How sweet and sour the soul
On whose weariness takes its toll
Yet onward marching we go
Carrying within us hearts full.
Gratitude and doubt interwoven
Thread of sorrows softly spoken
Spooling out into a life unfolding
Stitched together with soul awoken.
In each dichotomy lies a clue
Find the harmony between two
From this tension song will spring
Revealing to all both sides of you.
Pretty much every morning, I have the same ritual …
Up at 5:50am
Turn coffee on (its set to automatically brew at 6am but I get a special satisfaction of beating the coffee clock)
Go outside and say a prayer of thanks for being alive another day
Make butter coffee and pour into two mugs
Sit in my chair in my corner of the living room and peruse news, social, etc whilst sipping coffee
Read my daily readers: Merton as a physical daily reader and daily emails from Richard Rohr and Seth Godin.
Journaling (sometimes in two different journals depending on the muse)
Do a meditation on Sam Harris’ Waking Up app
Go for a walk
Take a shower
Go to my office and get to work
Of course, not every day is like this. Sometimes, I intentionally mix the order up. Some days, I don’t have space for all of the above. Whatever the order or frequency, I love this morning ritual. Which is an odd thing to write because I generally have hated rituals and routines. They reminded me of loss of control, of empty rote. But as Jocko Willink says, “Discipline equals freedom.”
This morning ritual is how I get present, get centered, tune in to my soul, plan my day. I didn’t realize how much this ritual meant to me until this past week.
On 9/1, Lynna and I headed north to drive to Portland for the birth of our first grandchild. We spent the last 5 days exploring southern Colorado (I’m writing this essay from Grand Junction, CO). It has been a fun adventure with a nice blend of unexpectedness and solid planning — and a strange feeling of not knowing exactly when we will be back to Austin.
Throughout this first leg of the trip, I have struggled with being present. Which produced its own special blend of anxiety — a combo of “destination fever”, fatigue and contingency planning. I was present in a sensory way. I saw the beautiful valley from the big windows of the cabin in Del Norte. I felt the fresh mountain air in my lungs and on my skin. I heard the buzz of my reel as I cast into the Rio Grande. I saw new country that I’ve never been to before. I saw the towering Clear Creek Falls. Outside of our cabin in Cimmaron, I saw the vast expanse of stars. I took in the terrifying and beautiful Black Canyon. I sat on the bank of Crawford Reservoir with fishing pole in hand.
I was in all of these places and had all of these sensory experiences, yet …
Despite all of the majestic natural beauty, great conversations, exploring small towns I didn’t feel present. This filled me with guilt and doubt. My first reaction to any feeling I don’t like is “What is wrong with me?” My second reaction is “How do I get rid of this feeling?” Instead of these old responses, I decided to just sit with my feelings. And to extend myself some grace.
This provided space to realize a few things …
The intention of this trip is the momentous occasion of becoming a grandfather. This new chapter has brought so many feelings — unspeakable joy, excitement, anticipation. But also feelings of running out of time, fear of getting old, wondering if this next phase of life will leave my complacent and overly-content. One of the purposes of getting present is to understand and examine feelings. And these were feelings I couldn’t control — so I avoided them by staying on the go.
I am away from home. Austin is home. It felt like home the first time I went there on a visit in 2012. The mountains are where my body is from and family history is from. But Austin is where my soul is from. I realized that I was trying to experience all this newness as if I was going to move to these places. Instead of just experiencing it like a grateful visitor.
Presence has to be fought for. It doesn’t just happen. And it certainly doesn’t happen by going faster, staying busier. The breakthrough happened yesterday morning. I sat on the front deck of our little cabin, sipped my butter coffee and felt the morning sun on my face. I caught up on my Merton daily reader and also read a section in “A Course in Miracles” (a book I’ve been chipping away at for almost 4 years!). I cracked open my journal and listened. A musing came to me that I shared on social. I was present. Finally.
Ritual is good.
Home is good.
Travel is good.
Life’s big moments are good.
But presence is just returning to my center, my soul — and those are with me wherever I am.
“Don’t convert. Enlighten.” This is a mantra that I tell myself whenever I feel the need to convince you that I’m right.
