Saturday, January 25, 2014

Tools for the Journey #33 - New Eyes


Perhaps it's logical to think of eyes when we encounter someone who has lost the physical use of theirs. Since I first met Erik Weihenmayer in 2008 I've spent a lot of time thinking about eyes, and more importantly about what constitutes seeing and vision. Before I met Erik I never made a distinction between sight and vision; now I do.

If you ask me what is the most significant lesson I've learned from Erik I'd have to say it's the concept of having 'new eyes.' As a sighted person I undoubtedly take seeing for granted and had long made the mistake of thinking of sight and vision as synonymous. The time I've spent with Erik and as I've studied his books and heard him speak (publicly) I now am more clear in my understanding of what constitutes seeing and true vision.

Where I've been blind in my life, Erik has shown me how to have vision and new eyes both looking back at my past and also looking forward towards the future. He's shown me if I look with my eyes I'll see what's there, but if I look instead with my heart perhaps I'll see what's possible out beyond the edges of what's visible. However, if I'm truly going to 'see' in this fashion I need to use new eyes.

When I think about Erik and his vision I think about dragonflies. Why dragonflies? I suppose the easiest way to answer this is by sharing some of how the world sees dragonflies.

The dragonfly, in almost every part of the world symbolizes change and adaptation. Change in perspective and also metamorphosis of self over time as one develops a deeper understanding of life.

The Japanese word for dragonfly is 'tombo' (sounds like toe-m-bow). In ancient Japan the samurai used the symbol of the dragonfly on garments and ornaments to represent power, agility and victory and as a reminder to never give up. The dragonfly held a special significance to the samurai because their seemingly tireless movement reflected the samurai's desire to give tireless service to his feudal Lord. In Native American culture dragonflies are symbolic of transformation, speed, light and purity.

Dragonflies are characterized by their large multifaceted or “compound” eyes. Each compound eye is comprised of a collection of as many as 30,000 hexagonal lenses called ommatidia. Together, these thousands of ommatidia gather information which produces a mosaic of “pictures” within the brain of the dragonfly. With this mosaic the dragonfly has a vast and textured vision of the world which empowers them to move through their environment more purposefully. The fact a dragonfly can 'see' 360 degrees at all times symbolizes the potential uninhibited vision of the mind and the ability to see beyond limitations. 

The iridescent, reflective properties of a dragonfly’s wings and body symbolize (for me) how who we are gets ‘reflected’ out into the world. Iridescence is the ability of colors to change based on the reflection and refraction of light. As we journey we have a choice about how we reflect and refract the light (or darkness) we encounter. How we perceive this light depends on which set of eyes we're using.

Dragonflies can fly in all directions - up and down, backwards and forwards, and can also hover. This flexibility and adaptability means they can move through their surroundings with fluidity and are better able to deal with the challenges they encounter.  

Like the dragonfly, Erik is flexible and adapts to his surroundings using the mosaic of information he gathers with his version of compound eyes. Just as the dragonfly, he is a land and (through kayaking) a water creature. Both physically and metaphorically he seeks high altitudes and great depths. He's shown me by example how the willingness to have new eyes can transform challenges into catalysts for real change in my own life. The use of these new eyes has given me perspective and helped me to keep moving even during times when the desire to lay down and quit has been overwhelming.Chin up, cheer up, wake up, lighten up, persevere and reach have been resounding messages.

My new eyes have helped me to see adversity as wind for my sails rather than an anchor to weigh me down. Most importantly is the constant reminder that I always have a choice on how I see adversity.

Erik challenges me to cross the abyss which separates me from myself and does this with humor and candor and with the kindness of a true brother and compassionate friend. These words from him ring true in my head and my heart:

"Success is not just the crowning moment, the spiking of the ball in the end zone or the raising of the flag on the summit. It is the whole process of reaching for a goal and, sometimes, it begins with failure."

It's the whole process! All of it. It's the fumbling as well as the touchdown and even when I'm the very last person to cross the finish-line the important thing is I started and that I kept going; I persevered when it would have been far easier to give up. It's pressing on in the face of fear. It's the use of these new eyes when everyone else can't see what I see and trusting myself regardless of the naysayers. It's the act of REACHING not so much what it is that I reach.

On top of mountains weather can change fast. On rivers the currents can flip you over and thrash you against the rocks. In life things happen which can knock all the wind out of us in an instant. Resisting these things doesn't do any good, but using new eyes to help respond to this adversity absolutely makes a difference in how iridescent we become and thus the difference we can make in our own life and the lives of others.

The new eyes I envision for myself are dragonfly-eyes; compound eyes which provide me with a mosaic of vision. Going forward I want vision more than I want to see because I know my old eyes can play tricks on me. My old eyes are more prone to see illusions whereas my new eyes are more apt to see the 'truth' of the see what's possible. I want to be responsive, adaptable and willing to change. Most of all I want to be more creative, courageous and bold in the use of these new eyes.

