WHEN YOU SHOW SOMEONE THEIR SOUL, YOU SET THEM FREE.

Stones Into Bread

By Life, Self-WorthNo Comments

The title of this essay is from a story in the bible of Jesus being lead into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. In the story, the devil tells Jesus (who had been fasting) to use his powers to turn stones into bread so he could eat. As with most spiritual scripture, the stories in the bible are not necessarily literal instructions on how to behave and much more often metaphorical stories on the experience of being an awakened human.

I use this example not to make a theological argument or religious statement but as a metaphorical backdrop for a very real thing in our modern lives: the application of our will.

We’ve all heard the phrase “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”. It is a reminder to be resilient, driven, focused. Of course, there are many times in life where we need to exert our will, skills and gifts to accomplish something. But in the spiritual realm, the phrase would be much more accurate as “Where there’s worth, there’s a wait”. It is a sign of spiritual and emotional maturity to held the tension between “make it happen” and “let it happen”

This is a hard lesson I’m still learning at nearly 50 years old.

In a recent visit, a healer friend asked me “Who taught you to never give up?” I said that, although my grandfather was an example of work ethic, I have always been obstinate. But not about everything. The obstinance and never-quit seemed to only apply to get things I wanted. If I wasn’t interested or passionate about it, there was no drive. Or I refused to quit something out of sheer resentment. My relentless will has served me well over the years. From being a very young father (barely 22 at the time) to major moves to commissioned sales to being an entrepreneur. The shadow of all this is that I made a tremendous amount of painful mistakes. Of course, these painful experiences eventually end up being lessons that contribute to wisdom. But I didn’t need to make it so painful!

A real story of obstinance …

I’d always wanted to live in an old farmhouse on some acreage. In 2003, one came on to the market in Greenleaf, Idaho — about 45 minutes from work. It seemed perfect. Other than the plumbing, the interior had been updated. The acreage was well maintained. It was cozy. It was blue with red outbuildings. Everything about it matched the picture in my head. So I made it happen. I muscled through a variety of obstacles and the dream was achieved. Reality was starkly different. Over an 8 year period, I tried to make it work — all in the midst of being a father to two young boys and in the mighty struggle of being a founding partner in a start-up. Thank God for Lynna during these times. Her resoluteness kept us going emotionally and often, financially. In the end, I just couldn’t do it anymore. The cost of living was too high, the pressure and pain too great. So I walked away. Of course, hindsight reminds me of many positive stories from that time. Our boys didn’t really know about the struggle so they have fond memories of the place. I’m grateful for those moments but it was a tough, necessary lesson about not trying to turn stones into bread.

This year, I’ve learned a different lesson about using my will to turn stones into bread. According to the story, it appears that Jesus did have the power to do just that. That’s likely what made it so tempting — especially when hungry. I believe we all have a similar temptation. We all have spiritual gifts that our ego-mind wants to hijack to fulfill an immediate need. And when we are hungry, lonely, tired that’s when we are most susceptible to forcing a “miracle”.

I am in the midst of experiencing a second awakening. The first one in 2014 freed me from conditions and circumstances. This one is freeing me from dependence. And one of the things I’ve been very dependent on over the years has been my will, my obstinance. The first awakening was about going, being decisive, boldly saying yes. This awakening is about waiting, being patient, surrendering. In this phase, waiting is the bold move.

During the past several weeks, I have been relentlessly tempted to determine outcomes, speed things along, change the timeline, force decision points in almost every major area of my life. I make plans and lists and scenarios — but then in the witching hour, I hear “wait” and when my mind is quieted, I hear “wait”. I have been reminded repeatedly that anxiety is the mind’s way of managing an unstable situation. But I’m learning that anything done out of fear does not make things better. I’m learning that Love does not lead you to lack and plenty-ness is the reward for patience. This time is not about being passive. Even in the waiting, we must still know and ask for what we want. The difference is severing any attachments to outcomes and releasing expectations. Or if you will, having faith.

We call it a leap of faith. And that is often true. But maybe this faith is about being still, being receptive. Maybe this is the kind of faith that forces you into the River of Doubt so that you can learn to surrender to its flow. Maybe mature faith is not a leap but a release of control.

The Premonition.

By Life, Self-WorthNo Comments

“Pale Rider”

In Johnny Cash’s epic song “When the Man Comes Around”, he orates this snippet from the biblical poem, Revelations:

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts, and I looked and behold: a pale horse. And his name, that sat on him, was Death. And Hell followed with him.

In my early 40s, I had the premonition that I would die before I turned 50. Well, 50 is two weeks from today. So it could still happen. This premonition has served to help me examine my mortality and my perspectives on death. It’s been a reminder to be bold, to pursue adventures, to tell the people I love that I love them. In short, I became at peace (mostly) with the thought of my potential demise.

