Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Year in Review

Earlier this week, when I inquired about purchasing some lily essential oil (for a little "aromachology" exercise), the gentleman behind the counter said, "You won't find that here or anywhere else for that matter... genuine lily essential oil is highly poisonous and is absorbed easily through the skin.  You may want some lily fragrance oil instead."  Immediately, I felt very ashamed for not having had that knowledge, and I remember being in classroom situations in which I was expected to arrive with built-in knowledge rather than actually learn.  I quickly realized, however, that the only way to learn something is to admit that you don't already know it.  As someone who values learning, it is something of a gift to realize that there will always be something I don't know.  The humility to admit that I don't know something opens the door for me to keep learning.

That little lesson got me looking back at what I have learned over the past year, and so I share with you now just a few of the things that have stuck with me from my journey of the last several months.  I'll go ahead and start with: It's alright to admit I don't know something.  It bears repeating, for my own sake at least.

Another big one from 2010 is: Money isn't everything.  So many of the paths I have started down over the past year have ultimately been about finances.  I wanted to be a responsible person, I wanted to monetize my passions, I sought guidance from a variety of sources, and ultimately I have come to realize that, for me, it doesn't work for me to focus on a dollar figure.  The things that matter most to me are not things I can purchase, and when I become focused on the financial equation, it's easy to lose focus on the things that matter most to me.  I have learned a lot about money this year, and I have crossed some thresholds in how I think about money.  I know now that it isn't something that I want to pursue.  Money is merely a byproduct.

There are a lot of voices chattering about money, though.  And they chatter about success and freedom and all sorts of other topics.  Testing what people say and observing the results in their own lives is a great way to confirm who to trust.  Sometimes I really want to trust what someone is saying, and sometimes there is something within me that just cringes at a particular idea or individual.  Without any actual data, I'm just going on my own intuition, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but data helps cement my trust of a concept.  The challenge is that sometimes the data goes against someone or something I had really wanted to trust.  As difficult as it may be to admit it, if a hypothesis doesn't hold true in the laboratory of my life, honesty with myself is still the best policy.

I've also come to realize that: Fiefdoms aren't worth the battle.  In different roles, in different organizations, I have encountered people who operate as if they are running their own little kingdom.  While I may have something of value to add to the organization, and while I may get something out of my participation, when it comes down to it, it's a poor use of my energy to challenge someone behaving like a local lord.  It's easy for a person rooted in their beliefs and their pockets of power to develop a closed mind.

This has come up for me in part because I have begun to really understand for the first time that: It's good to play out loud.  As a pianist, I have constantly found myself in places where I am asked to back off on the volume.  Sometimes, as a thinker I have met with similar resistance.  Recently, I have had a few opportunities where I was urged to play out louder as a musician, and it has been a lot of fun.  There is a tremendous amount of freedom when I know I can play loud, and it is immensely satisfying to know that people genuinely want to hear what I have to offer.

Which is why: It's important to find a place where loud is accepted.  After hearing for so long that I need to be a bit softer, it sometimes bleeds into my own personal evaluation of myself.  In my own life at least, I want to encourage my own peak volume.  But there are other places, too, where people want to hear me, as a musician, as a composer, as a thinker.  Finding those places is more satisfying in the long run than screaming in a library.  Especially since, most of all, I believe that what I have to offer has value, and I would prefer to find ways for that value to be what people notice first.

So, that brings me to two last big ones that I have known for a long time, but have only started to really believe.  Focusing on what's most important to me is the best way to live a meaningful life.  Of course, it can be a challenge to know what's really most important, but for me it includes having creative outlets, making music, the connections that I have with other creative people.  It's important for me to respect and tolerate other people's spiritual expression, even as I seek an ideal way to define and live out my own spirituality. 

Lastly, as much as I want to be understood, admired, and respected, as much as I want to be able to use my strengths and capabilities in service to others, my first priority is to live in a way that makes sense to me.  To live in a way that I understand and admire and respect.  To make choices that magnify my strengths and capabilities.  I don't have to justify my life or choices to anyone, but I want to be act with integrity in accordance with who I am at my core.  When I choose things that don't really make sense to me, why would I expect to be understood, admired, or respected by anyone else?  Harmony within hopefully paves the way for harmony without.

