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.

The Star-thrower (and the gift of giving)

This fourth post on happiness is about giving it away. A story…

A man was walking on a beach one morning. Over in the distance, he saw a figure repeatedly bending down, picking something up, and throwing it into the ocean. He wondered what was going on and walked towards the figure to investigate. When he came closer he saw that the beach was covered with thousands of starfish that the tide had brought in. The figure was a girl and she was picking up the starfish and throwing them into the water. What are you doing? he asked her.

Well, she said, the tide has brought in all these starfish. Soon the sun will get hotter and the starfish are going to die. I am trying to save them. 

The man glanced around at the thousands of starfish on the shore and said, There are too many. You can’t possibly make a difference! 

The girl bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it into the water, and said, Well, it made a difference for that one. 

The man paused and then bent down and picked up a starfish and cast it into the ocean. And then another…

Mont Choisy Beach, Mauritius

The thing is that even small actions change the world. Mother Teresa said (what is perhaps my favorite saying), We can do no great things, only small things with great love.  What she offered is that small things done consistently add up, but these must come from the place of love. Actions that flow from love are their own reward. We don’t have to fixate on outcomes that we don’t control. 

It is also clear that what we give is what we receive. The research indicates that we grow happier with generosity. Older people who are generous tend to have better health, and spending money on others can be as effective at lowering blood pressure as medication or exercise. Helping others increases life expectancy because it reduces stress (

To follow the clues in Mother Teresa’s statement, we can begin by focusing on what we love and who we love — family, friends, people in need, community, animals, nature. When we give as an expression of love, we are not diminished but renewed. And what often happens is that the circle of compassion expands.

The Healing Garden, Greensboro, NC

This idea of expansive and inclusive compassion was expressed by Einstein who looked at the great, big universe filled with stars and saw a web of connection:

A human being is a part of the whole that is called by us the 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.

If we look, the world is filled with starfish stranded on many shores — so many people in need of kindness and help. It may be beyond our means to help everyone, but helping even one makes a difference to that one. And as we explored in the prior post about the monks (, and the words of Mother Teresa, what we give in small actions of love can cascade into big things. For we are all connected and love is the flow of compassion through the arteries of connection.

Happiness, then, is ours to claim, ours to generate, and ours to give. The opportunities for this are as abundant as the stars in the sky.

One Love!

Calodyne, Mauritius

One of Us is the Messiah (And All of Us Can Be)

A fourth post on happiness

In the prior three posts on happiness, we focused on how we focus on our inner selves. Happiness is also relational; it flows from how we engage with those around us. Consider this story.

There was a renowned monastery on a hill that had fallen on hard times. People had stopped coming to visit, very few young men were joining the order, and the monks had grown sullen and despondent. It appeared that they would soon have to shut down the monastery and disband. The sadness multiplied.

The abbot had a friend, a rabbi, in the village below who he used to visit occasionally for a cup of tea and a chat. He shared with the rabbi his concerns that the monastery would soon be no more. I don’t know what to do. Do you have any ideas for me, he asked.

Well, said the rabbi, I had a revelation in a dream last night that one of you is the messiah. 

What does that mean, asked the abbot? Who? 

I don’t know, said the rabbi. That’s all I recall but it was very clear.

As they wrapped up and he headed back to the monastery he pondered this revelation and shared it with the brothers after dinner. What does it mean, they asked. Who? 

He didn’t know, said the abbot, but he was very sure. It is a mystery.

As they went off to bed, the monks each reflected on what they heard. I wonder if Brother John is the messiah? Could it be Thomas? Or Michael? I haven’t been treating them really well. Could it be me? Am I behaving like I am the one who is chosen?

In the morning, they awoke and greeted each other with smiles and greater kindness. They helped one another with chores and offered encouragement, and things seemed brighter. The visitors who came up noticed the radiant joy flowing through the place and were inspired. They came back repeatedly, bought the wine and cheese that the monks sold, and told others about this wonderful place. Before long, the monastery was back as a popular destination with its reputation growing. A number of novices signed up eagerly to join the order. Things were better than they had ever been. 

Happiness is linked to the relationships we have. Happy relationships multiply, just as unhappy ones subtract from collective wellbeing (see the story of the two dogs in the house of mirrors – Tolstoy began his work Anna Karenina with: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ What makes happy families alike is that they are happy together. Happiness is contagious and there are places that are more happy because of how people relate to each other.

