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Justin Foster

Far From Home

By Leadership, LifeNo Comments

Photo © The Jewish Museum

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.

 

How to Marketing-Proof Yourself

By Branding, Leadership, LifeNo Comments

Credit: https://www.eyeem.com/

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.

Chilling, right?

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.

Don’t …

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.

Do …

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.

Learning from Children

By Leadership, Life, Self-WorthNo Comments

A piece of art affixed to the footbridge by our house in Austin. Thank you, Eva!

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.” 

Onward …

Any sincere spiritual or religious practice is intended to answer three questions:

  1. Who am I?

  2. What am I here to do?

  3. 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. 

 

The Lost Art of Gleaning

By Creativity, Life, Self-WorthNo Comments

Painting by François Millet

Gleaning is another one of those words we don’t use much any more. In contemporary times, it’s most often used in relation to bits of data or information. But its history goes back thousands of years.

My views about the term “gleaning” have had connotations related to poverty or lack. This bias comes from both direct observations and from biblical stories.

In the last 8 years we lived in Idaho, Lynna was the office manager for a large farm operation — primarily potatoes. Fall was harvest time. The owner, Doug, is a generous and kind man who allowed people to pick up the potatoes that the picker machine missed. Word of his generosity was widely known so I remember seeing vehicles, many battered and old, lining up around the edges of the potato fields.

My second influence related to gleaning goes back to the story from Jewish history of Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 2 in the Old Testament if you are curious to read the whole story.) This story was often either referenced as an example of humility (true). Or a story about unworthiness — a common false teaching in Christian fundamentalism.

Why am I writing about such an obscure word? This morning, the word gleaning was on my heart. I don’t know why. But I do know that when some idea or word appears out of seemingly nowhere, I should heed it.

Some thoughts that came to me …

Gleaning is definitely about humility, but not necessarily about poverty or lack.

Gleaning is about thinking big but doing small things.

Gleaning is about getting low to the ground to discover what’s already there.

Gleaning is about not wasting what has already been provided.

Gleaning is about going back over an area to see what was missed.

Gleaning requires patience, focus and dedication. The same things art requires.

Gleaning requires essentialism. You can’t glean while also lugging around sacks of ideas, thoughts and worries.

Gleaning can be done with all five physical senses — as well as the 6th sense of intuition/awareness.

Gleaning creates presence and gratitude.

If your soul whispers to you “You missed something,” consider going back to an area. It could be an area of knowledge, a relationship, inner work. Any place you passed through is a field for gleaning. Get low to the ground. See what’s already there. The missing thing(s) will be small but very important — like a diamond or a potato for a hungry person.

What Are You Working With?

By Leadership, LifeNo Comments

Bushcrafter Gear

Go to work.

Get to work.

I have a lot of work to do.

I am working on …

What kind of work do you do?

The word “work” is ubiquitous in our society. Especially the American psyche that values work ethic, productivity and results.

I’d like to present a different kind of work — let’s call it Your Life’s Work. This work requires curiosity, contemplation, humility, courage, consistency, failure. It requires you to release attachments and expectations. It requires you to challenge what you think is true.

In this work of living, we are all working with our own version of the same three things:

What is.

The Unknown.

Core Self.

No matter your circumstances, these three things are the building blocks for whatever life you are creating. They are the essence of your reality.

Let’s break them down …

What is.

There is an is-ness to life that is beneath (or above?) all of the ideas, shoulds/should nots, more, better, when, if. Is-ness is material reality and it involves a number of parts:

  • Resources — what are the tangible and intangible assets you have at hand? This could include tools, technical skills, creativity, knowledge, personality traits, intellect, beliefs, energy (physical, mental, spiritual). In a crisis situation, taking an audit of what’s available is one of the very first things you are instructed to do. By understanding your resources, you can then get creative.
  • Relationships — who can you call? Who can you ask for help from? Who can you serve? Unless you are in an actual solo survival situation, you are not intended to work alone. This is one of the many reasons why nurturing and expanding your network of friendships is so critical. Each person you have a real connection with has something to offer you — and you to them.
  • Conditions — what are material realities that you find yourself in? This could be financial, health, mental, familial, geographic location. Each of these conditions influences how we see what we are working with. Often this means to “embrace the suck” — to accept that some conditions we find ourselves in aren’t fun.