But I missed the point of the premonition. My westernized brain took it literally. As with many things from the spiritual realm, it was a metaphor, a symbol of something more.

After my awakening in 2014 and the ensuing events of life, I had arrived at the comforting illusion of completion of growth; a finished state to live the rest of my days out — however many that may be. The past 40 days have revealed the premonition was true. And the illusion of permanence was blatantly untrue.

It is difficult to describe the different kind of death that I’m experiencing. But let’s call it the Death of Dependency. For my entire time on this earth, I have sought outside of myself validation and confirmation of my worth. This was especially true about my masculinity; for which I sought validation from both men and women. I wanted to be seen by others as accomplished, tough, desirable, thoughtful, smart. After my awakening, I still wanted all of these — along wanting validation of my spirituality and wisdom. I would often use my sovereignty as a bargaining chip: “I will give you a piece of me which I expect you to validate. And you give me a piece of you which I will validate so that everything will be equal.”

So this thing called Dependency had to die. And for the past 40 days, it has.

The archetype I’d crafted to be admired had to die; and with the death of dependency also came the death of expectations, plans, assumptions, roles, narratives. It killed arrogance — especially the arrogance that I can control time and love. And the arrogance that I can craft a story in which I am loved without being hurt or disappointed.

This kind of death is an ego-death (not death of the ego). Meaning, our mind constructs archetypes that it thinks it needs in order to feel safe, secure and accepted. When the Truth comes along, the mind protects this archetype or identity and reacts as if it is literal, physical death. All of this is dreadfully painful unto itself and manifests as anxiety, grief, fear, co-dependency.

At the root of ego-death is fear of loss. As such, fear of death produces all kinds of dishonesty — ranging from delusional stories intended to comfort and/or control to negotiating to unhealthy self-soothing.

Death is necessary for growth. That is true in evolution. It is true in relationships. It is true in spiritual maturity and emotional resilience.

But it still sucks.

I can say, however, that there is life on the other side of it. It is a resurrection of sorts — but not a resurrection into our old lives and old meanings.

My first glimmer of life-after-death is when I held my grandson for the first time a short while ago. My mind had manufactured a story that becoming a grandfather meant that I was now officially old — and therefore less desirable and more obsolete. As I held him, I felt a space open up in my heart that I didn’t know was there. The story my mind had been telling was not true. In his birth, I felt the stirring of re-birth in me.

If that was a lie, what other lies had Dependency been telling me?

I needed someone outside of me to validate my masculinity and worth. That was a lie.

I needed to tell false stories to make others feel safe and secure. That was a lie.

My plans, my expectations, my ways of doing things were as powerful as God’s plans, expectations and ways of doing things. That was a lie.

Having anxiety, feeling negative feelings, expressing feelings were all things to control lest I be seen as weak. That was a lie.

Everything my mind told me about death turned out not to be true. And, in fact, the opposite was true: Love arrives as death.

As of this writing, I’m not through this valley of death yet. There is still more grief to feel, more listening, more humility and compassion to learn. Hard days remain. Many more tears will be shed. I feel strengthened by acceptance of what is, by perseverance, by sovereign boundaries. I can see a mountain on the other side; a mountain called Integration. Where wholeness of being is the law. Where radical acceptance is practiced and radical truth is told.

If you are willing to walk your own valley of death, I will meet you there at this mountain.

5 Things I’ve Learned About Writing

By CreativityNo Comments

Two Kinds of Muses

By Life, Self-WorthNo Comments

Image credit: Ankara University.

If you are paying attention, you will be sent two kinds of Muses.

Let’s call the first one the Inspiration Muse. And let’s called the second one the Suffering Muse.

Sometimes, these are two different people. Sometimes they can both be found in the same person. Sometimes they will be strangers that you cross paths with once. Sometimes they will be friends you will know forever.

The Inspiration Muse is the classic muse from mythology. This is the muse that brings creativity and insight. This muse reminds you of your light side; what makes you whole and worthy. S/he will stir passions, awaken confidence, spark innovation and action. The Inspiration Muse will often arrive as a mentor or a sage. This means there’s a temptation or tendency to worship or guru-ize this person. They are not a savior. Of course, some people will come into your life disguised as Inspiration Muses — but if they want you to see them as a savior, they are not an Inspiration Muse.

The Suffering Muse is often mistaken as a tormentor. After all, who likes suffering? But that’s not what this muse is about. This muse invites you into the wound. S/he helps you touch all of the most painful parts and convert them into art. This muse forces you to explore your dark side; makes you examine where you feel hurt, where you feel self-loathing. This muse is like a machete or like fire. Their work is about exploring the dark jungles, clearing paths and burning away false stories. The Suffering Muse is often someone you are very close to. So what they reveal may feel like betrayal. Not that people close to you won’t hurt you, but if they do so with malicious intent, they are not a Suffering Muse.

