Sunday, May 31, 2009

Receptive Soil

Some seed fell upon rocky soil.

A whole bunch, actually. A couple of weeks ago I haphazardly spread some shady lawn seed across several large patches in my front yard where shrubbery once stood. The shrubbery was the casualty of my new axe. The mission for this summer is to grow some grass.

However, I had not properly tilled the soil. The earth was hard and unyielding. A few tiny blades of grass began to sprout up after 10 days or so, but with hardly the stamina that could ever make them viable participants in the community dynamic known as a lawn.

And so, somewhat spontaneously yesterday morning, I took a large shovel and began to turn the earth, making the soil much more receptive to the seeds. I used a rake to flatten out the large bumps that had existed. I showered the dirt with water, then added an exponentially larger amount of seed before watering once again. This morning, a bit sore, I watered once more, and will continue the watering pattern for days if not weeks to come.

I am pondering these days what things keep me from being a habitat where certain qualities might take root and grow in a sustainable fashion. It could be that some surfaces need to be completely unearthed, begun again from scratch, with fresh water and nutrients added so that new seed might be poured in.

A good friend recently shared the amazing events that happened during and after his completion of an arduous 40-day fast. I thought about the level of receptivity and discernment he tilled both within himself and others who felt mysteriously drawn toward him. I am supposed to respond in some fashion to his fast; exactly how, I have no idea. I'm not big on rushing into spiritual imitation. But I sense a tug to till, to rip some things up and pour some things in, to in general increase my awareness and availability to God.

Lawn care, like gardening,is a journey. It never fully ends. Neither does the making of a soul and the blossoming of its full potential and availability to love.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why Facebook is Good

Make new friends
But keep the old
One is silver
And the other gold
(classic children's song)

Friends are friends forever
If the Lord's the Lord of them
(Michael W. Smith)

There's ongoing debate regarding the merits of Facebook. Like any system designed by human beings, it bears its strengths and flaws. But in a big picture sense, what it has meant for me is a chance to reconnect and establish the timeless treasure known as friends.

I've found friends from every era of my life. Some were close friends when I lived, worked or played near them; some I knew only in passing but know so much better now through Facebook. Some I argued with, some I hurt and some hurt me...but we have all grown up into people with a deeper perspective and they have become gold to me. The giant playground known as Facebook has become one giant backyard BBQ in a sense, a one-stop-shopping sort of mecca where on a daily basis I can connect with the people who have mattered the most to me and build new relationships as well.

Like any other tool meant for good, Facebook can be misused, overdone or hijacked by the ambition to promote one's self or one's cause or products. None of us are perfect and we will occasionally step on each other's toes. But what I am finding as I reconnect with so many is that we grow and learn through our successes and our mistakes, and that in the end we are for each other more than we are against each other.

Today is a great example of the value of Facebook. We are on the way to Nashville's famous Loveless Cafe to have breakfast with Sam and Teresa Silverman and their four daughters. Sam and Teresa were good friends when Jenna and I lived in Wilmore, Ky., where I earned my Master of Divinity degree at Asbury Theological Seminary. After we graduated nine years ago, we lost touch. How did I find the Silvermans again? Facebook. While driving from Indiana last night Sam sent me a quick note via Facebook, letting me know they were passing through Nashville on their way home to Georgia. Good stuff.

Friends truly can be friends forever. And like one of the angels in It's a Wonderful Life said, no person is as rich as the one who has friends.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Coaching Life

This Memorial Day has yielded an unexpected, indeed memorable outpouring of integrated insights. I love when that happens...and I notice how one season of insights gradually leads to another, further opening the door toward making holistic sense of life...usually after you've hit a "rut" and things do not make sense for a while and you have to keep stretching and growing and learning through disappointments and successes.

While walking through the woods with my family this morning, I was pondering my constant internal struggle between the vocational life I lead and the creative potential I long to fulfill. I often pit my full-time work against my part-time writing, a false opposition easily reinforced by the surrounding culture and one that can plague most artists. Exhausted by so many years of this battle (a John divided against himself cannot stand!), I was open to an alternative way of looking at things.

And finally, in the woods today, I began to discern how a dynamic I am calling "The Coaching Life" can serve as a hub that synthesizes seven key spheres of my being and doing and demolishes false dichotomies.

As soon as we arrived home I grabbed a small note card and began scribbling furiously, attempting--visual learner that I am--to diagram the emerging insights so that I could make sense of them. I then took my very rough sketch and re-drew it inside of the small journal I carry around for creative moments, and hope to soon design a PowerPoint slide that refines it with more precision.