The Unknown.

We are all working within the cloud of Not Knowing. To eliminate this harsh reality and sense of impermanence, our ego-mind produces a bunch of framing devices: assumptions, conjecture, projections and more. These become our biases, which then become our world view. Yet the Unknown is still there. While you can use data, past experiences and good planning to prepare for the unknown, you can’t really control it. So you work with it. To accept that the Unknown is real requires faith. Not necessarily religious faith — although that’s certainly an option. Let’s call it practical faith — the courage to move forward into the Unknown to let things be revealed, experienced, learned. This is so much more rewarding than hunkering down in a defensive posture. Nothing good really happens there. All of the good stuff is out in the Unknown. Walking forward into the Unknown reveals strengths and gifts you didn’t know you had. Venturing, however uncertain your steps are, into the Unknown shows you that courage is underrated, that most risk is an illusion and that you are well equipped to handle whatever comes your way.

Core Self

Who you truly are is your #1 asset. Some call this soul, true self, original self, being — I simply call it Core Self. This Core Self contains a vast array of things to work with, but specifically these two things:

  1. Your Mission. Your Core Self is here for a specific purpose or reason. When you do the work to discover your Core Self, you also discover your mission — the thing you are here to do that only you can do. Your mission then becomes the primary organizing principle of your life; the primary decision-making tool. Your mission greatly determines your career, your relationships, where you live, what you focus on. This is why the journey to find your Core Self is almost always full of struggle and pain. Especially when the life you were trying to build turns out to be different than what your Core Self wants and is.
  2. Your Gifts. Skills are learned. Gifts are inherent. And we all have a variety of gifts at our disposal that come from soul, mind and body. The greatest gift of soul is intuition. The greatest gift of the mind is introspection. And the greatest gift of the body is movement. Those seem to be onboard gifts that we all have. From there, you can expand out to discover gifts that are unique to you. Hint: they will be in support of your mission.

It is certain that some things need to be acquired to master your work — mostly experience. But the apprenticeship of your life’s work can be started right now, today — using what you have, embracing the unknown, being who you truly are.

The Only Formula That Matters

By Leadership, LifeNo Comments

NASA Scientists in the 1960s

I had a really great week last week. Probably the best this year of what I call “The Trifecta”: harmony between soul, body and mind. And harmony between relationships, business and self-care.

Every Sunday evening, I plan the week ahead. This approach has varied from week to week, but the essence is to establish some intentions, determine priorities and think about what I want to accomplish. As I sat down last night with my planner journal, I reflected on the prior week — asking myself “How can I replicate that?” I found myself pondering (with a good amount of anxiety) this question as I fell asleep. This morning on my walk the anxiety continued. What if I couldn’t repeat it? What if I have another flat week? What if I get bored and distracted?

Then the answer appeared: “You can’t repeat it.”

Here’s why …

All the formulas (and rules and systems) are made up. But formulas are so appealing to the mind — especially the linear and literal Western mind so deeply conditioned towards repeatability and productivity and success. What’s the common question when someone loses a bunch of weight? Or builds a successful business? Or has a long marriage? … “How did you do it?” We want a formula so we can replicate whatever success someone else had. So these formulas become advice, or books, or business models. They are all selling “better”. This is why I’ve often said the only formula that works is the formula for selling formulas.

Of course, there are some fundamental elements and factors to almost every aspect of life — but they are more like a recipe than a formula. A recipe is laid out for the cook to follow — but every meal will be different depending on the cook’s skill, conditions, equipment, meal size, etc.

I’ve held this view on formulas for some time. So today, I decided to challenge it and test it. Surely, there must be at least one natural formula. Something that could be repeated. I pondered formulas for physical health, spiritual growth, business growth, relationships, parenting, finance, productivity. Nope. All the formulas were made up.

