed appreciation of life, but a prelude to sleep, which is precisely when Steven and I, trusting our instincts, approach and ask if he would like a ride back to his hotel.
Wired as this man was to the experience that everything is coming to him directly from God, he nods, stands and, as he exits the room with us by his side, embraces as many people as he can get his hands on, saying something kind to everyone -- then continues with us, out the door, to the street below.
Thirty minutes later, we are in his hotel room, Shlomo making a beeline to a small bag of tangerines he had just brought back from Tel Aviv.
"These, my Holy Brothers, are sweet. You must have one. You must."
And with that, he begins peeling -- one for Steven and one for me.
The three of us, now sitting on his rumpled bed, are enacting a Jewish ritual that transcends space and time -- noshing. Sweet. The tangerines are sweet.
Then Steven speaks.
"Reb Shlomo," he begins. "A few years ago, my friend Mitchell and I, met a young Indian Master and received a very powerful inner experience called Knowledge. We are wondering if this experience is referred to in any of the Jewish holy books".
Shlomo's ears perk up, his eyebrows arch -- a signal to Steven to elaborate.
"Oh yes, YES!" Shlomo says, "absolutely", quoting from the Talmud, Kaballah, and God knows how many other sacred texts.
Steven and I keep looking at each other. We cannot believe our good fortune. I mean, here we are, completely out of the blue, having a private audience with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, wise man, sage, holy fool, storyteller supreme -- when we notice that the room has become suddenly quiet. Curious, we both glance at Shlomo. He is asleep, fast asleep, sprawled out sideways on the bed like some kind of beached Biblical whale, snoring lightly, shoes still on.
Steven, on a roll, leans closer and whispers into Shlomo's ear the news that his good friend, Mitchell, was going to be getting married in three weeks.
Shlomo, from a deep sleep, sits bolt upright and looks right through me"I'll perform the ceremony," he says. "Me! I'll marry you!"
If I had been Saul on a horse, I would have been knocked off by now, but I wasn't. It was just me, sitting on a bed with Shlomo and Steven in a mid-priced, mid-town Boston hotel room, 5,504 miles from Jerusalem.
"Um... Shlomo," I say. "We already have a Rabbi".
Shlomo's eyes open wider. "Is he straight?"
"Well... a lot straighter than you, Shlomo."
And with that, Shlomo smiles, closes his eyes, falls back, and goes to sleep.
Steven and I stand, turn out the lights, and continue on our way.October 24, 2016
We Are Never More Than a Minute Away from the Big Breakthrough
I want to tell you a brief story about 60 seconds of my life, nine years ago, that felt like an eternity -- an experience that was so totally infused with meaning that I am still drinking from it's fountain almost a decade later. Here goes:
The night before Prem Rawat's 50th birthday party event at the San Diego Convention Center, to be attended by 3,500 people, I was asked to be the MC. My response to this unexpected invitation? A curious blend of fascination and fear. Fascination that Prem had the confidence in me to do the job. And fear of totally screwing up. But since I barely had any time to prepare, I couldn't afford to indulge in the part of me that was freaking out. So I went to the dress rehearsal, studied the announcements, made sure my fly wasn't open, and got ready for the evening gig.
So there I am, backstage, waiting for my cue, when I am hit upside the head by the worst case of stage fright I imagine anyone, anywhere, anytime, has ever experienced. This, my friends, was well beyond anxiety or nervousness. STUCK. I was completely stuck. Frozen. Fried. Terrified. Totally in my head. I had never, in all my life, experienced such an all-encompassing sense of dread. I was the poster boy for UPTIGHT. Jonah in the belly of the whale. Mr. Weirdo. I was SO uptight, in fact, I soon found myself PRAYING for someone to call in a bomb scare or the building would catch on fire -- anything to GET ME OUT OF THERE!
Richie, the very laid back stage manager in charge of time and space, could see I was quietly freaking out, and so with just five minutes left before show time, he walked over to me and began giving me a shoulder massage -- a kind deed which only succeeded in MAKING THINGS WORSE, because now I knew, for sure, that my inner meltdown was so totally visible to the outside world that Richie, my handler, felt obliged to cool me out. Doo doo. I was in deep doo doo.
It was now only FIVE minutes before the program began and, though my body was sitting on a folding chair backstage, the rest of me was on Mars. No make that an ASTEROID -- a very small, rocky, cold asteroid orbiting absolutely nothing.
Now there were FOUR minutes to go. Now there were THREE. And there was absolutely no sign, anywhere, that my hyper state of out-of-control-self-consciousness was going to abate anytime soon. This was clearly going to be the end of me. In three minutes, everyone in the hall would know, for sure, that I was a complete idiot, a fraud and a buzzkill -- someone likely to become a future synonym for the phrase "consumed with terror" -- as in "Hey, don't pull a Ditkoff on me."
The clock was ticking. Now there was only ONE MINUTE left. One minute! And then... completely out of the blue... with no warning whatsoever, two things happened that I will never forget. Not in this lifetime. And not in the next. First, on the house PA system, I heard Daya singing my favorite song, Find the Miracle -- a song that always managed to bring me back to a place of complete ease. The second thing? Up from the depths of my being percolated the remembrance of something I heard Prem say many years ago -- something about the CHOICE we all have every single day of our lives.
"You can spend your entire life gritting your teeth and praying for it all to be over," he said... "or you can just say YES!"
Wow! Incredible! Amazing! I HAD A CHOICE! I could sit there in the wings, a complete and total mess -- or I... could... EMBRACE the moment and say YES to whatever was going to happen next. So simple! So, so, utterly simple. A choice! I had a choice!
That's precisely the moment I said YES. And that's precisely the moment when Richie stepped forward, leaned closer, put his hand on my shoulder, and said these words: "Three.. Two... One... Go!"
I stood. I took a breath. I boldly walked on stage. This wasn't the plank I was walking. This was my life! FREE! I WAS FREE! Completely free! Unshackled. Unhindered. And uncontainable! Nothing was holding me back. Nothing! Every ounce of who I was had become totally available to me. Everything! Whatever I needed in that timeless moment to play my part fully was fully present and accounted for. And the FEELING behind it all was pure JOY! The rest of my MC experience for the next two days was a total breeze...