In the research on Blue Zones about where people live the longest, activity and diet are factors, but so too is purpose ( and social support from friends and family. 

Creating happy relationships is about expressing empathy, appreciation, and kindness — seeking to understand others and making an effort to treat them compassionately. We often get stuck with the need for reciprocity, finding it hard to be kind to those who don’t treat us well. But the happy ones do it not just because of others, but because of themselves. In the Paradoxical Commandments by Kent Keith that were echoed by Mother Teresa offer this insight:

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway. 

Because in the end, it is about our own happiness as well. This is what made the shift that occurred in the monastery. Can we create our own zones of wellbeing and happiness? Is this a shift we can make in our families, organizations, and networks? Can we be the messiah?

Flic en Flac Beach, Mauritius

The Two Wolves (and the 700 Nuns)

Part 3 of an exploration of happiness

In the previous two posts, we explored how happiness is an intentional choice. How might we manifest this intention in our lives? Here’s a story…

A Native American elder was sitting around a campfire with a child. She said to the child, you know there are two wolves that are fighting a great battle within you. One wolf is filled with anger, hate, greed, envy, and impatience. It snarls and howls all day long. The other wolf is filled with love, kindness, generosity, and patience. It smiles at everyone. These wolves are locked in a battle for your spirit. 

Grandmother, asked the girl, which wolf wins? 

The answer, the elder responded gently, is very simple. It is the wolf you feed. 

If you feed yourself love and compassion that’s who you become. If you feed yourself compassion and gratitude, that’s who you become. 

Happiness is a practice. It is our ability to practice positive behaviors that make us happy.

In the last post (, I wrote about how our existence is like a wheel with an outer rim that interacts with the world — the friction of stones, ruts, and mud — and a central hub that is our inner state. We can absorb and internalize the friction of what is coming at us from the outside and become the snarling wolf. Or we can use our internal intention to transform how we engage the world with kindness. The rim and hub are joined by spokes that connect the two elements. 

The wheel is a symbol in Eastern traditions — a symbol of Buddhism and at the center of the Indian flag. The spokes on the wheels are practices. These allow us to engage the world from a place of intention. One of these practices is gratitude. 

‘There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” — Albert Einstein

A practice of gratitude enables us to count the good we have in our lives. In doing so, we remind ourselves of the many good things we have that we can gloss over and counter-balance the things that aren’t good. A longitudinal study of 700 nuns who were asked to keep autobiographies over a period of 50 years found that the ones who expressed positive emotions such as contentment, gratitude, happiness, love, and hope stayed healthier and lived longer — 90% of the happiest nuns lived past 85 years compared to only a third of those who were the least happy. Gratitude not only helps us be happier, it improves our immunity against disease. It can also shield us from life’s wounds. 

The Dalai Lama who is credited for being happy was once asked how he could be happy given what had become of Tibet. He said, it is true that we have lost so much, but yet must I also lose my happiness? Happiness is not just for the good times. Its greater power is in shielding us from the bad times.  

You can find a set of gratitude practices in this post ( 

The Now of Happiness (Vs. the Pursuit of Happiness)

Part 2 of an Exploration on Happiness

Calodyne, Mauritius

If you ask many of us what is the purpose of life, we might answer: it is to be happy. The American Declaration of Independence called for the pursuit of happiness as a founding principle. What does it mean to pursue happiness and is it possible that happiness actually flees when we pursue it? Take this story. 

A busy New York businessman was persuaded by his wife to take a vacation in Mexico. Strolling on a beach late morning he encountered a fisherman leaning back against his boat on the beach, gazing lazily out at the ocean. 

St. Francois dock, Calodyne, Mauritius

“It’s a beautiful day,” said the businessman to the fisherman, who nodded back. “Shouldn’t you be out fishing”? he asked. “Well,” said the fisherman, “I have already made my catch and I am done for the day.” The businessman grimaced and responded, “Yes but couldn’t you catch more if you stayed out longer?” 

“I could but why?” asked the fisherman. “Well!” declared the businessman, “you’d make more money.” “What would I do with more money?” asked the fisherman. “Well,” gushed the businessman, “you could buy another boat and hire someone else to fish for you. With the profits, you could even get more boats and employees, perhaps even open up a canning plant and grow quite rich!” 