I really do want to be right. Or more specifically, I want you to know that I’m right and convert to my way of thinking. My wiring is to be right, to persuade, to win. I love debate. I love to argue. I’m a high I on the DISC. I’m an 8 on the Enneagram. My highest StrengthsFinders trait is “Woo”. None of those are inherently wrong or bad. The problem is that in my drive to convert you to my way of thinking, I will dehumanize you. Not necessarily in a mean way (although I do have those tendencies). But certainly in a way where you are now a target of my ego’s attention.
My ability to persuade people used to be a significant part of my identity. It was played out in my various roles: husband, dad, brother, sales rep, marketing consultant, football coach, fundamentalist Christian, Republican. Again, none of these roles are inherently bad. But as began to awaken in 2012, I began to see how my impulse to convert was harmful to others. When most of those roles fell away (I’m really only two of them now), I realize that the real role of my soul is to be a mentor and a friend. And converting people to my way of thinking is the antithesis of being a mentor and a friend.
Converting vs enlightening has a long history. In most cases, conversion was related to religion. Much of world history can be summarized as “We have superior weapons. Convert to our god or we will kill you.” Conversion became a staple of political campaigns. Thanks to Edward Bernays, conversion became the core doctrine of advertising and PR. One of the most insidious versions of converting is “Gay conversion theory” – which combines dehumanizing with spiritual abuse and junk science. In American culture, we are conditioned to convince others to be a fan of our team, to buy our favorite products, to listen to our preferred music. Of course, there’s no harm in advocating for these preferences. But it becomes a moral issue when we tell someone they are wrong/bad/ignorant if they don’t convert to our preferences.
Here’s a simple framework to show the difference between converting and enlightening:
Converting is exclusionary. It is linear and literal. It is often nationalistic or tribal. Its weapon of choice is condemnation (often in the form of violence). Its promise is prosperity. If you convert to our way, you will be safe, have money, live a good life. This type of thinking is rampant in religion and politics – where the creation of “others” produces a base of supporters while fueling divisiveness and division. A recent example is a patently false claim by the GOP that the Democrats “took God out of their convention.” Other traits of conversion-mindset: hypocrisy, abuse of power, wastefulness (all things Jesus spoke against, by the way).
Enlightening is inclusionary. It extends acceptance and understanding. It is sensitive to matters of justice and equality. It is fueled by openness and invitation. Its motivation is not to build a fan base but to create an impact. To be clear, I don’t believe enlightenment is some sort of intellectual relativism where all ideas have equal merit. But it certainly means that each person has inherent value and worth. Example: “Flat Earther” vs science. The premise is ridiculous and easily refuted. But if a person chooses to believe in flat earth theory, its not my job to convince them otherwise.
Which leads to this question: how do you practice enlightenment?
That’s exactly how you do it. You ask questions.
You start by asking yourself questions. As I wrote about back in April, I believe learning to ask yourself questions is the #1 life skill.
Is that thought/feeling/framework/narrative true?
Why am I reacting this way?
Why do I care about this?
What belief or value is being threatened?
These are just a start. There are thousands more self-directed questions that will enlighten you as to your motivations, biases and perceptions.
Once you’ve got the hang of asking yourself questions, start asking questions to others. Of all of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits, Habit 5 is probably the most quoted. Yet it is also probably the habit that is most neglected. As Phil Drysdale points out, Jesus was asked 183 questions. He answered 3 of them. And he asked 307 questions. This is a pretty good ratio for practicing enlightening someone, not converting them.
The questions you ask are largely framed by your intention for asking them. So be very aware of that. I would strongly suggest not asking passive or leading questions. Its easy to slip into a prosecutorial mode. Its easy to slip into questions that are intended to condemn instead of enlightening.
On almost any issue or belief, you can ask these questions:
How did you arrive at that conclusion?
Why is it important to you?
What are your experiences with this matter?
Three other things we can do to enlighten instead of convert …
We can extend grace. Grace is not passive acceptance or tolerance. Nor is it excusing someone’s violent or damaging behavior. Grace is being able to see the whole person behind their opinions and views and behaviors. This is especially important when conversing with someone that you disagree with.
