Category

Life

Finding the Center

By Creativity, Life, Self-WorthNo Comments

Life is an endless spectrum of dichotomies and paradoxes. The mind can’t handle all the variants. It likes absolutes. So it is wired to be binary and dualistic; to see issues or people as polarities then choose a side. The side we choose often becomes our identity; which informs our beliefs and behaviors. The more strident we are about our “side” the more resistant we are to staying open. This is why I’ve said that idealogy is a low form of consciousness.

Seeing the world through a dualistic lens creates a false reality. This is something all the spiritual masters and mystics throughout time have warned about. They encouraged being grounded in Reality (capital R intended) as an antidote to binary illusions. They encouraged seeing life as spherical rather than linear; allegorical rather than literal. They encouraged connectedness and oneness; of seeing humanity as a mirror of ourselves.

So where is this Reality they speak of?

It’s in the center.

It is in the tension between the paradoxes. It is in the moderated note between two sounds. It is the yin and yang in the dichotomies. It is in the center where we find both equanimity and equilibrium — that elusive balance that so many of us are seeking.

So where is this center?

The first center to find is in yourself. There are many different terms for this center, but I most like Thomas Moore’s term of “Original Self”. This is the original You; the You before life made you a constructed you. Returning to this Original Self is the great inner journey that one must take in order to find Reality. I like to envision this center of the Original Self as a comfortable chair on a high mountain. We fight and sweat and cry and bleed and walk and crawl and climb until we get there. We clamber into the chair and become witness to everything. We see Reality clearly. We are in it. We are experiencing, not enduring. We are receiving, not grasping. We are responding, not reacting.

How do you know if you’ve found your center? In Jungian terms, the traits of the core self are often called the 8 C’s:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Creativity
  3. Confidence
  4. Calm
  5. Compassionate
  6. Courageous
  7. Clarity
  8. Connectedness

If you are operating from these, you have found the center of You. You are living a true story; you are connected to Reality.

Another center to find is one I’ve written about previously: the center of the heart. This appears to be a separate but adjacent center from our Original Self. In my burgeoning experience, the center of the heart is where we find Eternal Love. I don’t mean this in a religious context. I mean that the center of our heart contains the present moment and that there is Love in every present moment if we look for it. This reminds me that no past memory or future projection is better than this present moment. No matter what our ego says about that. When you find this center you will see that Love is rooted in Reality.

From this center, you can truly love without attachment and projection — two things I’ve struggled with mightily over the years. From this center, Love is synonymous with Freedom. Anthony de Mello writes in “The Way to Love”: “I leave you free to be yourself: to think your thoughts, indulge your tastes, follow your inclinations, behave in ways that you decide are to your liking.”

The final center to consider seeking is the center of any idea or concept. When something is presented to you as binary, see if you can discern a third way in the middle. This doesn’t mean moral relativism or that everything is non-binary. I posit that ideas tend to be presented as a polarity and that by examining an idea with curiosity and skepticism, we can most often find a third way. This is the spirit at the center of community, collaboration and conscious partnership. This third way becomes a foundation rooted in Reality. It protects us from being gaslit by narcissists, manipulated by propaganda and from believing our own bullshit. It is also in this spirit that my buddy Juan and I are trying to unpack in our new podcast “I Might Be Wrong”. Here is a link to Spotify. It’s also on iTunes and Anchor.

The center of our being, the center of our hearts, the center of ideas are not fixed points. The ebb and flow of life will cause us to drift away at times. Returning to center is almost a daily effort. And when we return, we carry with us the wisdom of new experiences, failures, learnings.

Returning to the center is not easy. It will cause grief, death, loss, letting go. Your ego will fight you every step of the way. But I believe it is in this constant returning to center that we find a joyful, purposeful life. I believe it is where possibility lives. And healing. And meaning. And connection. And ultimately it is where we are in union with Reality.

Dear Mind

By Life, Self-WorthNo Comments

As this journey through a second awakening continues, I’ve been sharing here and on social what I’m discovering and experiencing. One of the gifts (said with only a slight amount of sarcasm) of a spiritual experience is that it brings the unconscious into the conscious; what’s been secretly influencing in the dark into the light. My work this weekend was focused on bringing into the light the stories my mind is telling about the current experiences.