“And then what,” asked the fisherman, amused. “Well, then you could retire happily,” proclaimed the businessman. “Okay,” said the fisherman, “and what would I do then?” “Well then,” said the businessman, “you could sit out on the beach and relax by the ocean.” 

“Ah!” smiled the fisherman bringing his hat down over his eyes, “that’s exactly what I am doing now!”

The two characters in this story had two very contrasting views of happiness. The businessman saw it as the final reward of a long life of effort and achievement. For the fisherman, happiness was something to be enjoyed as a daily practice. The businessman may indeed get to retire with a lot of money to enjoy a bit of luxury and leisure, but there is no guarantee that he’d live that long or enjoy good health, or even make the money in the end despite a lifetime of effort and risk.  

So, is happiness something to be pursued into the future or enjoyed now in the moment where we can find it? There is a lot to enjoy if we look and notice — the blue sky, being alive, the next breath.  In looking for big things, we lose the small things that we already have and take for granted in the daily flow of our lives.

Grand Gaube, Mauritius

The research about flow sees that contentment is about finding yourself in the zone where you forget yourself. You just are present, fully absorbed in what you are doing, not stuck in the past or thinking about the future. Picture a musician playing, a painter painting, a sportsperson in a game, a pair of lovers. They are focused, absorbed in the joy of what they are doing. Time stops. Thought stops, Even the question of happiness vanishes. There is only being in the present. 

At the end of his time, John Lennon sang of ths awareness in his song Watching the Wheels:

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round

I really love to watch them roll

No longer riding on the merry-go-round

I just had to let it go

The thing is that the wheel of life is always turning. The rim and hub both turn but the pace is not quite the same. We can latch our sense of being to the rim and spin around dizzily as we work to do more, or we can center ourselves at the hub of the wheel, staying calm and present in the midst of motion. If our being is centered at the hub, we can radiate a sense of calm to the activity at the rim — much like the athletes playing in a state of flow. If our sense of being is anchored to the activity at the rim, we transfer this busyness to our core, feeling frenetic and harried. I often find myself in both places and have to remind myself to return to the center. Finding a way to intentionally claim calmness in motion, and peacefulness in activity, is key to being happy. Here contentment becomes a practice, a habit, much as it did for the Mexican fisherman reclining on the beach. 

The fisherman fished to live, but he made a habit of being happy, every day. So, perhaps the challenge is not to pursue happiness to the end of our days, but to claim it now, while we can, wherever we can, and in whatever we do. 

Galle, Sri Lanka

Follow your Bliss (the Sage and the Swamp)

Part 1 of a series on claiming happiness

Following the four-part post on suffering, time to flip the coin to the other side and explore the face of happiness. Happiness, just like suffering, is very much a choice. 

Burr Mil Park, Greensboro

Here’s a story. There was a wise sage who lived happily in the forest by a swamp. People came to visit him to seek his counsel. Word got to the emperor who sent a team of ministers to invite him to the court. The sage couldn’t refuse the emperor. On the way over, the ministers told him that he would be asked to serve the court — a great honor, they beamed. The sage knew it wasn’t his place. He was quite happy with his solitude in the swamp and didn’t wish to leave. 

At the palace, he was ushered into the imperial court where the emperor sat in a great hall on a gilded throne. Above the throne, mounted on the wall, was a giant bejeweled turtle, the symbol of the emperor. The emperor extended a welcome to the sage and after quizzing him and confirming his great insight said, I would like you to take a distinguished place here and to offer your wisdom on matters of the court. You will be richly rewarded and greatly esteemed. The sage bowed and said to the emperor, your majesty, it is indeed a great honor you have extended to me. May I ask if the turtle that is in a place of great glory above your throne would be happier here or in the swamp? Well, the swamp, of course, said the emperor without hesitation. Well, your majesty, that’s the same for me too. I would be honored to be here but I am most happy with my life in the swamp. Will you grant me my happiness? The emperor nodded, sadly, and allowed the sage to return home.

In a less mythical story, I read about a humble sanitation worker who was surprisingly happy at work. Asked why, given his job dealing with garbage all day, he said that it was great because it allowed him to care for his family. He knew his why. 

