On the surface of our lives, most of us build the hard shell to hide our fear and insecurity and win approval and success. When we get to the core of ourselves, we find a deep yearning to care and connect. David Brooks in The Second Mountain

Brooks wrote of transcendent joy: the brief moments when we feel at one with nature, the universe, or God. Such experiences may only last a few minutes but can alter our lives. “People have a sense that they see into the hidden reality of things, and afterward, they can never go back to their false selves.”

Brooks wrote of the highest layer of joy, which he called moral joy. Our daily actions align with our deepest commitments. People who experience moral joy are grateful for finding their core passion in life and for saying “NO” to soul-destroying pressures that surround them. Transcendent moments transform our lives: they are moments of metanoia, spiritual awakenings, and an expansion of our consciousness.

I wrote about this process of awakening on the way to higher consciousness in “The Allegory of Plato’s Cave.” In my 1996 essay, I quoted Gareth Morgan from Images of Organizations:

The allegory pictures an underground cave with its mouth open toward the light of a blazing fire. Within the cave are people chained so that they cannot move. They can see only the cave wall directly in front of them. This is illuminated by the light of the fire, which throws shadows of people and objects onto the wall. The cave dwellers equate the shadows with reality, naming them, talking about them, and even linking sounds from outside the cave with the movements on the wall. Truth and reality for the prisoners rest in this shadowy world, because they have no knowledge of any other.

However, as Socrates relates, if one of the inhabitants were allowed to leave the cave, he would realize that the shadows are but dark reflections of a more complex reality, and that the knowledge and perceptions of his fellow cave dwellers are distorted and flawed. If he were then to return to the cave, he would never be able to live in the old way, since for him the world would be a very different place. No doubt he would find difficulty in accepting his confinement, and would pity the plight of his fellows. However, if he were to try and share his new knowledge with them, he would probably be ridiculed for his views.

For the cave prisoners, the familiar images of the cave would be much more meaningful than any story about a world they had never seen. Moreover, since the person espousing this new knowledge would now no longer be able to function in the old way, since he would no longer be able to act with conviction in relation to the shadows, his fellow inmates would no doubt view his knowledge as being extremely dangerous. They would probably regard the world outside the cave as a potential source of danger, to be avoided rather than embraced as a source of wisdom and insight. The experience of the person who left the cave could thus actually lead the cave dwellers to tighten their grip on their familiar way of seeing.

The cave stands for the world of appearances and the journey outside stands for the ascent to knowledge. People in everyday life are trapped by illusions, hence the way they understand reality is limited and flawed. By appreciating this, and by making a determined effort to see beyond the superficial, people have an ability to free themselves from imperfect ways of seeing. However, as the allegory suggests, many of us often resist or ridicule efforts at enlightenment, preferring to remain in the dark rather than to risk exposure to a new world and its threat to the old ways.

Each of us has Plato’s Caves in our lives — places where fear, habits, wounds, denial, conformity, ignorance, delusions, manipulation, and even a cherished way of life blind us to greater insight, a more encompassing reality. We can choose to leave our caves. Many in America who deny climate change and believe Trump is making “America Great Again” live in Plato’s Cave. Their denial contributes to the destruction of our environment and the degradation of America’s Democracy.

Fakes and charlatans with venal and regressive visions that return us to a more primitive condition clamor for our trust. We look around and see people under high stress — from our national leaders to everyday people in organizations, to the fringes of our political parties—become small, petty, and greedy and try to return to their caves for safety. Some deny the facts and truth. Others can feel strongly about every side of an issue depending on the audience. Some reject science for self-serving opinion. Many substitute intellectual honesty with black, white, and senseless beliefs grounded in fear and their inability to cope with the uncertainty and ambiguity of life. Their fear consumes them, and they live in darkness. In dangerous times, we need to be our best selves, not our worst.

As I write this post, two transcendent events call those who live in delusions to open their eyes, awaken, and experience their transcendent moments.

A wise and courageous Greta Thunberg (16 years old) started the school-strike movement in Sweden, which has now spread to other countries. She and other activists give form to a political revolution to fight climate change. They became spokespersons for younger generations who suffer high anxiety and depression about what their futures may or may not be. Ms. Thunberg now offers them a purpose and a movement they can join. They will find that they are not alone in their suffering. Ms. Thunberg’s “How Dare You” speech at the United Nations is a must-watch for all. Her disdainful look at Trump spoke for the tens of millions around the world who feel as she does. What a courageous young woman!