The mind tells stories. Especially about anything that feels painful. And a spiritual experience is always painful. The mind is just doing its job: to create a framework to attempt to understand a painful experience. This is a survival mechanism and an evolutionary trait. The mind is a problem-solving, meaning-making machine.

We’d like to think we are sane and rational beings. But look at how the mind can turn a piece of input and either twist into the shape of an ogre or inflate into a magical unicorn. The stories of the mind are consistently and shockingly wrong.

The mind will tell stories about the standard experiences of life. But something different happens in the mind during a spiritual experience. The mind can not comprehend it. So it treats it all as trauma and makes up stories about it. These stories produce an incredible amount of mental anguish. They are exhausting and constant. Thus, my motivation to divorce myself from them.

There is always a catalyst that causes my mind to make up a story. It could be an external thing like a strange noise outside at night. Or one of the thousands of internal triggers that we simply call thoughts and feelings. I have no actual control over the stimuli (catalyst) or the response (the story). Past experiences have set these deep in my mind.

But listening to the stories of the mind is a habit; an unconscious impulse.

And we now know that you can’t eliminate an old unhealthy habit — you have to replace it with a new healthy habit.

So how do I break this habit and what do I replace it with?

It starts with this …

I can refuse to participate in the story. I can be a witness to it, not a character in it. That is 100% my choice.

This allows a new healthy habit to emerge … to live a true story.

The true story is the spiritual experience. It is whatever my body, heart and soul are experiencing. NOT how the mind is processing those experiences. Further, I’m learning that I can’t be in the spiritual experience and also be in the story my mind is telling at the same time. I have to choose which story to be a part of.

Much of the habit of listening to stories of the mind comes from unprocessed or suppressed emotions. So when I can stop thinking about what I’m feeling and just feel, I discover the true story. You know you’ve found the true story when you feel it all in this present moment; when the spiritual experience and the true story have no distinguishable separation.

Another helpful tool in breaking this habit …

I’ve been listening to Sarah Blondin’s “Coming Home to Yourself” series on Insight Timer. One of the exercises she recommends is to change your relationship with your mind and the stories it tells. She used the example of writing your mind a letter. So I did the same thing …

Dear Mind,

I love you. Thank you for being such a loyal friend and constant resource. I’m here in large part because of you. But pain has distanced us; making us suspicious of each other. I don’t want you to be an enemy. I want to be friends again; allies again. In order to do that, I must ask that you stop defining my story as pain. I must ask that you not seek information to soothe your fears. I must ask that you not fill the unknown with false stories. I know you are here to catalog information, to solve problems, to strategize, to keep my body alive. Please use all of these skills to be the guardian of the true story. Please be a faithful soldier to my heart. I still need you. I just need you to catch up and align with where the rest of me is. 

Love, Justin

Breaking the habit of listening to the mind’s stories is producing even great sensitivities in my being. As I think less and experience more, the emotions I’m feeling around love, grief, yearning, absence are even more pronounced. In an effort to protect me from these feelings, my mind suppressed the flavors of living a true story.

Most of my life has not been living a true story. I don’t judge myself for this. I did not know then what I know now. And I know that pain separated me from my soul and became much of my identity. I know that I exiled myself repeatedly in order to seek validation and legitimacy. I know that I often pretended to be something I wasn’t. And I know that I believed the stories my mind was telling.

This second awakening is also a second opportunity to live a true story. A trusting, tender, vulnerable, evolving story full of Love, radical honesty and intimacy. This is the story I want to participate in.

Heart Work Sucks

By Life, Self-WorthNo Comments

Credit: Reuters/Dwi Oblo

 

At least my mind is telling me that. More on that in a bit. 

As you may have pieced together from my recent essays and musings on social, I’m smack dab in the midst of a second awakening. I’m essentially live-blogging it all; feeling called to share in words what my soul, heart, mind and body are experiencing. 

Awakenings put you through the wringer, the sifter, the refinery, the crucible. They heal by cracking you open. They lift you up by knocking you down. But in the chaos and reordering, some order does begin to emerge – one of the first being an emerging understanding of the context of the story. This is the “why” of the experience. The point to it all.

As far as I can tell so far, this awakening is about leaving the cozy confines of co-dependency and embarking on a long trek to reach a new place I’m simply calling Intimacy.  I am choosing the term Intimacy quite specifically. Intimacy means becoming close with; touching. I am becoming intimate with fear. And doubt. And uncertainty. I’m also becoming intimate with vulnerability, creativity and resiliency. An awakening of this magnitude is the opportunity to become intimate with my unhealed wounds – even becoming intimate with my trauma responses that are an inevitable part of a spiritual experience. 