Bog Garden, Greensboro

Happiness is then about being true to yourself and your purpose. Joseph Campbell expressed this elegantly as a call to “follow your bliss.” This is not about the easy road, but it is being true to what makes your spirit come alive. This bliss is not the same for all of us. And it often isn’t money and fame. The thing about money, fame, and power is that there is never enough. Happiness also doesn’t increase as wealth does. It hurts to be poor but once you have enough to live on, more money doesn’t translate into more happiness.

Bog Garden, Greensboro

Real happiness, as researcher Sonya Lyubomirsky found, is much about being happy for no reason. She found that while half of our happiness is genetically-driven, only 10 percent is based on circumstance and 40 percent is driven by our attitude. Our happiness depends on us. It is a choice that is largely independent of our circumstances. If happiness is dependent on external things, those go up and down, and may go away. This is why suffering sits on the other side of the coin of happiness. Suffering surges when we lose things. The things we create for ourselves on the inside are ours to keep.

It was what the sage knew living in the swamp. He knew his why. He was living his bliss. He was creating his own happiness on the inside. I believe it is also what we are all challenged to find and manifest. I am working on it.

Bois Cherie, Mauritius

Related Posts

Walking the Path of Purpose

Follow the Sun

Love & Liberation — What we can learn from the lives of great change agents (Part 4 of an exploration of suffering & transformation)

Mural in Greensboro, NC

In this final of four blog posts on suffering and transformation, I wanted to explore how hardship is the crucible for helping us become our higher selves. A crucible is a container where objects are subjected to great heat so they can be remade. The lives of great change agents, people who became great souls and transformative leaders, were shaped by suffering that they transformed into immense good.

Take Gandhi. Gandhi was a young lawyer during the colonial British Empire. He tried hard to make it in the system. As a young man, he set out to become a barrister in London. Having passed the bar, the young lawyer was engaged for an assignment in apartheid-era South Africa. On a journey, he purchased a first-class ticket and, dressed smartly in a Western suit, claimed his seat. A fellow passenger complained about his presence in the cabin to the conductor. When asked what he was doing there. Gandhi produced his ticket and credentials which was met with a sneer; he was told that only Whites could sit in a first class cabin. When Gandhi refused to budge, he was thrown off the train into the cold night. Shivering on a deserted platform, Gandhi had an awakening about discrimination. It could have turned to hate, but it didn’t. 

Nelson Mandela, perhaps the greatest leader in recent times, spent 27 years jailed by the government on an isolated island in South Africa. He emerged with a powerful message about reconciliation that steered South Africa to a remarkably peaceful transition to democracy. Martin Luther King, Jr. too was repeatedly beaten and imprisoned in the struggle for equality in the US. He was consistent in his call for freedom and love. In each of these lives, great injustice led not to anger and revenge but empathy and compassionate action. Why did this happen? Here’s what I see. 

Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King, Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and others known for compassionate actions spent much time in contemplation that radically transformed how they experienced the world and engaged in it (see the story of the Laughing Buddha —

In an interview, Mandela was asked how it was that he came to embrace forgiveness and reconciliation after all that had been done to him by the apartheid regime. He explained that his many years alone and in silence in prison had enabled him to see his own soul, his own failings, and need for forgiveness. In this encounter with his soul, he became committed to the path of forgiveness and reconciliation for all peoples.

Gandhi expressed this very idea as Satyagraha or truth-force which encompasses three principles:

Satya/Truth – commitment to openness, honesty and fairness
Ahimsa/Nonviolence – the refusal to inflict injury upon others
Tapasya/Sacrifice – a willingness to sacrifice oneself in action

Sacrifice in Satyagraha is a test of love. Martin Luther King explained: “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.” This alchemy of turning bad into good is connected to practice of “attend and befriend” ( discussed explored in an earlier post. 

In contrast, many other freedom fighters channel exploitation and inequality into rage. They turn adversity into a call to defeat the adversary by any means “necessary.” In the bargain, they can lose their soul and start to mirror much of what they started out fighting against. 

Great change agents, in contrast, operate from a place of oneness and love for all people, even their adversaries ( Martin Luther King stated, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Martin Luther King believed that it is possible to resist evil without resorting to violence and hate: “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him.” Elsewhere he said, “In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you.” 

This path seeks the high ground and is willing to take the long road. There is the belief that ends don’t justify the means and that justice can take time to unfold. As MLK eloquently stated, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Nonviolence is the path chosen not because it is easy or expedient but because it is morally right. 

