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Mastery of the Art of Living


    Volker Brendel:  Thank you all for sharing this space with me and thank you, Sanford, for selecting that opening music which invoked in me a sense of the vastness of space. You may have noticed that just about every fourth or so service consideration we mention the vastness of space and time, be it by going over distances in the planetary system or bringing to remembrance the numbers of galaxies and stars and the billions of light years that light travels from some of those stars to get to us. Similarly, we sometimes go back in history and recall ages past. All that gives us a sense of this immense space-time continuum in which we find ourselves at this particular point. With that recognition can come a sense of how puny we are: tiny us at the rim of the universe, small people drifting in this vastness. Or, there comes a sense of awe and wonder, a feeling of connection with all that and an intimate sense of this vast power organizing the entire universe and creating us, imbuing our thoughts and feelings.

    Recently I had a chance to take a trip to New Zealand, which is probably close to as far as one can travel from Indianapolis. We had to fly to Houston, and then we took a direct flight to Auckland, which was still a fifteen-hour flight, covering a difference in time zones of sixteen hours. Even in our modern era, our planet is both large and small. Large in the sense that travel still takes more than a full day, and small in the sense that even after that distance traveled, the new world down there in the southern hemisphere was still quite familiar. One item that came up was the all too common clash of human timescales with the planet's timescales. Some of the native kauri trees there have been around for over a thousand years. Now that is on an island that apparently was only settled by Polynesians some 800 years ago, not so many generations ago compared to some other countries.

    While thinking about the vastness of space, and the span of human history, we are also confronted with the fact that we must come back to the here and now, and in many situations act on much smaller timescales, in a much more intimate space. The dichotomy of recognizing these large scales and large spaces on the one hand and our seemingly rather limited actions in the here and now on the other hand is something that needs to be acknowledged and managed. There are many examples of conflict between such different experiences of timescales. For example, New Zealand's native flora and fauna have been severely altered, and quite likely irrevocably damaged, in just these 800 years of human population. Many species were brought by the settlers, became invasive, and took over. Deforestation was rampant. Only a few percent of the original forest land are still left. That story is repeated in almost any place that human beings have populated. In my native country, Germany, there is a resurgence of interest in forests, brought about essentially by one man who wrote extensively about forests from his experience as a professional forester and his individual experience as a person being in the woods.

    One of the anecdotes in his talk and writings relates to this problem of scale. The German countryside traditionally was replete with trees, in particular beech trees and oaks. Beech trees have a life span of 150 to 250 years, but only a few trees ever make it to that age. That is because where this tree grows, the canopy of the tree provides shade. The relative lack of light causes the many seedlings to grow very slowly.

    A tree that might be tens of years old might be only a foot or two tall, growing very slowly indeed and in doing so develop very dense wood that is strong and can fend off parasites, storms, etc. The entire ecosystem is built around a timescale that no living human being directly experiences. Human beings then come into the woodlands, with their cleverness and technical powers, and decide that we need wood for shelter and ships and start clear-cutting to fill those short-term needs. For most of the woodlands not only in Germany but the world over, modern management policy has been then to re-populate the clear-cuts with fast growing, non-native trees—producing more wood more quickly. The old beech forests have been replaced by plantations of fir trees that grow to maturity in about 30 years. While this might sound good, the unintended consequences have been huge because the entire forest ecosystem is now out of balance. I won't go into all the details but essentially the soil is depleted, the old growth patterns are destroyed, the fir trees that naturally wouldn't live in those areas grow fast but produce inferior wood and are much more susceptible to parasite and storm damage, other species invade, and so forth.

    This is but one illustration of many depicting the shortsightedness of human beings living on their relatively small timescale causing havoc with their limited vision. As I mentioned we often acknowledge the expanse of the universe and the largeness of our planetary history, but few manage to reconcile that acknowledgment with their current actions. Unless there is widespread reorientation of human beings there will be a heavy price to pay. What is much needed is the ability to change focus, from the far to the near and back, as needed; much like focusing the lens of a camera.

    That experience of shifting focus is something that we actually do have experience with and employ in our daily life. Take for example medical doctors or law enforcement personnel. These people are professionals who very often deal with life-threatening, unpleasant situations, and yet they have their own personal lives and so must have the ability to change and balance their focus. There is a space in which they operate professionally, and even that space shifts from situation to situation, but there certainly have to be spaces in their private lives that carry a different focus. This is similar to parenting, particularly of young children. Parenting can be a completely absorbing task, and for the sanity of the parents they must develop the ability to shift focus away from their kids and their needs to their own needs, or the needs of the community, or their professional lives.

    How can we manage such flexible shifting of focus? There is an interesting development in the field of computer programming that might serve as an initial analogy. A common problem in programming has been that a typical program depends on many different prior programs, often bundled in what are called libraries, optional parts of the operating system. If you develop a new program for a particular task, your program will make use of much prior work that is easily accessible to you at your time of development, but as time progresses some of these dependencies might change. In fact, they frequently do! I have plenty of unpleasant surprises to tell relevant stories about. And so the programming community has been struggling with solutions to this problem. Many programs being newly developed should rightly have a long life of function and therefore should not be tripped up by some dependencies on prior work that will become obsolete in the future. The current solution has been to distribute programs in what are called containers that bundle everything that is needed to run the program. All the dependencies, including the operating system are included. In times past, this would have been essentially impossible because of the vast amount of disk space involved, but because of technological advances in that realm and as well as memory management it is now an entirely feasible solution. In other words, your particular tool to do a particular task can be bundled with all the dependencies in such a way that it is guaranteed to work in the future; and in fact, it's guaranteed to work on a multitude of platforms (Linux, Mac, Windows) provided that it is executed within that container.