Be declarative. Paraphrasing John Eldredge, let others feel the weight of who you are. If your heart is pure, you are not responsible for their reactions. You are responsible for being clear and direct; for not being passive-aggressive or obtuse. And you are responsible for extending those same expectations to someone you are talking with. But you aren’t responsible for their feelings and reactions and they aren’t responsible for yours.
Tell your own story. This invites curiosity. It puts a story arc to your experiences. It allows you to provide witness or testimony to the things you’ve experienced and the conclusions you’ve come to. This is why I make it a practice to try to only speak to that which I have actual experience, expertise or knowledge.
It’s easy to stay in our insular bubble – where people we disagree with are only on social media or on the news. But this practice of enlightening not converting can only happen in real interactions with actual people. Tomorrow (Sept 1), we leave to make the trek to Portland for the birth of our first grandchild. The journey there will take me into parts of the country where my views and ideas will be the definite minority. I will be spending time with family that has different views as me and strong opinions. I will get to practice and test these ideas in real life. I will very likely fail at times. But in each failure, I will learn. And learning is enlightenment.
Last week, I wrote about consciousness and two elements of modern life that seem to be incompatible with consciousness: consumerism and ideology. Last week, I covered consumerism. This week, ideology.
First a few more thoughts on consciousness …
Although a person of faith, I have a primarily secular view of consciousness. This is a combination of my own experiences as well as learnings from Sam Harris, Abraham Maslow, Alan Watts, Pema Chodron and others. A short doctrinal statement: I believe God is master of my soul and I am the master of my own mind.
To me, consciousness is the result of two specific efforts:
- Mastery over our reactions; being grounded in reality rather than reacting to ego-fueled stimuli.
- Realizing that we are not our labels — either those we’ve adopted or those we were told.
It is in this area that I believe consciousness is incompatible with ideology.
Some background …
I have always been into politics. I started reading about political history when I was 10 or 11. Until 2016, I watched the election returns for every presidential election since 1980. Most of my family were Republicans. I’m sure this had some influence over my political views. But I was also influenced by what I read and how I processed it. One book stands out. When I was around 12 years old, I read “The Conscience of a Conservative” by Barry Goldwater. I found it in a stack of books in the back of a closet at my grandparent’s place. Freedom, opportunity, strength, liberty — were all ideas that resonated with me.
In 1986, halfway through my junior year of high school, we moved from sleepy Baker City, Oregon to bustling Gresham, Oregon. As part of this move, I decided to “rebrand” myself (yes, I called it that even way back then!). In search of an identity, I decided to be the “Alex P. Keaton” of my high school. I argued with my leftist teachers about politics. In my bedroom, I had a poster of Oliver North next to my poster of the glam-rock band, Poison. I volunteered for the Bush-Quayle campaign.
Just a few years later, I discovered Rush Limbaugh. His clarity of conviction, his ability to communicate and his use of parody all appealed to me. For the next 20+ years, I was all in with the conservative movement. It became an integral part of my identity. And when ideology becomes your identity, everyone that disagrees with you is seen as the enemy.
Around 2008, I began to become disenfranchised with GOP. This was for two contradictory reasons: 1) I thought the GOP had become too entangled with the “religious right” and 2) I thought that most Republicans were “RINOs” — not real conservatives. (Ironically, I believe both of those even more now!) So I changed my registration to Independent but continued to vote exclusively for Republicans. In fact, the first Democrat I ever voted for was Walt Minnick, a moderate Democrat congressman with a strong business background.
As I have shared a number of times publicly, I had a spiritual awakening in April 2014. For me, the awakening changed my taste for truth. Falseness or untruth in any form felt bitter on my tongue and produced nausea in my stomach. I felt it sitting in church services. I felt it in some of my relationships. And I definitely felt it with my political beliefs and influences. I remember listening to Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck with a sharp awareness that I no longer believed them. I no longer saw them as ineffable prophets of conservatism but saw them as they are: hucksters taking advantage of someone’s conditioned biases.
As my consciousness grew, my ideological labels fell away. I did not become “more liberal”. I just grew beyond ideology. Which makes sense. Ideology is one of the most binary forms of thinking there is. And binary thinking and consciousness are definitely incompatible. In Maslow’s terms, I began to become self-actualized rather than others-actualized. Interestingly, this returned me to some of those resonate ideals of my childhood: freedom, liberty, justice, opportunity. I became more curious, more open. I became more interested in talking with people that I might disagree with.