Essentially, here is my vision for "The Coaching Life":

First, I would define coaching as a facilitative process that helps generate new insights which lead to new thinking, culminating in different behaviors and, usually, different and better results or performance. Although I am a professionally certified coach and make a living primarily through coaching business leaders, I believe we all have the potential to coach ourselves and others in some manner if we are intentional.

To fully embrace "The Coaching Life" for personal and professional application, however, one must tap into what I have learned is best termed "the creative unconscious." This is simply raw energy within the brain that we often cut off or lose touch with because of so many distractions. Psychologist Carl Jung called it the "collective unconscious" or "self," while Freud called it the "superego," "libido" or "id," and religions often refer to it as God or particular names for God.

The creative unconscious seeks to reveal hidden truth to us, guiding us along a path of cycles to help us realize our full potential. It guides us as we coach ourselves and others, and helps us to grow in wisdom and practice as we interact with these seven key spheres of living I have identified. Identifying and leveraging our strengths, along with becoming disciplined in healthy rituals, deepen our chances of satisfaction and enjoyment in each of these spheres.

The most melodious symphonies to be heard take place when all the key spheres of your life are "sounding together." The spheres (alphabetized for organizational purposes only, because they are all top priorities) are Art, Learning, Recreation, Relationships, Service, Spirit and Work.

Art: This includes all of the creative expressions that we often were engrossed in as children but too frequently gave up as we "grew up." Some continue to embrace them, as writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, potters, etc. Personally, I am a professional writer and enjoy writing books, blogs, articles, marketing copy, scripts and so forth. In any artistic pursuit, there are opportunities to coach oneself toward new insights and to coach others as well. Dissect any quality work of art, and you will tap into some specific epiphany that helps you push through a barrier that has stood in your way. The best art teems with coachable takeaways.

Learning: This flows through endless forms, whether reading, taking a course, walking in nature, traveling, sitting at the feet of a mentor or teacher, or being formally coached. The forms are too exhaustive to list here. But as we learn, we are coaching ourselves and have the chance to coach others when we share or apply the learning.

Recreation: I lump exercise, leisure, play, fun, partying, dancing, vacationing, celebrating and many other forms under this particular umbrella. The rush of a good sweat or a great party or night out on the town--again, if viewed with intention, this can lead to coachable insights for us and the people we touch.

Relationships: Some people at work tell me I am always in coach mode. And this is mostly true. It is hard not to be, once you begin to assume the coaching life identity. Family, friends, business colleagues, former strangers you meet on airplanes--from each you have insights to glean and to each you have insights to facilitate as you allow more and more of the creative unconscious to permeate and integrate your life and being.

Service: Involvement in the community in some aspect that betters the human condition, fosters stewardship of the environment, promotes peace or dialogue, and so forth...again, these are flowing with moments of insights for yourself and others.

Spirit: This is the simple term I am applying to that key aspect of ourselves that seeks to connect with a higher power of our own naming or lack of naming. "Spiritual formation" might be another phrase I would use here. As we pray, meditate, worship, study, etc., we are allowing the creative unconscious to nourish our spirits and generate powerful new insights. We surrender to spirit and are coached in the process, equipping us to coach others.

Work: Any vocation you embrace bears the seeds of coaching yourself and others. There are moments throughout the day to learn and teach, whatever the task or skill set or product at hand. I happen to work full-time as a coach, consultant and trainer, and so I am quite deliberately seeking to coach others in all that I do on the job. And I learn so much from each person I coach as well, generating more insights that further shape my thinking and lead me to modify my behavior toward stronger performance.

I am energized and freed by this integrated approach, a "2.0 version" of a keynote I did for a while called "The Intentional Life." This former keynote, and the self-branding that resulted, launched in mid-2004. Across the past five years I have learned and experienced many things and met so many more individuals. No one wineskin lasts forever, so my holistic models are always evolving; things get added or tossed out. We are constantly being nudged out of our comfort zones as we grow in consciousness and tap into more and more of our latent potential.

"The Coaching Life" is for anyone willing to embark on the adventure of letting the creative unconscious come to full flower. Only a handful will actually be "paid" for coaching others, but the flow of coaching one's self and others is at hand for those open to the insights that are available at this very hour.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Walk, Talk and Be

It had been some years since I truly went hiking across a terrain with organized, designated trails, one of the consequences of spending so much time living in Florida where the best hiking is through thick sand on the way down to the shoreline. Now that I have returned to the section of the country where I attended graduate school, I again have access to hills and mountains and lots of wooded places in general.

On Saturday, my family and I made our way through a series of small trails stretching across the property of Percy Warner Park outside of Nashville. The partly overcast weather provided the perfect mixture of warmth with a regular breeze. We saw massive trees impossible to date, smooth layers of rock and,at a small pond, quite a few baby frogs that fascinated my children.

