#13 - Alchemy
We live in a world, and in a universe, where the only constant is change. Over 2,500 years ago, Heraclitus remarked that no person ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river, and it's not the same person.
And yet we resist that change so much! Or at the very least, we, in refusing to accept things as they are, seek to change ourselves by thinking that altering outward conditions will, in some dramatic Abracadabra! fashion, do the trick.
I’m reminded of the classic book If I Ran The Zoo by Dr. Seuss. The normal zoo didn't have enough pizazz and intrigue for the book's protagonist. "Yes, that’s what I’d do,” said young Gerald McGrew, “I’d make a few changes if I ran the zoo." If only the zoo had a Scraggle-Foot Mulligatawny, a Tizzle-Top-Tufted Mazurka, and a Fizza-ma-Wizza-ma-Dill, young Gerald McGrew reasoned, the zoo would be ever so sweet, son!
Young Gerald McGrew was....well, young, apparently. Therefore, I'm inclined to cut Mr. McGrew a great deal of slack. He can be forgiven for wanting to change the world, and not himself. It takes someone with the wisdom of a Rumi to realize that, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Happiness - or more importantly, living a well-lived and meaningful life - isn't contingent on outward conditions. It's those inner conditions that markedly move the needle.
I re-read Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People at least once a year. Father Time is undefeated, but the fundamental truths and wisdom in Carnegie's 1936 timeless classic are - at the very, very least - battling Father Time to a draw. As Carnegie writes, "Do you know someone you would like to change and regulate and improve? Good! That is fine. I’m all in favor of it. But why not begin on yourself? From a purely selfish standpoint, that is a lot more profitable than trying to improve others, and a lot less dangerous."
We are all alchemists, equipped with the ability to re-engineer our environment, but more importantly, how we look at our environment. "Change the way you look at things," Wayne Dyer said, "and the things you look at change." We can stop collecting evidence for the stories we don't want to tell anymore. As Paul Selig channels, if you condemn yourself for who you were, and you carry that forward, you carry yourself forward in a prison. Once you have that epiphany that things are happening for you, as opposed to to you, things really open up nicely from there.
Seeing the change in others many times seems more obvious than seeing the change in ourselves. Plato implores us to “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” If you exempt yourself from the process, you haven't been paying close enough attention. Being self-critical is a bug in our operating systems. It's in our nature. It takes more discipline to nurture self-compassion.
When it comes to bettering ourselves, we frequently set the bar so impossibly high that we guarantee a loss. It takes time and conscious effort to make something a habit. How much time? Recent research suggests at least 21 days, and perhaps 30 or more.
A personal trainer friend once told me that when a number of people start going to the gym after a long hiatus, they don't immediately lose weight because they gain muscle. Muscle is far denser than fat, but consumes less space. Accordingly, people often pack on some muscle and increase their weight even as they're getting healthier and slimming down. A garden-variety scale is only going to spit out one number, though, and because people aren't losing weight, they think that exercising is a total waste and completely abandon ship. That's unfortunate, because there shouldn't be any one number or any one metric that we should use to define our sense of validation and self-worth. That gym scale or bathroom scale doesn't fare too well on the scales of justice.
These last few weeks, I've been deliberately giving myself positive self-talk before, during, and after I exercise. Perpetual optimism, after all, is a force multiplier. I reckon I could be brainwashing myself in my own echo chambers, but I've sensed a spring in my step that I haven't felt in years. Our abilities sink under criticism, and blossom with a nice dose of positivity. Exercising in the Amazonian rainforest is like running around in a Bikram yoga studio, and lately I've been loving every second of it. If genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration...well, I'm nowhere near a genius, but I'm enjoying the sweat equity of leveling up my meatbody.
If we are to transform, getting outside of our comfort zone is a superb first step. It's like that Venn diagram where there are two circles: "your comfort zone" and "where the magic happens." Noticeably, there's no overlap in those circles. We can always return to our comfort zone. Our comfort zone is, by its very definition, comfortable!
You'd be hard-pressed to find a better metaphor representing change than the caterpillar to butterfly metamorphosis. George Carlin contends that the caterpillar does all the hard work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity. The caterpillar clearly needs a better PR spokesperson!
Carlin's salient observation likely resonates with all of the people who attended our last retreat. It's certainly appropriate to give Mother Ayahuasca her well deserved respect. don Rober got an A+ in the practice of Shamanism, as per usual. don Howard's programming continues to be designed to perfection. The members of the staff were sensational and the SpiritQuest grounds themselves are an ideal setting.
It's the people who joined our circle, in paraphrasing Teddy Roosevelt, who were the men and women actually in the arena. It was their faces that were caked with dust, tears, toil, and sweat. Our work is demanding. It was fitting that we had a world-class poker player in our group, because our work requires people to make a calculated call to go all-in. We don't accept partial payments. You pay the SpiritQuest price in full. You slowly and surely discover all of the rewards in connection with that, but in so many figurative ways and across so many dimensions, you pay the SpiritQuest price in full.