Now I finally understand what the expression "the darkest hour is just before dawn" really means. Tell me, who of us doesn't battle with doubt, fear, and self-consciousness? Who doesn't want to run and hide when the going gets tough? Though it may not be how we want the world to see us, it comes with the territory of being human. Not just YOU. And not just ME. All of us! But more powerful than fear is REMEMBRANCE and the deep KNOWLEDGE that we have everything we need to play our part fully in any situation. We may not feel it all the time. We may not trust it. But it's there. It is. In the end, it all comes down to CHOICE. We can grit our teeth and pray it will all end. Or we can just say YES. What do you choose?March 25, 2016
Every spiritual tradition in the world has its own collection of rites and rituals that make up the warp and woof if it's particular path. These rites and rituals, the origins of which are not always understood, give its practitioners something to do -- something not just think about or meditate on, but a physical activity they can focus on to help them remember the metaphysical connection to the essence of their path.
I get it. I do. Rituals work. Or as my rabbi liked to say, "If you want to learn to dance, sometimes you need to start with the box step."
My kids, for example, cannot celebrate Christmas without leaving milk and cookies out for Santa, even though its been years since they realized that the fat guy in the red suit didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of making it down our chimney.
While I have never been a big fan of rites and rituals, I definitely have experienced their benefit, the most memorable one happening for me in 1974. That was the year I lived in a spiritual commune, on a 600 acre farm, 12 miles outside of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Three times a week, the six of us would sit, cross-legged, in our living room and, as a part of a spiritual practice given us by the same wonderful Teacher, share from the heart.
It was at one of these gatherings that I first heard the news about an ashram that would soon be moving to our little town. An ashram! A center of spiritual life! A divine abode of God-seeking souls -- students of the same teacher I had -- who had dedicated their lives to the realization of the highest truth.
I couldn't believe my good fortune. Now, I would have a place to go and serve whenever I wanted to dive deeper into the depths of the spiritual path I was on. Cool.
Back then, as I understood it, the prevailing ritual of welcoming a new ashram was to bring a gift -- usually a flower or a piece of fruit -- and place it on the altar. And so, on the day the ashram was going to open its doors, I made a pilgrimage to my favorite grocery store in search of the perfect piece of fruit.
The cantaloupes looked great, but seemed a bit too big to place upon an altar. The apples also looked great. They were red, unblemished, and shiny. Too shiny, I thought -- almost as if they had been polished in some back room to make them stand out. Uh uh. No way did I want my offering to stand out. I wanted my offering to fit in with the other flowers and fruit. Hey, this wasn't about me and my offering. This was about selfless giving, right? That's when I noticed the oranges -- perfectly round, unpolished, and delicately textured pieces of fruit. Yes! Oranges!
Choosing the roundest and most orangey orange I could find, I blissfully made my way through the 5 Items or Less check-out lane, carefully positioned my orange on the passenger seat of my 1966 Volkswagen, and began driving to the ashram -- a destination that was going to be the radiant sun around which the Pluto of my longing was going to revolve.
Driving more slowly than usual to ensure my orange didn't roll onto the floor, I closed my eyes and meditated at every traffic light and stop sign along the way. Beauty was everywhere around me. The dogwood trees were blooming. The robins were singing. And the sweetest of fragrances filled the air.
And then, as if choreographed by the hand of an all knowing God, the perfect parking space opened up right in front of the ashram. Whoa! If this wasn't heaven, it was pretty damn close. How fortunate I felt! How graced! I closed my eyes and meditated some more.
Five minutes passed. Then another five. If there was one thing I was sure of it was this: my front seat meditation was not going to be of the token "minute of silence" variety. Nope. No way. My meditation was going to be the real deal -- as real as the feeling that brought me here in the first place.
Lovingly lifting my orange in the air, inspecting it for dust and dirt, I made my way out of the car, ascended a few steps, and found myself standing on the front porch. Pausing briefly, I lifted my hand and rang the bell. What a sweet sound it was -- a chime for all times. And then... as the sound slowly faded away... I enjoyed an even sweeter silence. A few seconds passed. Then the door opened. Standing there was a hairy, pot-bellied man in a stained undershirt. He had a bottle of beer in his left hand.
"Yeah?" he said. "Whaddya want?"
"Um...er.. is this the ashram?" I asked.
"Hell no," he barked. "Those people don't move in until tomorrow." Then he slammed the door.
I just stood there, unmoving, a perfectly round orange in my right hand.
The above story is not included in my recently published bookMarch 23, 2016
Tiny Sparks of Light
EDITOR'S NOTE: A few weeks ago, I asked my Facebook friends to send me a story their father liked to tell. The one that follows, submitted by the appropriately named, Michal Story, touched me deeply and reveals a common humanity we all share, even during times of difficulty. I hope you enjoy it. If YOUR FATHER, like Michal's, had a favorite story he liked to tell, please consider sending it to me for possible publication on this blog.
"My father was a man of many secrets. Not by choice, but by temperament. He rarely spoke of his past. He'd come from a chaotic childhood and left home at 16 to join the Navy. He loved the camaraderie it afforded him and was proud of his service. He was what they called a 'lifer.'
I was a teenager in the 1960s when my father and I bonded through watching football and tuning up the car together on weekends. But it was between his tours of duty in Vietnam, when he invited me out onto our patio in the late Louisiana summer evenings, that I realized just how close we were. He'd sip scotch and smoke cigarettes while we listened to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline on the record player. Most of the time, we'd sing along with Hank and tell corny jokes. And sometimes, he'd comment on the heavy, warm humid air that reminded him of times in Vietnam. It was these times that I knew was in for a good story.
He spared me the horror he must have witnessed and would tell me stories of his friends and how they would pass the time. One particular story still strikes me.
I don't remember where, specifically, he was stationed, but it was on a border between North and South Vietnam. There was a rickety four-foot tall barbed-wire fence which separated the enemies and they could hear distant sporadic gunfire and explosions during the day. The fencing spanned a treeless, grassy field where each side could easily see the other's buildings. There was no movement between them during the day. My Dad's squadron's sole mission was to ensure that no one crossed. And no one ever attempted to cross from either side. It was an "easy tour" as he called it.
Late at night, and every night, a very different scene took place, however -- one my father said haunted him in a way that none of his other war experiences had. It would take place long after the gunfire and bombing had settled down to an almost peaceful calm.
My father and his brothers-in-arms would spot tiny sparks of periodic light emanating from the buildings across the field -- almost like a signal. The handful of American men on the night shift would approach the fence without hesitation, as if they were back home taking a leisurely stroll. As they approached, they'd see their counterparts, equally relaxed, approaching the fence. There they would meet and exchange brief greetings in whatever limited language each could understand -- making hand gestures, offering up cigarettes and, from the dim light of a match, show each other photographs of their families back home. Sometimes they would exchange odd wares unique to their respective cultures.