I’ve had several Inspiration Muses — some I’ve known well and others I’ve never met. One I know well is mentor and friend, Ron Price. I met Ron in 2006 at a time of great darkness. I’m sure others have tried to inspire me and show me my value, but Ron was the first one to truly get through to me. His encouragement and guidance put me on the path that I’m on today. Some Inspiration Muses I’ve never met: David Whyte, Richard Rohr, Rob Bell, Bruce Springsteen, Jordan Peterson, BJ Barham. For me, Inspiration Muses represent order, structure, systems, frameworks. They help me function in the world. They make me more disciplined. They make me a better coach and mentor.

I’ve had a few Suffering Muses. I will keep their names private but they’ve almost all been someone I’m close with. They have been the greatest ignitors of spiritual growth and transformation. We’d like to think spiritual growth is all rainbows and unicorn farts, but it is a painful process that can stir anger, resentment and feelings of abandonment. Which is kind of the point of this muse. After all, these are reactions to wounds that the Suffering Muses are here to help me touch and make into art. They often arrive or re-arrive when I’m in a liminal space. I tend to romanticize Suffering Muses far more than Inspiration Muses. This leads to unrealistic expectations and disappointment — again, which is kind of the point. Each of my Suffering Muses have quite different personalities. But they all have these in common: grace, strength, courage. Which, not coincidentally, are the very elements necessary to convert suffering into art. For me, Suffering Muses often represent chaos, disorder, disruption. The work they’ve done has introduced me to the very depths of my soul and has helped me moderate the tension between my light and dark sides. They’ve made me more compassionate, more empathic. And they’ve most certainly made me a better writer, poet and friend.

From a psychological perspective, it seems as if Inspiration Muses arrive to help heal a father-wound. And Suffering Muses arrive to help heal a mother-wound. Both are very different in their approach but each are instrumental in creating harmony and undividedness within.

Healing aside, it’s important to remember that muses are ultimately about creation. We are each here to create. And to create takes a muse. Both kinds. My encouragement is this: pay attention. In times of doubt, look for those who remind you of your worth even if you don’t believe them. In times of despair, look for those that will hold up a mirror of truth and keep holding it until you see what they see.

The Door Makers

By Creativity, Entrepreneurism, Leadership, Life, Self-WorthNo Comments

David North’s “Door to the Imagination”. Photo credit: David North

“When opportunity knocks, answer the door.” We’ve all heard this, right? Yes, it’s true. Sometimes through your own efforts and a lot of serendipity, opportunity does knock.

Some people miss it because they don’t hear the knock.

Some people miss it because they are too afraid to answer.

And a lot of people miss it because … well, I like how Herbert Prochnow says it: “The trouble with opportunity is that it always comes disguised as hard work.”

But there is another level far beyond answering the knock at the door.

It is the impossibly hard and very risky act of creating a door where one doesn’t exist. Answering opportunity’s knock is a matter of paying attention, perseverance and knowing how to grind. Creating an opportunity door requires all of those plus alchemy, audacity and a touch of madness.

Artists are creators of opportunity doors. Using existing materials, they create a portal to a place that didn’t exist before. To experience something truly artful feels spiritual, magical – because it is. More than anyone, artists seemed to be wired to create doors. This is why they often feel miscast and misunderstood in society. Many artists deal with depression, anxiety, isolation. Which turns out are some of the key materials of door making.

For entrepreneurs, crafting opportunity doors is the work of innovation. Using existing resources, they tap into an unspoken need and create a third way that didn’t exist before. In our work at Root + River, we refer to this as category design. When working with individuals, we help craft a “category of one” – the door to an idea that didn’t exist before. When working with brands, we help create a category for them to own – a big idea that transcends current offerings. In both cases, knowing your category gives your door making efforts a place to start and a point at which to focus on.

Crafting opportunity doors does take raw ability. It also takes the work of discovering or embracing those raw abilities. If you don’t accept your own gifts and talents, it’s virtually impossible to become a door maker. And you do need to do the hard work of turning your ability into expertise and competency. And, of course, it takes courage to be a door maker.

But you can’t stop there. This is why it takes an exceptional human to become a master craftsman of opportunity doors.