National Museum of African American History and Culture

With this moral clarity, these great change agents were willing to put themselves on the line. They led from the front, by example, in protest marches and public fasts, being beaten and imprisoned, and, as in the case of Gandhi and Mandela, encountering a violent death at the end. The day before his assassination and perhaps anticipating his end, MLK acknowledged difficult days ahead and said, “it really doesn’t matter, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.” 

Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Mother Teresa made the difficult journey up the mountaintop of freedom and justice with love and grace because they also simultaneously journeyed up an inner mountain to rendezvous with the soul within. To truly “be the change you want to see in the world,” you have to authentically become it. Gandhi’s words are a call to action and a call to our own transformation. 

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Further back in time, another agent of liberation, the Buddha, made a similar call. He indicated that he would be reborn until all beings were free. I believe he was calling us to be reborn as Bodhisattvas of liberation much like the great change agents. Like other great souls, he demonstrated that the way to create our capacity for courage and compassion in the world is through inner work. This was work, the Buddha said, that we must each do for ourselves: 

No one saves us but ourselves

No one can and no one may

We ourselves must walk the path

Buddhas only show the way 

As someone who has spent a lifetime working on social change, I am challenged by the examples of these great souls and the way they pointed to. Moved by suffering they saw in the world, they stepped up to address injustice at great personal risk. The difficult struggles they waged were powered not with anger and hate but with compassion and love. And– ultimately — they sought not just liberation from injustice in the world, but liberation from the animosity that suffering can create within us. Through their lives, these great souls shine a light on the path to fostering great change and liberation. It is a path that flows from within us into the world. It is a journey towards love made in the company of the soul. It is a journey that they beckon us to join. In doing so, our suffering is transformed into grace, a sacrifice offered on the highest altar of love. 

Following this series on suffering, I’ll turn to the other side of the coin — the pursuit of happiness. I welcome your insights and experience on the nature of suffering and the path of transformation.


One Love: What’s Love Got to Do with Liberation?

What the Laughing Buddha Knew — Part 3 on Transforming Suffering

In the last two posts, we explored the nature of suffering ( and how to transform it ( This third post in the series is about building the inner capacity to make this shift. There is a story of the Laughing Buddha that helped me see this pattern.

The Laughing Buddha was a jolly monk who lived in the 10th century in China. He’s often pictured with a big belly and a giant sack. The sack was key to his work. He wandered around town carrying the sack with things in there to give away to people he encountered — money for someone in need, a bit of food for people who were hungry, toys for children, and a smile for everyone. When he encountered people with means, he asked for something to add to his sack. 

The Laughing Buddha was recognized by the people around him as compassionate and in touch with a deeper source of being. One day, an admirer asked him what is the essence of the Tao. The Laughing Buddha smiled, put down his sack, and settled into a seated meditation. The observer was puzzled and then asked his question again, reframing it, what is the expression of the Tao. The Laughing Buddha opened his eyes, laughed, grabbed his sack, and went on his way to continue his work. 

This story was a revelation to me. Through this illustration, the Laughing Buddha expressed where he found inspiration for his compassionate actions — the space within — and how he expressed this inspiration — with his work in the world.  I have found this pattern in the lives and actions of many great souls who spent much time in meditation and solitude as an enabler of their efforts. But why does this work?

Meditation is about turning within, to silence, to the space of emptiness. One of the things that happen here in this infinite space of emptiness is the ability to connect with the oneness of all things. As we’ll explore in a future post, form (physical or mental) is bounded while emptiness is boundless. God, in many traditions, is understood to be formless, boundless, infinite. In dropping boundaries, it is possible to feel the divine and a deeper sense of unity and connection. This state of being can’t really be expressed in words, but it can be experienced. 

Another aspect of meditation or prayer is about becoming more centered and rooted in how we respond to the outer world. Gandhi once said I have a busy day today so I need to meditate an hour extra. What he indicated was that this inner work was needed for him to show up as present, calm, and intentional regardless of the external turmoil. This is often the reverse of what we may tend to fall into when there is greater stress and demands.  I tend to tip into trying to do more, working harder to milk more output from time. But, of course, under duress, we’re often not equipped to do — or be — our best. 

