#68 – The Writing On The Wall

Thousands of years ago, people would travel to the Temple of Apollo to have their most important questions answered. In the temple, the high priestess Pythia known as the Oracle of Delphi would give the visitors her knowledge, perspective and guidance. Little did many of the visitors know, the best piece of advice was actually enscribed on the wall of the temple … Know thyself.

We try to be good at things … faster runners, shifty lacrosse players, present parents, inspiring coaches, solid writers, competant guitar players, or successful entrepreneurs. Why do we focus on improving only that which is externally facing? Couldn’t everything else fall into place if we were true masters of our own domains? If you really know yourself, couldn’t it lead to a better understanding of what brings joy into your life? It seems simple conceptually, but excuses run rampant in the competitively-oriented world of the present day. We know all the stats from our favorite baseball player, we know the essays from our favorite writers, we know our favorite songs and we can recite verses from spiritual texts. These are easy. They are merely bits of information to memorize, organize and broadcast.

But, how well do you really know you? This takes a little more effort. You have to take all of the bits of information from various inputs and synthesize them into personal meaning. If it’s difficult to answer this question (and it will be), schedule 90 protected minutes one morning with a cup of coffee, pencil and notebook. Finish the following sentence: If money were no object, I would … You may not define your entire purpose in 90 minutes, but you will certainly identify threads for further exploration.

Recently, I was asked to be a speaker at the DIG South conference in Charleston, SC. Spend the day in one of my favorite cities with curiously open-minded, multi-threaded people? Absolutely. I graciously accepted, and I am so glad that I did. While preparing my talk, it suddenly dawned on me that 52MUSINGS is my own personal research project to create space, understand myself, enthusiastically explore new disciplines, connect the dots that live in between things, generate crazy ideas and pursue them without expectation. Every time I pick up my pencil, I hear my voice processing something new building the connection between external information and my own malleable foundational knowledge. It is a commitment to know myself better than anyone else that I know. It was time to share some of the findings of my project, and off to Charleston I went.

After my talk, I spent some time with a talented photographer who told me about Don Miguel Ruiz, Jr. and his book The Mastery of Self. He said that the themes from my talk were closely aligned with Ruiz’s work. Ruiz sounded familiar, but I couldn’t make the connection at the moment. As it turns out, he was mentioned to me during an interview with musician Ruby Velle for my podcast where she referenced his book The Four Truths. Inspired by my new friend’s suggestion, I loaded the book into Audible and settled in with Ruiz on the five hour drive back to Atlanta.

Ruiz brings the culture and philosophy of his family’s Toltec tradition to light with present day examples and real life applications. The Toltec civilization held ground between the Mayans and the Aztecs in Mexico around the 10th century. As I listened to the book, I found parallels in my research and writing, especially surrounding the idea of daily oscillation between two very different worlds. Ruiz presents what I’ve referred to as the mechanical world in the form of “the dream of the planet”, which is curiously illustrated as a large party where people are conversing in various states of intoxication. We’ve all been to parties, right? Some people are initially shy, some are landing in the giddy zone after a few drinks, while others are in near black out state doing things their sober selves would find utterly embarrassing. Getting pulled into the party is easy. It’s almost undetectable as you transition from sober to intoxicated. Once in that state, a haze builds over you and clouds your experience of the world. Ruiz’s metaphor lays the foundation to explain that we run through life in a haze from one thing to the next without even realizing what we are doing. Eckart Tolle has a similar philosophy with a different taxonmony. His version of “the dream of the planet” manifests as the unconscious (mechanical) and the conscious (present) worlds. These thoughts, themes and structures are not altogether new. Rumi, Lao Tzu, Marcus Aurelius and others have all explored them through their own lens. Hollywood has even taken the concept into the sci-fi realm with The Matrix. If you think about it, we’ve all been pulled into the unconscious shuffle where we careen unknowingly into a frantic, scattered and mechanical existance.

The Toltec tradition believes there are signs that warn a potential transition from the conscious (present) world to the unconscious (mechanical) world. Ruiz presents three triggers in the form of Attachment, Domestication and Conditional Love.

  1. Attachment is being controlled by something that is not in your control. His example is our obsession with sports teams. I love team sports, and I related to this all too well. I recall being totally consumed by the fate of my favorite sports teams. If they won, “we” won and it was pure elation. If they lost, “we” lost and my day was ruined. The next time your favorite sports team loses, pay attention to your reaction. This is Attachment in action.
  2. Domestication is being conditioned by someone else to think or behave in a particular way. Ruiz presents a grandmother telling her grandson to finish all the food on his plate even when he is full. While her heart may be in the right place, she is conditioning her grandson to behave in a manner based on her beliefs and not his feelings.
  3. Conditional love is based on a qualifying principle. I will love myself if I get a better job or when I lose weight. I will love you only if you follow my rules of engagement. Ruiz suggested that the underlying solution to the disconnected haze of the mechanical world is unconditional love, or love without expectation. Forgiveness is an entry point to unconditional love. It is how you exit the party or move from the unconscious to the conscious world.

In those rare moments when you do slide and fall into a trap, as a master of self you are able to regain your awareness and recovery quickly. Rather than making things worse by lashing out or being defensive or otherwise falling into chaos joining the drama of the party, you now have the tools to regain your footing. Through the power of awareness, bouyed by unconditional self-love, you know you are doing the best you can in every moment. You no longer need to distort the world around you to fit your perception. You know who you are.

Don Miguel Ruiz, Jr from The Mastery of Self

Ruiz’s book is a practical and tangible application of mindfulness. The majority of us are not monks living in silence on a rock face in the Himalayan Mountains having made a choice to detach from the mechanical world. The world we live in is not all bad. In fact, with the right lens, it is downright amazing. Staying present in this world is not easy. We all have responsibilities, jobs, duties, and a relatively structured existance in the time-based realm. The key to being present is to understand what triggers exist that pull you from presence into the haze of the party. Just like anything we want to improve, it requires attention and intention. In Calm within Chaos and Finding Your Way (Back), I present a few of these triggers and how to deal with them.

It’s like we are all on a high-speed train, and the blurred landscape is the presence we are missing racing to what we think could be happiness. How can we know what happiness is if we don’t really know ourselves? How much of what we are doing is based on attachment, domestication or conditional love? Do we really want to go where the train is headed? The answers to these questions are closer than we think. In fact, they’ve been written on the wall the whole time. We just keep racing by them.

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