And it most definitely means becoming intimate with my own heart. 

Yuck. 

I really don’t want to do that.

Alas, a question from a friend (a young woman with an ancient soul) showed me it was time to do just that: touch my own heart. I was sharing with my friend about how the waves of loneliness were leaving me paralyzed and wrecked. I lamented that loneliness was arriving as “wolves at the door”. You see, trauma responses for me are always about fight – almost never about flight or freeze. So like everything else in my life, I wanted to fight, defeat them, eliminate these wolves. Then she asked: What if these weren’t wolves? What if loneliness is an invitation to examine a deeper part of your own heart? 

Ah shit. 

That immediately rang true. 

So yesterday, I set aside some solitude time in nature to examine her questions. I had some tears-inducing epiphanies in doing this work. If prompted by the Muse, I will share these discoveries at some point. But the point of this essay is not what I discovered – it’s how I did it; how I got into my heart and what that experience was. 

Now for some of you, the idea of getting into your heart is easy-peasy. But not for me. The Fighter in me is both suspicious and terrified of the heart. I’m all cool with getting into my mind and my soul. I’m good at philosophizing about love; about intellectualizing feelings. I was all fine and good with examining my feelings and emotions. And I understand the absolute necessity for an open and soft heart. What I believe I had avoided until yesterday was journeying into the center of my heart. 

Here’s what I’m discovering about deep heart work …

  • The best starting point for heart work is inquiry; of asking the heart the right questions. As such, my friend’s prompt was quite helpful. It sparked curiosity as a counterbalance to the resistance to doing this work.

  • You have to really want to know the truth of what’s in the center of your heart. There’s no guile there. No lies. No illusions. You can’t bullshit this part of your heart. This takes tremendous courage – which is a behavior, not a feeling. In doing this work, I found myself repeating “You are brave. You are brave. You are brave.”

  • The Buddhist practice of Tonglen has been extremely helpful – essentially noticing the pain and suffering in the world around you and breathing it in, then breathing out compassion. On the drive home from my time in nature, I had the opportunity to practice this. I saw an older man with health issues pushing his motorized scooter across the street. Rather than just feel bad for him, I placed my hands on my heart and breathed in his sufferings. I felt his anger, his embarrassment, his fear. Then tears streaming down my face, I breathed compassion out to him. Wow. I remember thinking “so this is what it’s like to love from the center of your being.”

  • Part of the reason why I say heart work sucks is that it left me ragged and exhausted. You know that high you get when you have an inspiration or an epiphany? Yeah. I had none of that. For me heart work is self-traumatizing. The more time I spent in the center, the more my mind fought back. I found myself experiencing trauma responses (stomach ache, hunger, anxiety, vertigo, shortness of breath) all the rest of the day. I had gotten too close to the bananas and now the monkeys were letting me have it. 

The two biggest lessons I’m learning about heart work so far are this:

  1. Whatever feelings you dislike the most are an invitation to examine this deepest part of you.

  2. Once you find out what’s in the center of your heart, the first person to receive it is you. Once you’ve figured that out, you can begin sharing it with others. 

So yeah. Heart work sucks. But I need it. I need to know this center of my heart and love myself and others with it. This center is the key to Intimacy. Which is the whole point.

The Secret Governors

By Life, Self-WorthNo Comments

An unaware mind is a banana republic

Even before you are born, life begins to teach you. All of these early inputs are sensory — and possibly energetic. At some point in our development as a child, we began to be taught with words and experiences. These words and experiences then form meaning, mindset and mental structures. In turn, these form our narratives; how we see and approach and respond to the world around us. Some call these loops, stories, inner dialogue. I prefer the term “narrative” because these words are carefully crafted by the psyche.

This is all healthy and normal.

Until it is not.

A childhood that is full of intense and/or chronic trauma hijacks the mind’s meaning maker. It produces a set of narratives that secretly govern the lives of trauma survivors. Or as Jung put it, “That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our lives as fate.”