The Dalai Lama indicated that while meditation was not about thinking, it was not akin to sleep. It is, he explained, about being able to see more clearly. Our minds are busy, cluttered with a flurry of thoughts and emotions, especially under stress. We can’t see or think clearly unless we can let this noise settle. Part of seeing, is turning our sights to what’s within us and becoming aware of our own thinking, emotions, and behaviors. 

To practice Attend and Befriend (, we need to catch ourselves in the throes of unconscious and uncontrolled reactivity ( and move our response to conscious choice. It is not easy to do in the moment unless we are predisposed to doing so — roots after all take time to set. This is where steady spiritual practice comes in. 

In the end, spiritual practice serves not to help us escape the world, but to live more intentionally in it. What do you think?

Attend & Befriend (Part 2 — Engaging & Transforming Suffering)

In the last Spiritual Sushi post, about the nature of suffering (, the focus was on how do we shift from suffering to acceptance and compassion. Here I offer the most helpful guidance I have found. 

As humans, we are wired to react to threats with a fight or flight response. We respond by fleeing the source of the pain or turning around to attack it. Our brains are wired for this. The amygdala at the root of the brain stem is quick to respond automatically — almost unconsciously — to save us from threats.  To turn this around, we need to engage consciously instead.

The teacher Tara Brach offers a way to do this with the path of “attend and befriend” in place of fight or flight. The “attend” stance is to turn to see the other — the source of the threat or attack — with conscious awareness. The “befriend” response is to engage them with compassion. 

The following story from Terry Dobson when he was studying in Japan illustrates this well.

An American aikido student in Tokyo was headed home one afternoon on the train when at a stop, a big, drunk man stormed into the cabin roughly shoving a slow-moving woman with a baby ahead of him. He glared around the cabin looking to see who might challenge him. The aikido student thought if there was ever a reason to apply his practice it was now. 

So, he locked eyes with the man, who snarled and stepped towards him. As the student braced for the physical engagement, a voice from the other side of the cabin called out– hey! The two men wheeled around in the direction of the voice. It was an elderly man with kindly eyes. Have you been drinking sake, he asked the drunk, beaming? What’s it to you? said the drunk, now stepping toward him. Well, I love sake too, said the older man. Every night, I sit with my wife in my garden with my wife and we enjoy some warm sake. Do you also sit with your wife in the evenings? he asked the drunk, who was taken off guard. The man blinked and stuttered, I don’t have a wife, I don’t have a job, I have nothing. Then, tears burst down his cheeks. Here, here, said the older gentleman, patting the seat beside him. The drunk tumbled forward, slumping into the arms of the older man. The student watching it all unfold in amazement observed: Today, I learned what true aikido is. 

This story illustrates the power of compassion. It may seem idealistic but, as we’ll explore in the next post, is exactly how great social change leaders have created great change. 

This practice of attend and befriend can also be applied to ourselves. When we are upset with ourselves or our circumstance, we also tend to resort to the fight or flight response — to blame ourselves or others, or try to avoid and bury the anger. The attend and befriend response is to tune in and acknowledge our feelings with compassion. What I have found is that many things, when acknowledged, are released. 

My daughter, when she was a toddler, liked to run. Unsteady on her feet, she’d often fall, sometimes on the sidewalk. I found that I could tell her to be careful but this would cause her to wail more loudly; if I gave her a comforting hug instead and asked if she was okay, she’d quickly smile, nod, and so be back to her cheerful self. 

Kindness offered is not quickly forgotten and paid forward.

You may recall the classic Aesop fable of Androcles and the lion. Androcles, a runaway slave who had taken refuge in a cave, found himself face to face with a fierce lion who was sheltered there. The lion roared and Androcles was terrified. But the lion then raised a paw. There was a giant thorn there. Slowly Androcles summoned his courage and approached the lion and gently removed the thorn. The lion licked Androcles in gratitude. When they parted ways, Androcles and the lion were both captured. Androcles was put into an arena to be fed to the lions. As he was pushed into the ring, a lion was let loose from the opposite side. The lion charged at him but then recognizing Androcoles turned into the likes of a puppy, embracing and licking Androcles. The stunned emperor who was watching the spectacle summoned Androcoles. On hearing the story, both Androcles and the lion were released. 

Attend and befriend doesn’t avoid or seek to avenge harm but heal the cycles of abuse and hurt that ripple through the world. The truth is we all have plenty of thorns stuck in us that cause us pain and anger. These may be hard to see and frightening to engage. Yet, like the lion, we want someone to attend to our pain and offer us kindness. We too can offer compassion to others for the hurt that they may be carrying.

