Driving home the other day, I was listening to Alan Watts explain one of the most basic aspects of our existence. As a self-proclaimed philosopher-entertainer, Watts brought a kind levity and matter-of-fact cadence to the most complicated topics. I often think how interesting it would have been to spend time with him on his boat in Sausalito. Gently floating on the waters of the San Fransisco Bay, Watts and many others contemplated the questions explored by philosophers since the beginning of time.
With these questions, are there actually answers at all or just interpretations locked in moments of time? One of the biggest questions can be finding our place and purpose in the world. Some refer to it as carving out a niche for yourself. Carving sounds a little aggressive. It usually means removing something to form or make room for something else, which seems protective or isolating. Our world is truly about interaction with people, ideas, nature, philosophies, perspectives, particles and fields. Can you carve out a section of the ocean for your own? Sure, many countries have protected and seemingly controlled their surrounding waters, but if you move to the molecular level, it is impossible to wrap your arms around a section of the ocean. A more comical reference comes from a screenwriter friend of mine as trying to nail jello to a tree … the ultimate exercise in futility.
Our world is a collection of undulations, crests, troughs and relatively wiggly (as Watts puts it) things. From a scientific perspective, Faraday’s lines vibrate producing light. In fact, the color yellow is the visual representation of vibrations at roughly 470 nanometers. Within our own biology, electrical signals in our brains and hearts are responsible for the involuntary actions that support life. Most of what we hear are vibrations landing in the 20Hz – 20,000Hz spectrum of sound in the form of wave crests and troughs. Why do we resist the wiggles in favor of the illusion of formal structure? In our youth, we are flexible, pliable, mobile and resilient, but as we age we are tense, immobile and stuck in our ways. Rather than learning to swim, we resist, fight and struggle until we drown. Does this transformation occur because we resist embracing these wiggly lines?
Nineteen Hundred & Seventy
In one of his lectures, Watts brings up a soccer club that dazzled the planet with the fluidity of its movements, how they danced with the ball, and their almost telepathic teamwork. The Brazilian national soccer team trained, prepared and worked hard, but they also danced. They moved with the game rather than resisting and battling against it.
If you happened to witness, in 1970, the World Cup championship of soccer, you would have seen that the winning team from Brazil played soccer in the most extraordinary way. They played it like basketball. They played it dancing. The way we learned soccer when I was at school as a boy was very, very formal and ordinary and we didn’t really enjoy it. But these fellows were bouncing balls off their shoulders, off every muscle, and they had astonishing team play, while at the same time were dancing the game.
– Alan Watts
Over the last few months, I’ve embraced the idea of moving with things and resisting the urge to control them, which doesn’t mean that I am a helpless being at the mercy of the events thrust upon me. It is actually quite the opposite. This mindset is liberating. It is a sense of freedom from the shackles of what if, it is not worrying about what others think and it is resisting the urge to time travel from the present to past events and future predictions. By moving with things, we can apply our precious energy to more productive endeavors. You can resist the powerful force of a rip current as it eventually drags your exhausted body out to sea, or you can flow with it and, when the time is right, move laterally out of its influence.
Philosophers have referenced water representing something that is a mystery or something that cannot be controlled. Water is also a character in dreams where things can be what they are meant to be. What is so soothing about a body of water? Is it the sound of waves hitting the sand? Is it being immersed in something more dense than air but less defined than rock? Is it falling into a collection of things that are individually smaller but collectively larger than you? Could it be the gentle swaying of the paddle board or kayak on the surface of a lake? Is it the pleasant uncertainty of its existence? Unless you are deeply into wave functions and probabilities, it’s beautiful state of being can’t necessarily be predicted. Storms can be tracked and modeled as they develop across a vast ocean, but the present state of the waves that exist within the storm never reveal their exact form until the very moment of rise, fall and retreat. There is rhythm but not a defined form or structure. Waves are factors of probability and demonstrations of potential. It is Levon Helm’s backbeat groove rather than a rigid and unforgiving metronome. Even just looking at a body of water takes me to a very different place as it seems to be the most easily accessible and most relatable character of nature.
Water is beautiful, but it can also be devastating as it unleashes its fury. In its most destructive form, there is very little we can do to stop its actions. The force of a tsunami cannot take direction or be trained. We understand and acknowledge its power, but we don’t stand in its way attempting to reason with it or redirect it. My metaphor may seem like a stretch, but we find ourselves in similar, but less immediately catastrophic conditions every day. The catastrophe that I am referring to is even more dangerous. It is slow and sneaky, and before we know it we’ve been taken over by its unrelenting power. We fight against what should be acknowledged and embraced. This is not to say that change is futile, and that we should blindly accept our present state as the final act. One of my favorite things in the world is to identify potential, connect dots and create new things from existing things. This is the most basic form of change. Embracing change is to move with things as they transform into something new. Sometimes change is something gradual, and patience is a valuable character in the performance. Other times, change is thrust upon you with the force of a hurricane in a jarring, unpredictable and often frightening manner. In either form, great opportunity comes from change, and its forms are presented in the nature that surrounds us. Leaves and branches fall to the ground making room for new blooms, burning trees bring a fresh start for the ecosystem of the forest floor, and the sun emerges from below the parallel of the morning horizon to reveal the potential of the day.