Then a Whistle Blower filed a complaint against Trump. The Whistle Blower alleged that Trump had attempted to pressure (by withholding foreign aid) the President of Ukraine to dig up bogus dirt against presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. Biden is leading in the Democratic presidential primary. Trump’s goal was to damage Biden’s campaign to help himself win the 2020 election.

Fair elections are the bedrock of our democracy. Can you believe it? After the Russia involvement in 2016, encouraged by Trump, he tries to get another nation to help sway our 2020 election? What Trump did was immoral, unethical, and unconscionable. He would turn America into a banana republic, where the abuse of power, at all levels of authority, is normal.

The Whistle Blower also alleged that White House officials attempted to cover up the phone conversation and other earlier conversations with foreign leaders, including Putin. They knew Trump had gone too far. The House of Representatives began an impeachment inquiry. Finally, Democrats found their courage and stand true to their values regardless of the outcome.

Listen to Trump roar: what he says about others is true of him. His rants are his confessions and self-exposures.

I am stunned but not surprised by the darkness that has come to light in only two days. The complaint of the Whistle Blower is just the first of the secret dark side of Trump’s dystopian world to come into the light of day. After all, Trump is not a good man who made a big mistake; he is a monster being who he is. He cannot be someone else. Trump has been being himself since he took the office of the president. How much more is covered up and hidden away?

We have only one healthy choice: to leave the caves of our lives, to see reality clearly, and become more connected, conscious, courageous, discerning, intelligent, and compassionate. And more mature. We cannot go backward — unless we want the threats to our world to become realities. My life experiences taught me that it’s best to walk into the future with a clear vision, guided by my deepest values, and my purpose for my life. I find this approach better than following liars, blamers, crooks, con artists, and people only out for themselves–no vision, values, or purpose with them — just greed and selfishness. I know if I follow them, I’ll become like them.

Some believe Trump’s darkness will crush the investigation and lead to Trump’s re-election. Maybe, but no one knows what will happen over the next year. Predictions today mean little. I say: “Expect the unexpected.”

Former Vice-President Al Gore wrote about climate change this week in the New York Times. I think his words apply equally to the Whistle Blower’s complaint:

Are we really helpless and unwilling to respond to the gravest threat faced by civilization? Is it time, as some have begun to counsel, to despair, surrender, and focus on “adapting” to the progressive loss of the conditions that have supported the flourishing of humanity? Are we really moral cowards, easily manipulated into lethargic complacency by the huge continuing effort to deceive us into ignoring what we see with our own eyes?

Our Constitution, our uncorrupted legal system, and the hearts and minds of caring and courageous people will guide us. The purpose is clear: expand our awareness by coming out of our caves. The vision is simple: create a sustainable planet and a thriving democracy.

Al Gore again:

The political reconfiguration we have desperately needed has been excruciating slow in coming, but we now seem to be at an inflection point, when political change begins to unroll more rapidly than we thought was possible [Gore wrote this piece before the Whistle-Blower complaint becoming public].

The people, in their true function as the sovereign power, are quickly understanding the truth of the crisis, and they are the ones who must act, especially because the president is not on speaking terms with the truth and seems well beyond the reach of reason.

To address the climate crisis, we must address the democracy crisis so that the people themselves can reclaim control of their destiny.

Do not despair: get engaged. We must remove from office, at all levels of government, those who deny climate change and those who follow Trump.

We can then save the planet and renew our Democracy.

We do live in exciting times.

A Moral Revolution?

…The larger culture itself has become morally empty….

 David Brooks, NY Times June 7, 2016


New York Times Columnist Tom Friedman described the Republican Party as morally bankrupt.

Washington Post Columnist Richard Cohen wrote that Donald Trump is “without principles.”

People roundly condemned Speaker of the House Paul Ryan for putting his policy ambitions ahead of his values in supporting Trump despite Trump’s racist comments.

And on and on I could go about the lack of values and morality in Donald Trump and much of the Republican Party.

Some call for a moral revolution in America.

We don’t need new values, a new morality or a moral revolution.

We already have national and personal values worthy of our allegiance and commitment. Many of us simply lack the awareness and audacity to live true to our values. For many our courage has become lazy. Too many of us succumb to the worst elements in the workplace, the neighborhood, the statehouse and the congress. We gladly join with the mediocre to avoid conflict. We dumb our brains and our hearts down to fit in and give up part of our selves and lives when we do so. We stay silent and look the other way. I don’t know about you but, unlike Paul Ryan, I would say no to the team, the organization and the political party before I would sacrifice my values to be accepted by disgusting people, hollow presidential candidates or a political party on a path to irrelevance.