These men were no longer enemies in this nightly routine. They were just people managing to turn a blind eye to what divided them -- an American on one side, a Viet Cong on the other. No one knew when or how this ritual started. But it was repeated, nonetheless, by each new troop arrival. Was it from boredom? Curiosity? It didn't really seem to matter. Whatever the reason, it was a chance to be human again. The only danger seemed to be in caring."
One of my father's favorite stories
A Bag of Small Red Berries
Today, I was sitting in Mesa Grande, the cafe I most love to frequent in San Miguel, when I noticed an old, weathered woman entering the place. Dark skinned, wrinkled, and small, she was moving very slowly across the room, more like shuffling than walking, stopping at each table and attempting to sell whatever it was she was carrying in her gnarled left hand.
Averting my eyes, I felt myself withdrawing, not wanting to encounter yet another beggar of the day needing something else to survive, but she kept coming, pausing now and then to rest.
When she finally made it to my table, all she did was stand. That's it. Stand. She said nothing. She did nothing. She just stood there, holding, in her hand, what appeared to be a bag of small red berries. I continued pretending to be busy, looking down, not wanting to be yet another refusal she would get that day, hoping she would leave, but she did not -- now the still, sudden tribal center of the room.
Unable to ignore her presence any longer, I slowly raised my head, then looked into her eyes. She held my gaze. Like a flower. Like the way a baby, without guile, looks at a stranger. Gently, she shook her bag of berries, explaining without a single word that she was NOT a beggar, simply a seller of small red berries on a Tuesday afternoon. In the distance, I heard the familiar whooshing sound of a cappuccino machine.
"Cuanto?" I asked, holding her gaze.
"Veinte," she replied.
"Veinte?" I asked again, wanting to stay with her for as long as my Spanish would allow.
"Si", she said, "veinte."
"Bueno," I replied, pulling a 20 peso note from my pocket and placing it in her small brown hand. Smiling ever so slightly, she handed me the bag of berries, paused, bowed, and continued on her way.
I checked my email. I made a list. I ate a piece of fruit. Ten minutes later, Carlos, the waiter, walked over to me, saw the bag of berries by the sugar bowl and asked if he could have one.
"Si Carlos", I said, opening the bag so he could choose his favorite.
An hour later, when it was time to pay the bill and figure out the tip, I handed Carlos the bag and asked him to share the contents with his esposa and hijo when he got home that night. A few people came and went. Someone ordered a croissant. But Carlos and I just stood there, grinning, unmoving, a bag of small red berries now the center of our world.February 01, 2016
The Three Questions
Some years ago I attended a 5-day conference, in Miami, with Prem Rawat and 50 other people.
On the first morning, during his opening remarks, Prem explained that he wanted everyone at the conference to feel absolutely free to ask their questions whenever they had one. Made perfect sense. After all, we were there to learn.
The first morning passed in a questionless mode for me. Everything he said was absolutely clear and I was content simply to sit, listen, and enjoy the feeling of being in the room with him.
The afternoon was a different story. About an hour after lunch, he said something that baffled me. No kapish. I had a question. But I also had something else -- and that was the fear of asking.
One part of me -- the respectful part -- thought I'd be interrupting him if I raised my hand. Another part -- the educated part -- thought I should already know the answer. Yet another part (hey! how many parts did I have?) didn't want to be the focus of attention.
My right hand twitched, but hung at my side like a slacker. Then I remembered what Prem had said the day before: "If you have a question, ask."
I raised my hand and asked.
"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard," he replied.
Ouch! Now it was official. I was a fool, a moron, a complete idiot -- something I'd always suspected, but now had all the proof I needed.
I could feel myself shrinking, slinking back into my chair.
My teacher had answered the question I asked, but I barely heard a word. My mind was out to lunch, but had no idea where the restaurant was. A hundred over-caffeinated PR guys inside me, hell bent on damage control, did their best to save the day, but their efforts were a joke.
I didn't sleep well that night.
The next morning I took my seat with an extra dose of humility and some last-minute effort to gracefully manage my emotional meltdown from the day before.
Thirty minutes into Prem's morning presentation, he said something that made only partial sense to me. I kind of understood it. I mean, I sort of got what he said, but not really.
I had a question.
No way was I going to ask it. No way was I going to reveal yet another questionable side of my questionable self -- not only to him, but to 50 of my peers, some of whom, I knew, already had their doubts about me.
But then I remembered what he had said on Day One. "If you have a question, ask."
I raised my hand.
"That," he replied, "is a really good question."
Hallelujah! I was back in the game -- now hanging ten in my semi-comfortable hotel chair, waiting for his response to my now, officially-declared, good question.
I barely heard a word he said -- consumed, as I was, by his acknowledgment of my question being "good." I could see he was talking, but I was suddenly deaf. My mind, once more, was out to lunch. OK, maybe not lunch, but out for a meal. Like... maybe breakfast.. or a light snack.
Day Three came quickly.
I woke, took a shower, practiced Knowledge, drank coffee, ate a bagel, and took my seat.
The morning session was smooth as silk. My teacher spoke, told some jokes, showed some slides -- me enjoying my new found status as a question-free human being.
The afternoon? Don't ask.
An hour into it, I felt an old familiar feeling coming over me. I wouldn't exactly call it cluelessness, but I was clearly in need of a clue.
I took a breath. I raised my hand. I asked.
Prem listened. Then he spoke. His response, this time, was neutral. My question wasn't good. My question wasn't stupid. It was just a question.
Three days. Three questions. Three different responses.
Looking back at this conference with my favorite person on the planet, the metaphor that comes to mind is one a friend shared with me some years ago.
"Imagine yourself," she said, "as a sword in a stone. It's stuck and won't come out. You pull to the left. You pull to the right. You pull to the left, again. Back and forth, back and forth you go between the extremes: good and bad, up and down, black and white, rich and poor, this and that. With each movement between the extremes, the sword gets looser and looser until it gets loose enough for you to pull from the stone. That's how it works some times -- all this going back and forth, until we're finally free!"
I'm glad I took Prem Rawat up on his word and asked my questions. In a curious way, I may have learned more from the act of asking than I did from the answers I received. That's one of the cool things about being in relationship with someone like him. Every interaction is amplified. Every conversation has the potential to reveal something extraordinary.
I'm glad I didn't play it safe with him. I'm glad I didn't hide behind my simulated mask of understanding. Yes, it's a risk to speak up. But a risk to what? Only that self-serving, legend-in-my-own-mind character more concerned with other's opinions of me than the experience of truth.
Did he know that the three different ways he answered my questions put me through some changes? I doubt it. But it doesn't really matter.