Which returns me to my thesis for Part II — the incompatibility of consciousness with ideology. Ideology encourages you to believe things that are incongruent with consciousness or mindfulness. I also observe that the two cult-like ideologically extremes of our era (the “Trumpists” and the “Wokists”) are heavily reliant on low consciousness. I believe these kinds of low-conscious ideologies discourage free thought, asking questions, discourse and internal disagreement. Some examples:
- Your ideology becomes your religion; a form of cognitive dissonance.
- People who disagree with you politically are the enemy and must be defeated or destroyed and proven wrong.
- You see the labels, not the human. You will see roles, not souls.
- You proclaim your political ideas as absolutes; leaving no room to be wrong.
- You excuse or enable abhorrent behavior from people you agree with politically.
- You become easy to manipulate and susceptible to conspiracy theories.
I’m still fascinated by the political process. And I certainly still have political views. It’s just that neither of these is my identity. If pressed, I will say that most of my views would fall under the realm of “libertarian.” I certainly think you can be a Republican or a Democrat (or some other party) and still be a high-conscious person. Just not if these ideas separate you from reality.
In a recent conversation on her podcast, my friend Holly asked me “what does consciousness mean to you?” I encourage you to listen to the entire episode (it’s only 20 minutes long), but here is my answer:
“Consciousness, to me, is about space. It is the space between your thoughts and your feelings — and you, your True Self. In western culture, this space or distance between thoughts and feelings and your True Self is often not there. When you begin a mindfulness practice, when you begin to meditate on even a very basic level, you begin to understand that you are not your thoughts and feelings. This opens up a little bit of space. And when that space opens up, your vision changes. When your vision changes, the forms you have and the narratives you have about those forms permanently shift.”
I’m quite new to my understanding of consciousness. It took a while to dismantle the thought structures from being immersed in Christian fundamentalism, conservative talk radio and other influencing factors. The idea of consciousness in these cultures was seen as “woo woo” — or “not biblical” — both of which are bullshit.
While I’m certainly no consciousness expert, I’ve learned a few things that might be useful. One is that there appear to be two kinds of consciousness and, therefore, two kinds of practices: 1) spiritual and 2) psychological. Spiritual consciousness is related to awakening, enlightenment. This is divine, mysterious, unplanned and quite disruptive. For me, this practice is about prayer, intuition, listening. Psychological consciousness is evolutionary. It is moving up Maslow’s Hierarchy to self-actualization through a mindfulness practice. It is neuroscience. Which is why I use Sam Harris’ “Waking Up” app for this practice. Both practices require discipline, solitude, silence, stillness. One involves faith. The other involves logic.
I’ve also learned that, in many ways, consciousness is incompatible with modern life. For one, it is not a coping mechanism — at least not for attempting to keep an illusory life going. For another, it takes actual time. But most of all, consciousness always creates change. And most people really don’t like change.
I’ve observed that consciousness is particularly incompatible with two facets of contemporary times: consumerism and ideology. For this essay, I will focus on consumerism.
Things of the soul are incompatible with consumerism. Not the consuming to exist or to experience — but the consumerism born of productizing the yearning for meaning, purpose, fulfillment. This productizing happens in several areas:
- Religion — specifically the Prosperity Doctrine. If you are not familiar with that branch of American Christianity, I strongly encourage you to check out this article. The Prosperity Doctrine is not the only part of religion that is transactional. In fact, you can go back to the New Testament and read of Jesus’ clearing the temple of money changers. Whatever the era, transactional faith is highly incompatible with consciousness because it requires you to participate in the illusion that some prophet, pastor or doctrine provides you something you don’t already have.
- Career — I call this the Achievement Doctrine. This is the “American Dream” combined with a “win at all costs” mindset — and the Machiavellian “the ends justify the means.” We tend to place more value on the sum of someone’s achievements over the sum of their character. This too is an illusion, but that’s not the only thing that makes it incompatible with consciousness. The Achievement Doctrine assumes a finite amount of everything — primarily tied to material possessions. And consciousness teaches you there is an endless supply of what really matters.
