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September 2015
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October 2015

The Apples in our Eyes

No matter our circumstance we have challenging lives. Each one of us is trying to improve our life trajectory and the world around us. We all want to make a dent in the universe and see our way to find peace, joy and fulfillment.

But our ability to see clearly is impaired by the VUCA world surrounding us. Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. That contributes to our visual impairment. We scan many things but we see very little. Scientists say there are about 11 million inputs to our senses at any one time and we are lucky to decipher and sense 40 of them. What we see is what we get and shapes what we do.

My mother is an accomplished artist and I asked her for an "art lesson". I told her I wanted to learn how to paint. She was amused by my request. "Oh John you are so busy, you have such important things to do, (read with just the right touch of elegant sarcasm that cuts your heart out:) you don't have time for painting." She continued, "Many people think you need special DNA or inborn talent to paint, but it is not true. You simply need the ability to see. And John you don't have time to see." (Ouch!)

She finally relented and agreed to give me a lesson. She set up three apples in her studio. I had picked up a paint brush and found a small canvas. "What are you doing?!", she queried. "I am getting ready to paint". "Before we paint we have to see", she said with a wry smile. 

Apples
Morgan Russell's Three Apples inspired by Cezanne

Mom began to interrogate me about what I saw. (At least it felt like that) And while she talked I could hear my judgmental mind take over. "Why apples? I want to paint a seascape. These aren't even very nice looking apples....." I tried to re-focus. "Do you see the purple octogonal between the red and green apples? Can you see this shadow and the negative space here? Can you appreciate the geometry of what is here and not what you think is here?" This went on for a couple of hours. It was exhausting and frustrating. As the Buddhists say, "If you are bored you have not done it long enough."

Then the apples started to come into view. I started to really see them. 

A time is coming when apples freshly observed will trigger a revolution.  Apologies to Cezanne

My mother will never know the revolution she triggered in me!

Hard to do anything if you can't see.

We are in such a rush. We put a premium on speed. But speed kills, our ability to see. We all have ADD.

Call it a lack of attention, mindfulness, or patience. We jump to conclusions. We judge and pre-judge. We want to cut to the chase because we lose interest in the plot. And we miss so much.

Not just in the world of things. But what we hear people say. What we notice about body language or facial expressions. How our food tastes. What feelings we are experiencing. And the people around us.

We are increasingly desensitized and numb and we see and feel less and less.

And through this blur our brains change and evolve. Our judgmentalism puts us on neural pathways that skip any real thought or feeling. 

We all operate this way and it under-girds our implicit biases (unconscious attitudes that impact what we see and do). These biases are not detectable through self awareness or introspection. They are embedded in our brains and may and often do, conflict with who we think we are. 

Neuroscience is showing us that we tend to convert uncomfortable matters, especially those involving humans, into abstract thoughts. In Simon Sinek's wonderful book Leaders Eat Last, he asserts: "The more distance there is between us amplifies the abstraction and the harder it becomes to see each other as human." He goes on to describe that our "abundance" both in distraction and in need overwhelm our senses and "dehumanizes" our world.

In fact when people see photos of homeless people while in fMRI, our brains don't light up where it would for people we know or like. It fires up portions of our brains where inanimate objects reside--closer to furniture. Why? Because we can't invest the time, empathy, energy, in thinking about the needy so we create a mental short cut. Nameless and faceless people can be tidily put aside as things in our cranial hard drive. 

And our sense of humanity diminishes.

Tragedy of life is what dies within us while we live—the death of genuine feeling, the death of inspired response, the awareness that makes it possible to feel the pain or the glory of others. Norman Cousins 

So much easier to talk about homelessness than about the people living in tents down the street. When we avert our eyes, hearts and minds from those in need, we lose a little of ourselves.

Mother Teresa said, "If we have no peace, it is because we forgot we belong to one another."

How do we keep our hyper space minds from building more neural pathways and our bulging implicit bias muscles? And restore our humanity.

Check our vision. Quiet our judgmental reflexes. Slow down a bit. 

Put down the paint brushes and see what is in front of us. See each other. And connect to our altruistic selves.

We are all connected and our destinies are tied to one another. Can we see that?