Recap: New Year, New Eyes, walk on and ROCK ON! Vision - pass it on!

Blessings on the journey!

PS - For more information about Erik and his work you can visit his website:

Time Magazine wrote this about Erik:

"There is no way to put what Erik has done in perspective because no one has ever done anything like it. It is a unique achievement, one that in the truest sense pushes the limits of what man is capable of."

  "What's within you is stronger than what's in your way." - Erik Weihenmayer

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Tools for the Journey #32 - Building Muscle in Surrender and Trust

                        "Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith."
                                                                       - Margaret Shepard

If I tell the truth I'm not a huge fan of not knowing. At fifty years old I'm a planner rather than a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type person. I wish I was more the later than the former, but there it is. This being said, there are things you just can't plan for and this is where having leap-of-faith skills comes in pretty handy.

leap of faith
noun: leap of faith; plural noun: leaps of faith
1. the act of believing in or accepting something intangible or improvable, or without empirical evidence. 

The problem with planning is even with the best plans things don't always work out. You neatly cross your T's and dot your I's and you can still fail miserably. In those horrid moments when all the best laid plans completely fall apart there are a few options. First relax (yea, right) and realize this is yet another opportunity to build muscle in surrender and trust, and then take a deep breath and decide which road to take:
1. Improvisation (aka: roll with it). 2. Retreat and regroup. 3. Grab a pint of something or another and call it a day.

When faced with situations we have no control over my former Aikido sensei would say:

 "Be willing to enter the sanctuary of 'not knowing' and have the courage to wait."
                                                                                       - Wendy Palmer

The older I get the more I'm trying to reside in this sanctuary and in the 'every moment as a creation' place. It's sometimes a labor to remember to be patient with myself as I craft my days - especially when things don't go as planned! This life-walk is a constant faith-experiment and I've still got wobbly-colt legs when it comes to letting go of control and allowing 'not knowing' to be OK.

Recently I read a wonderful book: The Abounding River by Matthew & Terces Engelhart. In the book they address the importance of 'building muscle in surrender and trust.' Building muscle - who doesn't want to do that, right? These simple words transformed the way I was looking out of my eyes at a challenging situation. Maybe I don't have to fix things immediately; perhaps being patient with a willingness to not know might be the wiser path but in order to do this I'll need to build up muscles I've let atrophy.

Surrender and trust. Two small words with weighty implications; both require elasticity and vulnerability as well as leap-of-faith skills. Being vulnerable means we must give up our obsession with surefooted-ness which in turn increases our risks of stumbling and falling and being smashed against the rocks of life. Here is a story many of you may remember. It's a favorite of mine and one I often think of when I find myself clinging to, and residing in fear rather than surrender.

Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all -- young and old, rich and poor, good and evil -- the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current was what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, "I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom."

The other creatures laughed and said, "Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed against the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom!" 
But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, "See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the messiah, come to save us all!"

And the one carried in the current said, "I am no more messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure."

But they cried the more, "Savior!" all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone, and they were left alone making legends of a savior.
-- From Illusions by Richard Bach
I adore this story (Thank you, Mr. Bach) because it simply and delightfully shows the power of surrender and trust. What wonders await us when we relax our grip and let go in our lives? What marvels will we encounter when we stop clinging in fear to everything we know and instead take a leap of faith? What is waiting for us 'down stream?' Yes, there's the chance (even the likelihood) in the short term we could be smashed against the rocks but as the story told: time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

What lies ahead in 2014 is a mystery, but without a doubt there will be blessings and bruises, joy and grief, endings and bright new beginnings. Savor every glorious moment and seek growth with all your might no matter what happens. If we refuse to cling again and instead endeavor to trust the flow of the river I believe we will be lifted free from the bottom and miracles will be waiting for us down stream.

Recap: surrender and trust (repeat often)!

Blessings on the journey!

   "Doubts arise in the absence of surrender." - Ramana Maharshi

Friday, January 3, 2014

Tools for the Journey #31 - The Courage to Disappoint

                     "There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love."                                                                                    - Martin Luther King, Jr.

I've always had a fondness for cairn stones and due to the corresponding symbolism with some recent hard-as-rock life lessons I decided the first 'tool' of 2014 should have a picture of a cairn rock formation.

Cairns are found all over the world from moorlands to mountaintops and from desert to sea to tundra in the far north. The word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaelic: càrn. Historically there were practical, mystical and mythical reasons for cairns to be built. One of my favorite bits of history is this: An old Scottish Gaelic blessing is Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, "I'll put a stone on your cairn". In Scottish folklore it's believed that before the Highland Clans fought in a battle, each man would place a stone in a pile. Those who survived the battle returned and removed a stone from the pile. The stones that remained were built into a cairn to honor the dead. This was done to relate the longevity of stone to the eternal nature of the soul.