It has been a very fruitful and satisfying year, all things considered.  If you stick around on the journey, we'll see how many of these lessons I keep learning further up the spiral...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Unseen Influence

Seeker's Journey will most likely resume its course at some point, but I want to share with you some of the big pieces that are falling into place in this time of transition (more on that in a moment).

Having never been to Fort Worth, I was delighted to find that people there were very connecting and warm.  In a conversation with someone on the Texas Christian University campus, I remarked on this and related my experience in a grocery store that morning.  I had popped in on that Tuesday morning to grab some juice, and half a dozen other shoppers greeted me over the course of that visit, some with a purposeful nod and smile and others with a verbal Hello or Good morning.  One person even complimented my tie.  This sort of thing has never happened to me in Houston, and I took it to mean something about me and something about the people of Fort Worth.

The person with whom I was speaking remarked, "The purple in your tie may have had something to do with it."

I glanced down and glibly commented, "Well, I do have some ties that tend to make me stand out in a crowd."

With a patient smile, the individual explained, "Well, purple is the school color.  You see a lot of it around TCU.  It's kind of a sacred color around here."

Of course, I laughed a bit at my own assumptions.  I don't doubt that Fort Worth residents are warm and friendly, and expect to find that they are so even when I am not clad in a sacred color.  But there was something at work of which I was not aware during my little grocery store stroll.  Although I knew purple was associated with TCU, I hadn't intentionally picked that tie because of its color.  Somewhere in the back of my subconscious I may have thought it was a splendid idea, but I certainly wasn't thinking of that connection even when someone directly complimented my tie. 

That experience has me thinking about other unseen influences.  Not fairies or guardian angels or ghosts, but the conscious and unconscious systems at work within ourselves or within other people (or groups of people) to which we are blind.  We operate on a great deal of assumption most of the time.  If we always assume the best about people, someone may take advantage of us at some point.  But if we assume the worst about people, we will likely see adversaries where there are none. 

Certainly other consequences abound from those extremes as well, but at the end of the day we must operate on some amount of assumption.  We can never actually know every single factor that will impact a result.  The secret as far as I am concerned is to maintain a willingness to evaluate and shift course when new information arises.  Which leads me to why I am suddenly moving to Fort Worth when I wasn't even considering doing so a month ago.

My wife, Joy, has accepted a job with Fort Worth Opera, doing something that she does well, connected to an art form she loves.  The whole process happened rather quickly, and I am proud of her for paying more attention to her hopes than her fears at the end of the day.  What it means for me is relocation to a place where I have no clear and definite plan, but there is some exciting freedom in that.  It will mean a rethinking of our finances, a retooling of how I spend my time and energy, and a chance to keep focusing on the things that matter most to me.  From what I can see right now, it appears that there will be immediate opportunities for me to be involved in the musical goings-on in Fort Worth, which can lead to new collaborations as a pianist and composer.  In a way, I've been preparing for this move for the past year.

Neither of us would have predicted a year ago (or even six weeks ago) that we would be relocating for Joy to take a position working once more in the opera field.  We had our perceptions of where various paths were leading, but we couldn't see everything influencing the direction of those paths.  The paths I have gone down over the past year have all taught me something valuable, even when I didn't stay on a path for very long.  I learned things I would never have truly learned otherwise, and some of those lessons have helped to define me.  Or, at least, they have helped me see the value in being honest about who I truly am.  I'll say more on this aspect of the journey next week.

What I want to clearly acknowledge right now is the importance of accepting that I do not see everything that goes on in other people's minds, and that I cannot know beyond a shadow of a doubt where a particular path will lead.  At a certain point, I have to decide whether or not to step forward on a path, with only partial knowledge of what may lie ahead.  But I can keep making that decision at every point along the way, taking in new information to guide my expectations and recognizing what I can do to contribute to the outcome I want.  If I want people to be friendly to me in a Forth Worth grocery store, I know now that wearing a purple tie will go a long way toward getting that outcome.  It might also work for me to walk into a place with a friendly greeting ready for the people I find there. 