Had Republican primary voters been more mature, aware and value-driven and had they voted from wise discernment instead of their anger, Donald Trump wouldn’t be the Republican nominee for president of the United States. But they weren’t grownups and now the rest of us are called to be the adults in our political system.

If we are to solve the problems that engulf us, we won’t do it with the version of human being that created the problems. We need a new kind of ourselves: more awake and aware, more thoughtful, more value-driven and more loving and compassionate towards our planet, other people and ourselves. To consciously evolve ourselves takes courage. We become courageous one small brave act at a time.

Each of us can do what we can to live more true to our values in our day-to-day lives. We can stand up, speak up and put the moral implications of life front and center and do what we can to be the change in morality we want to see in others and in our leaders. In doing so, we do our part to bring forth a more mature version of ourselves.

The recent mass murders in Orlando, FL call us to do something about guns in our society. Our attitudes and behaviors towards mass violence is a form of insanity. Climate change, immigration, and income inequality continue to call for change each in their own ways. We must heed these calls to action or suffer the consequences of continued avoidance of serious issues that threaten our democracy and our way of life. We cannot stay as we are. Either we go backwards in our human evolution or we move to the future and a better people, nation and world. We are responsible. Our deepest values guide us.

Has our national character deteriorated so much, have so many abandoned their values so completely that Donald Trump, brought forth from the dark side of a small group of Americans, could actually be elected president? Will we turn our future and our nation over to this twisted and deluded man? Maybe, if masses of people stay indifferent. People need to vote on November 8, 2016.

America especially needs the young, the minorities and the immigrants—who so often don’t vote–to cast ballots for those who represent their values. You see, if we want change in this country (immigration, gun laws, income disparity, climate change and more) we can’t have 51% to 49% election results that only maintain gridlock. We need Democrats—from the top to the bottom of the ballot–to win a blow-out election that evolves our acceptance of diversity, which makes us a more alive and resilient nation, our partnership and cooperation with one another that allows every person to contribute to our success and our dependence on each other: we are all in this together.

Clear thinking and our value-driven actions must decide our destiny—not passive silence or by putting political agendas before honor.

A vote against Donald Trump who offers us “xenophobia, bigotry, misogyny and a crypto-fascist approach to government [Paul Waldman, Washington Post, June 13, 2016], may be the most moral thing each of us can do in the months ahead.

What Really Matters

Having a more interesting life, a life that disturbs complacency, a life that pulls us out of the comfortable and thereby demands a larger spiritual engagement than we planned or that feels comfortable is what matters most. James Hollis in What Matters Most

In his recent column, Building Better Secularists, New York Times Columnist David Brooks wrote that secular writers…”are so eager to make the case for their creed, they are minimizing the struggle required to live by it.”

Brook’s list of tasks a secularist would have to perform to live secularism well:

• Religious people inherit their creeds; secularists have to come up with their own convictions,
• Religious people inherit a community with rituals and practices that bind people together; secular people have to create their own communities and come up with their own practices to give them meaning,
• Religious people are directed to drop worldly concerns one day a week or for specified periods of time; Secular people have to create their own times of solitude to reflect on their spirituality, and
• Religious people are motivated by the love of God and their desire to please him; Secularists have to find their own motivation that will bring forth sacrifice and service.

Brooks concluded that secularists place unprecedented moral burdens upon themselves and risk drift and a loss of meaning in their own lives.

Paternalism is a belief system that requires that wisdom, knowledge and creativity come to people from others with greater power and authority. Most people grow up in paternalistic families surrounded by paternalistic clergy, bosses, coaches and teachers whose dictates they conform to. “Don’t think, just do what I tell you to do” is the spoken and unspoken command.

When young adults leave home, the organization often replaces the parent as the paternalistic force in their lives. Conformity is the first rule of organizations and institutions. Sometime around the middle of their lives, they may begin to rebel against such paternalism and enter the scary domain of thinking for themselves where they begin to doubt, question and challenge all those authority figures as they begin the process of becoming a mature person. Such a journey into a life of authenticity is difficult: a courageous and emotional odyssey of exploration to find who we really are—not who someone else tells us to be.

Religion and secularism aside, Brook’s burdens are everyone’s responsibility to ponder in life.