Then I found it.

The formula for Reality …

Logic + Faith = Reality

Let’s deconstruct that …

We are split creatures — part animal and part spiritual. So our reality would also contain both factors.

Logic is the application of reason, science, structured thinking. It’s opposite is irrationality — which is evidence of mental illness. Logic needs faith in order to live and grow in present reality.

Faith is the acceptance of Not-Knowing; the realization there are moments in life that can’t be explained. It’s opposite is certitude — which is manifested by extreme religiosity or rigidity (which are also forms of mental illness).

Without faith, logic becomes sterile, animatronic, stagnate.

Without logic, faith becomes delusion and confusion.

Combined, they create a blending of the mystical and the material. They create Reality. With Reality, we can experience it in the physical realm as well as the spiritual realm. Take anything that’s real and tangible and you can see this. A baby is not just a small human created by two other humans. S/he is also a symbol of creation, possibility, love, commitment.

This is why I also believe that the laws of physics exist in both logic and faith:

Force

Inertia

Symmetry

All three can be experienced in both the material and mystical realms.

Take NASA’s exploration of space — especially in the early years. Logic (applied science) was absolutely essential. But so was the acceptance of Not Knowing. Just listen to astronauts talk about seeing the earth from outer space. They are not making only logical observations. They are expressing awe. They are having a spiritual experience.

So why are all other formulas flawed?

I think it’s because all other formulas are selling some kind of illusion. No two people experience the same life. To promise this to another is to sell an illusion.

All you have is Reality — how you experience logic and faith in your life. This is why mastery comes from consistency. It’s why all of the important things are not processes — they are practices.

I know I can’t exactly repeat my Best Week of the Year. But I can fully experience Reality this week. I can do this with a single pause. I can choose to see at any moment where logic and faith come together to make Reality. And each day, I can make touching this Reality my highest priority.

The Three Jewels of Leadership

By Leadership, LifeNo Comments

Approximately 2500 years ago, Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching – which translates to modern English as “The Way”. While not the oldest spiritual/religious text, it is one of the first to define a specific pathway way for living. Its concepts can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism,  and Islam – as well as philosophies like Stoicism and Platonism.

One of the concepts is called, depending on translation, “The Three Treasures” or “The Crown Jewels”. According to Lao Tzu, these were the most essential of human traits. They are:

  • Compassion
  • Humility
  • Moderation

These three traits show up repeatedly in history across all cultures, forms of government, world events. As mentioned, they are common themes in the world’s religions – but they are also common themes with other spiritual/mystical writers that are not part of any particular religion. A summary conclusion: there appears to be a timeless universality to these ideals. 

In the last 500 years, these traits were admired but were often considered to be non-essential – or “soft” leadership skills. Of more value and importance were charisma, vision, decisiveness, boldness – big personalities with big ideas. Yet, it’s those leaders with these treasures that often had the most impact – where their actual contribution was bigger than their reputation. Two particular 20th-century leaders that embodied these treasures were Dwight Eisenhower and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

In studying the frequent appearance of these three ideas, I noticed a specific pattern: they most often resurfaced during times of deep crisis or transitional periods. Eisenhower rose from an obscure staff officer to being America’s first President as a superpower. Although a superior orator, it was King’s application of these traits that propelled civil rights forward. 

As noted in my article “The Great Unsettling”, we are in another one of these evolutionary stages between the old and the new. So once again, these jewels have become essential leadership traits. Let’s break them down as contemporary leadership principles:

  • Compassion – In modern leadership parlance, we call this Emotional Intelligence or empathy. Both are important, but compassion goes much deeper. Compassion is a genuine love for humanity – and for individual humans. Compassion keeps the people a leader is leading from becoming abstracts. Compassion reminds leaders that humans are not capital. With compassion, a leader is able to make decisions that make people the highest priority. In addition, compassion allows leaders to further tear down the wall between business and society. Compassion creates principled brands that attract principled people.

