Friday, December 30, 2011

Break Free But Be Sure to Have Guard Rails

Mountain island of Chiricuahua National Mon't
After a one hour side trip off the interstate, I eagerly anticipated the promised big views on the eight mile scenic loop in Chiricuahua National Monument, AZ.  Somewhat surprised to see only a couple cars in the lot at the visitor’s center, I noticed a man sitting on his bumper and quaffing a beer in the noon day sun.  The unhurried vibe was exposed.  Following my practice of getting a map for reconnaissance when I get to a national park, I inquired about the scenic loop.  “Sorry” the ranger said, “It is shut down to replace the guard rails which were burned out in the big fire in May.”  That thought ricocheted through my experience on this road trip.  You can drive around but without guard rails (structures) you are in danger. 

Living in the Los Angeles megalopolis my whole life, I have always enjoyed the peace and space of the open road.  On this long solo trip I had experienced something very different.  The open road became a confrontation with my insecurities.  The open ended format of my trip with no fixed itinerary or appointments, worked on my mental state like the road without the guard rails.  I could drive around but my peace of mind was at risk.  Boundaries, commitments, and plans were absent and what I had was a vague plan to drive to the East Coast for the first time in my adult life. I had to rely on my inner guidance totally.  That strategy was intentional because I wanted to strengthen trust in my intuition and the synchronicities that arose.  I did NOT account for the value of  PFD (personal flotation device).  I have often laughed at the mandated PFD for scuba diving or boating, because I am an excellent swimmer.  On the road trip, I figured that building my inner guidance precluded the value of a PFD or back up plan.   To mix metaphors, that is like removing the training wheels on a bicycle before the rider is confident. 

No Guard Rails in Bolivia
Building my inner confidence was my primary goals, while I had a notion seek, meet and interview individuals across the country who had reinvented into a new, more exciting lifestyle.  Unaccounted in this scheme was the need for structure to support that work.  The result was excessive preoccupation with the basics; where to go, when, and whom to interview.  I discovered  without the structure of appointments, activities, and assignments, my focus was constantly distracted into external and internal bogeymen and doubt.  Like the guardrail at Chiricuahua (which is probably rarely used but serves to provide a security and comfort for the driver), my daily barrage of all manner of decisions became the prominent discourse in my thoughts.  With the neurotic in charge, there was no room for the Creative to come in.

Feeling Secure
At times for those of us coming from highly structured work environments, it seems that the greatest goal and satisfaction is to be without schedule.  It is liberating to enjoy that freedom but denying the value of structure can come from a reactive space that may backfire.  As employees we all get used to structure and routines, especially men (the root word for patriarchy is the same as pattern), we seek and make patterns in life.  When that is largely excised at retirement, there is often a disorientation and flailing about until we reach the optimum level of equilibrium of structure and openness.  Finding that balance was the biggest take away of my driveabout.  My journey to the American outback without plan, destination, or schedule.  My experiment in the unknown with no script showed me my freedom edge and how to work with it.  The lack of guardrails at Chiricuahua did not prevent me from seeing the spectacular mountain island with its tall minaret like spires formed by erosion.   I hiked a couple miles into the canyon and basked in the great view without the buzz of cars coming into and out of pull outs.  I totally enjoyed the place and recommend it when traveling between Tucson and New Mexico.  But I do wish I had seen the eight mile scenic drive, complete with guard rails.   And on my next road trip I’ll make an itinerary and plan (in pencil).

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Key to Reinvention: Repetition +Expression

Spend Too Much Time in the Tavern and You’ll Have a Hangover!

McCabe's:  All About Guitars
On a week bookended by a beginning guitar class at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Santa Monica and a painting retreat at the Community Center of Encino, I was buffeted by a key challenge of the reinventing Boomer.  The guitar classes are held in a room that does triple duty as concert hall, classroom, and showroom.  It is filled with all manner of stringed instruments ranging from ukulele to classic Fender electric guitars to handmade mandolins, much as the classes which are packed with instruction on technique and practice drills.  At Master Rassouli’s painting retreat, the opposite approach is taken, no technique--nada, his role is to inspire free expression.   The cavernous, multi-purpose, bare room fits this role perfectly.  On one hand, I was challenged beyond my capacities to absorb the chord changes, fingering, and timing of the guitar and getting more and more frustrated by the minute.  It hit a head when I just shut down and stared at the sheet music, unable to move my hands.  On the other hand, fully prepared to paint another masterpiece with new canvas, new brushes, and resupplied acrylics, I spent the day bobbing around like a castaway’s bottle in the sea.  Between these polar opposites is the sweet spot of growth with creativity.  Between the poles is a tension that can be beneficial for rebirth and fully orbed happiness for the next chapter.

Skill development in the arts offers the satisfaction of pursuing a dream postponed til there was enough time.  It may be playing a musical instrument, learning to draw or paint, writing a novel, learning to dance, etc.  We are often called to the arts as a way of expressing ourselves and as a way to grow and enhance enjoyment of life.  The big elephant in the room is the reality of learning the craft is tedious, slow, and often discouraging.  Joe Robinson (the author of the breakthrough book, ‘Don’t Miss Your Life reminds us in a recent blog, ‘It Don’t Come Easy.’ When you have no natural talent for the field but always thought it would be cool to play piano (or guitar or draw portraits or tango), it takes major motivation to continue on past the unavoidable beginners’ stage.  This has a corollary in meditation practice, where a popular maxim is ‘zen mind, beginner mind.’  In that cosmology the highest place to be is as a babe, a beginner.  A beginner is clear and fresh and open fully to his/ her powers and aware of  the moment. 

