Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Benefits of Risk Taking

Last night I watched a mostly unknown Ukrainian tennis player beat the number four player in the world. I’m glad I’m writing his name because I certainly can’t pronounce Alexandr Dolgopolov. This guy was awesome and so fun to watch. It was extreme tennis, full of improvised shots and nonchalant flair. He played like he had nothing to lose. So he was free to give it his all. It made me think about taking risks. I want to live my life like Alexandr Dolgopolov plays tennis, and take more risks.

Are you a risk taker? Consider these questions-

Do you look for 100% certainty before making decisions?
Do you talk to strangers?
Do you challenge people in authority?
Would you take out a loan for a vacation?
Would you apply for a job you feel under qualified for?
Do you share private thoughts and feelings with new acquaintances?
Would you go sky diving?
Are you willing to be a minority of one on matters of personal opinion?

If you answered “no” to all, you are a safety first kind of person. The world needs people like you. You offer much needed skepticism and caution on issues of change and risk. As long as you feel fully satisfied in your caution, then have at it. Or else maybe you answered “yes” to some. Maybe you are cautious in some areas of life and not others. Maybe you would quit a well paying job to follow your passion, but not jump out of plane in a million years. Or maybe you would climb the steepest ice covered peak but never challenge your boss under any circumstances.

Do your own risk assessment and trust your instincts. Think about taking some risks in new parts of your life to remind yourself to step beyond your comfort zone. As a parent, I want to empower my kids to get to know their own risk boundaries and growth points. However I also want my kids to know that certain things like texting while driving are bad risks. Learning your own boundaries around risk taking is about living with forgiveness. We too often pass up risks for fear of being trapped, because we forget that life offers second chances. Risks are part of life’s inbuilt signposts. Risks either give you momentum to continue or a warning to stop. Either way, you know you’re alive. As Anais Nin said, “I postpone death by living, by suffering, by error, by risking, by giving, by losing.”

When it comes to matters of the heart, life calling or personal development, we could all do with a little nudge in the direction of taking greater risks. In order to be all that you can be, and push beyond self limiting boundaries, you will need to take some risks. These inner risks are far more heart stopping than physical risks but the payoff is enormous. I heard an interview with a group of climbers who described the relationship between climbing and risk taking. One said, "I climb so I don't feel like a robot, so I feel like I'm doing something that is motivated by the 'self.'" Another said, "There's a freshness to the climbing experience that clears away the weariness of routine and the complexity of social norms. Climbing brings you back to a primal place, where values are being created and transformed." Risk taking is part of how you discover the boundaries of where you end and others begin. When you push off from the guard rails of society’s norms, you get a clearer sense of who you are at your essence.

Without risk, you would never escape from the prison of who you think you have to be to satisfy the critics into the fullness of your true self that always was. The irony is that you need to take risks in order to move beyond the small self that keeps itself alive by believing there is too much at stake. There isn’t. There is more of substance in a tennis ball than in the small self’s delusions of permanence. It’s all changing, all the time. The greater risk is to mistake a memory or an idea for the way things really are, for then you risk missing the moment. At your essence you know what is true risk and what is ego’s games, and you know that risk is necessary because on the other side of the risk lies freedom.

As you blossom, you realize that there are very few real risks because there are no mistakes. When you are grounded in inner peace, whatever you do is appropriate and if you have to adjust your course, you do that and move on without self blame or judgment.

We live in a world that offers few certainties. The fearful have just as much risk of tragedy as the bold. Put your fears at ease. Remind them that you are whole and lovable, abundant and brilliant to begin with and this essence doesn’t need to be protected. Shine a light on your fear and it will be revealed for what it is. What fear called risk will soon be revealed as opportunity.

As Glenn Close’s character says to a group of acting students in her recent film Heights, “For Christ’s sake, take a risk sometime this weekend.” Its good advice, on stage, on a tennis court and in life. Take a risk, if for no other reason than to remind yourself that you are alive and you are open to the adventure of whatever’s unfolding. Take a risk to remind yourself that the beauty of life is that it offers no certainties. It is open and dynamic. Open your heart to love. End a relationship that has run its course. Make a decisive career move. Initiate a difficult conversation. Ask someone on a date. Book the sky diving adventure. Speak to a stranger.