Two Thousand & Eighteen
My wife, Traci, was diagnosed with breast cancer in early February 2018, and the news was as physically disorienting as you can imagine. I was working from my home office, and her mom came down the stairs to tell me that the doctor confirmed that the lump she identified in her left breast was cancer. I immediately felt my body trigger involuntary responses in my stomach, heart and lungs in a fight-or-flight-like response. My brain started to run away with the information reducing me to a passive audience member watching a fast-forwarded version of a documentary film predicting every twist and turn of the path that Traci and I would be taking in the coming months. All of this happened within seconds of getting the news. That moment was my opportunity to either push against something that was out of my control, or to embrace it and move with it. While not an easy task, I made an intentional effort to overcome my own biological predisposition and strive for the latter.
This was the unknown path, the mountain that hasn’t been summited and the loosely defined but presently ominous obstacle that is the way. Together, we approached the challenge with an almost innate drive and focus that had never been tapped before. We are driven people, but this felt different. We were on a plane with both pilots passed out, and we were putting the headsets on and grabbing the controls. In the vast and swirling funnel cloud of chaos that was emerging, we huddled together as the small circle of order. After the first meeting with the surgeon, who embodied the epic combination of kind friend, attentive listener, patient counselor, clinical superstar and motivating coach, we were driving home trying to digest everything. A chorus circled in my head of something that we’ve always known and really tried to embrace. Living each day as it was your last, but this time it held a deeper meaning. Our ensuing conversation took a stoic turn as I witnessed one of the bravest statements that I’ve ever heard in my life. From a place of pure gratitude, Traci said if this thing ends up getting crazy, we’ve had a great run, and that she didn’t regret a second of it. She wasn’t giving up. She was offering the most sincere thank you for our experiences in this world. It was not rooted in desperation, fear or even the negative self-talk or the why me narrative. It was a powerful thank you from a place of why not me. Most days, I find myself in awe of her strength, but this moment proved to be an exponential leap from even that high standard.
Sure, we were scared, but the first waypoint on the journey was rooted in gratitude. As we went through additional tests, doctors visits, and the all too common waiting periods that accompany this journey, her strength, focus and drive never wavered. By staying present, we were able to live somewhat comfortably in this world of uncertainty. We both leaned on our families, friends and wonderful network of people who found ways to lift us up, educate us and bring amazing logistical support to our world. While the new normal is quite different, I am so grateful that our journey down this dark, scary path was lighted by lanterns of kindness and populated with knowledgable guides willing to help us navigate the unknown.
Roughly six months later, Traci’s surgeon was blown away by her recovery that stemmed from her drive and commitment to supporting her body and mind on the path to repair itself. By electing a less common surgical approach, Traci was able to avoid radiation treatment, which can produce side effects that include more cancer. The oncologist confirmed that our decision to forgo chemotherapy was rooted in a responsible, sound position that was aligned with the mounds of medical data from various studies. We are grateful for this outcome and even more thankful that we didn’t let our initial physiological response rule over our commitment to move with things that are out of our control. If we pushed against those things, perhaps the last six months would have been a very different experience.
Twists and turns can come from many directions. A few weeks ago, I found myself thrust into another agent of change. After eight years working for a healthcare IT consulting company, I was let go. Again, my body and brain pushed me into the common biological response to such a stimulus. Initially, feelings of failure crept into my consciousness reminding me that I had lost the means of providing stability, ability and opportunity for my family. As a husband and father, this is my number one task, and at that moment, I found myself unable to fulfill that obligation. The negative thoughts and self-doubt really didn’t last that long, as this was merely another opportunity to move with something. After a late evening conversation sitting in the blue Adirondack chairs on our patio, Traci’s tremendous support and confidence left me feeling that I could do anything.
For years, I had considered a more full-time entrepreneurial approach for work, but I was scared to go all in. Conditioned by my experience, I was afraid to step out onto the tightrope without the safety net, even though the safety net dulled my senses and limited my opportunity. Sometimes you need a push to get through the next door that you otherwise wouldn’t have opened for yourself. This failure was my catalyst to launch full-time into my 10-year old audio experience company, Tunewelders, while supplementing my income with flexible, independent consulting projects in the data center and technology space. Indecision and complacency are true enemies of opportunity. External elements of change can be just what the doctor ordered. By moving with something completely out of my control, I was fully able to embrace this experience as the springboard into my next adventure.
Watts points out patterns of organization all around us that are visual examples of our effort to control something that is uncontrollable. Even phrases like let’s straighten that out or let’s square that away perpetuate the illusion that we are able to take something of one shape and transition it to another shape of our choosing that is a manifestation of our control. Do we err on the side of controlling things, when simply being there would suffice? If you take a moment to look around as your drive through a city, you see squares, straight lines and structured patterns aimed to insert a new system on the most natural of systems. I am thankful for architects, structural engineers, mechanical engineers and electrical engineers because without them, our buildings would fall, our electrical grids would fail and cold air wouldn’t flow freely from the vents in our houses on a summer day. There is a place for structure and defining the environment, and there is a time for moving with the environment. Our world is a fascinating collection of interactions that respects what exists, finds comfort in uncertain situations and resists the urge to fight when dancing is more powerful.
Challenges will remain no matter your reaction to them. Fighting and resisting is an unproductive use of precious energy that still leaves the challenge remaining. Like a sturdy ship on the ocean, we are all built for moments to move with things greater than ourselves.
The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
– Alan Watts