Prem Rawat is not a mind reader. He is not a psychic. He is not a therapist. He merely holds up a mirror. What we see -- and what we do after we see what we see -- is completely up to us.Inspiration, Past and Present
While it is absolutely true that the past is over, the future is yet to come and NOW IS ALL THERE IS, sometimes it's inspiring to reflect on sweet moments of inspiration. Here are some from Prem Rawat's five-day Amaroo event in Australia last September.January 05, 2016
The Glass of Water
I first heard the following story many years ago from my teacher, Prem Rawat. I loved it then and I love it now, as it brings me back to a simple place of appreciation for life -- a recognition, perhaps, that can be understood no other way but by story. What follows is my retelling of this tale. If I have messed it up in any way, please forgive me. It won't be the first time. If you enjoy it and would like to know more about my teacher and his message, click here or here or here. If you don't feel like clicking, no problem -- just savor whatever this story evokes in you...
ONCE UPON A TIME there was a young disciple of a great Master who found himself wrestling with a very difficult question -- one that would not go away no matter how much he contemplated it. Though he had asked all the senior monks in the monastery that had been his home for the past 20 years, no one had an answer that rang true to him. And so, one fine Spring day, gathering up all of his courage, he decided to approach the Master himself.
"Oh Illustrious One," the monk began, "for years I have been listening to your discourses. Time and again, you have referred to something called 'maya' -- the great illusion we are supposedly all bound by, but still I do not understand. Please, sir, can you explain to me what is this maya of which you speak?"
"Oh, my son," the Master replied, "yours is an excellent question. Most penetrating. And timely, too. Yes, I will be happy to provide an answer. But before I do, I have one request. Please bring me a glass of water. I am so very thirsty."
The young monk smiled, nodded his head and, with a simple bow, exited the room to begin his sacred mission.
His first instinct was an obvious one -- to walk to the well in the center of the monastery courtyard and draw the water. Upon reflection, however, he soon realized there was another, better source of water, just a little further up the road from the legendary well of a neighboring village.
"If I am going to get water for my Master," the young monk reasoned, "it has got to be the best."
And so, with a one-pointedness of focus he had never felt as deeply before, he was on his way.
The neighboring village, known not only for the purity of its water, but also for its breathtaking views, was not far away at all, but the road to it, washed out by a recent storm, was difficult to traverse and so the journey took just a little bit longer than expected. Fortunately, when the monk arrived, just a few minutes before sundown, there were only three people on line at the well and soon he would be on his way.
Thankful for his good fortune, he closed his eyes and turned his attention within, hearing only the sound of his breath -- one after the other -- and then, from who knows where, the sound of feint sobbing.
Surprised, he opened his eyes and noticed that the young woman standing in line before him was crying.
"Dear lady," the monk offered, leaning closer, "what seems to be the problem?"
"It is my father," she replied. "He is so very ill and nothing I do seems to help. I am besides myself with grief."
The monk nodded. "Yes, I understand. The body ages and declines. It is always sad to see our loved ones suffering, especially those who have brought us into the world."
For a moment, the two of them just stood there in silence, both at a loss for what to say. Then the woman spoke.
"Kind sir," she began, "I see, by your robes, that you are a monk. Is it true, as I've heard, that those of your order are masters of the healing arts?"
"Yes, it is true," dear woman. "From a very early age, we are taught many things -- how to chant, how to pray, how to meditate, read the stars, and heal with herbs and balms -- both of which I carry wherever I go."
The eyes of the young woman opened wider as she stepped forward and touched the monk lightly on the arm. "If it is agreeable to you, kind sir, would you, after drawing your water, accompany me ever so briefly to my father's house? Perhaps your healing touch is what he needs to stay alive."
Having been taught, for years, the power of service and compassion, the young monk's path was clear. "Of course!" he replied. "How could I refuse such a heartfelt request? Please, dear lady, lead the way."
It was only a short walk to her father's house, a small, well-kept cottage on the outskirts of town. One look at the old man was all it took for the monk to see the seriousness of the situation. Clearly, the man was at death's door and, unless the monk began immediately tending to his needs, it was obvious to him that the young woman would be fatherless by morning.
And so, all night, the monk sat by the old man's bedside, administering herbs and teas and balms, rubbing his feet, chanting sacred mantras and, all the while, abiding in a state of deep meditation.
At daybreak, when the young woman woke, she was amazed to see her father smiling, talking with the monk, the color of life having returned to his face. Bowing deeply, she embraced her father, stroked his hair, and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
"Praise God!" she cried. "And praise you, oh holy monk!"
"Thank you, dear woman. I appreciate your kind words, but it is not me that heals. It is the power of life and your father's will to live. But please know this: Your father is not yet healed. Last night was just a beginning. By my calculations, he will need at least three more days of care before he is back on his feet."
Three days. That was the monk's prediction. Not a long time to return from death's door. But on the fourth day, much to the monk's surprise, the father took a turn for the worse and died.
The old man's daughter, of course, was filled with grief. But grief was only part of what consumed her. She was also filled with fear. You see, with her father gone, there would be no one to run his shop of fine textiles in the center of town -- and with no one to run his shop, there would be no money to buy food and firewood, and with no food and firewood, the young woman would not only starve to death, but freeze, with winter fast approaching.
"Oh monk sent to us from God," she exclaimed on the fourth day after her father's passing, "I know what I am about to say is a lot to ask, but would you be willing to mind my father's shop for the next few days so I can get my house in order? The task is really quite a simple one. All you need to do is greet the people who enter the shop, help them find what they want, and sell it to them at a mutually agreeable price. In the meantime, I will fix you a bed in the barn so you will have a comfortable place to rest and meditate upon your return each night."
"I accept your kind invitation, dear woman. Remember, I have been trained to serve ever since I was a small boy. It's off to work I go. May God be with you on this glorious day."
One day turned to two. Two turned to four. And four turned to eight. Not only did the business grow with the young monk's loving care, so did his feelings for the woman. In time, his appreciation turned to fondness, his fondness turned to joy, and his joy turned to love. A year later they married and a few years after that they found themselves the proud parents of two beautiful children -- a boy and a girl -- both of whom the town elders claimed to be incarnations of great spiritual beings.
The young monk, now merchant and father, could not remember a time in his life when he had ever been as happy or as blessed.
Five years passed. Then another ten. In the 16th year of his adventure into love, 80 miles from his home on yet another buying mission in the extraordinary southern region, a sudden summer storm came upon the land. Not just any storm, but a storm whose ferociousness had never been seen before. It rained for days and days and days.
At first, the merchant simply buttoned up his coat, opened an umbrella, and trudged on, committed as he was to bringing home the finest of the region's textiles to his ever-growing store, especially since he had already taken advance orders from some of the town's most influential citizens. But no matter how steadfast he continued to be, the river continued to rise. And as it did, the keen-eyed merchant noticed three large bags of rice floating by him, bags marked with the insignia of his well-respected enterprise.