Artistic pursuits are often seen to be outlets for the inner soul to express.  Indeed, I have experienced great liberation from simple expressing.  I had an art show a couple years ago called, Expression as Liberation.  It works but only so far.  True awakening is not just on the mountain top but ‘making the oatmeal’  enlightenment, being awake in the day to day aspects of life.  The rush from expressing oneself is liberating and fun, but it is also fleeting.   You always come down.  Kind of like an intoxication that wears off the next day (if we are lucky enough to not have a hangover).  To sustain the high or the liberation one must keep taking more of the intoxicant, but in artistic pursuits the high fades overtime without craft, without skill.   What is missing is the satisfaction of achievement.

Instructors of creativity such as Rassouli, open a door to the self that liberates the soul.  What is usually missing in that approach is the follow up that provides long term satisfaction and deep fulfillment.  I recall my first long meditation retreat with noted American Buddhist meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein.  Our consciousness was so fresh and clear from ten days of meditation, he closed by warning us that meditation at home is often not fun, but filled with discursive thoughts and irritations that may keep one off the cushion (meditating).  His advice?  “Just do it.”  The practice rewards but there are often spells that often are not liberating or fun.

What does this have to do with artistic expression?  In art, the ‘high’ of flow in the moment is exciting but to keep getting that high one must slog through the rough terrain of building skills through drills.  An outstanding spoken word artist, Adwin David Brown says it this way, “repetition, repetition, repetition, and then flow.’  The bliss of engaging performance or creation comes after many hours on the free throw line at the gym, drilling forehands with a practice partner, and swinging in the batting cage.  Miles Davis, the master improviser, said he practiced the scales every day. 

When we enter our first adulthood we are fresh and open to learn new stuff and the long hours of repetition are not so daunting.  Brain scientists have determined that the human brain is not fully formed until around 28.  After we have filled in the spaces of our brain patterns (science reports that we do use most of our brain, contrary to pop psychology).  Recognition of this is important for refiring Boomers who want to learn new skills in the arts or you name it.  Deep satisfaction or flourishing (as positive psychologist Martin Seligman calls it) from achievement is possible with patience and a carefully designed plan for sustaining the growth.  When it is done for the quick high, it is as ephemeral as last night’s drunk.  My personal mantra on climbing this mountain in the second adulthood is:  Show up, be mindful and ‘just do it,’ (over and over and over again).

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Name Your Destiny

Get your candy & coffee, Tucson
Instant enlightenment in Prescott, AZ
Chocolate Iguana, 212, Novel, Little Sprouts, Winning, Laughing Buddha, Jungle, and Dominican Joe’s all have something in common and each announces their mission.  All of the above are local coffee shops and each is highly descriptive of their particular vibe and environment.  Names often say a lot about the place or the person.  In my ongoing exploration of non-corporate coffee shops, I have often been struck how the name evokes a certain experience.  Some are highly descriptive and original and the place is reflective of that.  In others a bland name tends to result in a bland experience at the café.  At the Chocolate Iguana (in Tucson) in addition to the usual coffee drinks and wi fi, they specialize in candies and cater to a high school clientele, the Novel  (Ocean Park) started in a hundred year old room with books the walls, the 212 (Ocean Park) refers to the street addresses and is highly local,  Jungle (San Diego) is set outside in a bamboo décor, and Dominican Joe’s (Austin) has a connection with Dominican Republic. Each is very soulful and original in its ambience.

Winners @ Winning, Albuquerque
On the other hand, check these names; Sip Expresso, Café Medici, and Bisbee Coffee .  They don’t say much and their interior designs are all interchangeable.  You could shift chairs and tables around each of them and everything would look like it belonged.  Creativity, originality, and sense of place is missing in these places.  They express a bland spirit and the name and ambience shows it.  Names are important. Along the road of life we all collect various names or labels.  Perhaps they are called job titles (dean of students) or roles we play (dad, mom, sis) or signify academic or spiritual achievements (Dr or Dalai Lama).   When you leave the full time career or the kids move out of the house or you move to new town, a grand opportunity arises.  Rebirth.  Like the first birth, you have a chance to be named and reinvented.

Sip Espresso says it all, San Antonio
Invent anything and it must be named.  There is an old metaphysical maxim:  Name it and you can claim it.  For those of us in the mature years who are interested in renewal or as AARP’s initiative calls it re-Imagining, it is important.  Rev. Michael Beckwith coined the Vision Process.  It can set the tone and direction of this potentially greatest time of life.  Of course, this time can also be the long slow slide to irrelevance or the reinvention into the life you always dreamed of.  Claiming this new or reborn self demands rigor of the heart, soul, and mind.  A useful first step is to rename or rebrand oneself.  Just like the coffee shops that choose a specific concept or name and made the two fit, we can name our new selves and then acquire the furniture that fits.   The zen quotation fits here:  Who would you be if you didn’t know your name and story? 

Dull name, Bland Ambience:  Bisbee, AZ
Where do you start?  Do you have a favorite animal?  A place?  Maybe a personal hero from history.  You could go to a guru and ask him or her what they see or you could open a magazine as Werner Erhard (creator of est) famously did in the 70s.  However you get there, take on a new mantle consciously and be ready for your life to look like your name.