Running the Race that Matters — Faster is not Better

In the last post, we wrote about how vertical development is more mindset than skillset, Here’s a story illustrating this difference in how we choose wisely about the race we run. 

Art by Lyndon from temple sculpture in Mauritius

Ganesha and Murugan are the two sons of the Indian deities Shiva and Parvati. As siblings, they often competed. One day, they competed for who would be the first to circle the world three times. They recruited their parents to judge the contest. Now Ganesha is the elephant god and large and slow, but wise. Murugan is an athletic warrior who rides a peacock. Once the challenge was issued, Murugan jumped on the peacock and disappeared over the horizon. Ganesha just sat there contemplating the task. In a few minutes, Murugan flashed overhead having completed a circuit around the world. Ganesha slowly rose and walked to his parents who were watching the contest. He circled them one and then twice, as Murugan whizzed by overhead a second time. Ganesha then circled his parents a third time and returned to his seat as a breathless Murugan descended triumphantly. “I have won!” Murugan proclaimed triumphantly. 

“No, you haven’t” responded Ganesha with a smile, “I have.” 

“What?” exclaimed, Murugan, “you have barely moved!” 

“Well,” explained Ganesha, “I circled our parents three times, and they are my world.” 

Shiva  and Parvati awarded Ganesha the prize. 

Murugan was clearly more speedy, but Ganesha was wiser. He knew his limitations and his strengths. Most of all, he knew what his parents who were the judges would value most. Ganesha, with the elephant form, represents wisdom. He’s not quick but he is thoughtful. 

In our digital age, we tend to value speed and size but the ones that get furthest often do so by flipping challenges in unexpected ways. Netflix did this to triumph over the established Blockbuster. Google best Microsoft in search and browser wars not with more features but with simplicity. Apple is seldom the first to market but it enters by excelling around key choices. Apple’s classic mantra, “think different” is key.  

Thomas Merton, the monk and mystic, pointed out that we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find when we get to the top that it is leaning against the wrong wall. In truth, the right wall may not be the same for all of us. There isn’t a single ladder of success. Considering what matters most to us is important. 

The classic fable of the tortoise and the hare suggests that intention counts over hubris. The hare was concerned about winning and grew complacent when victory seemed inevitable. The tortoise was motivated by finishing the race and was not pushed off course by the likelihood of being out-raced by the hare. Beating the hare wasn’t really the race he was competing on. 

In our age of fast-moving change, it helps to slow down, survey the landscape, and choose wisely. I have found that clarity doesn’t come when my mind is busy and harried. Much like a muddy pond, it helps to let the flow of thoughts settle to see to the bottom. Like Ganesha, I might do better to consider our choices and then move forward with clear intent.

Picture from the Bog Garden

Growing Up – The Arc of Vertical Development

Human development unfolds on twin axes – horizontal and vertical. But first, as always, a story. 

There was a village in the East filled with boisterous young men who were always quarreling. One day a beautiful young woman showed up in the village market with a basket of fruit to sell. Word of her presence got around and she was soon surrounded by two dozen young men vying for her favor. “You have to marry one of us, they said, who will it be?” 

She looked around at them and said, “I can’t marry two dozen men, but I can marry the one who is able to read the sutras. I’ll be back at the same time next month to greet the person who can do this.” When she returned a month later, only half the original group of men were present. “We have read the sutras,” they proclaimed, “who will you choose?” 

Well, she said, looking more radiant than ever, “I can’t marry a dozen men, but I can marry the one who can explain the sutras. I’ll come back at the same time next month.” 

After a month, just four men returned and proclaimed they could explain the essence of the sutras. They were a bit calmer now but still keen for her hand. Again she said, “I can’t marry four, but I can marry the one who can live the sutras. I’ll come back each month at the same time.” 

Art by Katie Klein at the Lotus Center

A month went by and nobody came to meet her. Another month, yet nobody. And six months later, one young man returned. He was glowing and he bowed to her, saying “I have lived the sutras, and I know now what you were trying to teach us.” He now recognized who she was — Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. Kwan Yin bowed silently and left, leaving behind the man who would transform the village into a place of peace by the presence of who he had become. 

In this story, development is not just the ability to know or even explain ideas but to actually live the learning. Horizontal development is knowledge and skills. These can be learned through scholarship and practice. Vertical development is lived wisdom, often acquired the hard way. It becomes the very transformation of being. 