"This is not good," he said to himself. "Not good at all. It seems as if one of my silos must have been breached by the river. It's time to turn for home."
The rain kept coming. The river kept rising. And as it did, he noticed it carried more than bags of rice downstream. It also carried cows, three of which he recognized as his own.
"Not good, not good at all," he exclaimed again, digging his heels deeper into the side of his trusty steed and quickening his pace once again.
And then, yet another mile closer to home, he saw a sight he couldn't have imagined in a thousand years. There in the river, face up and unmoving, floated his young daughter and son.
"Oh my God," he wailed. "How can this be? My two precious children, gone. GONE!"
The man had never felt this kind of grief before, never such loss -- the only motivation he needed to gallop as fast as he could and return to the love of his life, the one who would be waiting for him, arms open, at home -- his sweet and precious wife.
Yes, he saw her, but far sooner than expected. There, not more than a few yards from where he now stood, he saw her, too, floating down the river, face up, unmoving, body bloated from a watery death.
Devastated beyond belief, he did what any man in his situation would do and threw himself headlong into the raging river. Simply put, he saw no reason to live anymore. Nor did he see, upon throwing himself into the water, a large piece of timber floating by. The impact of his head hitting this unseen piece of wood was strong enough to knock him out, the large piece of timber now a kind of makeshift raft carrying him downstream.
How long he floated know one knows for sure. Nor does anyone know where that miraculous piece of wood came to rest on the far river bank. But come to rest it did. Was he dead or alive? He could not tell. Shivering and stunned, all he could see when he opened his eyes was wet sand everywhere and what appeared to be a pair of feet. Rubbing his eyes, he continued staring at the feet now strangely familiar to him. Raising his head ever so slightly, he saw ankles, then the hem of a robe, and then, looking up all the way, the radiant face of a man looking down at him and smiling.
"Do you have my glass of water?" the man said. "My son, many years ago you asked me to help you understand the meaning of maya. This... has been just one second of it. Welcome home."November 25, 2015
The Great Thanksgiving Listen
Awesome idea! So simple to do. All about the power of stories.November 17, 2015
Popping the Question
When I was 24, I received Knowledge from Prem Rawat, known at that time as Maharaji. It was, you might say, an initiation, a direct experience of the life force inside me, what exists beyond identity -- who we are behind the daily drama of our lives and all our seeming differences. The highest common denominator. Home, sweet home. The beginning and end of all journeys. The source!
Yes, I got a peek under the Big Top and felt as good as I could imagine a human being could feel. Doubts? Fears? Worries? Gone beyond beyond. If I was an Olympic diver at that moment in time, it would have been a perfect 10. No splash. No waves. Nothing but net as they say in the NBA. Perfect. Everything was perfect. And if anything wasn't perfect, that was perfect too. Questions? I didn't have any. None.
Except for one.
You see, at that time, I was in the third year of a relationship with a woman I loved -- a woman I imagined was going to be my wife within a year or two. But after receiving Knowledge and really getting into it, I started wondering whether marriage, for me, was the right thing to do. Doubts started creeping into my mind. Questions began bubbling up. Would marriage be a distraction? Would I end up "stuck in maya", "off the path", or otherwise screw up the beautiful opportunity to deeply explore the experience that Maharaji had shown me?
Confounded, I began asking Maharaji's "senior students" -- people I assumed were wiser than me. But nobody knew. Though each person was extremely effusive in their responses, everyone gave me a different answer, fully confident they had just resolved my confusion.
Nothing at all having clarified, it dawned on me that there was only one person I could ask and that was Maharaji himself. Yes, of course! But...um...er... I had no idea how to get to him, me being from the boonies, knowing no one close to him, having no clue about the proper protocols, and was literally out to sea, living on an island as I was at the time.
Still the question burned inside me. Somehow, I HAD to find him. I had to ask my question.
So when I found out, a few weeks later, that he was going to be speaking at an event at Hunter College in New York City, I decided to make the six-hour journey from my home on Martha's Vineyard with the woman in question and three of my friends.
Maharaji, that night, as always, was a total delight -- uplifting, inspiring, funny, and deep. An absolute breath of fresh air.
When his talk was over and the hall emptied out, I find myself standing in the middle of the street, when a complete stranger walks over to me, and in a very quiet voice, tells me exactly where Maharaji is going to be the next day and when -- an estate in Old Westbury. Then he walks away.
My heart is pounding. I can't believe my good fortune.
When my girlfriend and the rest of my friends find me, I tell them the good news, but they just look at me as if I'm insane.
"I can't believe you believe that," one of them says. "Do you know how many rumors are flying around the place? You just can't believe anyone who walks up to you on the street. We're going back home, dude. You ready?"
Ready? Yes, I was. But for something other than going back the way I came.
So I went about my business of finding a ride to the home I grew up in, which, as fate would have it, was just five miles from where Maharaji was supposed to be the following day.
When I got to my childhood house, later that night, I knocked on the door, fully expecting my parents to answer, but no one was home. So I did the only thing that made sense -- walk around to the back of the house to my old bedroom and jiggle the window like I used to every time I forgot my key. Voila! The window opened. I hoisted myself up, let myself in, and slept in my old bed. In the morning, I let myself out the front door, and hitched to the address the guy gave me last night on the street in front of Hunter College.
When I arrived, the place was buzzing with 75 people also hoping to see Maharaji. For a few hours, we sang songs, walked around, played frisbee, and waited, craning our necks every few minutes in the direction of the house where he was staying.
And then, maybe three hours later, someone starts rolling out a long red carpet on the manicured lawn, someone else trailing along behind and carrying the most beautiful chair I had ever seen. This could only mean one thing -- Maharaji would soon be on his way. And he was. Fifteen minutes later, this 14-year old boy starts making his way to the chair now positioned just 20 feet from where I'm sitting.
He sits, smiles, surveys the crowd, and asks if there are any questions.
But I do not raise my hand, ruled by the thought that my question is absurd. Meanwhile, Maharaji is responding to pretty much anyone who raises their hand, continuing to ask "Are there any more questions?"
Finally, I raise my hand.
"Maharaji," I blurt, "can a devotee be married and still be a devotee?"
He throws his head back, his whole body shaking with laughter, then he snaps his head forward as if shooting some kind of invisible arrow in my direction.
"Look," he says. "Even Lord Ram was a husband and a father of seven. I care about your soul. I don't care about your body. Your body can be anywhere. Next!"
Simple. So simple. Everything was so simple. And spacious. Very spacious.