  • Humility – In contemporary terms, this is frequently referred to as Servant Leadership. While a helpful model for understanding hierarchical leadership, humility goes deeper. Humility inspires leaders to surround themselves by people smarter and wiser. Humility reminds a leader that they might be wrong. Humility teaches a leader that planning is a fragile endeavor. Humility isn’t about thinking small. You still need to think big. It’s reminding yourself of your own smallness. It is the counterweight to arrogance.
  • ModerationThis is one of those words that now means something different than it used to. Today, moderation is often seen as moderate; a kind of temperance to not over-indulge or swing too far one way or another. The traditional definition of moderation is more musical. It’s about finding harmony between competing dichotomies or paradoxes. It’s about blending. By this definition, moderation is an absolute leadership essential because it reduces binary thinking. It encourages leaders to find a third way. And matters of innovation and humanity are almost always found in a third way.

 

For me, these three jewels are my measuring stick for leadership. I want to grow them in me (none of them come naturally for me). I want to be friends with people that embody them. If someone doesn’t have them, I won’t vote for them, support them, apologize for them. Not coincidentally, leaders that don’t demonstrate these traits are often defenders of institutions and systems.

The good news is that we all have these treasures inside of us. Sometimes they’re buried deep beneath the surface of the ego-mind, suffering, life struggles and more. But they are still in there. And the world needs as many of us as possible leading this way.

So how do you get to them? I can only speak for my own experience …

Compassion comes from opening my heart to what another is feeling – especially if they are in pain. It comes from a deep, abiding self-love – and a fierce belief that the natural state of the universe is towards restoration.

Humility comes from practicing healthy skepticism with my own thoughts, feelings, impulses. It comes from touching truth and reality and understanding how little I actually have control over. My mantra for this: hold your plans in humble hands.

Moderation comes from curiosity; from seeing problems as puzzles or riddles. It comes from questioning formulas. In my inner world, it comes from making music with all my various dichotomies – especially between instinct and intuition, productivity and peace, planning and acceptance.

As I said, everyone’s journey to find these jewels is different – but all have the same starting point: if you want to find these crown jewels in your being, you have to go inward. They aren’t “out there.”  

 

The Great Unsettling

By Leadership, LifeNo Comments

Photo credit: James Lawton

What do you call a year that includes a global pandemic, a global uprising against racial injustice and an extra divisive US presidential election?

I call it the Great Unsettling.

The rumbles and signs of this unsettling started many years ago and were propelled forward by much broader access to information, smartphones, the proliferation of content, social media — and other internet-related phenomena. Sadly, all of this technology created a kind of unsustainable busy-ness that covered up issues and injustices.

At Root + River, we refer to the old world as the World of Convention. This world was all about production, expansion, hierarchy, order. In this world, we put up with a lot of bullshit in the name of security and stability. In this world, tradition and heritage were valued — as long as it was the tradition and heritage of a majority. The World of Convention ran on institutional trust. And when that trust began to finally erode, this world came crashing down in the Great Unsettling.

Humanity goes through these great unsettlings every 50–150 years. They are painful, but necessary times — a part of what Martin Luther King, Jr. was referring to when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In each unsettling, institutions crumble or evolve, old ways die, new ways emerge. And we highly adaptable creatures called humans, learn its lessons and create new structures. And we also return to ancient ways as a reminder that we’ve been here before — and that things like love, truth, justice, freedom are shaken but unbreakable.

This particular Great Unsettling has already taught us many things …

The pandemic made us look at death and loss — two topics many Americans will avoid thinking about at all costs. It removed or reduced the insulation between us and the rest of the world.

It broke the grip of chronos time and re-introduced us to the natural world of kairos time. I, for one, am not going back to the kind of busy I was pre-COVID.

It helped us see what was truly important and not important at all. It helped us realize what we had been putting up with a lot for the sake of job security and career advancement. As a friend put it, “I learned that to be productive I don’t need an office or a bra.”