I have been privileged to know a number of sensei-level door makers in my life. They have these four common traits:

  • They see the opportunity within the problem. There are lots of problem-solving experts. But the door maker is not motivated to just solve the problem. She wants to use the problem to create a door that didn’t exist before. This is what Sara Blakely did.
  • They have a robust creative practice. They understand that door making requires a ton of creative energy and creative discipline. So they place a premium on spending their time developing and nurturing creative habits. They know a consistent, robust creative practice will always produce the fruit of new ideas, new ways of thinking.
  • They have faith. For some door makers, faith can be directly related to religious or spiritual beliefs. But I’m more referring to the kind of faith that it takes to step into the void, to operate in the unknown. The kind of faith that embraces mystery’s role in creation. This is the kind of faith that encourages you to embrace your higher imaginations and doubt your lower impulses. This kind of faith only comes from within. It can’t be given, sold, borrowed.
  • They are action-oriented. When door makers have a spark of inspiration, they take immediate action. Maybe they sketch something out. Maybe they do a little research. Maybe they make a prototype. Whatever the response, they don’t just sit and think about ideas. They do something with them. When they are stuck and don’t know what to do, they just create.

Every door maker I know or studied has these four traits. But they also all have a fifth trait that is expressly and specifically unique to them. Maybe it’s calmness under pressure. Maybe it’s being great at promotion. Maybe it’s financial acumen. Maybe it’s strategic thinking. Maybe it’s charisma. I’m not entirely sure what to call this fifth trait, but I’m quite certain it is the healthy incorporation of the ego into the door making process.

Who are door makers you’ve known? What traits did she or he have that I didn’t mention?

Speaking from Experience

By LifeNo Comments

Me on Frog Rock. Photo credit: Lynna Foster

For a long time, I prided myself on having an opinion on everything. I realize now that this was an extension of my pervasive insecurity and lack of confidence. I discovered quite early in life that having an opinion and expressing it was a way to create an identity — and a way to muster validation and attention.

In my 20s and 30s, a significant portion of being a know-it-all was a survival strategy — truly faking it until making it. And despite my low conscious awareness that I was kind of a bullshitter, I used my abilities of recall, retention and expression to build a career and create some semblance of adulthood. Ironically, the quest to have people think I was smart and worthy of attention led to imposter syndrome. This is why I now believe that the best antidote to imposter syndrome is to not be an imposter.

As with most things, maturity has brought into sharp perspective the foolishness of being a know-it-all. Life will humble you. I remember one of the first times I confessed this openly. In what was one of many skirmishes with Caden when he was in his early teens, I blurted out “I think you are under the mistaken impression that I know what I’m doing. I do not know how to parent you”.

Mentors will humble you as well. One of my first mentors was a wise and kind business leader named Ed Engel. He once told me, “Justin, you are way too eager to show people how smart you are.” Other mentors like Ron Price, Dave Waldo, Larry Anderson, Jim Hollingsworth gently but persistently broke down my desperate arrogance.

Here is where I am at today …

I try to only speak about that which I have directly experienced or been a witness to. This includes both things I could experience but haven’t and things I cannot directly experience.

The list of experiences that I will never be able to speak directly to is quite long. I don’t know what it’s like to …

Be a woman or a mother.

Be a person of color.

Be an LGBTQ person.

Grow up in the inner city.

Be destitute or homeless.

Overcome a major illness.

Be an immigrant.

Battle addiction.

Face combat.

Be placed in a leadership position that requires life and death situations.

Have extensive formal training or credentialed expertise.

To speak to any of these as if from a place of first-hand knowledge is high arrogance. At a minimum, it is a kind of armchair quarterbacking but mostly it comes across as privileged ignorance. If you have not experienced something, everything you think you know about the topic is a thin and unproven theory.

Two things come out of this …

  1. I ask a lot of questions to people that have first-hand experience that I have not or can not have. This how I have learned that every woman I know has been sexually harassed in some form. And every person of color I know has experienced racism — and been harassed or profiled by cops.
  2. I will challenge those who share their opinions about what they have not or cannot experience. Most recently, it has been the criticism of governors for the way they’ve handled COVID. My question to the Monday morning critics: “What would you have done if you were in their shoes?”

There are a number of issues that I do feel confident in expressing my opinions and views on. And if you know me personally or follow me on social media, you will know that I’m not shy about expressing these things.

Being a man, a life partner, a brother, a son, a father, a friend.

Political issues — especially the death of the American conservative movement and the foolishness of basing your life on ideology.

Spirituality and religion — especially related to being a Christian.

Creativity, writing, poetry, speaking.

Being an entrepreneur, business partner, branding coach.

Rural/ag life.

Overcoming a troubled childhood and lack of formal education.

Dealing with depression and anxiety.

Battling insecurity with my body and appearance, my worth, my value.

Passions: Texas, music, football, reading, history, politics and many others.

And very soon … I will be able to speak about the experience of being a grandfather.

Most of all, I can tell you my story. I can tell you of my own journey of self-discovery. I can tell you about the arc of life. I can tell you that the mission is in the suffering. That being a victim is a waste of a life. That love is real. That for me, God is real.

My life has been enriched by these experiences. And it has been even more enriched by a vast diversity of friends who have told me their stories.

What is your story?

What have you experienced that I have not or can not?