Vertical development expressed another way is about moving up the ladder of consciousness. With each step up comes a shift in our state of being — how we think and how we show up in the world. Those with very high levels of vertical development have a transformational impact. Gandhi, Mandela, Mother Teresa. They manifest values about humanity, unity, humility, service. And love. Expansive love. 

Einstein expressed it this way:

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

And so did Chief Seattle:

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”

It is easy for me to know these things and repeat them but far more difficult to live them. It will take me far longer than the young man in the village under the thrall of Kwan Yin.

The Hero’s Journey (the story of all great stories)

Spring is in the air. The earth is transforming. Flowers rise from the ground and blooms grace the trees. The birds return and rabbits and squirrels frolic again in backyards. Spring arrives early or late, is long or short, but it always comes. Human transformation is less predictable but always possible and just as magical. The story often unfolds like this. 

Healing Garden, Greensboro

There was a shepherd who had a modest piece of land with a gentle stream on which he raised sheep and eked out an existence. He would often eat a meal by the stream, usually some bread and fruit. He would then feed the peels to the sheep and throw away the seeds. He’d then take the sheep up the hills to forage. 

One day, he heard a neighbor had discovered a diamond on his land and had become quite wealthy. The poor shepherd was suddenly consumed with desire for such wealth. He consulted a seer who told him that he too would find a field of jewels. Where is this field? asked the shepherd eagerly. I don’t know, said the fortune-teller but I can see a rushing stream and a grove of fruit trees there. There was only a small slowly moving stream on the shepherd’s land and no fruit trees at all so he decided that his treasure lay elsewhere. 

He sold his sheep and set out. He traveled across the country, sleeping under the stars, digging for jewels where he found streams and fruit groves, and doing odd jobs in towns and farms to get by. Years passed and then decades and he grew old but also wise from his travels and hardships. Increasingly, he found himself pulled less by the search for the stones than the places where scholars gathered. With countless nights spent alone under the stars and quiet afternoons in the shade of trees, he contemplated the mysteries of all he saw, the struggles of people, the wonders of nature and life, and felt gratitude, calmness, and compassion increasingly fill his soul. 

In the towns he passed through, he became renowned as a storyteller and teacher for the tales of places he’d been, his adventures and encounters, and the learning he gained and shared. Many people pressed coins into his hands in appreciation. Finally, he decided to return home with the money he gathered so he could buy a few sheep and spend his remaining days quietly as he once did. On returning to his land he found that the stream had grown into a fast-moving current and the seeds he had thrown away were now a large grove of fruit trees. Suddenly the mystery of the hidden treasure was revealed to him! 

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

He used the money to build a small school on the land and took up the role of a teacher freely sharing all he had learned from his journeys. Soon, many scholars and artists traveled from distant lands to study there and reflect with others under the shade of the fruit trees and the sparkling stream. On the field they built beautiful structures which they graced with art. The scholars then journeyed out to set up new centers of learning, carrying forth the teachings of the shepherd and the jewels of wisdom they had found on his land.  

As in this quest, the treasure we seek is often right there, only hidden. It is we who need to change to see it. The famous quote by Proust says that the real voyage of discovery is not traveling to distant lands but seeing with new eyes. Yet, we often need to travel afar to gain perspective and see possibilities in a fresh way.  

Story after story traces this arc of transformation. Joseph Campbell called the pattern the hero’s journey. It goes like this: The hero lives an ordinary life but life is upended with a crisis. He or she is forced to head into the unknown on a quest to save the situation. She/he encounters many struggles, some that are life-threatening. The hero prevails often with the help of a guide, He/she is transformed in the process. The crisis is averted and the hero returns home, a new person with a new way of being. 

This story of adventure is glamorous in hindsight but often agonizing at the outset. Yet the big payoff is growth, the real treasure. As Edmund Hillary who was first to summit Everest put it: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”

NC Botanical Garden, Chapel Hill

The stories I tell in this blog are about people who have made this journey. They were not necessarily born that way but were shaped by life’s difficulties much like the shepherd. They used their learning to create good in the world for others. In the end, this manifestation of our potential is the greatest treasure. It is ours to find if we are willing to journey from the comfort of home, embrace the unknown, open our minds, and lift our hearts. In this quest, we may find revealed to us the best of what we might be and become.