- Self Help — I call this the Motivation Doctrine. This is the idea that something outside of you is the answer to happiness and fulfillment. This often comes in the form of a course, a retreat, a motivational speaker, a book. Book publishers know that if you bought a self-help book in the last 18 months, you are the one most likely to buy another one. I’m not condemning self-help nor these platforms. It is certainly a good thing to get inspired by someone else’s ideas and life. And it’s good to learn and grow. But striving outside of yourself for answers and meaning is incompatible with consciousness.
Each of these areas has its celebrities, its gurus. And each of them feeds their audience a steady stream of highly profitable consumable material. And because consumerism can’t feed the soul, people keep lining back up at the conveyor line for another helping. It is a hell of a business model.
Here is what consciousness reveals …
What your soul feeds on is always free. It just needs to be cultivated. Stillness is free. Compassion is free. Acceptance is free. Movement is free. This makes consciousness not just incompatible with consumerism, but a threat to it as well. This is because consciousness connects you with reality. And in reality, we need very little once our soul is fed.
As I said, I don’t have this all figured out. I still like stuff. I’m still drawn to status symbols. I still get a thrill of seeing an Amazon package on the front porch. Just way less so than I used to. Consciousness has definitely taught me a level of essentialism. It makes me examine my motivation behind wanting to buy something. It makes me examine my ego’s need to make a statement. And it has greatly enhanced the value of all the free things in life.
I’m worried about you. Yeah, I mean you.
I worry about people. Including those I don’t know well — or don’t know at all.
I worry that someone will read something I wrote and call me out.
I worry about injustice and unfairness.
I have geographic worry — Austin, Idaho, Oregon, the country, the planet.
When I watch sports, I worry about the players getting injured.
I worry about how independent musicians are going to make a living.
The list could go on and on.
So imagine how I feel when I do know you. And especially if I have a relationship with you.
As I do in these writings, I’m inviting you into my inner processing and examination of why I worry about everyone.
You have been warned.
In the language of the DISC behavioral assessment, I am a high “D” and high “I” — close to 100 on both. My business/creative partner, Emily, sums it up succinctly: “Justin wants to win and Justin wants to be loved.” This explains some of my dichotomies. Like Meyers-Briggs, Enneagram or any other in-depth behavioral assessment, your dominant tendencies also have a shadow side.
As a high I, the positive is that I am gregarious, relatable, a good conversationalist. The negative or shadow side is that I’m a “people pleaser.” My great friend, Juan Kingsbury, is an expert on the DISC. He states, “Why do high I people want to be liked? Something occurred when you felt left out, overlooked and speaking up got you a kind of attention that felt good. This causes high I people to over-focus on being liked or heard and sometimes miss the mark on the intent of their communication/interaction.”
In my parts therapy work with my therapist, Adrienne, I call this part of me the “Border Collie”. It means I’m very protective and sensitive about roles, boundaries, rules. I’m very tuned in to risk and want my “herd” to feel safe. It means I like to know where I stand, that you find me valuable, useful, needed. I get hurt, resentful, withdrawn if I don’t feel like I’m valuable. (Adrienne also expertly observed that I try to “engineer” relationships in order to prevent getting hurt.)
In the Enneagram, I’m an 8w7. 8s are the challenger archetype. We like to be seen as strong, decisive, courageous leaders. As such, we are really good at denying, stuffing, covering up, or ignoring what we perceive as weakness. And I definitely view worry as a weakness.
Yet, I worry.
And the worry definitely increases the deeper our relationship is — which produces some interesting paradoxes.
If I care deeply about you, I want you to feel safe. Which includes keeping you safe from my shadow feelings.
If I care deeply about you, I want truth to be an essential part of our relationship. Yet I will hide from you the truth of what I’m feeling.
If I care deeply about you, I want you to see me as strong and reliable. Yet I have a tendency to wall off from or distance myself when threatened.
So what is the solution? As it is with every healthy relationship, the solution is VULNERABILITY.
Damn you, Brene Brown!