Trauma is part of my story. I sincerely thought most of it had healed or been addressed — until some recent experiences once again brought the unconscious into the light. I don’t share this for sympathy or necessarily as part of my own healing process. Here’s why I share … for the past 7 years, I’ve realized that part of my role in this life is to share my own learnings from trauma — both in childhood and adulthood. This is why I have “The Mission is in the Suffering” tattooed on my right forearm. In addition, I am not a certified expert in this field. So while I can empathize with your experiences, I can only share what I’ve learned from my experiences.

This weekend, I began to re-examine some of my secret governors; the negative narratives that have influenced much of my thinking and point of view. As I unpacked these negative narratives, I replaced them with a new narrative. I will write more about these new narratives in next week’s essay.

Narrative: Life is inherently negative.

This is a common narrative for survivors of childhood trauma. In essence, our minds are programmed to assume the worst. While every behavioral style has a different response to this narrative, mine has been about proactively protecting myself — primarily through conflict and aggression. In short, if I think something or someone might hurt me, I’d rather unilaterally fight it.

This narrative also taught me what it thought was an important lesson: better plans = better future. If I had a good strategy and executed it properly, then I would not be hurt by the outcome. This taught me to use worst-case-scenario as a planning tool — that if I could avoid that, then I would be safe and happy.

Further, I was heavily influenced by Christian fundamentalism — which is steeped in anti-self negativity. It teaches us that life is already hard, but our humanity makes it harder. So we need a redeemer, a savior — so that we can have a safe life.

New narrative: Life is inherently good.

Narrative: Relationships are about healing, fixing, completing each other.

Through a lot of deep work and outside counsel, I’m learning how an ingrained fear of rejection has governed me in how I approach relationships. (If you are curious about the impact of rejection, check out this article on rejection sensitivity dysphoria.) For me, life’s purpose was to prevent the pain of rejection.

This narrative taught me that the primary purpose of a relationship is to be healed, fixed or completed. This produced a rescuer/tormentor dynamic that affected how I responded in a number of key relationships. It also produced high levels of unconscious codependency.

Finally, this narrative taught me that being alone was a failure; that it was bad. I’m learning right now how untrue that is.

New narrative: Relationships are about conscious partnerships and friendships.

Narrative: Hard work guarantees success

This is where my “make it happen” mindset comes from. This narrative taught me that effort, intelligence, commitment and competitiveness are where success comes from; that if I have enough of these in the right formula, then good things will happen. And if I fail or don’t like the outcome, it’s because I was missing something. And that missing something is a weakness or frailty. This narrative caused me to impose my own will on my life; to shape it and direct it to what I thought would make me happy. This narrative taught me that relaxation is bad, rest is bad, feeling tired is bad.

This narrative taught me to use “make it happen” in the above two areas. What I thought was decisiveness was really just a way of applying hard work to not being hurt.

New narrative: Discipline equals freedom. (Borrowed from Jocko Willink)

These narratives have overtly or subtly produced a set of behaviors that can be summarized as CONTROL. Control …rejection, feelings, image, time, others.

By examining these narratives, I realize that I no longer actually believe ANY of them in my conscious mind and in my soul. But they still influence me. When I’m hungry, angry, lonely or tired, they still try to hijack my mind. They will unconsciously cause me to doubt and fear. They erode my trust in God, in my own soul. They weaken my sense of worthiness. They make me suspicious of my masculinity.

What has been most surprising to me is how distant from reality these narratives are. Sure, some elements of life are negative. But that’s part of life. And some relationships bring more joy and self-awareness than others. And hard work is often necessary.

This is the power of awareness; the power of elevating your consciousness. Both produce a sweet aroma of freedom as we begin to release these narratives and the need to control everything. How am I doing that?

#1: Do the inner work of both mind and spirit. For me, this means softening, receiving, responding, waiting, patience. In means discerning between mental anguish and soul yearning. It means speaking up when my soul prompts me to. It means both the faith of perseverance and the faith of imagination.

#2: Bring them to the light here in my writings, on social, on podcasts, in conversations. This is the power of vulnerability that Brene talks about. Ironically, I’m was much more comfortable being vulnerable with strangers and am still learning to be vulnerable in my close relationships.

Thank you for receiving this. I hope that it inspires you to examine your narratives and behaviors. I hope that it opens a doorway of hope. I hope that it reminds you that we all have the power to choose how we respond to life.

The Will to Surrender

By Life, Self-WorthNo Comments

Cory Hart’s Never Surrender Face

Two caveats …

First, my ego doesn’t want me to write this essay. It effing hates the idea I’m proposing.