It produced a renewed appreciation for front-line workers, especially healthcare workers, cashiers, servers, delivery drivers and truck drivers, farmers and ranchers. All jobs that can easily fade into the backdrop in “settled” times.

Many of us got to know our partners and families and roommates and neighbors better. We learned we can communicate on Zoom but IRL is more fun. We learned or re-learned crafts like cooking, gardening, puzzle-solving, baking, sewing. All non-tech related things that brought the comfort of tangibility.

The racial injustice uprising made us (especially white people) look at death and loss as well. People of color have dealt with this for centuries. Now, it was so blatantly and horrifically obvious we were faced with a choice: do we go back to pretending like there’s not a problem or do we own it and seize it as an opportunity to change things for the better? Sadly, many people that look like me chose the former. But enough of us of all races and backgrounds are choosing the latter. It appears a new era of justice is emerging.

It caused a great re-examining of our own hearts and intentions. It made us look again at our own biases. Again, many did not do either — to the point that they doubled-down on taking an opposing side. But also again, there was a collective raising of consciousness that we likely have not seen in my lifetime.

It caused us to re-look at history and begin to reconcile some of the wrongs — even if some of that reconciliation was symbolic.

Which leads us to this …

One of the markers of Great Unsettlings is the removal and shifting of symbols. This has been going on ever since the people got tired of Ozymandias’ shit and either tore down his statue or let it become a relic of history. It appears to be a rite of passage; the tangible evidence of revolution.

This Great Unsettling has its own share of symbols that mean very different things depending on your world view.

A common phrase is “being on the wrong side of history”. This most definitely happens in a great unsettling. You can see it in the symbols I mentioned above. This is because unsettlings force us to take a side. And one side generally advances and the other does not. I wish it wasn’t so binary — but history tells us that it is. And that after we decide, it gives room for nuance and for a third way to emerge.

In another ironic twist, a new symbol has emerged that represents one of these sides: Karens (or the dude version, which I refer to as Darens).

Out of all this, a new world is emerging. We call it the World of Integration — because we integrating our inner world and our outer world. We predicted this world would emerge in the next 15–20 years. But the Great Unsettling has propelled us into it now. We are closing old divides and opening up new possibilities. The World of Integration requires active citizenry. It requires leaders with humility, compassion and moderation. It requires thinkers and truth-tellers and artists. It requires healers, warriors, messengers. The great threats to this new world are tribalism, moralism and authoritarianism. Societies simply can not advance beyond an unsettling if these powers are allowed to rule us.

For me, this Great Unsettling has been part of a decade-long personal unsettling where my own symbols have crumbled or shifted. My priorities, what I give my attention to, what I’m pursuing have changed. In particular, this Great Unsettling has made me sensitive to others. I feel more connected to people — even those I don’t understand. I can feel the odd mixture of grief and denial. Those grieving the loss of life, the changing of plans — and those in denial of these seismic shifts.

Other than as important history lessons, I have no interest or ties to the old world of Convention. I have no symbols that I’m defending. No old, stagnant ways that I’m apologizing for. In all of this, I feel more grateful. I am more committed to listening — but also more committed to giving voice to my own knowings. And more determined than ever to live a life that is based on connection, art and meaning. More determined to take this Great Unsettling and become a better leader in this new world.

The Root of the Beast

By Leadership, LifeNo Comments

Official White House photo

In these current times, I’m extra aware of sharing thoughts and opinions only on things I have credible knowledge about and/or personal experience. I identify myself as a Christian with generally libertarian views on social matters and generally conservative views on economics and the role of government.

The topic I chose to write about today is deeply personal to me. It has been a source of heartache and horror. But it has also been a source of renewal of my own convictions and faith. I have felt called to give voice to these views. I hope they are consumed with that spirit in mind.

As religious terminology, the term “evangelicalism” has shifted from “spreading the gospel” to mean “conservative Christian” — or the more common phrase, “The Religious Right”.

I used to identify as a Christian conservative. But somewhat squeamishly. There were many inconsistencies that I could not reconcile — especially in the last decade. I left the GOP in 2006 and left the conservative movement in 2016. As has been said by others, I didn’t really leave these groups. They left me.