I do not want to mindlessly and without question follow creeds created by other imperfect men long ago; I want my life to be my own learning laboratory. I want to discover and articulate my own purpose for my life and the values I will live true to.

I don’t want to be put into a community by others and inherit its rituals and practices—rules and practices I must follow to be accepted; I need people but I want to choose my own community and seek counsel and fellowship from those who ring true to me.

I don’t want to act spiritual one day a week; I want to live my spirit daily, however imperfectly.

To be motivated by love and the desire to do good works is noble but so many seem to be motivated by fear, guilt, obligation and public appearances. I am motivated by the deep personal engagement I’ve had with myself over four decades pondering these and many other issues and questions of life (I’ve only scratched the surface). The higher emotions that motivate me, the passion that drives me and the aliveness I feel flow from that work as I seek the moral life.

I believe Brook’s burdens are among the lifetime work of an authentic life.

James Hollis: “…to have taken one’s journey through this dark, bigger, luminous, wondrous universe, to have risked being who we really are, is, finally what matters most.”

How Many Suffer for Us?

New York Times Columnist David Brooks:

Maybe you’re familiar with Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It’s about a sweet and peaceful city with lovely parks and delightful music.

The people in the city are genuinely happy. They enjoy their handsome buildings and a “magnificent” farmers’ market.

Le Guin describes a festival day with delicious beer and horse races: “An old woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men wear her flowers in their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute.”

It is an idyllic, magical place.

But then Le Guin describes one more feature of Omelas. In the basement of one of the buildings, there is a small broom-closet-sized room with a locked door and no windows. A small child is locked inside the room. It looks about 6, but, actually, the child is nearly 10. “It is feebleminded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition and neglect.”

Occasionally, the door opens and people look in. The child used to cry out, “Please let me out. I will be good!” But the people never answered and now the child just whimpers. It is terribly thin, lives on a half-bowl of cornmeal a day and must sit in its own excrement.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas,” Le Guin writes. “Some of them have come to see it; others are content merely to know it is there. They all know it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children … depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

That is the social contract in Omelas. One child suffers horribly so that the rest can be happy. If the child were let free or comforted, Omelas would be destroyed. Most people feel horrible for the child, and some parents hold their kids tighter, and then they return to their happiness.

But some go to see the child in the room and then keep walking. They don’t want to be part of that social contract. “They leave Omelas; they walk ahead into the darkness and they do not come back.”

How many in the world suffer and have endured deprivation and humiliation for the riches enjoyed by a relatively few of the planets inhabitants?

How many hundreds of worthy cultures have died because of the greed and addiction of one dominant culture? (See Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael.)

How is it that the majority of American school children (K-12) live below the poverty level with many or even most doomed to lifetimes in the shadows of the American Dream?

How do we keep others in the basements of our organizations and institutions as each day we live out dysfunctional cultures?

Have my values, empathy and compassion become shriveled and desensitized and become the basement of my soul?

We are each innocent and guilty.

Few, if any, can simply walk away from the world view and culture we were born into and that envelops us and reaches far beyond our ability to control. Life today is too complex, unconscious and intertwined for us to escape.

We can, however, strive to be as mindful as possible of the harm we do to others by living the way we do. We can do what we can to illuminate the basements of our way of life. We may not be able to escape the systems of our lives but we can take small steps every day to see those systems clearly and move to the edges of them.

We can at least begin to learn how to live.

Don’t Let the Fools Drag You Down

I took the title of this post from Detective Harry Bosch in Michael Connolly’s, The Burning Room.

Bosch, one of my favorite fictional detectives, was encouraging his young partner to stay true to her potential and excel despite the pressures she will encounter from other detectives who excel at the “conform, comply, mediocre–don’t rock the boat” culture. Bosch might not be around to support her because he had just been suspended by the bureaucrats who don’t care about people: they care about statistics and going along to get along and they just can’t stand Bosch–I love the guy.

Each of us has fools in our lives determined to drag us down to their particular level of mediocrity. Then they won’t feel uncomfortable seeing in us what they don’t see in themselves because they choose ordinariness over excellence. Bosch spoke in the work context so I will limit my thoughts to my work experience.

I worked at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis and had many management jobs. The first fool I encountered was the smarmy union steward who, on my first day, taught me how to cheat on my expense account and warned me to not make other union members look bad. I didn’t pay any attention to him and set out to excel. So they sent the President of The Newspaper Guild to talk to me. I ignored him too.

