Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Taylor Camp: Free Expression as Community

photo by John Wehrheim
Walked into one of my local coffee bars this morning, deep in thought, intending to hunker down and work on my book.  Saw a friend focusing on his project in the prime window space.  I knew where that conversation would lead and I was afraid to go there.  I settled into a spot in the other room and he came over and we proceeded to dive into a conversation that led to the Big Q that has been on my mind of late:  The meaning of life, of my life, etc.  This guy is similar in age and like me is forging a new direction after a traditional job/ career.  He works daily on a mathematical explanation that explains the physics of the universe.  We engaged in an hour long discourse on his theories and purpose in writing this paper that seeks to prove the underlying unity of the world.

Aware that there are no accidents and each path offers value if we can see it, I realized that our conversation led to my presenting question of the day.  What is and how do we sustain meaning, after we have experienced fifty or sixty years and the various twists and turns of life?  The topic has been gurgling with me for a couple weeks now.  It came to the surface when the manager of my B & B in Maui mentioned a recent documentary film about Taylor Camp, a ‘back to nature’ community in Kauai in the 70s.  I accidentally happened upon this place while driving around the island in a rented camper with my girlfriend.  We were on our escape to paradise trip, infatuated in love, and free of jobs, school, and home.  The inhabitants welcomed us even though we were complete strangers, we were of the ‘tribe’  We were also young people looking for an alternative to the disillusion and hypocrisy of the post hippie, post Vietnam 1970s America.  They shared their home grown dinner, their lilikoi and vodka punch, and their herb.  The evening evolved into a big camp fire complete with singing, guitar playing, and drumming.   Always a documenter, I made an audio recording of the free form singalong.   It ended with my purchase of a large quantity of another of their home grown products.   I played that cassette once upon return home but then it disappeared never to be found.  And I also lost my connection to that joyous night of spontaneous celebration of life and community.

Fast forward about 35 years to the B & B on Maui.  That rang my bell, woke me up, and like Lazarus I have been walking toward this recovered memory.  Stumbling toward understanding of what this all means for me at this time of life.  I am free as I was at 25, in fact perhaps freer in that the economics of the next month or year are not in question.  Looking at that moment at Taylor Camp activated the deep yearning I have carried all these years.  On the surface it can be seen as nostalgia for youthful freedom from responsibility.  On another level it may be the urge for community or belonging.  And more personally it represents a call to adventure of the unknown, the fresh, the novel and the uninhibited.  Many threads can be seen in this historical experience and they seem to point to the ultimate question, the one that most people have at some time in their lives and the one that my mathematician friend at the coffee bar is tackling.  What is this life all about?   How can I enhance my experience of my life’s purpose?

I have searched for this sense of meaning and purpose in life off and on for many years.  Indeed, the answer is clearly personal.  Ultimately, we all form our own opinions and solutions.  It may be in religion, work, or family.  At this stage of life it seems more pressing since the aforementioned ‘have tos’ are eliminated and the time left is more limited.  My mathematician friend asserts his experience of meaning occurs when “the inner self no long feels separate from its experience.’  That day at Taylor Camp back in the day was like a flashlight shining on my core sense of meaning… free expression as community. 

In subsequent blogs I will share other individuals’ experience of meaning in their lives.  Until then, keep living the dream deferred.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Wiping Out and Getting Back on the Board

Bending over to pick up a bag, I felt a shooting pain from my upper arm into the shoulder.  Instantly I knew it was back, the shoulder strain injured almost a month ago in Hawaii.  Two days later the doctor’s diagnosis?  Muscle strain.  Treatment?  Rest and ibuprofen.  How many times have I heard that since I turned 50?  Having been an athletic type all my life the aches and pains show up regularly and unexpectedly.  This one started after stand up paddle surfing in Waikiki.  Strangely, it was not a specific incident but the strain of the hour in the water.  Two nights later I awoke in the middle of the night with a throbbing pain in my right shoulder.  Only a regular regimen of pain killers got me through the next ten days.  Then the doctor prescribed the rest and ibuprofen regimen.  “Just don’t do anything that hurts,” he admonished me.  Feeling pretty good I went to the gym and did minor stretches and lifting.  Picking up the light gym bag and the strain came back.  Although there are many advantages to aging, changes in the body usually mean adjusting, slowing down, or elimination of activities.

Sometimes while you’re building a new sport, as I did on the stand up board in Hawaii, you can wipe out on a Big Rock (Stephen Covey’s term for the barriers on one’s road to happiness).  You can’t go around the rock or blow it up.   You can simply quit and say you’re too old, or lie and say you didn’t want to do it anyway.  But the bold Boomer forges ahead with the wisdom of experience and knows the most effective and rewarding approach is to chip away at it until it is not in the way.  It may still be there but you can step around it, or over it, or on it.     Usually when doctors prescribe a treatment plan, the recovery takes about four times longer than it did twenty years ago.   You could pretend you’re still 25 or 35 and jump back in and reinjure. Or you can take a cue from meditation and practice mindfulness.  Just simmer down.  Don’t turn off the fire but take it slowly.

