I Want To Be A Buffalo

I do.  Let me tell you why.

When I have a big project looming on the horizon, I often get overwhelmed.  At first I pretend that the project doesn’t exist. Then I pretend that the deadline doesn’t exist. Then when the deadline stares me in the face, I panic.  The panic drives me to avoidance. The avoidance results in further delay which results in a further compression of time which results in hysteria which finally results in action.

None of this would be necessary if I were a buffalo.

I’m not terribly good at confrontation.  (A rather horrifying confession to make as one trained as a trial lawyer.) If I have to confront a client on a difficult issue, usually involving money, my anxiety level spikes. I get preoccupied with other matters which I pretend have greater priority to justify to myself and to others that I am very busy and important and rather above the messy business of confrontation.  I do this with children and bankers and car mechanics and just about anyone else with whom I should be clear and direct, hoping that the need for communication or redress will somehow evaporate with the passage of time or the onset of dementia.

If I were a buffalo, this would not be the case.

Sometimes when I think about sitting down to write or to create, I find myself fighting the great demon: Resistance. I decide that it is time to clean the counters, alphabetize the recyclables, clip coupons or floss my teeth.  Certainly the blog will require research: yes research, that’s the ticket; not writing; not just yet. And the inbox: now’s the time to respond to at least a dozen of the 1300 unread messages. And, before I write, I will certainly need to update my status on Facebook:  “Just about to write.”

This would be ridiculous if I were a buffalo.

There are times when I am afraid.  Like before a speech or a big presentation or a trial or a major expedition or a new project or a medical procedure or a big investment; or like when the market tanks or business is off or the associate quits; or like when what I hoped wouldn’t happen did.  Then I shut down, hide out, bury myself under the covers. I turn inward, go incommunicado. And engage that other great demon: Avoidance.

This would not be something I would do were I a buffalo.

That’s because buffaloes know a secret: overwhelm and avoidance and resistance and fear aren’t real. They’re illusions.

Of course they seem pretty damn real.  And they certainly feel pretty damn real. But they have no substance to them.  They can’t be touched or held. They have no weight or physical substance. And when we face into them, they dissolve. When we stare them down, they disappear.

When we move forward in the face of Overwhelm, when we confront in the face of Avoidance, when we create in the face of Resistance, when we act in the face of Fear, we discover what was true from the very beginning: that we are powerful beyond our understanding, and that the Universe has been waiting for us all along to support us with passion and purpose and possibility.

Now buffaloes may not really know anything about all of this existential stuff; they may think overwhelm and resistance and avoidance are real.  Hell, they may even be scared shitless from time to time.

But – and here’s the key – buffaloes don’t act that way.

Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee nation, once described the difference between cows and buffaloes: cows run away from an oncoming storm; the buffalo, on the other hand, turns and charges directly into the storm. And gets through it quicker!

“Whenever I’m confronted with a tough challenge, I do not prolong the torment. I become the buffalo,” she said.

I want to be a buffalo.  What about you?

Experience Matters

What a waste it is to lose one’s mind.

Dan Quayle

I had paid him a lot of money to say it to me; practically begged him to say it even.  And after everything that had gone on before, I deserved it.

“You’re an excellent mind-fucker,” he said.

My therapist had such a way with words.

I had spent the last two hours, indeed the last dozen sessions, kvetching over my devolving marriage, my career uncertainty and my existential angst.  Ivy trained to think logically, thoroughly, impeccably and completely, I had succeeded in analyzing, examining, decoding and deconstructing each and every aspect of my imploding psychological universe. All without any clarity – or benefit (to me) – whatsoever.

“Perhaps you shouldn’t think so much,” he said.

Good advice, that.

Not that there’s anything wrong with thinking.  It’s important to be able to think things through, weigh the pros and cons, consider the relative merits, perform the cost-benefit analysis, understand the risk-reward ratio. A sound intellect is, well, a sound thing to have.

It’s just that we can over think things way too much.

And the paradox is this: in doing so we can lose our way.

When we think about our goals and objectives, when we strategize and plot and plan, we never see the whole way through to the end. Sometimes the goal seems implausible, daunting and audacious; sometimes it seems unrealistic or even impossible.

Of course the goal-setting is essential. But the thinking and the planning are just a piece of the puzzle.

The magic is in the unfolding.

As a caterpillar cannot possibly think itself  a butterfly, we lack the capacity to think the full potential of our lives. Yet if we allow it, we become.

We start down paths, we think we know the steps. But we can’t possibly see the entire way.

We must trust in the process. It is in the process of our lives that we are transported, transformed,  made new again in ways that we could never have believed or foreseen or imagined – or thought.

Suddenly new horizons open. Fresh possibilities.

Our lives are not problems to be solved. They are adventures to be lived. And experienced.

When we over think, we fail to feel.

When we endeavor to wrestle our stuff to the ground with our intellects, we lose touch with our intuitions.  When we get caught up in our own minds, we lose touch with our bodies. When we stay in our heads, we lose touch with our hearts.

And our hearts always know.

Go ahead and think things through if you must. But then our job is to show up. With courage and with might.

Our goals will unfold. Our projects will unfold. Our dreams will unfold.

Don’t miss the experience along the way. Trust in the unfolding.

You have never known the way. You will never know the way. But the way knows the way. Remember, love would not have carried you this far to let you down. Love moves in mysterious ways, performs beneath a haze. But this unforeseen magnificent power takes us all the way. It make take us away from the way we may assume. But it takes us all the way.