In a future post, I’ll write about how we can build our inner capacity for compassion. For now, what has been your experience in how to respond to harm with compassion?

Related posts:

Why Fore-giveness is better than Forgiveness

Anger! (and Conscious Choice)

Compassion is Contagious, too

Making Sense of Suffering (Part 1 – Awareness & Intention)

Experiencing pain and suffering are a salient part of being human. We have all have been served with hardships and loss, some of us to a far greater degree than others. Pain experienced repeatedly and left to fester becomes embedded trauma. Trauma unhealed metastasises and is triggered again and again. In this pattern, a lot depends not just on what happens to us, but how we process and heal the hurt. I had an ‘aha‘ about our response to suffering reading the framing of The Book of Job by Stephen Mitchell. It cast that Biblical story in a new light for me. 

In this telling, Job is a righteous and successful man. He has a big family, good health, a good reputation, and a prosperous business. One day it all changes. His business fail, his children die one after the other, he loses his health and is reduced to being destitute, living by the side of the road, sick and covered in sores. His former friends passing by accuse him of having done something evil in order to be punished thus. Job knew he hadn’t done anything to deserve his lot and lamented endlessly to God. One day, God takes him up to heaven where he sees for a moment with God’s eye. In a flash, he takes in the breath of the universe and its many interlinked connections that ripple across the span of people, place, and time. It all makes sense. Job bows down with acceptance and humility, Who was I to doubt? 

This story recognizes that we don’t know why bad things happen to good people and we may never know what ripples forth in the grand scheme of things. It offers that there is meaning beyond what we can see and our job is to accept what has happened with grace. This acceptance is a way to release the mental suffering that can eat us up on the inside. 

Another powerful reframe is the story of Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. As a young Jewish psychiatrist from Austria, he was imprisoned by the Nazis in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Trapped in this horrific environment — with brutal labor, bitter cold, starvation rations, beatings, and the constant threat of being killed — there was little reason to feel anything but deep suffering, grief, and despair. But Frankl flipped this script of hopelessness. He decided that he would use the little power he had to make a difference. He chose to comfort his fellow prisoners, help them where he could, and share the little food he had with those who needed it more desperately. Over time, he felt his power grow until he felt more powerful than his captors. He said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”   

What Frankl discovered — the philosophy he called logotherapy — was that we can’t necessarily control what happens to us but we can choose how we respond. The Buddha also focused on this very idea. He said, I come to teach one thing and one thing only. The nature of suffering, and the end to suffering. 

If we don’t transform this suffering, we can retreat in despair, become defeated, or grow angry and bitter, weaponizing the pain for attacks we launch against ourselves and others. We see this pattern play out with some powerful people in business and politics who do enormous damage as a result of the inner hurt they have experienced, often as children. 

At the same time, people like Mandela, MLK, and Gandhi are leaders who create great change precisely because they have suffered great ills and injustice (I will explore this further in future posts). Mandela wrote, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

In all these examples of engaging hardship — with acceptance, resilience, compassion, or transformation — we see that the hinge that swings us backward or forward is the internal meaning we make of suffering. How we process hurt and the story we create around it for ourselves changes everything. The Buddha, in his parable of the Two Arrows, asks: If you were shot by an arrow, would it hurt. The listener answers, yes, it would. And, continued the Buddha, if you were shot a second time, would it not hurt even more. The answer is, of course it would! The Buddha then says, the first arrow is the thing that hits us from the outside. The second arrow is the one we shoot at ourselves in response to the first arrow. It is the suffering we create for ourselves with our response of anger, fear, hurt, or despair. And, it can become a far more grievous wound. This is a lesson I have to continually remind myself about when bad things happen and I reach quickly, automatically, and unconsciously for the second arrow.

So, the key is choosing not to fire the second arrow but to turn our suffering into an instrument for engaging hurt and injustice with compassion and courage. But how? This transformative practice is not easy but possible. We will explore some spiritual ideas and practices for that in a future Spiritual Sushi post. For now, what is your experience with suffering? What enables you to release or transform it?

Related Posts:

Walking in the Garden of Forgiveness

Why Fore-giveness is better than Forgiveness

Healing the Heart of America