After a while the hike consumes you and you forget most of your other responsibilities in this world. Lost in nature, you become found in yourself and those with you. The present moment becomes alive with the sacred and things grow rather simple.

When we drove to the retail temple of the Cool Springs district later that same day, the contrast was jarring. Things were rather complicated and fast-paced and distracting. It was much easier to feel lost in general amid the rampant consumerism, the parking lots of stressed-out drivers perhaps the best epitome of this prosaic norm.

I plan to carve out many more opportunities along these awesome stretches of earth where the only agenda is to walk, talk and be. The common is made holy just a few miles from the epicenters of unintentional living, sacred ground so nearby for those who dare to wander.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Understanding Boredom

I do not quite understand how boredom happens in my life during the sacred windows when I should find myself the most creative.

Such a window is open right now. I have some time set aside just to think and write and be inspired. To create something, maybe the next few paragraphs of the current chapter I am developing in the novel. Something, anything.

Here in the home office I sit, surrounded by some really interesting, insightful books. I have Word documents at my fingertips that bear the fruit of many months of observations and hard work. There is a beautiful blue, tree-lined sky stretching out before me, and relative quiet in the house.

And yet I feel bored, with scarcely a creative thought dancing across my mind at the moment. It was tough to even write this blog entry, except for that this space is giving me a place to process the dynamics of my momentary (I hope) blah.

It would be interesting to more fully understand the "roots" of boredom. Its arrival is more predictable when caught up in mundane activities or tasks of drudgery, when one is consciously looking forward to doing something else later in the day or the week. But it is altogether more complex and paradoxical to have set the table for being in the flow zone...and to arrive to dine and find yourself not hungry, your taste buds dull. What is happening beneath the surface that is getting in the way of inspiration and motivation?

I'm a little tired, feeling somewhat sluggish. That doesn't help. I have to be in my car by 11:30 to get to work on time for a meeting. Perhaps that is slowing my roll as well.

But a larger cloud floating above me right now is that, for the moment, I question whether I have anything interesting or fresh to offer. So perhaps I am bored with myself. Not a fun place to be.

It will not last, this quicksand of boredom in which I feel entrapped. It never does. Perhaps if I was constantly in a state of euphoric interest and excitement, my creative juices going faster than I can keep up, I would not appreciate it nearly as much. Maybe that will provide some salve to the disappointment I presently feel that I opened the window, but found nothing on the other side to greet me.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Another one of those crazy dreams early this morning. Some kind of giant bug was in my bedroom. I grabbed a magazine to try to smash it. It kept eluding me, first on the floor then on the wall and finally on the ceiling. In my dream I could hear myself cursing at it, quite perturbed. It was so easily in my range, so simple to smash, it seemed--and yet the impact of my blows with the rolled-up magazine made no difference. The stress I was exhibiting in my dream finally woke me up, to a beautiful, sunny Tuesday morning.

Naturally, I pose the question to myself this morning and any would-be-amateur-professional-dream interpreters, "What am I trying to tame or destroy that keeps eluding me, even mocking me?"

I have to run for now...I feel something crawling on me...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Stealing Fire From the Gods

I have been deeply impacted the past couple of weeks by a great little book called Stealing Fire From the Gods. Written by James Bonnet, a Hollywood writer and workshop leader, the book is a guide for how to more intentionally craft novels and screenplays by tapping into the key elements found in the most powerful stories from across the ages.

Bonnet's central premise is that all human beings are guided by a "Creative Unconscious," raw energy within the brain that we often cut off or lose touch with in the day-to-day grind. The psychologist Carl Jung had called this the collective unconscious or self. Freud called it the superego, libido or id. In religion, it can be called God, the Holy Spirit, the soul, Buddha Consciousness, and so forth. And in popular culture, for example, George Lucas called it the Force.

Bonnet asserts that this Creative Unconscious seeks to reveal hidden truth to us, guiding us along a path of cycles to help us realize our full potential. The Unconscious uses the visual metaphors (symbols composed of real, everyday things) found in great stories to express its hidden wisdom to our consciousness. These stories represent the unconscious energy translated into forms the conscious mind can assimilate and understand.

Every great story reveals a small part of this "hidden truth," Bonnet adds, but no one story reveals it all. One can create hundreds of individual stories, each focused on a different aspect of the "whole story." The whole story must be ever present in the background, such as how World War II haunts the background of the great film Casablanca and its focus on Rick Blaine dropping out of the fight and then choosing to re-enter it.