I refer to vulnerability as “emotional nudity”. Here I am. This is me. Like actual nudity, it’s not for everyone. Not everyone needs to see the raw me. But those that I love and that love me certainly do. Vulnerability is stripping down to the essence. Even if it is scary.
How terrifying to tell you the truth of what I’m feeling. This fear produces a doubt loop of “What if I’m wrong?!” and “Why am I so weak?!”
Yet, the only way to break that loop is for me to be vulnerable. There is no other way.
I will close with this …
As I often do, I create mantras for the things I want to change, improve, transform. Here is my mantra for vulnerability in relationships: If you are worried about your image, it’s not a real relationship.
If I love you and you love me, there is no need for performance. There is no transaction, no obligation. There is simply the truth.
In a recent episode on his podcast, Rob Bell talked about the line from Psalm 137: “we hung our harps upon the willows …” He shared that this was, metaphorically, about being in exile. You can listen to the entire episode here – but something he said will stay with me for a long time:
“Exile” is when we go looking for validation, legitimacy and approval from someone else. It’s being far from home; separated from the Love that was ours all along.
Like all true things, Rob’s words had a resonance. I could feel his observation vibrate in my bones. I could hear my soul say quietly, “yes, that’s true.”
I was exiled for a long time. Although my journey home started in late 2010, I didn’t arrive until early 2016. It was then that I felt at home in myself. It was a wonderful feeling of wholeness and completeness. For me, coming home had so many rewards and benefits. One of them was that I was much less obsessive about my image or how I was perceived by others. Coming home opened up many portals – especially the wisdom and creativity portal that manifested as daily musings to share with the world.
But Rob’s words also pricked me in an uncomfortable way. Despite all of the growth since coming home, I still have a lot of co-dependency tendencies. I strive to be independent, sovereign, a practitioner of healthy non-attachment and interdependence. Yet … if you and I have a friendship or relationship, I do want validation, legitimacy and approval from you. I like to know where I stand with you. I like to know my role. I like to know that you value me. Like all things of the ego, these feelings don’t mean something is necessarily wrong or needs to be fixed. It is just an awareness that these old patterns still exist. Just like having a home, there is always something to work on. This is one of those things.
But there was more to the pricking from Rob’s words than co-dependency. They touched a deeper sense; an undercurrent that had, until now, been unnamed. It was the word “exile”. What I’ve been feeling is a sense of being in exile again.
This feeling began to emerge shortly after the first shelter-in-place order was put in place. Suddenly, all of the movement and busy-ness that felt like life was suspended. Not gone. Just put on hold – like a movie being paused on the screen of life. Based on conversations and paying attention to what people are writing, saying, sharing, I think many of us feel this way.
It is such an evasive feeling; flitting in and out of the shadows of my being. Like a small bird that doesn’t want to be caught. Others have applied their own words to it. Some call it liminality – the suspension between two phases. Others call it impermanence – an “eternal groundlessness”.
But the word that best fits for me is “exile”. In this sense of having our norms and patterns disrupted so profoundly, I ended up in exile from myself. There is a direct correlation between the returning of co-dependency and the feelings of exile brought on by the pandemic.
There is a sense of restlessness … with no destination.
There is a sense of weariness … with no source of respite.
There is boredom … tinged with guilt because I am suffering far less than many people.
There are moments of joy and clarity … but a slipping back into high-functioning despair.
There is a pervasive loneliness … yet a clinging to others.
There is a sameness of the days … yet deeper gratitude for simple things.
Most of all, there is a craving for form, for resolution. Thus the return of the co-dependency traits – seeking those things, those solutions outside of my self.
I want the pandemic to be over so I can return to myself.
But it doesn’t work that way. Home is right here. I don’t need to go someplace or to someone.
So what is the solution?
I can think of only one word: PRESENCE.
This is not a new idea. In fact, it may be the oldest of spiritual teachings. That “home” and “presence” are the same thing. Because of its roots in spirituality and soul, I’ve tended to view presence as an intangible thing; a purely metaphysical state. It was something people more spiritually mature and advanced than I had. It was for monks and hermits.
But something shifted my perspective; made me realize that presence is very practical and truly a warrior trait. In the last episode of the documentary “The Last Dance”, one of Michael Jordan’s biographers said this (I’m somewhat paraphrasing):
“Most people live in fear because we project the past onto the future. Michael was not like that. He was the most intensely present person I’ve ever met. He was a mystic.”