Maharaji was not telling me what to do. Nor was he telling me what not to do. He was just speaking the truth -- the kind of truth around which everything revolves. This wasn't about right and wrong. This wasn't about good or bad. This wasn't about philosophy, spirituality, karma, lifestyle, religion, or decision making. This was about the experience of being fully alive, the off-the-grid, totally free, unhinged, unhampered, whirling dervish sweet spot of pure and perfect presence.
Pressure off, drama diffused, my question answered far beyond the place I was asking it from, I ended up choosing to get married. The marriage lasted four years. Then I took a 16-year break and got married a second time. That marriage is in its 24th year. My relationship with Maharaji, now known as Prem Rawat, is entering it's 44th year.
If I had a bottle of champagne at this precise moment in time I would pop the cork and pour a drink for everyone -- the guy on the street in front of Hunter College, my friends who drove back to Martha's Vineyard without me, Ram, his children, my parents, whoever left the window open to my old bedroom, both wives, my kids, you, your wives, husbands, children, and friends with all their questions and everyone else on planet earth who has ever longed to experience something timeless and pure.
Hey, with all those people, I'm guessing the bottle I'll be pouring from better be a big one. No worries. It is. Actually, it's beyond big. It's infinite.
May the bubbles tickle your nose. May our glasses clink in space. May we laugh for a billion years. And no matter what shape our life takes or who we share it with, may we enjoy it to the max. Here. Now. In this moment.
November 16, 2015
Be Who You Are
When I heard about Prem Rawat's message of peace in 1971 and, soon after, received Knowledge, my life took a major turn for the better.
One of the things that opened up for me was the recognition of how beautiful it was to serve -- to give from the heart without any thought of return. The urge to serve was huge for me.
And so, one fine Spring day, I decided to leave my happy home on Martha's Vineyard and drive to an ashram in Concord, Massachusetts where I figured I could "help out" for the day.
All day long I did whatever was needed, happy to have the chance to give of myself from a place of total gratitude. And then, just before it was time to return home at the end of the day, my hosts, noticing how exhausted I was, invited me to stay the night in their living room in my sleeping bag.
Blissfully tired from a long day of service, I slept like a baby. That is, until 2:00 AM when the lights, in the room, suddenly went on and 20 highly animated people in pajamas came bounding into the room.
Apparently, one of them had just returned from India and wanted to show everyone, on his classic Kodak projector, some never-been-seen-before photos of Maharaji.
I yawned. They oohed and ahhed and oohed again.
Their super-enthusiastic response to the slide show totally baffled me. Though I, too, had received Knowledge, I wasn't feeling anything remotely close to oohing and ahhing.
The more everyone continued expressing themselves so effusively, the more I felt like there must be something terribly wrong with me. I wasn't oohing. I wasn't ahhing. I wasn't even smiling.
"Maybe this isn't the path for me," I thought. "Maybe I'm not loving enough. Maybe I'm too mental... too Western... too this or too that."
At the height of my rapidly escalating bout of doubt, a particularly radiant, saffron-robed, bald-headed man from India shot me a very powerful glance from across the room. And then, with a simple, downward sweep of his hand and a smile, he signaled me to lie down and go back to sleep, which I immediately did, hearing nothing more of the slide show which probably continued for another hour or so.
I woke up four hours later as the sun rose -- fully rested, quietly happy, and feeling very much alive.
I realize now, some 44 years later, that I learned a lot that night. And though my experience was a personal one, I think it's possible that it may have some resonance for you, too, whoever you are, wherever you live, and whatever path you follow or don't.
HERE'S WHAT I LEARNED:
1. Comparing yourself to others is a total waste of time.
2. There is no one right way to express love.
3. Everyone grows in appreciation of their Beloved in their own sweet time.
4. There is no rush required to feel anything "special" at all.
5. I am who I am and that is good enough.
6. "Devotion" isn't always visible.
7. The practice of Knowledge is a very individual thing.
8. There's nothing wrong with going to sleep when you're tired.
9. Devotion is not emotion.
10. It's always a good idea to keep a sleeping bag in the trunk of your car.
The Yoga of Data Roaming
So there I was, living the good life in San Miguel de Allende just a few weeks ago, enjoying the slow lane, mucho tiempo, hot springs, frosty margaritas, blue skies, and super-conscious of just how inexpensive everything was in my new found attempt to simplify my life when Caroline, one of my colleagues back in my Woodstock office, sends me an email explaining how we just got a data roaming bill from AT&T for $1,790 -- a bill that was due in three weeks.
$1,790? For roaming? Where? In the Pleiades? Pluto? Some parallel universe where the streets were made of platinum? No way, Jose. No way. Not me, Uh uh. Sorry. Not after these last six months of cost cutting and, for the first time in two years, actually having a positive cash flow. Uh uh. Nope. No can do.
Semi-catatonic, but still curious to find out WHICH of the five phones on our AT&T plan was the culprit, I quickly discovered it was my first born, my number one (and only) son, the carrier of the family name, the Digital Media Maven, the honorable Jesse Pouget Ditkoff, a 19-year old lad at the time who, upon landing in Mexico City (and not having been on social media for the five hour flight from Newark) somehow FORGOT to turn off his data roaming and proceeded, for the next 311 minutes, while he made his way to San Miguel, to reacquaint himself with Instagram, Facebook, and who knows what other online universes, all of which were now available to him through the grace of oversized cell towers where Mayan pyramids once stood.
Yes, they stood tall and technologically advanced, but THEY WERE NOT A PART OF MY CURRENT CELL PLAN -- the one I didn't buy, fully believing my request to both of my kids to TURN OFF YOUR DATA ROAMING WHEN YOU GET TO MEXICO, would be the teenage mantra of the week. It wasn't.
Thus Caroline's phone call and my newly emerging existential choice of whether to offload my angst onto my son, plead insanity to the POWERS THAT BE, obsess all weekend, or... THIS JUST IN... choose not to entertain a thousand dark thoughts about DEEP DEBT, RIP OFF PHONE COMPANIES, or TEENAGE FRONTAL CORTEXES -- which, after getting the low down from Jesse on what actually happened, is what I chose to do -- a kind of super mental tantra I am not usually good at, especially when an unexpected large bill bummer heads its ugly rear and begs for my attention -- a cognitive bummer, disguised as a thought, that like a relative who talks too much and doesn't know when it's time to leave takes up entirely too much space.
This thought, this "YOU OWE THE PHONE COMPANY $1,790" thought quickly took up residence in what was left of my mind. Or tried to... I should say. It pulled up a chair. It kicked off its shoes. It opened a beer and starting watching a 57" flat screen TV I don't even have.