I agree with Bonnet that great stories stimulate our imaginations by provoking personal fantasies that lead to desires for actions in the real world. These are actions that help us fulfill more of our unrealized potential.

And, Bonnet is on target when he insists that in a great story the wisdom is never obvious; it is hidden for later discovery. If too obvious, the story becomes a morality tale or an allegory, something with a message for the intellect rather than the heart. I am facing this challenge as I write the first draft of my own novel, trying to show more than I tell, to help the reader feel and experience rather than simply be a student.

The acid test for creating a story, Bonnet advises, is always "what works," what gets your juices going. So pay attention to your feelings as you write. You are being guided by something far deeper and more powerful than you realize, which can make the act of creating a very spiritual experience.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Writing Down Your Stories

I recommend writing the stories from your life.

Nearly 10 years ago I took a "storytelling" class in graduate school that inspired me to spend an entire week just chronicling all of the little episodes and anecdotes I could remember across my life at that point. I organized them into a Word document, and have used many of them as seed for articles, books, sermons and occasional blogs.

One thing I noticed this week is that I have jotted down only a few stories across the past several years. Although I no longer have the luxury of dedicating an entire week--or even an entire day--to such a pursuit, I believe it is time to flesh out some of the events, observations and challenges that have impacted me during this decade known as the 00s.

After all, much has happened since that storytelling class of August 1999. Finishing seminary. Pastoring. Parenthood. Career evolution. Loss. Gain. There is much to learn from, and maybe a few things to pass on to others.

Give this exercise a try. Sit in front of a blank computer screen or over an empty notebook, and begin jotting down your memories, pleasant and unpleasant, from as far back as you can remember. Do not evaluate, just get them down. After a while, begin to look for the threads and patterns that have composed who you are. You might be surprised at how many stories you have forgotten, how many experiences you truly have had, how many people have touched your life or taught you lessons you did not realize were lessons back in real time.

The examined life is the most rewarding journey. Writing your own stories is its own reward in many ways.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Thoughts Post-Anesthesia

I had a series of creative breakthroughs this morning while sitting in a hospital gown, awaiting some testing. A flurry of insights broke loose into how to improve my novel-in-progress, quite welcomed after a few weeks of feeling stuck at 50,000 words.

And then, the time came for the nurses to wheel me back. The testing required me traveling off to la-la land for a short while. They began to administer the anesthesia through my previously-installed IV, and within seconds I was mentally someplace else.

And then I woke up. And all was good.

I slowly became aware of the recovery room and the various activities taking place. The nurses briefly interacted with me as they multi-tasked. I felt a river of peace inside of me, its current gently lapping against the banks of whatever conscious or unconscious hopes, opportunities or fears with which I have been grappling.

As one of the nurses, Dawn, drew near I commented to her, "A recovery room is a lot like a coffeehouse."

She chuckled, looked a little confused, probably a bit battle-hardened by hearing lots of strange utterances from patients just waking up from some serious legal drugs.

I continued, "You go to a coffeehouse dragging all this stuff with you. Then, you sit down with a good friend amid all the great scents and tastes, and you have some authentic conversation about things that matter. You're awakened to new insights."

The nurses smiled and nodded. "Yeah, the ambiance can do that for you. I like coffeehouses too." She then admonished me not to drink any coffee today while the effects of the testing were still wearing themselves off.

I'm not sure exactly what happened within the deeper layers of my subconscious as I lay on my side while the doctor shoved a tube down my throat to carry out his test. But I awoke to a certain ambiance indeed, a brewing, gradually consuming sense that things were ok and going to be ok. I felt in a way like I was recovering from something, and that the breakthroughs would obtain.

Friday, May 08, 2009

People Watching at Midway

People watching at Chicago’s Midway Airport on a Thursday afternoon…

The guy directly across from me is dressed in a navy pin-striped suit and yellow tie, reading glasses sitting on top of his short black hair and his squinty little dark eyes drilling holes into his laptop. A blonde-gray woman and her husband, shorter than she is, walk by as she enjoys some ice cream. A little boy with a stuffed animal outpaces his mother as they trek toward the gate. The elderly woman next to me keeps calling different people on her cell and leaving voice mails, as if hoping to connect with someone, anyone. Finally she gives up and returns to her novel

Overhead, relentless announcement noise concerns various flights and passengers and decisions that must be made. Several admonitions to sneeze and cough into tissues and wash one’s hands are relayed.

Around me, billions of thought patterns are simultaneously emanating and seamlessly intersecting with one another unawares. At every angle I gaze upon one large, flawed canvass of God’s handiwork, left exposed to the elements of a broken world and showing its wear. Humanity.