In North America and Europe the most common use for cairn rock piles is to mark trails especially in mountain regions at or above the tree line. Placed at regular intervals, cairns can be used to indicate a path across difficult terrain and are often placed at junctions where the trail direction is not obvious, and may be used to indicate an obscured danger or a point of interest.

Recently I followed my heart from New England to Alaska with the intention to live in Anchorage. I planned and worked and sacrificed to accomplish this goal and it took tremendous courage to walk across the myriad stepping stones to get there. Before I arrived many people I care about worked extremely hard to make my transition to Alaska as smooth as possible, however within a short time after I arrived I realized there was no way this was going to work. I was as certain of the necessity to leave as I had been about the desire to move there. The challenge became finding the courage to disappoint the people I love who worked so hard to prepare a place for me there and who wanted me to stay. I sure could have used a cairn formation to warn me of difficult terrain ahead.

I sat in my apartment in Anchorage in the wee hours digging deep for the courage to take the steps I knew I needed to take even though taking those steps would cause pain for myself and others. I was feeling the intensity of my own disappointment and knew it was only a matter of time before I would also have to feel the powerful disappointment of the people I love. The cairn stones of my life were teetering precariously and about to come crumbling down around me.

Rocks can be broken to pieces when hit hard enough, like your self confidence or your heart.When thrown, a rock can hurt or protect us. Rocks can be both weapon and tool just as they can be used to build a gate or wall. Rocks in rivers direct massive flows of water; with enough water flowing around them over time they change shape and become polished and beautiful as the rough edges get smoothed away. Stepping stones can help us move forward, but we alone must be brave enough to take the necessary steps to reach the other side physically or metaphorically.

The other day someone asked me what I was most afraid of and my reply was: 'not being brave.' The desire to be courageous runs soul-deep in me and has for as long as I can remember; it's a driving force pushing me across the stepping stones of life. I've never wanted to drink at the water's edge, I want to step out, I want to dive all the way in to the rocky, deep water - I want to be brave as I walk, run, climb, dance and swim out to my life. But in order to do this there are times when it's necessary to have the courage to disappoint others in order to be true to myself. And it also means sometimes I make larger than average mistakes.

I don't know if moving to Anchorage was a mistake but it was the receipt of new information after I arrived which made it clear even with the best of intentions (on everyone’s part) this was not going to work out. Once I understood this I had to get down to the business of setting things to rights, and if I was going to be true to myself I needed to find the courage to disappoint my loved ones. This has been one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do and it has not been without painful disappointment all the way around.

Life doesn’t always go as planned and things don’t always work out the way we want. People we love let us down and expectations come crashing to the ground. From there disappointment can rise up inside with an intensity that can knock the wind right out of us. It is with humility I write this blog post. My heart is heavy because even though I found the courage I needed to do what had to be done, there's also the painful awareness that people I deeply care about are now upset with me and disappointed with my decision to leave Alaska.

When I returned to New Hampshire one friend said to me: "No one is immune to disappointment but when we get stuck in regret and resentment then we're bound to miss the lesson. So, what's the lesson?" I'm still looking for the answer but I believe it lies somewhere among these 'cairn stones' strewn at my feet.

The stones:

*There are lives we lead and lives we walk away from and both can be joyful and painful in turn.
*If we seek growth then we must be willing to endure growing pains.
*Greater views comes from greater heights and this requires climbing.
*With the walls we scale and the mountains we climb there will be some falling.
*The pain we suffer often has resulting scars.
*Being true to oneself is an honorable and courageous endeavor though not always easy.
*Moccasins can only be worn by one person at a time - don't judge if you're not the one wearing them.
*The depths and heights we reach come at a price but are always worth it in the long run.
*The struggles we overcome shape who we are as people.
*The losses we've known and the losses we've caused can be painful, but pain passes.
*There is value both in the old we let go of and in the new we bravely seek.
*Success is not final and failure is not fatal; it's the courage to continue in the face of our fear which counts.
*The choice to forgive (self and others) is a high-road worth traveling.
*Sometimes it's scary to reach out into the darkness - reach anyway.
*The greatest power we possess is the love we embrace, the love we give and the love we share.

There's a line from a favorite song which keeps coming to mind these days:
 "It's a funny thing when your world falls down; it's got a way of showing you what you're all about."

At the moment it certainly feels like my world, my cairn has fallen down, but the blessing is I didn't hit rock-bottom. With the loving support of many precious friends I'm slowly but surely getting back on my feet, dusting myself off and one by one picking up my cairn stones. Yes, I've got some scrapes and bruises but they'll heal. I'm praying with time those who are disappointed in me about my decision to leave Alaska will come around and open their hearts and arms to me again because life is short and none of us is guaranteed tomorrow.

Happy New Year!
Blessings on the journey!
In-Joy and Gratitude!

Song mentioned above: The Heart of Dixie by Danielle Bradbery