For me those unappealing apples triggered a revolution within me. What's your revolution?

Thanks for reading. John

 (Excerpt from a speech I gave at Minnesota Council of Foundations on October 29, 2015)


Cooking up the Supreme Career

How did we end up where we are, right now? What were the thousand of unmemorable decisions, influences, strokes of luck (bad and good), right place right time circumstances that conspired for you to be right here. Some of you are smiling and others are not. We all have stories, do we not?! While our resumes and bios give certainty of credit and trajectory, we all know better. In fact we have forgotten most of the things that really contributed to our successes. Bits of advice, mentoring moments, what friends said or did, a death, a birth, a movie you saw, a speech you heard......hundreds of things that shaped your point of view and pushed and pulled you to where you are.

Are you noticing what is influencing, could be influencing you now? Emerson

In the last 72 hours I was reminded of the subtlety and fragility of those moments and messages. When I was younger I was "too focused" too ambitious" to see so much. I was lucky to have gained anything--and I did. I feel like I see and hear so much more today. Yeah, the clock is ticking but I am paying attention with a heart and mind that knows how much I don't know. That I still have unexplored talents and potential hidden within me. 

One of my favorite books is Instructions to the Cook  describes the Zen Buddhist concept for the supreme meal. The supreme meal is when we live our life fully, wholeheartedly---a fully expressed life.

So the first principle of the Zen cook is that we already have everything we need. If we look closely at our lives, we will find that we have all the ingredients we need to prepare the supreme meal. At every moment, we simply take the ingredients at hand and make the best meal we can. It doesn’t matter how much or how little we have. The Zen cook just looks at what is available and starts with that.

  • I lead a workshop for 74 newbies in the field of philanthropy. We all paused to reflect on the unpredictable circumstances that pushed us into philanthropy--a field none of us "majored in" or can explain to our parents! So is this a way-station to something else or is this the most important opportunity of our lifetime so far ?(choose #2). How do we make the most out of what we have and where we are?
  • Visited the incredible Frank Gehry exhibition at LACMAThe genius of Frank's architecture could have easily been lost to his stronger interest in becoming a pilot. His ceramics class unexpectedly led him to architecture. He ignored his professor who told him that architecture was not his field. And later after he designed a typical shopping center in Santa Monica, a mentor asked him if he was happy designing for others. Frank quit his cushy job and took a giant leap--and the rest is history. How do we respond to self-criticism and the judgment and discouragement of others? How do we do what we love?
  • Saw He named me Malala  film where a 14 year old girl literally gets shot in the face with her destiny and becomes the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Her unique parents, her name, her incredible personality, the influences of the needs around her and the Taliban forged her destiny. How do we uphold our values and the rights of others? How do we react to tragedy, pain and threats? 
  • And then to top it off I saw Lost Angels, a gritty documentary about the fates of regular people who end up on skid row. Poignant stories of choices, challenges, misfortune, and the ovarian lottery. How do we manage our balance, sanity, finances, addictions, and demons to stay on the straight and narrow?  How do we make the most out of what we have?
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Stuff happens. Switches get flipped. New paths appear. People push, others pull. You get bored, inspired, discouraged and educated. Outside forces influence your little asteroid into a different orbit and trajectory--if you let them. What chances and changes do we prevent from happening? What do we suppress, fail to express, and under-value in our pursuit of the practical and prudent? What is right in front of you right now that you can't see because your lenses are zoomed in on what is more important to others than to you? 

All of the ingredients are in your cupboard to make the supreme meal. What do you have that you have forgotten about? What do you have that you have never tasted or used? How do you focus on where you are and what you are doing to make it supreme?

Every moment is fleeting, fragile and filled with opportunity. The emergence of your passions and purpose grow within you. Meaning and fulfillment are not foreign destinations you hope to visit some day, they surround you. You have what it takes. The possibilities within you are untapped. The opportunities around you are boundless.

I want to incorporate the flavors of the newbie beginner's mind, the outside perspective of Gehry,  Malala's courage, and the humility of the homeless into my cuisine. 

What do you want?

Put on your apron, open your cupboard, sharpen your knives---let's get cooking!!

Thanks for reading. John