Be safe by all means. But don’t forget to truly live while you are alive. To end with the words of one of my favorite American philosophers, William James, “It is only by risking that we really ever live at all.”

Soulseeds has a wonderful way to help relieve the stress of grasping that which cannot be controlled and living with freedom. Our Inner Peace E-Retreat offers daily inspiration and guidance delivered directly into your inbox.
We also have a packet of 20 Inner Peace affirmations, purchased in digital form or in printed cards.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Sweet Sound of Surrender

Do you sometimes feel like you are holding on for dear life? Holding on to people and places, perspectives and plans, as if you’re holding a baby in a shower. You imagine that to loosen your grip even a little would lead to disaster. After all, it’s a baby, delicate and tiny, and it’s slippery. True enough, but the thing is that you’re not holding a baby in the shower. It’s more like you’re holding soap and the tighter you hold it the more likely it is to slip through your fingers and crash to the floor.

What would happen if you stopped holding on for dear life and tried letting go for dear life? Let go of your carefully laid plans and your tightly controlled life in order to claim the dear Life that is waiting to greet you. It’s bigger and better than anything you could dream up with your over protective mind. Your protective mind convinces you that life is too fragile and too serious to leave anything to chance. But what if life is not as serious as you imagine. What if the hokey pokey IS what it’s all about? Practice a little hokey pokey right now. Put your toe in and feel the waters of surrender, then pull it out and compare the feeling- surrender or control, which feels more alive? Put your hand in and feel the temperature of trust, then pull it out and see if you feel anywhere near as alive as you did inside surrender. Practice dipping into surrender, and then in moments of abandon, put your whole self in and feel the freedom. Put your whole self in and shake it all about to fully experience what it is to truly be alive. Put your whole being in and bow before the moment, with all the innocence you can muster, and declare yourself its humble servant.

Once you’ve done the hokey pokey, trust me, you won’t want to go back. It’s like your first time downhill skiing, terrifying and enlivening at the same time. Or the first time you free fall in love, frightening and irresistible in the same breath. In these moments, surrender becomes your new reality. You discover that you enjoy this new dance after all and wonder why it took you so long to give in to surrender’s charm. It’s these real life experiences of new freedom that give you insight into the true self, the one that was always meant to be and has nothing to fear or protect. Surrender is the prelude to transformation. It’s the hokey pokey theory of transformation- put your whole being in surrender’s dance and turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about.

Here is a short list of things that most of us would love to surrender- beliefs that are an affront to your common sense, self limiting beliefs, co-dependent relationships, financial burdens, lingering grief, unsolvable problems. What else would you like to surrender?

Here are some of the benefits in surrender- you feel more spontaneous, less inhibited, your experience more surprise (which is close to wonder), less anxiety, less baggage, better sleep, greater wellness, more peace of mind. And more.

So are you up for a little boogie on the hokey pokey dance floor of surrender?

But I hear your protective mind now. “He doesn’t understand”. It’s saying. “Life is slippery. You’ve got to be careful. In any case, you’ve worked hard to liberate yourself from surrendering to the will of a judgmental God and the snare of a controlling religious system. So what’s all this about surrender? I thought we were done with surrender.”

Two Extremes of Surrender

We are and we aren’t done with surrender. It depends what you mean by surrender. There are two extremes of surrender that we do well to avoid, and instead find a middle path that takes the best from both extremes. Let me illustrate with a visual comparison from New York City. If you visit 5th avenue in Manhattan you find two very different buildings on opposite sides of the street. On the west side at 630 Fifth Avenue you will see the 1920’s art deco building financed personally by John Rockefeller, the Rockefeller Center. It’s a monument to post WW1 optimism and humanism. Standing tall at the front of the building is a massive, seven-ton, 15-foot tall bronze statue of the heroic Greek god of weightlifting, Atlas. Atlas stands strong and tall, his muscles straining, with the world on his shoulders. Atlas was the most powerful God/man of all time, and yet strains to hold the weight of the world on his shoulders, a punishment for his revolt against Zeus.