Since we can never forecast every unseen influence, I think life becomes a bit of a game in which we win by doing our very best as consistently as we can.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Seeker's Journey: The Fourth Map

As they sat and rested, Seeker said to the Smiling Man, "I understand that you are quite content to journey with no destination in mind, but I want to choose a destination for myself."

The Smiling Man asked, "Well, did you have something specific in mind?"

"Actually, I think the destination that matters most to me is True Happiness."

The Smiling Man laughed heartily.  "My friend, I frequent that locale daily."

"But you simply wander where your Arrow Map points and make the most of whatever you find there."

"Fair enough," the Smiling Man nodded.  "But it seems that True Happiness is a destination one may easily reach if one is willing to do so.  Does it seem strange to be in two places at once?  It is more common than you may think."

Seeker pondered this and eventually replied, "Yes, I believe I see your point.  True Happiness is not a destination I need to seek.  If I am honest with myself, I know how to get there when I want to.  But still, I believe I would like to determine a focal point for my journey, even if I spend time in True Happiness as well."

The Smiling Man once more asked, "Did you have something specific in mind?"

As Seeker looked around at the mountains and their splendor, he realized that what mattered most to him was having a direction, a purpose that he valued.  He didn't necessarily want to determine a destination where he would live out the rest of his days, but he wanted someplace to serve as a target.  Once he arrived, he could decide on a new destination if he desired.  It perhaps wasn't all that different from the way the Smiling Man journeyed, except that it held a bit more intentionality.  Seeker knew for perhaps the first time how important that intentionality was to him.

His eyes settled on a distant ridge.  Its contour was striking, and its rock formations seemed fascinating at least from this distance.  Seeker imagined that the view from that ridge would really be something worth seeing, and he was confident that he could also arrive in True Happiness as often and for as long as he wished.  So he indicated the ridge and said with some determination, "There.  That's the destination I have in mind."

The Smiling Man said, "Hmmm, that seems like a bit of a trek, but probably well worth it.  I don't believe I'll be pointing myself in that direction, but you can most likely find your way there on your own."  And then his eyes lit up as inspiration struck, "What you need is a map!"

With a bit of resigned amusement, Seeker stated, "I have maps enough as it is."  Once more, he withdrew his Map of Known Routes, the Map of Destinations, and the Arrow Map.  He looked at the ridge at back at the maps in a half-hearted attempt to find a recognizable connection.

"Oh, no, no, no," quipped the Smiling Man.  "That's far too much information.  You would never choose some of those routes and you have no interest in most of those destinations.  You need a map that is more useful and a bit less exhaustive."

"But exhaustive is useful," argued Seeker.  "Until recently, I often checked my Map of Known Routes to insure that I hadn't strayed onto a dangerous or slippery path.  And as recently as today I consulted the Map of Destinations to eliminate all of the places I don't care to go in order to clarify the choices a bit.  Surely you don't suggest I reach that distant ridge by using only the Arrow Map."

"That may actually work.  But I was thinking more of having a map that indicated what you actually want in way of routes and destinations, instead of confusing the matter by looking at every possibility every time you want to go somewhere.  If your map shows you where you want to go and how you want to get there, isn't that enough?"

"What if I'm wrong?  What if I wind up on the wrong path, one that doesn't actually lead where I want to go?  What if a path doesn't go where I expect it to?"

"Then you make adjustments as necessary.  It's not actually all that difficult."

Seeker was still a bit skeptical.  "Why should I trust cartographic advice from a man who exclusively follows an arrow that points him in whichever direction he wishes to go in any given moment?  I mean, it is a fine way to appreciate the journey, but I seriously doubt your method is a reliable way to travel with purpose."

The man's smile didn't fade as he turned his Arrow Map over and showed Seeker the other side.  It was a simple affair, but it had some important destinations and reliable routes to them.  "I know how to get to the places that really matter to me when I want to."

Suddenly, Seeker found his opinion of this traveling companion sharply adjusted.  He spent the next few hours learning from the Smiling Man how to create a map with only valuable information on the back of his own Arrow Map.  The Smiling Man wouldn't tell him if it was accurate, and he didn't express any approval or disapproval of what Seeker thought was valuable information.  When it seemed complete enough for Seeker to resume his journey, the Smiling Man slowly nodded with satisfaction.