It was then that I knew what I had to do -- CHOOSE!
I could either let this obsessive thought in and take over my house, or I could ignore it. Realizing, it was too late, on Friday afternoon, to ask for mercy from AT&T's customer service department, I was going to have to ride this one out, ducking the gale winds of my own fevered mind and CHOOSING again and again not to engage the unwanted VERY EXPENSIVE DATA ROAMING THOUGHT in my head for the rest of the weekend.
Easy for me to say. Easy for me to declare, but THOUGHTS, especially BIG HAIRY THOUGHTS have heard it all before from people like me and know exactly what to do to persist and grow larger.
Ah... but the plot thickens.
That night, you see, my amazing wife, Evelyne, and I had been invited to a sumptuous party with all kinds of great people in costumes and good moods, Day of the Dead statues all around us and music that begged you to dance.
Perfect! The environment was perfect. Like someone from Central Casting was going for an Academy Award just as the fun began, the invisible, subatomic, off the grid, holographic fun known in some parts as "God's Play."
As the fabulous Mexican evening wore on I couldn't help but notice that no matter who I was talking to, there was a kind of ghost behind them, rising slowly from the ground, a fat ghost, a slightly drunk and off putting ghost, a bulbous entity not unlike an overweight high school geometry teacher who took great pride in making kids uncomfortable with his news of cosines and tangents and POP QUIZZES ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON.
This ghost had a name -- the "DATA ROAMING GHOST", the "YOU BETTER START GETTING YOUR RAP TOGETHER, MITCH, BECAUSE YOUR SO-CALLED CASH FLOW IS ABOUT TO END UP IN THE TOILET."
Nice try, thought! But I'm not buying it! It's Friday night and I'm at a party. Sorry, dude. There just ain't no room for worry tonight. You can huff and puff as much as you want, but I'm not paying attention to you. None. Like zippo, nada, zilch. I got other things to do. Comprende, senor? Lo siento mucho, bro, but I'm not playing your game. I will not engage with you.
OK. Yes, I will admit, there was a time, in my early 20's, after reading way too many Zen Buddhism books, when I thought that one day I would live in a realm of ABSOLUTELY NO THOUGHT -- hanging out, as I imagined myself to be in some large, perfect, empty calligraphic Zen circle, the circumference of which would be lined with motionless monks who had long ago reached SATORI and were now simply sitting or writing haiku in the sand.
Sorry, Zen friends, but it's not about that and never was. THAT whole scenario was only a thought, one among many high class thoughts that weighed me down.
Uh uh. No way. No way, Jose. The choice before me was simpler than that. The choice before me was simply NOT TO ENTERTAIN THE EXPENSIVE DATA ROAMING THOUGHT. I didn't have to make it wrong. I didn't have to demonize AT&T, iPhones, teenagers, cell towers or my own lack of long distance know how. All I had to do was not focus on my unwanted guest.
This, shall we say, went on for the entire weekend, the DATA ROAMING THOUGHT popping up again and again like a teenage zit right before the senior prom... but I did not engage, choosing LIFE over DEATH, the PRESENT over the FUTURE, BEING over DOING.
Monday came round fast enough. Oh yes, it did -- the long awaited time to deal with the customer service people of the big telecommunications company and see just how SERVICE-ORIENTED they were.
As I slowly dialed, I prayed to get someone compassionate on the other end of the line, someone not cranky, angry at their spouse, underpaid, under appreciated, hypoglycemic, menstruating, or reading from a script while pretending NOT to be reading from a script, trained as they were by the AT&T gods to listen to the customer so they could skillfully diffuse my angst while simultaneously reminding me of THE POLICY they were, by the power of their almighty Over Lords, paid to uphold.
Fortunately, I did not get that guy. I got a human being -- a very lovely man named "Daniel" who was "happy to help me" and "would do what he could" to resolve the situation.
He listened. I spoke. He listened some more. I spoke some more. I told him there was no way my 19-year old son, working all summer to pay his college tuition, could afford to pay $1,790. On and on I rambled, while the very unrobotic and Bodhisattva-like Daniel continued listening and finding new ways to let me know it was all going to be alright.
"We can just re-rate you" he explained.
"Re-rate?" I asked. "What is re-rate?"
Daniel went on to explain that "re-rate" is what AT&T does for its customers lost in DATA ROAMING LAND. Basically, they just sell you, retroactively, the data plan you should have bought before leaving the country.
So now I'm doing the math and figuring I still owe $600 or some other very large amount of dinero so AT&T's honchos can afford to send their own kids to college.
"$30," Daniel blurts after a few quick calculations. "That's what you owe. Not $1,790. Just $30."
Was there no end to my good fortune? Daniel, dear Daniel, who I was now talking to as if he was my best friend, had just reduced my data roaming charges by 98%. That was it! That was all it took! One simple calculation based on one simple concept and one wise decision made by AT&T not to rake their customers over the data roaming coals.
Relief! I was relieved.
But far beyond relief was the recognition that, somehow, throughout it all, I had made the right CHOICE -- the choice not to worry, the choice not to doubt, the choice not to entertain dark thoughts in my head... the choice to stay in the moment... stay in the light and enjoy life to the fullest no matter what invisible distractions begged for my attention.August 04, 2014
I have never been fired from a job. Except once -- a week after the man I wrote 350 speeches for in two years, Donald J. Manes, the Borough President of Queens, committed suicide in his kitchen because he knew he was just about to get busted for stealing more than one million dollars from the City of New York in what is now affectionately known as the Parking Violations Bureau scandal.
I wasn't fired because I had done anything wrong. I hadn't. I was fired because the successor to the Not-So-Honorable Donald J. Manes wanted to clean house in a "B" movie politically correct way to appease the irate public's need for reform. A new leaf. She was turning over a new leaf and a whole bunch of other metaphors being supplied to her by a newly hired PR advisor.
The bottom line? At 37, I was out of a job -- unemployed -- with an insanely exorbitant Upper West Side rent due in less than a month.
Having saved almost nothing from my speech writing gig and with absolutely no desire to write for yet another person with delusions of grandeur, I decided to go the artistic route and earn my living the honest way -- playing my clarinet in the subway.
The first day I made $8.00. There was no second day.
So I did what any, self-respecting, former English Lit major with a little known ability to recite Canterbury Tales in Middle English would do. I wrote. Not a screenplay. Not a suicide note. But a query letter to New York Magazine pitching an investigative journalism article on the beggars of Manhattan -- the real story, I declared, behind the people who panhandled for a living.