That’s it! Presence is simply choosing to be here. Not because it is some Zen state that detaches us from uncomfortable realities. But because it is really the only option. All we can really do is choose to be here. Presence is reality. Presence is home. The past and the future are illusions. They are exile.
From this came a mantra/commitment that is simple to say but difficult to live: I will be present in the reality of this moment.
It’s quite possible that the greatest gift of all of this upheaval is the spaciousness to work on presence; the time to craft a union between presence, reality and being home in myself. I’m starting to see that working on presence contains within it the challenge I need, the adventure I need, the risk I need.
I will let you know how it goes.
Although I’ve been in it for over 17 years, there are many things I dislike about branding and marketing. Chiefly, the tendency of brands to give in to the cheaper, faster approach to creating a behavior: manipulation.
Traditional branding and marketing is, at its core, a philosophy of manipulation. The founder of this philosophy is Edward Bernays. Although way less famous than his uncle, Sigmund Freud, Bernays is still considered the “Father of Spin”.
A quote from his blatantly-titled 1928 book, “Propaganda”:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of … in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.
If you are paying attention, you can see the philosophy of manipulation played out dozens of times per day. The point of writing this piece is to not go Ralph Nader on the marketing industry. My point is that we must each marketing-proof ourselves in order to reduce (it likely can’t be fully eliminated) the influence of persuasion and manipulation. The baseline requirement for the philosophy of manipulation to have maximum influence is low consciousness. In Maslow’s terms, this is mostly the middle tier of acceptance and belonging – with just enough coercing of our primal fears and needs thrown in.
In short, to marketing-proof yourself you need to raise your consciousness. Here are a few don’ts and do’s on how to do that.
Chase dopamine. Any model that relies on eyeballs, relies on dopamine. This is especially true for anything that’s free – i.e. social media. As Tim O’Reilly said way back in 2010, “when it’s free, you are the product.” This is all about creating micro-addictions to dopamine.
Have body dysmorphia. In clinical terms, body dysmorphia is a mental health disorder. In practical terms, it is being so influenced by comparison to others that you begin to hate your body. Kudos to Halo Top ice cream for confronting this type of manipulation head-on.
Over-use binary goggles. Binary thinking can be a useful tool for decision making, but marketers encourage the overuse of this tool by creating false choices. This is the “gotta have it nowt” urgency you see in a lot of marketing.
Heal your emotional wounds. It is virtually impossible to be manipulated by a brand or a person if you have done the deep work of healing emotional trauma. Unhealed trauma creates the impulse to either venerate or vilify – or both. Marketers use this to be the “the rescuing prince” and/or to paint their competition as your enemy.
Master your ego. An unmastered ego will drive all decisions – all of which perpetuate its control over you. The higher your consciousness, the more you master your ego. This happens through a faith/spiritual practice, mindfulness practice, creative practice, volunteering or other forms of elevated consciousness. The more you master your ego, the less likely you are to let it be manipulated.
Be skeptical of formulas. One of our mantras at Root + River is “f*ck the formula”. This reflects a healthy distrust of singular solutions. Formulas are designed to create mass adoption. They often come in the form of “better” – better relationships, better career, better lifestyle.
The final one is a combo do and don’t …
Do be aware of your fears, biases and tendencies – and don’t let them be used to manipulate you. We all have our preferences, insecurities, doubts, quirks, dichotomies. These are what make us interesting – and human. But when we are not aware of them – or we are aware of them but are not honest about them – we are inviting manipulation.
Some practical tips for bringing this to your awareness in your daily life …
When you decide to click on something, pause and ask yourself why it drew you in. Hint: it’s not always being manipulated. Sometimes you are just curious! Or have a real need.
When being pitched a product or service, ask yourself “What would this give me that I don’t already have?”
Notice when you feel an elevated negative emotion about something (usually a news story). What bias is being triggered to create this negative emotion in you? And how does the info source benefit from your negative emotion?