On the east side of the street stands a building that was completed 50 years earlier, the neo Gothic St Patrick’s Cathedral. Designed to look other worldly with tall spires pointing to God in the heavens, St Patrick’s has a shrine to the boy Jesus behind the high altar. Jesus, maybe 8 or 9 years old, is effortlessly holding an orb in one hand. The point implied is that God came to earth as a child who would hold the weight of the world’s sin in the palm of his hand.

On one side of the street is the symbol of other worldly surrender, and on the other side is the symbol of “no surrender”. On the one hand, many of us have moved beyond the “whole world in his hands” version of God. We refuse to bow down to a God whose “will” is for some people to be saved from eternal punishment in hell. We refuse to surrender our intellect by submitting to pre-scientific ideas about the afterlife and we refuse to give unthinking loyalty to questionable ancient texts. We refuse to surrender our personal responsibility by submitting to the will of God as often presented by churches. Many of us would feel that we have grown up and beyond surrender as a passive white flag, waiting for God to act in the world.

Christopher Hitchens said it well,

“Faith is the surrender of the mind, it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other animals. It’s our need to believe and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me…. Out of all the virtues, all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated.”

Or else this fun story shows the dilemma for a modern person to surrender to a supernatural being.

A guy was driving to an important meeting and couldn’t find a parking place. Looking up toward heaven, he said “God, I surrender to your power. Find me a parking place and I will go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life and maybe even give up tequila.” Miraculously, a parking place appeared right in front of him. He looked up again and said, “Never mind. I found one myself.”

While the superstitious view of surrender is problematic to many of us, the alternative presented by Atlas is equally problematic. Considering the weight of the burdens you carry and the weight of the burdens your loved ones carry, burdens that you wish you could step in and ease, if only you COULD carry the whole world on your shoulders. But you know you can’t because you have tried and when you tried, the soap ended up on the shower floor. You are powerless to control your life to your ego’s satisfaction, and you are certainly powerless to save the world around you from suffering. Even the titan John Rockefeller, as successful and generous as he was, couldn’t solve the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the face of the deepest personal demons and society’s gravest challenge, even Rockefeller couldn’t hold that burden on his shoulders.

I’m interested in a third path of surrender that runs straight down fifth avenue taking the best from both the east and the west, well clear of blind submission and somewhere short of vein narcissism. I believe there is a middle path, and I believe it is a truth that is intuited by spiritual traditions of all varieties as it is intuited by self aware people in all times and places.

Surrender as Universal Truth

Whether its surrender to a higher power, submission to a guru, trusting your highest self or accepting reality as it is, surrender is one of the most profound universal truths. Take Islam for example. The word “Islam” is an Arabic part of speech relating to the divine name and means surrender, or maybe more accurately “come peacefully”. It’s interesting that most religions are named after a person, eg Christianity and Buddhism or a group of people, eg Judaism, or a place, eg Hinduism, but Islam is named after its central theme which is surrender. Despite the common misperception of Islam as a religion of blind devotion, many Muslims, and particularly within the Sufi branch of Islam, practice surrender by giving up their own needs so that others’ needs can be met.

There is a story told about a Sufi elder who lived a quiet life. When the woman next door became pregnant everyone wanted to know who the father was. In order to protect the real father, she gave the name of the Sufi elder. The village insisted that the Sufi raise the child. The Sufi made no fuss and said, “Alright. Leave the child.” Years later, the mother got married and finally confessed that the Sufi was not the father. The village apologized to the Sufi and asked for the child back. He gave them the child and said, “Alright. Take the child.” He surrendered his own need to be right to put the needs of others first.