And so, for the next 30 days, that's exactly what I did -- walked the streets of the Big Apple, doing my underground reporter best to befriend the people most of us think aren't really beggars at all but con artists trying to fool us for a living, bad actors impersonating beggars so they can buy cheap wine and avoid the rush hour commute.
Thirty days I spent with them. Thirty days walking, talking, buying them lunch, and trying to discover the organizing principal around which my story would authentically take shape.
And I did. Find it, that is. The moment I met Fred.
His spot? 79th and Columbus, just one block from my apartment. His schtick? Pepe, his dog. Or more accurately, his sign for Pepe, his dog -- a portable cardboard sign painstakingly printed with a pen he found three weeks ago that let the world know he wasn't begging for himself, but for his faithful companion, a 10-year old mutt he found on the street and loved too much not to feed every day.
Standing there before this man, tape recorder tucked under my right arm, I couldn't help but smile. This was either the cleverest of panhandler scams or Fred was an uptown saint.
I looked at him and he looked at me. Then, with a crook of his head and a word I didn't understand, he signaled me to sit with him and Pepe on a blanket that had seen, shall we say, better days.
He told me his name, but not much else. We sat there, in silence, side by side, Pepe before us, as hundreds of people walked by, most casting glances, not coins.
Thirty minutes passed, then Fred, with a pained look in his eye, looked at me and asked if I would "mind his dog" while he went looking for a hotel or restaurant to relieve himself.
And so, for the next hour, I sat there on the blanket with Pepe, the sign, and a tin cup.
This being 79th and Columbus, many purposeful, well-dressed people walked by. All of them, of course, assumed I was the beggar.
"NO!" I wanted to scream. "You got it all wrong! I'm not a beggar. I'm a writer doing a story on beggars". But I couldn't find the words. Somehow, the dog and cat both had my tongue. I was speechless.
And then, not a single angel descending from heaven, I got it. I finally got it. I was a beggar. Yes, me. I was a beggar. I was absolutely no different than Fred. I wrote stories. He wrote signs. He was trying to get money. I was trying to get money. And both of us were asking for help.
When Fred finally returned, he had a large wet spot on his pants.
"Dude, what happened?" I asked.
Fred shook his head, attempting to cover the stain with his hand. "No one would let me in," he explained, a single slow tear rolling down his cheek. "I went to 15 restaurants and hotels and no one would let me in."March 17, 2014
How to Spark Wisdom in the Workplace
Dear Heart of the Matter Readers:
If you have received any value from this blog and would be interested in supporting my next, big transformational writing project -- now launched as a GoFundMe campaign -- click here for a 3-minute video of me describing it and a brief written description of what the whole thing is about -- a venture which includes the writing, publication, and promotion of a new book, Wisdom at Work, along with the launching of WISDOM CIRCLES in organizations and communities around the world.
Whatever support you can provide is very much appreciated. In exchange for your support, I will be happy to send you the book when it is published, in December. Plus, there are many other ways in which you can support this project and other rewards available to you.October 10, 2012
The Afghani Cab Driver and the $250 Million Dollar Salty Snack Food
I am getting into the back seat of a yellow cab, as I've done a thousand times before, having just tipped the too-smiling bellboy too much for holding open the door and inviting me, as he had been trained to do just last week, to "have a nice day."
Here, 1,500 miles from home, at 6:30 am in front of yet another nameless business hotel, I settle into position, careful not to spill my coffee on my free copy of USA Today.
In 20 minutes, I will be arriving at the international headquarters of General Mills, creators of Cheerios, Wheaties, and the totally fictional 50's icon of American motherhood, Bette Crocker.
My mission? To help their product development team come up with a new $250 million dollar salty snack food.
It's too dark to read and I'm too caffeinated to nap, so I glance at the dashboard and see a fuzzy photo of my driver, his last name next to it -- an extremely long and unpronounceable last name -- as if a crazed bingo master had thrown all the letters of the alphabet into a brown paper bag, shook, and randomly pulled them out in between shots of cheap tequila.
Where he was from I had no clue.
"Hello," I manage to say, nervous that my driver with the long last name would end up getting us completely lost. "I'm on my way to General Mills. Do you... know where that is?"
"Oh yes," my driver replies with an accent I assume to be mid-eastern. "I know."
Small talk out of the way, I now had three choices -- the same three choices I have every time I get into the back seat of a cab.
I could check my email. I could review my agenda. Or I could continue the conversation with my driver -- always a risky proposition, especially with cabbies from foreign lands who were often difficult to understand, tired, or, seemingly angry at Americans, which, I am not proud to say, often led me to become way too polite, overcompensating for who knows how many years of my government's pre-emptive strikes -- a response, I'm sure (mine, not the government's), which even the least sophisticated cab driver could see through in a heart beat.
"Where are you from?" my driver asks.
"Woodstock," I reply. "Woodstock, New York. And you?"
Deep as we were in the middle of that war, I am stunned, my own backseat brand of battlefield fatigue now gathering itself for the appropriate response.
"Afghanistan?" I reply. "What brought you here?"
I could tell by his pause -- his long, pregnant pause, that things, in this taxi, were just about to change.
"Well..." my driver says, looking at me in the rearview mirror, "I was out for a walk with my 10-year old daughter when she stepped on a land mine."
I look out the window. Starbucks. MacDonalds. Pier 1 Imports.
"So I ripped off my shirt and tied it around her leg to stop the bleeding. Then I went running for a doctor. But there was no doctor."
For the next 20 minutes, he goes on to tell me about his three-day journey through the mountains of Afghanistan, his bleeding daughter on his back, slipping in and out of consciousness.
Villagers took them in, gave them food, applied centuries worth of home remedies, but no one knew of a doctor.
And then... a break. A man on horseback told him of some nurses from the Mayo Clinic who had just set up an outpost just a little way up the road.
With his last bit of energy, he got there and collapsed -- the nurses managing to keep his daughter alive and flying her, the next day, to the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, where, three days later, he and his wife were flown to be by her side to enter into a year long rehabilitation process with her, so she could learn to walk with her new prosthetic leg.
"That will be $27.55", my driver announces, checking the meter.
Somehow, I find my wallet, pay, and hug my driver, lingering with him as long as I could in that early morning light.
I enter the well-appointed lobby of General Mills, get my security pass, and make my way to the room where I am supposed to set things up for today's salty snack food brainstorming session.
An hour later, fifteen 30-somethings walk in, checking Blackberries.
I have a choice to make.
Do I dismiss my journey from hotel to headquarters as a surreal preamble to the day -- one that has nothing to do with the work at hand?
Or do I realize that my journey here this morning is the work at hand -- a story not only for me, but for everyone in the room that day?
To be continued in my new book: Wisdom at Work