— Tama J. Kieves




The Tail of the Dragon

Midway upon the Journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost…

— Dante, The Divine Comedy

I could see roughly how the groups ahead of me would sort out. I could begin to plot out my assault. That most of the others waiting in line for the Incredible Hulk roller coaster at Universal Studios were small children was of no consequence to me.  All that mattered was that I secure a seat in the front car.

Yes, I’m the guy in the front with his hands up in the air, laughing and screaming. I love roller coasters: the way they rise and fall, backwards and forwards, upside down and sideways.  The sharp curves, the unpredictability.

Kind of like life.  Except that I way prefer my roller coasters to remain in the amusement park.

I just bought the book by Lee and Bob Woodruff,  In An Instant.  It is the memoir of their lives in the shadow of Bob’s tragic injury caused by a roadside bomb in Iraq, at the pinnacle of their careers, just when it appeared as if they had it all.

The title reminded me of the opening lines from Joan Didion’s shatteringly beautiful The Year of Magical Thinking, recounting the months following her husband’s sudden death at the dinner table: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

A dear friend of mine called me out of the blue recently. He wanted me to review his severance agreement. Incredibly intelligent, extraordinarily loyal, unfailingly devoted,  he had been shit-canned after years of faithful service to his company. In an instant.  With tuitions to pay.  And mortgages to service.

The Zen master says: “It is uncertain, eh?”

Life, death, sickness, unemployment. And all of the lesser things as well: the overdrafts, the broken car, the late appointment, the angry client.

The workout that was so fine yesterday so sucks today.  The funding that was in place a month ago disappears tomorrow. The chapter that looked so brilliant last night seems so flat in the morning light. The deal that looked so solid isn’t.

The report card that was so fine last year is in the tank. The financial aid was cut in half. The company has downsized.

The marriage that would stand the test of time didn’t. The investment that couldn’t fail did.

The Republicans are up; the economy is down; the market is flat.

Nothing stays as it is. The only certainty is change. And yet how desperately we cling.

I’m not a big fan of the roller coaster of life.  I love the highs.  But those unexpected turns. And that big plunge.  They way suck. A lot of screams; not many laughs.

It turns out though that it’s those who have the capacity for all that the ride has to offer that are the most successful.   Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happier writes, “things do not necessarily happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best out of the things that happen.”  Indeed, Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage says, “The most successful people  see adversity not as a stumbling block, but as a stepping stone to greatness.”

We can learn how to find our way through adversity. We can learn to step well.

It requires skill. A ton of courage. Determination. And resilience.

There is an eleven mile stretch of road in Deals Gap along the Tennessee – North Carolina state line.  It’s called the Tail of the Dragon. Sports car drivers and motorcycle enthusiasts come from all over the world to test their mettle on the road’s 318 curves, with names such as Copperhead Corner, Gravity Cavity and Break or Bust Bend. Twisting and turning.

They say it’s an incredible ride.

To experience all of it, deeply and fully, to live it wholly and completely, but not to attach to any of it.  To stay engaged. And not discouraged. To stand tall when all we want to do is hide. That is the challenge.

The Warrior rides the dragon’s tail. Will you?

Happy Now, Bitch?

The Mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

John Milton

They’ve all been lying to you.

Make your New Year’s resolutions.  Write out your goals.  Make your mind-maps.  Plan your year.  Work your plan.  Achieve success. And you’ll be happy.

It’s not true.

We’ve been inculcated with the notion that happiness is the brass ring; the carrot on the stick.  If I lose weight, then I’ll be happy.  If I get fit, then I’ll be happy.  If I become successful, then I’ll be happy. If I get rich, then I’ll be happy.  If, then.

The problem is that someone keeps moving the stick. Maybe we get happy for a fleeting moment. But the carrot keeps disappearing.  The brass ring is some Tolkien epic that never ends.

The endgame, the goalpost always seems to be just over the next hill, somewhere else. We make resolution after resolution. Goal after goal. Year after year. But it forever eludes us.

Here’s why: we’ve had it backwards all along.  Success doesn’t lead to happiness. Happiness leads to success.

Extensive research in the area of positive psychology conducted by Shawn Achor at Harvard University demonstrates “that happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement.”

“We become more successful when we are happier and more positive,” writes Achor in his brilliant new book The Happiness Advantage. “It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.”  And happy. “Happiness causes success and achievement, not the opposite.”

But where do we find this thing called happiness? How do we get happy?

Here’s the scoop:  happiness is here and now.  It exists only in this very moment, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches. Not somewhere else; not at some other time or some other place. But here before us. Here in our present experience. Here before our very eyes. Right in our own back yards, Dorothy might say.

Happiness is a choice. We choose happiness.  Or not.

Sure there is chemical imbalance.  Sure there is clinical depression. But by in large, our generalized unhappiness – our willingness to defer our happiness until some indefinite “promised land” – is a cultural bias, a kind of learned helplessness, a societal brainwash.

We have the capacity to retrain our bad selves. And get happy.

And by getting happy, I’m not talking about engaging in being some kind of Pollyanna-like charade. We are surrounded by challenges every day of our lives. And bad shit happens. Rather, as Achor suggests, the principals of positive psychology ask us “to be realistic about the present while maximizing our potential for the future.  It is about learning to cultivate the mindset and behaviors that have been empirically proven to fuel greater success and fulfillment.  It is a work ethic.”

And isn’t it worth the effort? Isn’t it what we want?

Think about the changes we could bring about in ourselves and in our world by cultivating happiness, by committing to happiness. Think about how contagious happiness is; think about the impact it could have on those we love, on those we serve.

Happiness is success.

Will you commit? Will you make the choice to be happy?

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

—  Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning