The Big Reread: Siddhartha Revisited

siddhartha

Some twenty-five years after my original read, I returned to Siddhartha looking for a trace of the teenager I had been, and perspective on the distance I’ve since come.

Admittedly, my reread began with some frustration. I wanted desperately to remember how I was first connected with the book. This contextual detail has become an important thread in my recent evolution. I have learned to embrace connections and the serendipity/fate that often catalyzes my most meaningful encounters. But despite my best efforts I have been unable to uncover the source of my initial interest. I suppose the question of how a 15-year old would stumble upon such a heady read will remain a mystery, at least until it is ready to be revealed.

Yet my connection with the book was immediately apparent. Its cadence and voice spoke to me in a way that was familiar and intimate. The story of a boy who is bright and curious, acknowledged for his academic gifts and promise, but rejects the easy path for a journey of personal growth and enlightenment. The resonance with my own childhood made me laugh out loud; curious and smart, certainly, with a leaning toward blatant insubordination.

Of course I had loved this book. The beginning of the story was affirming, giving me the validation and approval that I had so desperately craved. I was a precocious child who yearned for so much more – more experiences, more meaning, more truth. And although I did well by everyone’s standards, I felt trapped by the small town, small ideas, and compliance to conventional teachings and wisdom.

It was this insatiable version of me who leapt from the pages, urging me to rush forward, skipping over details devouring the big ideas, leaving me hungry for more. But as I sat rereading Siddhartha, pacifying my inner child, slowly reading aloud to appreciate the cadence and beauty of the prose, I found myself suddenly alone. Although the lessons of Siddhartha’s later years rang resoundingly clear and true, poignantly speaking to the adult I now was, the text had lost all familiarity. I was clearly reading it for the first time.

I laughed out loud as the realization hit me. As a teenager I had obviously skipped over the entire second half, racing toward the end, ready for my next read. I had gotten what I needed, what I had wanted from Siddhartha’s early years, and had dramatically declared the book to be pivotal to my growth and evolution.

To the current me, Siddhartha is clearly about the wisdom of humility, the insights that come from the rhythms of nature and the intimacy of touching souls. It’s about the riches of a life lived with honesty and simplicity, and about receiving the gifts that come when we are ready.

Although I cried when I came to the end of Siddhartha, it was not from sadness. Yes, I had enjoyed reconnecting with the youthful impatient version of me, but I was grateful for the sense of peace and reflection that enveloped my second reading. And this time rather than rushing through to get to the good parts, I instead found myself lingering on every page, hesitant for the book to come to an end.

*This post is part of an ongoing series associated with “The Big Reread”, posted on October 11th, 2014

Committing to a Commitment Cleanse

cleanse

I’m no martyr. I take little satisfaction in enumerating the various organizations and activities with which I’m affiliated. In fact, I’ve grown almost embarrassed by my obvious state of overcommitment, worrying that it reflects some sort of personality disorder or escapism.

To be clear, I have no problem making changes in my life. I have grown quite skilled at identifying negative patterns, making healthier choices, and embracing a better lifestyle. In general, I feel happy and content, but the more cleanly I live, the more glaringly obvious my commitment issues become.

So recently, I finally committed to cleaning out my commitment closet, extricating myself from boards, organizations, and other activities that have become somehow extraneous or nonessential.

I started by identifying my core commitments. Family was definitely first. As my children grow older, their school and extracurricular activities seem increasingly more demanding, requiring more of my time and attention. Next, my work, which has recently changed in its rhythms and demands, making it more and more difficult for me to get away from campus. And last but not least, myself, yearning for more rest, relaxation, and balance, a chance to enjoy my life and all its myriad blessings.

Once I clarified my core commitments, I began to inventory my obligations that lay somewhere outside, especially those that seem to conflict or take away from my key priorities. Participating on community boards, my membership in a service organization, and the various ways I try to help people, saying yes to basically every request, and driving around town to cultivate relationships and explore possibilities. Although each of these activities has had an important place in my life, I was ready to accept the fact that collectively they had become unsustainable.

But how to extricate myself?   This was, and remains the hard part. Unlike a diet cleanse, there is no immediate gratification or visible transformation. Community work, when deep and meaningful, can prove difficult to bring to a halting stop. And even when one is able to find a way out, they might find a glaring hole left behind. Since we are drawn to community work for own emotional and psychological needs in addition to our desires to have a positive impact, these needs can reemerge even more defined and raw than before.

In this way, a commitment cleanse is more of a long-term transformation, involving three distinct yet interconnected categories of growth and change. First, the decisions of what to phase out and how to do so in a way that is not destructive or damaging to yourself or the community to which you are committed. Second, how to prevent yourself from slipping back into additional responsibilities and activities, and addressing the patterns that can manifest themselves in a variety of ways.

But the third process is perhaps the most important from the standpoint of ultimate happiness and life satisfaction. This involves shifting our focus back to our core commitments and finding more fulfillment, moving our gaze higher towards more powerful goals and objectives, and finding satisfaction in living a life that is balanced and aligned.

The Big Reread

books

I am struck by the evanescence of life. It’s as if everything- and everyone- around me is evolving and changing at an accelerated pace. What once felt heavy and permanent has morphed into airiness with nothing fixed or immutable.

I wouldn’t say it’s alarming. In fact, I find myself welcoming this new state of being. It has forced a sense of presence that is both warm and comforting. Receiving the moments in their fullness, listening, honoring and feeling, before letting it all dissipate and fade, to be replaced by something slightly different and new.

Yet there is a certain oddness to the experience. Seeing my children grow before my eyes, meeting them each day as I marvel at their transformation. But perhaps even more profound are the changes I perceive within myself. As I let go of preconceived notions, fears, and assumptions, situations seem to morph and obstacles dissolve, with endless doors opening to a vista of dizzying expanse.

I am in an adventure. And while there is no use planning or packing, I find myself yearning to somehow chart my course, marking my journey and reconnecting with the places through which I have passed. Clearly, these points are neither geographic nor real in a concrete sense, but instead former versions of myself that I yearn to touch and embrace before letting them go.

My books. How thoughtful of me to have left such vibrant traces for my future selves, captured within the pages of my most precious stories. Recognizing them as treasures even while reading them, I infused them with my dreams, fears, and tears as I allowed them to permeate and touch my soul. In doing so I imprinted them forever with my shadow, a permanent snapshot of me contextualized in time.

By delving back in so many years later it is so much more than a reunion. I am indeed finding joy in reconnecting, but also a yardstick for measuring how far I have come. As I acknowledge and appreciate the distance, I am gradually released from the residual angst and pressure. In its place is lightness, lifting me further upward, back into the glorious unknown.

The books I am rereading

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (high school years)

Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemmingway (junior year studying abroad)

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand  (early college)

The Love Song of J. Afred Proofrock by T. S. Eliot (college)

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (college)

Dalva by Jim Harrison (adulthood)

West of the Night by Beryl Markham  (adulthood, Tanzania project)

The Little Prince (by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, see earlier post)

The Alchemist (by Paulo Coelho)

Night Train to Lisbon (Pascal Mercier)

 

*Please share your own rereads and what you are learning/have learned along the way

 

Fairies, Unicorns and Most Things Magical

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I have a fairly expansive belief policy. My kids will tell you that I believe in anything that is good. Santa Clause and Guardian Angels, yes…. evil monsters and zombies, definitely no.

This may seem like a joke, but I assure you that my policy is well thought out and quite sound.

It is grounded in the existence of infinite diversity, and the knowledge that virtually anything is possible, especially when we focus on the greater good.

From an implementation standpoint, my policy is highly robust, transferrable and scalable to most domains and settings. It allows me to scan for the positive, picking and choosing perspectives and teachings, remaining open and determined to find something of value.

From an impact standpoint, it serves many functions. By espousing such a policy people always know where I stand, especially my children who I am most interested in influencing. My policy also affords a certain protective functionality- preventing me from getting bogged down in the endless negativity and defeatism that threaten us at every turn.

To be clear, I want to be known as a dreamer, an optimist, someone who believes in infinite possibilities and potential. And so I let my curiosity and openness guide me, feeling my way forward toward new adventures, relationships, and the magic they afford.

In some ways my policy has high discriminative validity. If it resonates strongly with the policies of others, I can usually tell right away. There is a certain synergy that ignites, catalyzing collaboration, innovation, and excitement that is too apparent to be ignored.

But interestingly, my belief policy does not have the opposite repelling effect on those with more cynical tendencies. Although I have been known to madden my staunchest and most empirically minded colleagues with my openness to the worlds of the unknown, they seem to be drawn to my sense of wonderment, even if they would never admit it.

Let’s face it, the opposite of openness is not very inviting, even for those who are trapped inside. The Land of the Cynics, Skeptics, and even Realists can feel dark, desolate, and shrouded in fear. And clearly, it’s growing more crowded by the minute. Conversely, the Land of the Dreamers is infinitely inclusive and open, with endless room to stretch and explore the landscapes that continually change and reimagine themselves.

You might ask whether my belief policy is somehow counter to my training as a researcher, but I would argue that the two go hand in hand. Data and research allow us to be thoughtful and reflective, pushing the boundaries of what we know and can do. But ideally, they should be grounded in theories and world views that are strong and powerful, guiding our questions and interpretations, scaffolding us higher and further.

I concede that my approach- and associated policy- may be unconventional, but I can assure you of their inherent appeal. And since the Land of the Cynics isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, I encourage you to take a little vacation.

I will leave my door ajar, just in case you choose to visit… and stay.

Wishing our Leaders Would Dig a Little Deeper

 

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I’m a sucker for vision. When a bold leader lays out a plan that is clear, compelling, and resonant, I find myself tingling with anticipation. But when the moment of visioning passes and the focus shifts to implementation and administration, I always sigh with disappointment. Another missed opportunity to commit to the standards of quality and integrity that we so desperately need.

As a person who works in the vast spaces between vision and outcomes, I could use a little help. For once, I would love our leaders to dig just a little deeper, clarifying commitments and standards in addition to goals and objectives- a value, a promise, a commitment to something real and authentic, something that we can hold on to, that will not shift or move.

Of course I can understand their reticence. In a world that is constantly changing with new threats and obstacles emerging by the moment, any promise of quality seems risky and naïve -especially in the world of higher education, with systems comprised of diverse campuses, programs, and faculty all prizing their respective freedom and independence.

So when visions are set, it is the highest and broadest metrics that are employed, essentially inventorying and counting impacts, highlighting stand-outs, while implying consistency and quality through messaging and story-telling.

To be clear, I’m not some accountability or assessment freak. Nor do I inherently like being told what to do. But I know that the very act of defining quality in a way that is meaningful and clear is often the most powerful part of the visioning and leadership process.

If we turn to the world of manufacturing, this point becomes clearer, with the specific widget or commodity dictating the design of production. Ultimately, it’s an insistence on consistency and fidelity that refines the internal mechanisms, calibrating and realigning, until the desired product is not only achieved but guaranteed.

But when we look at our own system of higher education with its disparate campuses, programs, and teaching faculty the challenge of consistency and fidelity become both daunting and critical. When a leader boldly sets a vision for the entire system, it- by definition- has the potential for great impact, but only if it is clear and consistent enough to be implemented with fidelity.

Without this assurance from the very beginning, we will continue to define quality through our own respective lenses and tendencies, failing to leverage our full potential as a powerful engine for change.

As someone who designs courses, programs, and initiatives I know that virtually anything is within our reach, especially when we have compelling and resonant goals to help inspire and guide us. But for once I wish we would just go for it, setting a high standard for quality and fidelity to which we can aspire and rise. Not only will such a standard ensure consistency and impact, but it will help us to be a better, stronger, and more relevant system, thus ensuring our sustainability for decades to come.

we are so very small

alice

Have you ever noticed how a particular life lesson can continue to present itself, not relenting until we finally acknowledge its wisdom?

For me, the notion of scale has been a frequent visitor over the past several months, seemingly begging to be explored and appreciated.

So here it goes…

During my recent Global Explorers trip to the US Southwest (see various posts), our Navajo guide mentioned how small and ephemeral we all are relative to the vast permanence of the Canyon walls. He was speaking primarily to the children, explaining that although their lives and struggles can feel massive and all-consuming, we are here for such a brief time, and should feel blessed to experience the beauty and gifts of the earth. He urged them to follow the rhythms of nature, to find comfort in our collective smallness and to respect the spirits that are much bigger and more powerful than ourselves. I was fascinated by his words and their calming effect on the children. Although in many ways our time in Canyon De Chelly was the least adventurous and exciting part of the journey, it would become one of our most precious memories. And for me, seeing the children (including 2 of my own) snuggled cozily under the blanket of stars, rocked by the cradling arms of the Canyon, was a vision that will stay with me forever.

But when I returned home to Buffalo, I sorely missed the towering Canyon walls and the sense of scale that they imposed. As I spoke with parents and students about the beginning of the school year, their anxiety was palpable. They spoke of getting into the best high schools and colleges, of entrance tests and state exams, career paths and well-paying jobs. And as I listened to their worries I envisioned them expanding in size, inflating like floats in the Thanksgiving Parade, getting bigger and bigger until they threatened to burst from their own pressure and size.

When I consider my own journey and especially my efforts in Tanzania, I recognize a similar distortion in sense of scale and significance. If left unchecked, my yearnings to grow, utilize my gifts, and make a difference in the world can lead to feelings of restlessness and anxiety, in turn preventing me from being my best, and giving the most.  It’s only through relaxing my need for control and success that the magic of life can finally take hold.

It seems as if we’ve created a world with a distorted sense of scale, striving to become ever bigger towards some over-inflated goal or vision of ourselves.  How ironic that the pathway to happiness and fulfillment lies in the realization that we are so very small, and the comfort of allowing ourselves to be cradled within the vastness of the earth.  How thankful I am for our time in the Canyon, and the secrets it continues to share.

 

Navigating the Bounty of Higher Education

candy

Although I’ve worked at the University at Buffalo for over eleven years, I still feel like a kid in a candy store. With every new researcher or project I discover, my mind spins with new ideas and wonderment.   And although my role as Associate Dean allows me to engage broadly with the University community, I can’t help envying the thousands of students who by virtue of their status have complete and open access.

If you think of UB, and perhaps all universities, as smorgasbords or grand buffets, you will envision endless arrays of delicacies. In addition to degree and certification programs, students can partake in study-abroad, internships, research experiences, and service. They can cultivate leadership and entrepreneurial skills, explore career paths, and make connections with alumni, while sharing hobbies and interests through clubs, sports, and social activities.

With so many struggling to afford basic luxuries and resources, the sheer abundance of higher education can seem down-right decadent, leaving us to wonder whether it can even be sustained. But from a student’s perspective, assuming they can handle their respective course work, the most critical challenge might be how to best access the universe of opportunities that lies before them.

Tis notion of access can be trickier than it seems. Clearly, some students get it immediately, choosing activities and courses that naturally build on their strengths and interests, leveraging valuable connections, while opening doors for future opportunities and support. But many students, too many students, instead meander through the grand buffet, either focusing solely on their required coursework or stumbling through the opportunities, failing to emerge with a cohesive or compelling plate.

These are the students I wish I could get to sooner, perhaps in their middle or early high school years. Ideally I could spend some time with them, appreciating their strengths and probing their interests. I would give them a tour of the University, introducing them to star students and faculty, orienting them to emerging areas of study, noting sparks of interest and curiosity as they emerged. And if I could really have my way, I would convince them that the world desperately needs their talents, and help them explore career paths through the lenses of impact, fulfillment, and purpose.

Once they felt an itch, an excitement to begin their journey, then (and only then) would I let them loose into the universe of UB, encouraging them to fully access opportunities and resources, to explore and take risks, to reflect, and to embrace their experiences and relationships along the way.

But alas, I’ve been told that my expectations are simply too high. And I hear adults talk nostalgically about their own circuitous paths, insisting that it all works out in the end. But I guess it’s the missed opportunities framed against the universe of possibilities that get to me, and the knowledge that degrees are simply not enough.

The truth is that our students have so much more to give and receive.  And higher education, and all that it affords, is a luxury worthy of our greatest dreams.

Keeping Up With a Dynamic New Rotary Club

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I’m a sucker for beginnings. So when I heard about the recent launch of a new Rotary club in our district (7090), I was more than just a little excited.

As a past Club President and current PETS 1 Chair, I am well versed in the challenges of membership and retention. Without sufficient Rotarians we can neither actualize our potential nor leverage our impact in communities around the world. And as a trained psychologist and mediator I also understand the challenges of transforming – or retrofitting- existing clubs, addressing historical patterns, interpersonal dynamics, and contextual issues that can inhibit growth.

So when a new club launches with exuberance and vigor, it is certainly worth celebrating and taking careful note.

Here’s the set-up. Buffalo, NY, a Rust Belt city in the midst of reinventing itself. Palpable energy around new construction projects, a growing cultural and tourism sector, and a burgeoning biomedical core, including a relocating medical school, new start-ups and research centers, all co-located in the heart of the city. And at the very nexus of activity is the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC), an exciting destination attracting talented physicians, researchers, students, and staff, and just maybe the most perfect home for a brand new Rotary Club.

When members of my own club- Buffalo Sunrise- announced the idea, we were all hopeful that there would be sufficient interest. But when the charter ceremony commenced with over 50 official members, and numbers rising to nearly 100 within the first 2 months, it was clear that they were on to something huge. Talk about beginnings.

My chance to visit the club came just this past week when I was asked to co-facilitate an orientation into the bigger world of Rotary. As an opening exercise we passed around an assortment of articles from past Rotarian magazines. Rather than traditional introductions we had participants summarize their article while sharing any details that had resonated.

Within minutes we could feel the energy of Rotary. The new members described stories from around the world featuring fundraisers, service projects, and extraordinary impacts implemented by clubs, most smaller than theirs. Their areas of focus were as diverse as the projects- from animals to children, disease prevention, clean water, to agriculture.  But for me the most exciting part was the reflections following the exercise. Members commented that they hadn’t known there was so much room for creativity, so many possibilities for projects, and opportunities for support.

Imagine all these amazingly talented and connected people joining the world’s best service organization without any idea of its latent potential.

It struck me that new clubs such as the BNMC in many ways represent the promise of Rotary. But they also reflect the significant challenge of connecting Rotary resources and structures with individuals and clubs that are in a constant state of motion and change.  Clearly, we all stand to benefit from our ability as districts, and a unified organization, to stay relevant and connected to individual members and clubs. But keeping up with their talents, interests and potential is not for the faint of heart.   As district leaders we had better strap on some speedy new running shoes, because the new BNMC Rotary Club has certainly taken off.

Thank You Global Explorers

marble

Close your eyes and hold out your hands, Cazau and Julia instructed the children as they stood in a circle somewhere off the road near Gallup New Mexico. It was the final day of our adventure and although we needed to head for the airport in Albuquerque, they wanted to squeeze in a final discussion, so the roadside clearing would have to do. Luckily, over the past nine days, the kids had become so immersed in the spirit of the Canyon and the San Juan River, that they were able to hold their energy even so close to the city.

I too held out my hands, wondering what memento would be offered and whether it could do justice to the experience that we had all created and shared. When I felt a small smooth marble placed in my palm, I immediately understood the symbolism. The notion that these children held the Earth in their hands- that even though it was so much older and bigger than any of them, or us, they were largely in control. And how they would choose to utilize their influence would in many ways define our individual and collective futures.

The children understood the significance. The trip had been full of powerful moments – sleeping on the Canyon floor under a blanket of stars, experiencing the joyous embrace of Kathy and Ravis who welcomed us into the Navajo traditions, and spending lazy days and nights on the river, sharing stories and laughter, and a sense of community for which we would always yearn.

In that moment, perhaps the children felt the magic slipping away and the sense of responsibility settling in its place. How would they take what they learned and transport it back to their individual lives? They shared their reflections- spending more time outdoors, less technology, trying to be present and not overscheduled. They promised to come back to the Southwest, to become river guides and group leaders, continuing the journey that we had all started together.

As I stood within the circle listening and watching, I was moved beyond words. I felt so hopeful that these children would carry this experience with them forever, that they were changed in some important and profound way.  I wished that I could follow each of them home to help them process the jarring reality of return, reconciling the fact that they are changed, yet expected to be the same, helping them reflect on the wisdom of the Canyon when they are tested by the challenges of their lives.

Perhaps this is our next frontier as educators and parents, creating tools and forums in which to share and integrate experiences, helping others to process new-found truths and epiphanies within the borders of existing realities.  This integration  is more complex than we may realize. But ultimately, it offers the promise that we so desperately need. By creating and leveraging high impact experiences, we can become kinder, happier, and more responsive to the world around us, global citizens worthy of the precious earth we hold.

Our Time in the Canyon

 light

We are all so very small. This was the message I took away from the Canyon, and somehow it brought me a sense of great comfort and warmth.

We had hiked down into Canyon de Chelly, battling the heat and dryness, our bodies still unaccustomed to the desert sun. The petrified sandstone was smooth and slippery with undulating contours and dizzying heights. Dazzling blue sky against terracotta painted contrasts so striking that they demanded adoration, leaving us speechless.

When we finally spotted the homestead, it was nestled within an oasis of green, snug within the canyon walls. Our guide mentioned that for some the Canyon can evoke feelings of being trapped along with an intensity of emotion that is both cathartic and powerful. But for us, the Canyon rocked us in a gentle embrace, lulling the children into blissful happiness while whispering songs of wisdom and comfort.  

Our hosts were Kathy, the keeper of the family’s land and legacy, and Ravis, a Navajo guide who grew up in the Canyon and worked to preserve its culture and traditions. Each shared their stories and gifts with the children.

Kathy welcomed us as only a grandmother could. She spoke of growing up in the Canyon , the rhythms of life and work, and the sense of clarity and purpose with which she toiled. She soothed wounds with plants and herbs, taught the children how to spin wool and weave, and made delicious fry bread, hypnotizing us with stories, humor, and kindness. Her grandson, Montay, played joyfully with the children, running through the orchard and scaling the Canyon walls, enchanting us with his innocence.

Ravis was more commanding. He spoke with a quiet yet authoritative voice, referencing spirits, tradition, and the Navajo ways. He spoke to the children before they went to sleep, lying together on the Canyon floor under the vast blanket of stars, singing them a low and beating melody. He spoke of the age of the Canyon, the vastness of its history, and the briefness of ours. He shared the four words with which parents teach their children, the rhythms of nature, and spirits that occupy all living things.

In the morning, as the sun was rising and we were contemplating our impending departure, Ravis asked the children to introduce themselves. He spoke of the importance of identity, sharing our lineage and celebrating our parents and grandparents and the families or clans from which we come. He explained that by knowing someone’s family you know a great deal about their character and what to expect. We are all shaped by those before us, connected through family, traditions, and the spirits who watch over us.

And in the end we are all 5-fingered people, inhabiting the same earth, cherishing and tending it for the next generation and their children and grandchildren who will follow. 

When we left ,the children were sad but Kathy urged us to feel only joy. In Navajo there is no word for goodbye, only the happiness that will come when we meet again.

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