The people in our circle were the ones that anted up and fully exerted themselves. Courageously and undauntingly forging ahead despite enduring bouts of insufficient sleep, feeling nauseous, and having their fair share of s-h-i-t to dump. And the more b.s. a person was needlessly carrying in their backpack? Wonderful! The lighter the load and the more liberating they feel after the dump. The more powerful the catharsis.
Sure, they were undertaking the work to level up and be better versions of themselves. If they were only doing it for themselves, many would likely stumble or quit. But they weren't doing it only for themselves. They were doing it for the benefit of all, or as we say, "para el bien de todos!" That sense of common humanity - amidst such a trial by fire - shines through continuously. As SpiritQuest has proven time and time again, connection and kinship are so essential in providing much-needed healing to people.
Having a sense of accomplishment in life is frequently getting up off the canvas time and time again. As the Japanese proverb dictates, fall down 7 times, get up 8. And why do we fall, Master Bruce? As Alfred asserts in Batman Begins, so we can learn to pick ourselves back up. When life blasts you with a Mike Tyson-esque uppercut and you crumple to the mat, your best ability is your availability and willingness to endure, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start anew.
SpiritQuest empowers people with the opportunity to genuinely see themselves as they are, to see life as it is, and instills in people the obligation to figure out what else life can be. To realize one's latent possibilities.
What else can that be? And what exactly is it that you are looking for? Only you can know that. And if you don’t know what that is? Don’t sweat it. Have you ever considered that maybe, just maybe, you’re exactly where you need to be? This place where you are right now, Hafiz reasons, God circled it on a map for you.
There's nothing inconsistent with recognizing that you're exactly where you need to be right now and also believing that you can step it up a notch. Cultivation and refinement of character is an incremental, iterative practice. As Miyamoto Musashi declared, “Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over a lesser foe.”
We’re the ultimate work in progress, home improvement project, do-it-yourself project, or extreme makeover project. The largest room in the world is the room for improvement. We can all strive to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. The don Howard University of Higher Conscious way is never to compare yourself to anyone else, and only to compare yourself to your former self. Be kind to yourself throughout the process. The secret ingredients are self-compassion and patience.
Ah, patience. I recently spoke to someone who was born a few weeks late. She confessed this was the last time in her life she had shown any modicum of patience.
That resonates. The go-getting, grab-life-by-the-horns mentality is revered. As Churchill said, “I like things to happen, and if they don't happen, I like to make them happen.” Travel lightly, and pack a sense of ambition. Don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to meet it. We need that sense of ambition. We need that raison d'être to get out of bed in the morning and have a foaming-at-the-mouth desire to attack the day, get stuff done, and make our mark on the world. I was once told that the takeaway with ambition is ten two-letter words: If it is to be, it is up to me.
What we lack, however, is patience. We live in an on-demand generation. Everything is at our fingertips. Patience is so rarely on the menu. Like a fine wine, patience exports well and ages well. “He that can have patience,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “can have what he will.”
Other elements in the world seemingly don't have that inner struggle with respect to patience. The tallest redwood in Muir Woods forest was once merely a tiny seed that had an indomitable will, stood tall, and refused to yield. To my knowledge, the caterpillar doesn't undergo an existential crisis of wanting to immediately transform with the snap of the fingers or the waiving of a magic wand. Rather, the caterpillar stays clinically in command, comprehensively, systematically, and gradually going about its tasks of avoiding predators and eating leaves. Or occasionally the binge day of one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, anyone?
The world changes as we change. As don Howard says, be the model that you want the world to become.
It's never too late to change your life for the better. Just because we've all made poor decisions in the past shouldn't prevent us from making the correct decisions starting right now. It's always the right time to start making the right decisions. That need not involve taking massive, Herculean steps to improve one's life. We get obsessed with the big picture and wanting that big picture to manifest instantaneously (or better still, for it to have already happened yesterday), and yet it's the small changes layered on top of one another that produce the massive delta in the long run. Those compounding advantages that keep compounding are vital.
Take a deep inhale and a deep exhale. Take another deep breath. Now take about five more. Once finished, embark on your path. Step by step. Realization by realization. The more patient you are, the quicker things will come. Have zero shame at all with where you are right now. None whatsoever. The egoic critic can take a hike to hell. Give that inner judge a much-needed vacation.
Be like the caterpillar. As the old adage goes, inch by inch, life's a cinch; yard by yard, life's hard. The journey is the destination.
Let the butterfly soak up all of the headlines. Even all this time in which I'm praising the caterpillar, when including a photo for this update, I initially scanned through the photos on my iPhone, and without thinking about it, fully intended to attach a picture of a butterfly. I have a million beautiful photos of butterflies at the Sanctuary. I only have a couple shots of caterpillars. As the new PR person for the caterpillar, the photo I've included in this update isn't especially catchy, but maybe that's the real point, and I'm doing justice by accurately depicting the hardworking caterpillar fastidiously in flow and going about its business.
The next time I see young Gerald McGrew, I'll tell him that the gritty, resilient caterpillar, not the Fizza-ma-Wizza-ma-Dill, is the animal worth celebrating. 🐛🐛🐛
Much love, -Parker