Second, I’m using the term “context” in this piece. In this case, context is an ontological term taught to me by my very smart friend, Alan Prushan. It is similar to a perspective or a point of view: it’s the meaning we assign to something we see. Everything meaningful starts with context. Context determines mindset, which determines actions, which determines outcomes.

As I’ve written about prior, I’m going through a second awakening. This awakening is freeing me from dependency; from exiling myself in order to receive validation, legitimacy, etc. As I drove to my new place yesterday morning (a move is one of the many big changes during this time), I realized that no known untruths remained in my life. Everything had been swept clean. But it hasn’t been easy. It truly has been a “dark night of the soul.” Over the past two months, I’ve had more white-knuckle moments (especially at night) than I can count. Waves upon waves of fear, doubt, anxiety pummeling my being and sucking me out to the Sea of Despair. This was especially true last night as I tried to sleep.

This morning, I woke up with an epiphany resting gently on my consciousness. Like a gift from God left overnight. I realized that I’ve been treating this entire time as a challenge; a battle of wit and will. This makes sense. I am a D in the DISC, an Enneagram 8, a Scorpio. I am wired to face challenges. I’m wired to fight. So much so that much of my identity has been tied to competitiveness, winning, effort, willfulness, relentlessness, pertinaciousness. Further, I come from pioneer blood and cowboy ethic. We. Don’t. Quit. I was also raised in the American ethos bellowed by the Boss:

Cause we made a promise

We swore we’d always remember

No retreat, baby no surrender

And wailed by Cory Hart:

And when the night is cold and dark

You can see, you can see light

’Cause no one can take away your right

To fight and to never surrender

Back to the epiphany …

What if I saw this time as something different than a challenge? Ok, so what is the opposite of a challenge? In this examination of context, I determined that the more accurate term would be to describe this as an experience.

And what do you do in an experience?

You surrender.

Yeah. There it is. My ego hates that word. Surrender means quitting, passivity, weakness, right?

But this is a spiritual experience. My will and wiring to win are detriments, not determinants. My will promises the false idea that surrender is optional — that with the right amount of cleverness and persistence, I can determine the outcome of this experience. Here’s the reality: surrender is the only option if I want to grow; if I want a relationship with Truth.

Accepting surrender feels like a death. Because it is. It is the death of a level of selfhood that I’ve held on to for 50 years. That’s why my ego hates it. That’s why the idea of surrender causes fear to reach its cold hands into my stomach and twist and tear.

But when I change the context of surrender to being the only option in a spiritual experience, a bright new idea emerges: in the spiritual realm, surrender is the ultimate act of bravery.

So how do you surrender to a spiritual experience? I honestly don’t really know but I think it starts with:

  • Accepting reality; accepting what Michael Gungor refers to as “thisness”.
  • Questioning the context of everything.
  • Lay everything on the altar of your preferred term for a Higher Power.

And what exactly am I surrendering? Well, that’s a long list:

  • Attachments
  • Timing
  • Plans
  • Outcomes
  • Narratives
  • Ego-based beliefs
  • Illusions
  • Roles
  • Frameworks

A key term in this kind of surrender is “nevertheless” — a term frequently used in various scriptures.

“Nevertheless, not my will but yours.”

“Nevertheless, I will go.”

“Nevertheless, I will be still.”

Nevertheless is a faith-based action word — the act of surrendering it all while continuing on.

For me, faith is surrender’s best and most vital friend. Faith used to be a system I followed. Or what I turned to when my plans didn’t work out. Now, faith is how I am living. Each step a step into the void. Hounded by fear. Step. Haunted by worry. Step. Dogged by doubt. Step. Making a bold decision. Step. Expressing my heart. Step. Healing my wounds. Step. Faith is the sovereign person’s only offensive weapon; the only lantern. Step.

I’m starting to see the promises of surrender slowly emerge. One of them being this …

Everything my soul yearns for is on the other side of total surrender.

So applying my will to try to get what my soul wants is pure folly. In fact, bringing a mindset of problem-solving, willfulness, obstinance, overcoming obstacles — any form of dominance — brought into a spiritual experience is painfully foolish.

There is no “winning” in the Divine. Victory is had by surrender, not by dominating. There is no battle. Only the experience.

And because my ego hates this, it must be true.

And because I have an ego, I will forget this. Please remind me.

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.

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?