All of my brief stays in this particular airport have come at somewhat emotional times. Exactly two years ago, I passed through here after an exhilarating conference called the Organizational Development Summit in downtown Chicago. In early December 2007, I spent an afternoon here as part of a long route from Boise, Idaho, to my newly-adopted city, Nashville. My family was still living in Florida, and it was a lonely month.

Last summer, I was here right in the midst of a difficult stretch of house hunting. My mind was elsewhere during that business trip. And today, I sit here a day after a deep plunge into the void prompted by some emotional pain I did not anticipate on this trip. I cleansed away some of its pungency last night through tears, but the pain’s dull ache and its root causes remain.

Oh, the humanity. I am glad to be home.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

That Kurtzian Nature

Recently I bought the documentary Hearts of Darkness, about the making of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam film Apocalypse Now. The behind-the-scenes footage and interviews reflect how the adaptation of Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness closely paralleled the production experience of Director Coppola and other members of the cast and crew.

Coppola, sporting the artistic momentum and financial windfall of his first two Godfather films, had already spent years pursuing his vision of trying what Orson Welles had failed to do decades earlier: bring Conrad's troubling manuscript to the silver screen. Escorting his family and crew to the Philippines, Coppola launched the directorial effort that gradually began to mirror the film's storyline of Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) traveling up the river to assassinate Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando.)

At one point a monsoon destroyed the set, halting production for a couple of months. Sheen then suffered a heart attack, again interrupting the production.

Along the way, Coppola's wife Eleanor shot copious amounts of film, narrating how her husband was "in a place within himself he never intended to reach...he can’t go back down the river because the journey has changed him." She continued, "I was playing the observer, but realized I was on the journey too and can’t go back to the way it was...everyone here seems to be going through things that are changing them profoundly, changing them their perspective on the world."

Sheen's challenge was to transform his mindset into that of the fictional Willard's, someone who could conceivably commit an assassination of a fellow American soldier. Willard, Coppola noted, "must have that 'Kurtzian' other side in him." Sheen commented in the behind-the-scenes footage that he had to face his worst enemy--himself. "I was in a chaotic, spiritual state inside. It was real hard for me to reveal myself." The actor, Coppola added, was "full of a lot of love...when you asked him to examine his darker nature, it meant closing himself down order to find the killer who could carry out the task and kill Kurtz."

Coppola also commented on how the job of film director was "one of the few dictatorial roles left in a world getting more democratic." He thought this dynamic, plus his own wealth and success, was contributing to a state of mind that was like Kurtz's own. "It takes courage to look in and see that twisted mind that lays beneath the surface and say, 'Yes, I accept you...I even love you because you’re a part of me," Brando's character asserts.

As the production swelled in budget and length of time, Coppola had to admit that he "didn’t know what he was doing," that "the script didn’t make sense." He lamented on camera, "I’m like a voice crying out, saying, 'Please, it’s not working, get me off this...this is one crisis I’m not going to pull myself out of..why can’t I just have the courage to say, 'It’s no good?'"

Coppola, noted his wife, "had gone to the threshold of his was scary but exhilarating that he would take such risks for himself...this film was all about risking: your money, your sanity, how far you could press your family members."

A greater risk, added the director, was the possibility of making a "pretentious movie." He said, "Here you are aspiring to really do something, but trying not to be had to have some answers, on about 47 different levels. It’s a renaissance, a rebirth, which is the basis for all life. The one rule for all man from the time he started walking around, the first concept that entered their head was the idea of life and death. The sun went up and the sun went down. A crop lived and died. You thought it was the end of the world, and then it was spring."

I bought the $2 used VHS copy of this documentary on because I am seeking further insights into my own characters in my incomplete novel. About 50,000 words in, I am struggling to take things to a deeper level. My chief protagonist is a journalist who is on a work-related journey that must simply serve as a metaphor for the odyssey he is taking into his own darkness, disappointments and pain.

And I am in a sense taking this journey with my character, just like Coppola took it along with Willard and Eleanor Coppola and the actor Sheen and the others involved. I wanted to understand more of what it took, what price was paid, for this now classic film to become reality. I am giving gradual birth to this artistic project as I face some of my own Kurtzian nature, as I grapple with mid-life and the experiences, joys and pains that have lent paint to the canvas of my travels up the banks to date.

Despite the odds against him, Coppola did finally finish his film. It made a lot of money and, while not universally admired, has a definite cult following. His life was changed, but his prize was completed. And then, of course, Coppola was off to the next production, for he cannot help but be an artist and create work that in some way reflects the condition of his own soul. Anything worthwhile and lasting is squeezed through the sieve of suffering.