Patience is mandatory for physical healing and learning a sport.  Just as the body heals slower in later life, the muscle memory needed for skill development is slower.  The body, brain, and muscles need more time to learn new skills.  Taking up a new sport or even returning to an old sport requires a different approach physically and emotionally.  How can we approach a new potential passion such as stand up paddle surfing?  Self-Determination Theory can be a good template for building momentum for a new interest.  This theory of motivation posits a three pronged stool for happiness in any activity; 1) Autonomy, 2) Competence, 3) Relatedness.  Recognizing how these three elements factor into building satisfaction or happiness can provide a clue on what can be done to keep up the interest.  The injured surfer may require upping the ante on Relatedness since the activity is inherently solitary and high on the Autonomy scale, the Competency aspect is reduced since the injury requires stopping skill development for awhile.   Perhaps there could be book study until he is physically able.  Relatedness is similar to community.  Relatedness in this case may be joining a local club or reading a hobbyist magazine or going to an on line chat room.  It could be as simply putting it down as an interest on your Facebook page.  The usual approach is to just wait it out and do nothing but there is a big risk in that approach.  Once bitten, twice shy.  Waiting a few months to renew the activity or sport and you may find the ardor has dimmed and since we are novelty seeking creatures it is tempting to just move on.  This is an aging attitude that can and must be fought to live the Boomerang life of exploring new frontiers with passion.  

As we slide through the autumn of our lives into the winter, we encounter changes in all areas of life from work to sports to avocations to relationships to sex.  It is natural process.  All things must pass.  Physical and mental decline are part of the journey.  How do we cope and flourish in our later years with this unavoidable back story?  A basic principle of the Boomeranger is keeping it real and at the same time (to use a phrase of the 70s)—Go For It  by imbibing true happiness filled with service, growth, and pleasure.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

RAM Dass: His Message is No Longer His Words

A standing ovation by the audience of 150 in a yoga studio in Maui welcomed the noted spiritual seeker/ teacher.  His nickname was formerly Rent A Mouth for his professional skill in storytelling.  Tonight the stories were intact but his speech was severely hampered. Due to stroke induced aphasia each word had to slowly cross over from thought into speech.  Although, his concepts were lucid and clear his speaking was labored.  Each sentence was ten times longer than normal speaking speed.  We heard tales of the old days at Harvard with his running bud of the time, Tim Leary.  And old chestnuts about Neem Karoli Baba, his guru.  New tidbits about his long and very public life emerged from the winding country road that is now his speech.  Stories about the time they were tripping and he made a spectacle of himself in front of his parents shoveling snow in the middle of the night.  Miraculously, he weaved a cogent thread on the topic of spiritual liberation through tales of his life over a twenty-five year period.   After 45 minutes he got as far as 1970 and the moderator stepped in with a comment to the stone silent audience.

Carefully with much compassion and sensitivity, he made an suggestion to the pin-dropping silent room.   “Noting that many of you are over forty-five or fifty, as I am, we are all going through a change in our physical bodies.  We all have something doesn’t work as it used to, be it sexuality, or a sore back or memory.  We all share in the decline of the body and our speaker highlights this aspect of life.  Known for decades as a witty, insightful, engaging speaker, he now gives us a different gift.  There was some glancing about by members of the audience, a couple persons got up and left, and the message of the day was emblazoned for me:  Compassion begins with the self.  Our generation’s leading spiritual way shower’s last message is no longer in his anecdotes and accrued wisdom, it is in his example.  He is on stage doing what he always did, entertaining and informing us, the first generation to seek spiritual enlightenment en masse.  His ultimate teaching and really what he always offered was his example of pushing to the next frontier.  Whether it was with mind-expanding drugs or India with its yoga and meditation teachers, he was in the avant garde.  Today from his tropical redoubt, he is teaching us about aging and death with his very public sharing of his challenges.  Through it all he maintains his equanimity and displays his ordinariness.

The natural order of life includes aging, with its inexorable physical decline.  We have been a generation that made a cult of youth and our ‘specialness.’  Now, no longer young but in a large measure seeking to hold onto a modicum of youthfulness in spirit, appearance, fitness etc. we have tried to stop time.  Many years ago a hit record declared, ‘all things must pass.’  As we see an icon with his very apparent aging, it awakened in me a strong sense of compassion, not for him, he is well in spirit.  But for myself and my new back ache, my new 24/ 7 glasses, and the old guy in the mirror.  Regard for the old teacher compelled me to pay attention to each carefully enunciated word and that effort forced a mindfulness of the moment.  The message was not the words or the space between the words but to my heart’s basic desire for compassion for all beings beginning with myself.

Thank you once again Ram Dass, you have pointed the way again.