Since 2016, I have observed the very non-liberty and non-Jesus like behavior of conservative Christians. As I do with all things, I began to research and go deeper; to “dig around the roots” to quote Jesus. I discovered that what we are calling the Religious Right or conservative Christians or evangelicals is more accurately described as “Christian Nationalism”. This best describes the current state of Christians on the right — many of which are Trump supporters.

Overwhelmingly white, Christian Nationalists are the largest, most reliable wing of Trump’s base of support. They make up a significant portion of the Trump triumvirate — allied with non-religious conservatives (commonly referred to as the Alt-Right) and 401k’ers (people who don’t care who is President as long as their stock portfolio is growing). Included in this mix are the purveyors of the “Prosperity Doctrine”. You can do your own research on that.

Here are some of what Christian Nationalism’s fundamental tenets:

  • America is the new HQ of Christianity
  • Government policy should be determined by Christian beliefs
  • Non-Christians are a threat to American supremacy

Like most philosophies and doctrines, Christian Nationalism in the US has evolved. But those tenets remain deep and strong in the contemporary version of the movement.

In the first 150 years of our nation, Christian nationalism provided biblical justification for slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, and the oppression of women and people of color. This also extended to scorn and violence against Catholics and other Christian groups deemed to be wrong. Southern white Christians promoted a form of white supremacy. This is a part of our American history that many conservative-leaning Christians have yet to come to terms with. Any thoughtful discussion about current events must include awareness and acknowledgment of these roots.

Starting in the 1950s, Christian nationalism turned its attention to influencing and creating government policy. While the temperance movement certainly had a strong element of Christian influence, it wasn’t until the concept of a “moral majority” that it became a specific strategy. At that point, Christian nationalism became much more of an activist group. They sought to get conservative Christians elected. They took on issues like adding “One nation, under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, putting the 10 Commandments on government property, prayer in schools, etc. They felt like America was being led down the wrong path by non-Christians and the solution to that was for public policy to be more biblically oriented. From this philosophy sprang influential movement leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson — and later Ralph Reed. The “Republican Revolution” of 1994 and later George W. Bush’s two election wins were largely carried by the coalition of Christian and small-government conservatives.

During the Obama presidency, a new strand of Christian nationalism began to emerge. Rooted in the old idea of exceptionalism, the movement began to promote the idea of America as the “new Israel”. Religious figures like Robert Jeffers, Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. began to preach that America was being destroyed by liberals, gays, atheists and non-Christian minorities (which included Catholics). The only solution was to repent and double down on theocratic policies and make America a truly Christian nation.

They just needed a national candidate they could get behind. McCain, then Romney, then Jeb Bush were all labeled as “liberals” or RINOs.

Enter Donald J. Trump …

Despite his many business failures, Trump has always had excellent marketing skills. He understood the old marketing maxim of finding a large audience with an unmet need and provide them a product. In the case of Christian Nationalism, he was and is the product. Like the lonely teen-ager attracting an online predator, Trump gave them exactly what they wanted.

According to Trump-supporting Christians, he is has been anointed by God to save America — to make it great again. Similar to its early roots in white apologia, the modern Christian Nationalist movement provides cover for Trump. That his behavior and policies are the antitheses of Jesus’ teachings is entirely acceptable. As long as he is putting conservative judges in place to overturn Roe v Wade, everything else is justified. Spreading vitriol on social media is fine. He is the Sent One; the new Messiah. So authoritarianism in the name of Jesus is just fine. White supremacy in the name of Jesus is just fine.

Our nation’s founders were driven by two primary fears: 1) a monarchy and 2) state-run religion. Despite their many, many flaws they understood that anointing kings and removing the wall separating church and state would inevitability end in authoritarianism.