One of our more audacious goals at Root + River is to seize back branding and marketing from the manipulators and gaslighters. To have branding and marketing be used as tools for positive change, inspiration, personal growth. To accomplish this, we need clients that are enlightened leaders that want to attract higher consciousness customers. If this idea moves your soul (and offends your ego), reach out and let’s see how we can work together.
I recently had a walk with a good friend here in Austin. As with all of our conversations, this one flowed naturally; meandering through various topics. In between pauses in conversation as we scaled some steep inclines, we began to talk about the current state of Christianity and traditional religion in general. We talked of the waning influence of institutional religion and the religious fervency of Christian nationalism. We talked of the role and purpose of rituals, especially sacred rituals.
He then asked two profound questions:
How do you create a spiritual structure for your kids while not belonging to a particular religion or denomination?
How do you teach your kids to be spiritual?
I felt the heft and sincerity of his questions. To the best of my recollection, here is how I answered …
Two notes before I continue …
I believe both his questions and the answers that came to me apply to our own lives as well.
If your soul feels called to (and/or for your kids) to be part of a religious community, please do so. My view on this mirrors a piece of advice that Eugene Peterson once gave when asked about going to church: “If you feel called to a community, find the nearest, smallest one.”
Any sincere spiritual or religious practice is intended to answer three questions:
- Who am I?
- What am I here to do?
- Where do I belong?
In answering the first question, we are deconstructing the self that the ego-mind generated for us in order to be safe, to fit in. We are also examining and deconstructing the forms and views we were taught. Underneath the rind of outside influences is the fruit of True Self.
In answering the second question, we are discovering purpose and meaning. Not so much the meaning of life in general, but the meaning of YOUR life. I call this “mission” – the thing you are here to do that only you can do. You are equipped with natural gifts, resources, experiences to make this mission the organizing principle of your life.
In answering the third question, we are teaching the process of discerning where we will be living out our life’s work. This could be a geographic location, a career, the friends we select, our community – or a combo of these and other factors of belonging.
To answer these questions requires some key elements:
- Contemplativeness – learning inner listening
- Curiosity – bringing wonder to everything
- Faith – not dogma, but the accepting of mystery
- Inquiry – seeking the right questions; healthy skepticism of stock answers
- Awareness – tuning into sensory elements
- Imagination – suspending disbelief about possibility
- Creativity – using resources to make art
These elements will produce some key understandings. Here are a few that seem to have the most universality …
Love is the foundational principle of the universe. From that foundation grows compassion, kindness, service and more.
You are a sovereign being. No one can tell you what you are or what you are worth. No one can make you do anything, say anything, think anything.
The crown jewels of spirituality are compassion, humility and moderation.
Life is art. It is iterative. It is full of liminal spaces. It grows and evolves. When it stops being these things, it becomes static religion or secularism.
Nature teaches us everything we need to know about God (or whatever term you’d prefer to use).
Whatever practice you create or follow, you will know that “the kingdom of heaven is within.”
From here, you can craft your own rituals and practices. This begins with another question:
What are 3 – 4 key ingredients for a joyful day?
For some, this may be a more traditional approach – like reading scriptures, attending a religious ceremony, prayer/mantras. For others, it may be spaciousness to create or play. Or being in nature. Or connecting with a close friend. Children seem to inherently know how to create rituals that serve their needs. Yet another thing we can learn from kids.
I believe it’s also important to have some sort of immersion into what is traditionally called “comparative religion”. This includes reading the teachings of the great spiritual Masters, attending a variety of religious ceremonies, visiting with people of a specific faith and asking questions.
In pondering all of this, I am reminded that I/we did teach our sons these things. Despite our belonging to a fundamentalist group for the majority of raising them, I wanted them to answer the foundational questions I mentioned above. I wanted them to think for themselves. I wanted them to question everything. I wanted them to seek, ask, knock. I wanted them to understand the pricelessness of their souls. I wanted them to embrace doubt, to learn from failure, to follow no formulas.
Strangely, I taught them these things well before I taught them to myself. In fact, I could say I learned a significant amount about spirituality from them. When I left “the church” in January 2016, it was what I taught them and how they grew and blossomed which inspired me to go on the adventure of creating my own faith/spiritual practice.
Children are naturally spiritually oriented. So I believe our main job is just to remind them of that. And then learn from them.