Friday, February 24, 2012

Ground Training, Test Flights, and Flocks (or Not)

"The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves or have listened only to their neighbors to learn what they ought to do, how they ought to behave, and what the values are that they should be living for." -- Joseph Campbell

I have been calling this year of mindfulness a "sabbatical" or a "reboot break", but I'm not entirely satisfied with either of those terms. A sabbatical implies that my employer is giving me a leave of absence, after which I will return to my job, rested and refreshed, maybe having completed some preplanned project. A reboot break also implies a return to the same operating system, having flushed any unneeded bits of detritus out of my own personal cache. "Flying lessons" comes closer to it, implying an application of all I have learned up to now and an eventual launch into something (I'm not sure exactly what) for which I am well suited.

Like a bird learning to fly, I am doing something that many of my fellow creatures have done before. Watching other birds is helpful, but it's not going to get me off the ground. I have to actually flap my metaphorical wings and see what works for me and what doesn't. However, I can learn from the example of others -- my intentional and unintentional teachers.

Many of those teachers come to me by way of books. Karen Armstrong's books, A History of God in particular, have shown me just how much our concepts of what life is really all about are a mirror of our culture, our place in history, and our individual experiences. Knowing this has freed me to do my own refinements where the picture that has been handed down to me doesn't ring true. The Feminine Face of God by Sherry Ruth Anderson and Patricia Hopkins provides practical examples in the stories of several women who set out on their own search for what they hold most true. Julia Cameron's books (for example, The Artist's Way) provide even more specific "wing-strengthening" exercises, designed to break apart preconceived notions and bring forth what truly resonates for an individual.

I'm in the middle of reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Speaking by Susan Cain. Reading Cain's descriptions of the Harvard Business School (with its extreme emphasis on extroversion), the constant chatter of open office plans, and groups that go with the loudest voice rather than the best idea has reinforced my hunch that my own discomfort with these environments is not a shortcoming, but rather an integral part of my inborn temperament. Reading her sketches of highly successful introverts feels like stumbling upon a meeting of the elders of my native tribe.

I was especially moved by Cain's biographical sketch of The Woz (Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak to the uninitiated). Wozniak was a shy, nerdy kid, following a passion for electronics that dated back to his early childhood. His father encouraged this passion, telling him that engineers can change the world. He sought out like-minded company, which led him to that fateful 1975 meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club. What Wozniak learned at these meetings inspired him to devote many, many before- and after-work hours on what would become the prototype of the Apple computer. Wozniak built on his experience as a young tinkerer and as a calculator designer for Hewlett Packard. He built his confidence with the help of his father, his fellow engineers in the Homebrew Computer Club, and later, with his colleague Steve Jobs. These connections gave him the support and inspiration he needed, but his actual thinking and work was done alone, away from the chatter of the group, and that was the key to his success.

Other members of my tribe offer me their wisdom directly, without the mediation of a book. My yoga instructors offer weekly themes and meditations, ingrained into me by the stretching and bending that follows. The Sunday platform talks at the Washington Ethical Society take my mind in new directions, aided by the comments and conversations that follow. Friends of mine who are more experienced in blazing their own trails provide proof that it can be done, as well as practical advice and encouragement. They also provide a reminder that I'm not really blazing a completely new trail for myself.

Instead, I am turning off of the six-lane interstate highway, switching off the GPS with its constant instructions on when and where to turn. The trail I am following is narrow and barely discernible through the weeds at times, but just when I think I'm hopelessly lost, I see a blaze mark on a tree or a familiar landmark to let me know that all is well. As you see by my metaphors, I'm still hopping along on the ground. You will have to take my word that I am starting to flap my wings and test the breezes. When I start talking about thermals and updrafts, cyclones and gusts and soaring, you'll know that I'm airborne.

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