The founder of my faith was a non-white tradesman named Jesus. He came to prominence in a different era of tyranny. He witnessed the oppressive, violent alliance between the paganist Romans and Jewish religious leaders. The people wanted him to lead an uprising — to make Israel great again. But he refused. Instead, he taught about love, compassion, forgiveness, kindness. He taught that the state of your soul had little to do with government. He had an entirely new definition of power. He started a consciousness movement, not a political one.

I will close this with a message to Christian conservatives.

Believing in authoritarianism and Jesus are incompatible. Tolerating racism and Jesus are incompatible. Hate and Jesus are incompatible. Trump has already destroyed the GOP. Will you also let him destroy Christianity?

The Power of Reason + Compassion

By Leadership, Life, Self-WorthNo Comments

A metaphor …

All helicopters have a similar design. They have a main rotor for lift and power and the rear stabilizing rotor for, well, pretty much what it says: stabilizing. Without both rotors functioning, a helicopter can’t take off — and if one of these malfunctions in-flight, they will almost certainly crash.

Like helicopters, we humans need both. For the sake of this metaphor, the main rotor providing lift is reason. The rear stabilizing rotor providing stability is compassion. (If it works better for you, I would be totally cool with the idea that compassion is the lift and reason is the stabilizer.)

Reason is a blend of critical thinking, emotional intelligence and logic — with a dash of mystery and principles thrown in for flavor. Reason requires humility — that we don’t always have the right answers or do the right things. It requires consciousness to prevent over-identification with thoughts and feelings. It requires a practice — ideally, learning and mindfulness. Reason uses data but doesn’t project biases on to it. Because reason requires a heightened level of consciousness, it also reduces biases. And when we reduce our biases, we don’t project them as narratives. Reason gives us the power to explore, expand, experience, grow, discover.

Without reason, we descend into madness. By pathological definition, loss of reason is mental illness. We use terms like “you’re out of your mind” or “crazy” to describe this state. The further one distances themselves from reason, the darker it gets. The opposite end of reason is nihilism — the complete absence of meaning. This is why loss of reason frequently leads to spastic acts of violence. Loss of reason makes yourself and other humans abstracts — which then become targets of destruction.

Loss of reason in leaders is most often manifested as authoritarianism. The tyrant boss, the tyrant political leader, the tyrant sports coach. Loss of reason requires suppression of rights, of speech, of information, of individuality. Loss of reason makes questioning forbidden. It requires idolatry reinforced by a culture that is controlled by propaganda and violence. And it causes anyone with reason to have to leave the culture, society, team.

Now let’s talk about compassion …

All great spiritual teachers have taught the transcendent nature of love. Paul the Apostle wrote about love as greater than anything else. The Beatles sang about love being all you need. Compassion is love’s activator. It is what makes love a verb. Compassion moves love from idle intention to action. The first recipient of compassion is ourselves. Without self-love, it is near impossible to have compassion for others. Further, lack of self-love produces self-loathing — which is inevitability cast on to others in the form of abuse. Love expressed as compassion transcends ideology, religious dogma, race, economic status, borders. Compassion makes us see the human — not the abstract or label. Compassion impels us to speak up, cross lines, defy authority or social norms. Compassion invokes the power of forgiveness — for ourselves and for others.

Without compassion, our own souls are hidden from us. We become cynical secularists that no longer believe in mystery. Everything needs proof. Everything has a scientific answer. Love is just a chemical reaction in the brain. Without compassion, we become insular, stagnant. Without compassion, reason becomes our god and is no longer reason.

Humanity has always had a shadow; an ugly side. This shadow is populated by those that have lost both reason and compassion. When both reason and compassion are missing, there appear to be two endings: becoming either a feral, mean pack anima or a docile, obedient farm animal.

To me, living without reason and compassion is what hell is like.

So we can do what all spiritual teachers tell us to do: rise up. Let reason lift us to new heights and let compassion stabilize us. Together, they give our lives momentum, inertia, a direction. Together, they give us meaning and purpose. With reason and compassion working together, we can experience what it’s like to have both an open mind and an open heart. With reason and compassion, we can become better leaders at home and in our communities. And even lead those lost in the darkness to the light.