Christianity, like Islam, emphasizes surrender as obedience to a Creator God. However there is a new thought added to the notion of surrender by Paul. He spoke of surrender as “dying to self”. This gets closer to the Buddhist notion of surrender, which is to transcend any one fixed identity. Surrender the fixed idea of who you are and you will find liberation. Stop grasping the you that you were yesterday or the relationship as it was yesterday or the world as it was back then. The present moment is another name for the object of your surrender, with you doing the hokey pokey in the middle of the moment, becoming all you need to be.

This raises the question as to whether there needs to be a God as an object for surrender. It certainly makes it easier. But since when is surrender supposed to be easy. Even without a belief in God, surrender to your highest self, the part of you that holds your highest intentions. Even if there is part of you saying “live for yourself. Just do what feels good. Take care of number one.” there is a higher voice that calls you beyond narcissism. Surrender to this voice.

The Recovery movement also emphasizes surrender in its first three steps. It introduces the idea of rock bottom. When you get to the point where the burden feels too great and you’ve tried everything to solve the problem, including denial, avoidance, self destruction, and sheer will power, but nothing will do it, you hit rock bottom. Rock bottom is a psychological breakthrough point where you admit that you can’t do it alone. You ask for help, whether its help from a higher power, or a support group. The empowering thing about the image of rock bottom is that it’s from this point that you can build a pile of rocks to create something to begin climbing out of despair. Addiction or not, we all get to this point in life when you knock on the door of a friend, a therapist, coach or spiritual guide and say “help”. This is the point of surrender, and it’s not a negative experience. It’s a liberating experience to realize that you can’t do it alone, don’t have to do it alone. You’re better off not doing it alone. Surrender is an expression of humility, a readiness to seek help and a prelude to transformation. The transformation revolves around serenity or acceptance. Stop giving anxious energy to things that you can’t control and begin taking responsibility for things you can control.

Surrender Beyond Submission

A surrendered way of life is anything but passive. It’s more alive and proactive than anything you experience when you think you can control life. Don’t confuse submission and surrender. Submission is passive. Surrender is active. Submission is deadening. Surrender is enlivening. Submission squashes the ego; surrender transcends it. Submission is when you give in. Surrender is when you give up. Submission is something you consciously do and maybe you hold on to resentment as you do it. It is often more superficial and obligation based. Surrender is a point beyond conscious decision where you intrinsically and subconsciously let go. As Blaise Pascal said, “All of our reasoning ends in surrender to feeling”. The only conscious steps you can take are to remove the barriers to surrender like peeling back the layers of an onion.

How can you tell if you are submitting or surrendering? If you feel guilt or a loss of personal power, you are likely submitting. If you feel more alive and more yourself in an essential way, then you are likely surrendering. If you feel put upon and isolated, you are likely submitting. If you feel liberated and connected, then you are likely surrendering.

Two monks were travelling in the woods when they met a woman who couldn’t cross the river because of the current. One of the monks asked her if he could pick her up and carry her across. She agreed. They crossed the river and let her down. They went their separate ways. After another mile or so, one monk was feeling anxious and troubled and finally told his friend, “You were wrong to carry that woman over the river. It is against our tradition to touch a woman.” The monk who had carried the woman responded, “My friend. I set the woman down miles back. You on the other hand are STILL carrying her.”

In this case, the decision not to carry the woman was based in submission to tradition’s rules. The decision to carry her was based in surrender.

Are you carrying people, relationships, ideas, beliefs, plans, that you would be better off surrendering? Prepare yourself for a sweet surrender by peeling the back the layers of self protection. Yes it might hurt. Yes it’s frightening. Yes it will be different. Yes, you might need to give up some cherished idea of who you are, some familiar comfort you find in the grief. But surrender is a prelude to something far greater- a transformation that will leave you feeling so alive that you will wonder why you didn’t try this years ago. You neither have to surrender your highest values nor do you have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. Surrender to the moment and all its beauty.

In the words of Elvis, your heart will be on fire, burning with a strange desire to be one with the moment. All the stars will tell the story of surrender’s love and all its glory. Make this a time of magic, and a time of love. Won’t you please surrender? Namaste.