Management had an equal share of fools. There was one exception: I worked for a wise, kind and good man named Charles Freeman. Those seven years were the most creative and productive of my career. Chuck modeled how great leaders become great people first. Chuck died unexpectedly and my life at work changed for the worse.

I worked for a vice president. There was nothing special about him. He didn’t initiate things; he didn’t finish things. He didn’t work hard: He came in late and left early. He nodded and smiled and did what he was told, even if what he was told was stupid. He could be cold and abusive to those below him. But he didn’t realize those things about himself. When he acted, he usually created a problem or blundered, and we cleaned up after him. Like so many executives, he excelled at maneuvering and survival, and I threatened his survival. I had a few unhappy and anxious years before I resigned. I didn’t quit the Star Tribune; I quit my boss and some foolish decisions from the top of the company. When I left, the CEO said my leadership had changed the company forever. Go figure.

I went on to work on my own for 13 years as a consultant. I felt most called to educate leaders about how to lead organizational transformation but I took any jobs that involved people. I met many fools in my work around the country. I met leaders who sabotaged their own managers, who abused employees to preserve their own sick selves, and many who had no concept of what leadership is.

Bad leadership left a vacuum that the disengaged workers of the organizations were happy to fill. The least involved sabotaged company strategies and were often enabled by the silence of good people who felt intimidated.

Those good people were not fools but lacked the courage to stand up to the fools they had as managers, coworkers and union leaders.

Harry Bosch doesn’t allow fools to deter him from his mission to solve murders for those murdered. He thinks for himself. The case drives his actions—not the fools around him who care only about politics, position and posturing.

Aristotle teaches us that being a good person is not mainly about learning moral rules and following them. It is about performing social roles well: being a good parent or teacher or lawyer or friend (New York Times Columnist David Brooks in Why Elders Smile).

Good employee’s value excellence and strive for it regardless of the fools around them and good people stand up to the fools in their lives who try to tear them down.

Evolved People or Real-Life Zombies?

In Our Machine Masters, New York Times columnist David Brooks imagined two futures for us in the age of artificial intelligence: a humanistic scenario in which, freed from mental drudgery, people focus on personal and moral faculties: being likable, industrious, trustworthy and affectionate. In the age of AI, “…we’re not human because we have big brains. We’re human because we have social skills, emotional capacities and moral intuitions.”

Or, in Brook’s utilitarian scenario, people become less idiosyncratic. The machines replace us as decision-makers. We conform and do what the machines tell us to do without question. Kevin Kelly wrote in Wired magazine: “As we invent more species of AI, we will be forced to surrender more of what is supposedly unique about humans. The greatest benefit of the arrival of artificial intelligence is that AIs will help define humanity. We need AIs to tell us who we are.”

Will we flourish in this new world of artificial intelligence or will we become real-life zombies? Or will we just muddle along?

In 2005, I wrote an essay on the Singularity: A superior humanity—artificially created. Genetics, robotics and nanotechnology fed by the exponentially increasing power and speed of information technology intertwine and multiply one another in symbiotic relationships.

As entities with greater than human intelligence are created, most intelligence of the planet will become nonbiological and changes in all other aspects of life will accelerate dramatically—including the more rapid creation of even more intelligent entities on a shorter time scale.

Will these technologies free us of the mundane, help us live longer and healthier lives, and extend our human capabilities? Will we solve all problems and become God? Scientist Ray Kurzweil: “We see exponentially greater love.”

Or will we turn into genetically programmed and soulless beings, our minds filled with information downloaded from computers, living out predetermined lives in service of the machines with no ability to control our own destinies and with those things that make us indefinably human altered, ruptured, or destroyed?

We cannot stop or control this development. If we push development underground it will only free the technology from ethical and moral considerations. The technology and its impact on our lives and the potential impact on the human soul will not be stopped.

For 300 years humanists have railed against the mechanistic world view and the unintended consequences of a philosophy that dehumanizes people. The critical challenge of our lifetime may well be to use explosive technical development to preserve and enhance our humanity rather than to have humanity neutered or destroyed by the mindless acceleration of technology without thought as to the unintended consequences.

Instead of being led by technology, we can lead technology. To do so we must accelerate our maturity as people and communities and bring forth a creative renaissance of relationships that will transform life on this planet. We must embrace the technology that threatens our humanity and outfox the creative dark side of human nature with the creative light of our humanity. The spiritual must transcend the technical; people must transcend machines.