    For those of you who are not that familiar with programming, a different analogy might be useful, related to meal preparation. In this country there is a current business trend of offering meal kits to people who want to prepare their own meals, have some interest in cooking, but may have limited time, limited skills, or few needs for specialty ingredients. Companies sell boxes (containers!) that include all the raw ingredients needed for just one dinner, as well as cooking instructions.

    In our complex lives, the art of living involves having an array of suitable containers or workspaces for whatever tasks we need to manage and moving easily from one to the other. Although there are exceptions, I think most of us do well in relatively clean workspaces. If we need to do work on our cars, it is helpful to have all the required tools handy. If you have a painting job, it is good to have the painting area easily accessible and all the painting materials laid out. Many people are tripped up by clutter in their spaces. A familiar example is children who have too many toys. You ask them to clean up their room, and the children will be completely paralyzed because they have no starting point. They are in sensory overload. Many adults face similar problems.

    Now why is this an important consideration? I would posit that if we are interested in the art of living and refining our own mastery of the art of living, then a consideration of our creative spaces is vital in our progress towards mastery. John Gray in his presentation four weeks ago mentioned that we don't really know how many conscious human beings there are on earth, conscious of their divine identity. We suspect it's not all that many, but many more than we know personally. But in any case, we presumably have that recognition of our identity and know that this is not the endpoint but rather the starting point for our service on earth. In our growing up, we may hit a plateau after that first inkling of conscious understanding of our identity; maybe a sigh of relief, a feeling of comfort now that we know who we are, a sense that the universe is in good hands. Nothing wrong with that, but in the larger context this beginning recognition of our identity is simply a ticket to a training camp.

    We enter the next phase of mastering the art of living so that we can make the greatest possible contribution with our presence. So, what is there to learn about workspaces and containers? Maybe first there is the matter of effectiveness. Are we effective, do we have the tools to do what we need to do, be it doctoring, programming, law-enforcement, painting, carpentry, or parenting? In any activity there is the requirement that all the prerequisites for mastering that activity be present and that our personal space be uncluttered so that the task can be effectively done.

    A second item relates to scope. What is the scope of our creative activity? Are we satisfied with being good at just some things and avoid areas we are not comfortable with, rather concentrating on our limited range of effectiveness? For example, personally I am often uncomfortable in social settings where there is a lot of talk with people I don't know and there's a lot of ambient noise, let's say at a dinner party or a reception. I often find it unpleasant to converse in such situations and usually end up trying to single out someone, move away with them to a quieter space and engage in more comfortable focused conversation if possible. But the reality is that there are many situations arising in my life where it would be much more effective to develop better skills in communicating with people in such settings. It requires a different frame of mind, or shall we say a different container, how to converse in such settings and have meaningful interactions with people.

    A third item relates to flexibility. By necessity, we often move from one task to another and in that process let go of one container and bring in the next. How facile are we in managing that transition? Do we need a lot of downtime to readjust, are we a little bit lethargic, or can we see what is required in the moment and activate the toolset that is most effective in that setting?

    Lastly, we constantly interact with others who live in their own spaces, and our space may clash with that of others. I'm sure all of us have that experience that we may be in a setting where we want to do one thing and somebody else is doing something completely different, and it clashes. Or we're talking about what interests us, and the other person will talk about something important to them, and essentially those two streams of communication don't match. Can we recognize what is happening in those situations and effectively bring spaces together?

    As we go into a setting, we bring our thoughts, our skills, our spirit with us. Now if our container is very self-centered and very small, a little bubble around our own self-interests, we may not have much creative impact. On the other hand, we have certainly been in situations where we felt that our being extends, that our presence is felt and noticed—and while our creative action may be physically small, our presence in other ways carries weight and makes a difference in the situation. That creative presence that interacts with all of the universe brought down to the current space and moment in time is what is needed to steer this ship of humanity and this planet.

    We discussed a few of many potential examples of human failure because of their self-centeredness, feeding only the perceived needs of the moment but ignoring the larger picture of what their actions in the moment mean for the care of the planet and future generations. We are not interested in that limited self-centered bubble, knowing of our eternal limitless divine identity. We are keenly interested in bringing that vast perspective into practical action in the now, setting the tone by exemplary living. Again, referring back to John Gray's consideration of four weeks ago, we don't know how many there are and how many are needed. He gave the analogy of the functions of brain cells being needed to steer the human organism, whereas the cells in our little toes, for example, are being needed for something else. So, we shall not speculate as to how many are needed for delivering that vast vision of our identity into the present moment, but we do know that we are needed, I am needed. We live with that recognition of ourselves, and we are keenly interested in acquiring skills throughout our life (the learning process never ends!) to bring that identity into the present moment, acknowledging where we are currently and looking beyond, developing the mastery of the art of living.

    (after comments) I am very grateful for your articulation of all that we already have presently and all that has been given by those who went before. We really have a lot of tools and insights in our containers. How blessed we are having been exposed to the pioneers who went before. As several of you mentioned, we are in a new situation, building on everything that went before. There is much for us to do. I am grateful for the excitement in this group of friends to get on with it and to continue building and serving.

June 24, 2018


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