"I wish you the most enjoyable travels, Seeker.  You will encounter others along the way who can help you correct and clarify your map as you go, but don't blindly trust anyone who tells you that you've got something wrong.  Test it and see for yourself, and you'll always know you're on the right track."

Seeker thanked the Smiling Man, and he folded his old maps and kept them tucked away, just in case.  He felt very happy with his new map, however, and he set off for the distant ridge with a spring in his step.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Seeker's Journey: Four Travelers

As Seeker traveled on his unmarked trail, he occasionally met fellow travelers who had chosen an uncharted route.  Seeker's journey led him up into mountains, and his conversations with others helped him tremendously when the actual path was difficult to discern.  At times, it seemed that there was no real path at all, just a general heading, or a landmark on which he could fix his gaze.  Other travelers would tell Seeker about places to find clean water, magnificent overlooks, quiet thickets.  A few people Seeker met claimed to have been everywhere in these mountains, but few of them seemed earnest in such claims. 

One man was eager to compare maps with Seeker.  Unlike Seeker, he had struck out on his journey with a specific destination in mind: Unconditional Human Love.  Seeker had met other travelers like him, who could not find a way to take well-known routes and arrive at Inner Peace, or Renewing Solitude, or The Most Inspiring View, or any number of other destinations.  And so, they had taken an unmarked trail in the hopes of finding their own personal El Dorado.  Seeker had not found any of those destinations, but the conversation was pleasant enough.

Seeker asked the man about other nearby destinations before they parted ways.  The most valuable information often came from people who began answers to his queries with, "I don't know, but..."  This man's response especially stuck with Seeker.  "I don't know what's near here, but you'll be more likely to find it if you're looking for it."  Seeker thanked him and they went off on their respective journeys.

Another pair of travelers was headed back to clearly-mapped roadways.  One seemed rather disappointed with her journey off the beaten trail, but the other seemed quite satisfied and ready to resume a previous agenda.  As Seeker talked with them, he discovered that the two women had come from the same destination, and his concept of "desirable destinations" began to shift.  The same end point had left one woman feeling frustrated and empty, while her companion was full of vigor and purpose. 

Comparing maps with each other, the travelers confirmed that they were headed back toward "accepted" routes, and Seeker began to reassess his sense of which destinations on his map were truly desirable.  Then, Seeker was startled to learn that the two women did not even know if they were carrying a third map like his, with only an arrow upon it.  They seemed puzzled by it, and left unconvinced of its usefulness.  Seeker pondered how they had made it along any uncharted trail without such a map, but he shrugged and bade them a good journey.

The more Seeker conversed with fellow travelers, the more he became convinced that no destination was inherently desirable.  Many people who had wandered from well-traveled paths seemed to have a different sense of where they most wanted to go.  They still relied on their map of destinations, but they didn't concern themselves with which sites the mapmakers indicated as more or less desirable.  This got Seeker thinking about what adjustments he could make to his own map, which destinations he would label most desirable if he had made his map.   

As he was still pondering this, Seeker came across another man who seemed so light and carefree that Seeker's face immediately smiled upon seeing him.  When he asked the man about nearby destinations, the man seemed exuberant at the wonders that were nearby, but he could give Seeker no real indication of how to reach them.  So, Seeker suggested they compare maps.  

"A splendid idea!" replied the stranger as he withdrew a single well-worn map.  It was nearly identical to Seeker's map with the arrow and nothing else.  Seeker laughed a bit and looked at the man expectantly.

"What about your other maps?" Seeker prompted.

"This is the only map I use!  Each day I come across new and glorious reasons to appreciate this journey.  I'm not exactly sure where I've been, and I don't know where I'm going, but I know that there will be something to see when I get there."

After an incredulous moment, Seeker mused, "It is as if you are your own destination."

The smiling man looked at his arrow-map, and Seeker looked at his own.  As it happened, when they oriented their maps a bit, they pointed in the same direction.  So Seeker traveled with the man for a bit, hanging on to his other maps and considering what destination he may actually find desirable.  In the meantime, he became more accustomed to using a map to which he had paid very little attention before setting off on the mysterious path.  Although it was true that there was always a new and glorious reason to appreciate the journey, Seeker was convinced that there was a way to combine a meaningful journey with a meaningful destination.