Monday, April 18, 2016

Work Ethic?

A captain of industry was taking a stroll along a beach one day when he came upon someone sitting under a tree, chewing a piece of grass, and occasionally tugging a fishing line that ran from a fishing rod into the sea. 

The captain of industry was both amused and intrigued to see this lazy fisher doing so little in the middle of the workday. “Good-day. Do you expect to catch much with so little effort?”

“Why? Is there a better way,” the fisher asked.

"Well, if you were to work harder, you’d certainly have more success than you’re having simply lying here on the beach.”

The fisher smiled at the captain of industry and asked, “And should I have more of this success you mention, what’ll that get me?”

"Why, you’ll be able to replace your fishing line with nets and catch even more fish.”

"So, I catch more fish. Then what?”

The captain of industry seemed excited by the learning he was imparting. He was already imagining the business plan he could help this fisher to write. "You’ll increase your profit, invest some of it, buy a boat, and bring in even larger catches of fish!"

"And then?" asked the fisher again. 

"Why, buy a bigger boat, of course. Hire others to work for you!" 

"And then?"

The captain of industry couldn’t tell if he was more bewildered than angry. "Don't you see? You could build a fleet of fishing boats and let your workers catch fish for you!"

"And then?"

The captain of industry was now certain his anger exceeded his bewilderment. He shouted, "Don't you see that you can become so rich that you’ll never have to work again! You could spend the rest of your days sitting on this beach without a care in the world!"

The fisher pulled on the fishing line, smiled at the captain of industry and said, "And what does it look like I’m doing right now?"

My friend Tanya recently flattered me by comparing me to one of my great teachers, Pooh Bear, as described by Benjamin Hoff in a book i've read many times, The Tao of Pooh (Penguin, 1982). The passage that inspired Tanya to make this comparison is:
"Say, Pooh, why aren't you busy?" I said. "Because it's a nice day," said Pooh. "Yes, but ---""Why ruin it?" he said. "But you could be doing something Important," I said. "I am, " said Pooh. "Oh? Doing what?""Listening," he said. "Listening to what?""To the birds. And that squirrel over there.""What are they saying?" I asked. "That it's a nice day," said Pooh. "But you know that already," I said. "Yes, but it's always good to hear that somebody else thinks so, too," he replied. (p. 101)
This all reminded me of the above story i have found from several cultures around the world including Mexico, The Seychelles, Sierra Leone.  I'll be reading The Tao of Pooh again shortly.


What Are You Carrying?

An old monk and a young monk were walking through the forest from one monastery to another when they came upon a woman standing beside a river. Finely dressed in delicate fabrics, she was clearly afraid to attempt crossing the river however shallow it might be. The old monk approached the woman and offered the woman his back. She climbed on and the old monk carried her to the other side of the river. The young monk was shocked. Once on the other side the old monk put the woman down and, together with his young companion, continued through the forest. Many hours later, as the day was drawing to a close the young monk said, “Master, I do not understand. It is strictly forbidden in our order to touch women and yet you didn’t hesitate to pick up that woman and carry her across the river.” “Ah,” said the old monk. “You must very tired. I put her down many hours ago. While you have been carrying her all day.”

photo from:

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Old Man and the Scorpion

One Spring day there was an old man who was walking along the banks of the Ganges River. The river waters were running fast and high. The old man noticed some tree branches and roots floating along in the swift current and saw that one bunch of roots had been hooked by a low-hanging branch of a tree next to the river. As the floating roots bobbed up and down and swayed in the water the old man saw a scorpion entangled in the roots and trying to free itself. It seemed only a matter of minutes before the tree root would be pulled into the river again ensuring the scorpion’s doom. The old man reached out for the tree root and held it as best he could in place. He then reached out to rescue the scorpion. As soon as his hand was within reach the scorpion lashed its tale and stung the old man. He drew back his hand, shook it and reached out again. Again the scorpion stung him. Again and again he reached out and again and again the scorpion stung. The old man’s hand was swollen and purple when a traveller wandered by and, watching this strange sight, shouted, "Hey, you old fool, can’t you see that that worthless creature will kill you before it lets itself be saved. Why not let it be?” The old man looked back at the traveller and said, "Ah, my friend, just because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I give up my own nature to save?”

I was reminded of this story while listening to the CBC Sunday Edition special on Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl has always amazed me and my amazement has only grown over the years. I remember first reading Frankl's most famous book when i was 17 in CEGEP in Montreal. Free of the limits of highschool reading i took up residence in the library at Selby campus and fund remarkable treasures. I was captivated by readings in psychology, psychotherapy, and memory. I'm fairly sure i was not really aware what it was i was looking for. But i must have had some feeling that such work would help me understand my world and the anguish and torment that i had felt for all my teen years to that point. Highschool had been unrelenting misery and i consider myself lucky that in Quebec at that time i only had to bear it for four years. CEGEP felt like freedom. And with that freedom i binged on learning reading Freud, Jung, Reich, Rank, Adler and, of course, Frankl. I learned a little bit from each author, but while most of the ideas i learned of fascinated me and stretched my mind, it was only Frankl's work that touched my heart and truly bewildered me. I was deeply moved by his account of surviving the Holocaust but it would be many years before i would understand what he was describing. Nonetheless, his message about the power of the "last freedom" one has even in the most dire circumstances to choose one's disposition towards things allowed me to reframe my entire life to that point. It was perhaps in that moment of encountering Frankl's work that i chose to take hold of my life and consciously take responsibility for educating myself further. Until that moment i had felt very much the victim of circumstances, helpless to do anything but endure the misery through which i had waded for many years. But Frankl's words and example inspired me to begin to imagine something more than mere endurance. Perhaps it was in that moment that i began truly to live.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Stream and the Desert

Once there was a stream that began high in a mountain range where it was a mere trickle. As it travelled down the mountain it grew and grew until it was a lovely cascade which coursed on down into a valley to become a rushing river. It widened as it crossed the land and it flowed strongly until it reached a vast expanse of sand. The stream that had become a river tried to cross this desert. But as fast as the waters poured forth, equally as fast the waters disappeared into the sand. The river was discouraged. It could see no way to continue its journey.

Just then a voice on the wind said, “you must let go. The harder you try the more water you’ll lose to the sands.” 

“But if I let go,” said the river, “how will I know where I am to go, what I am to become?”

“Let go and see,” said the voice on the wind.

The stream that had become a river let go. It gave itself up to the sun and sky and wind where it became clouds. The clouds were carried high over the desert by the winds. Now, having crossed the desert, the stream poured down from the sky. It poured down with the power of storms.

A friend reminded me of this story a few weeks ago in response to some kvetching i was, no doubt doing. It's good to be reminded of my own stories.

Photo: Jerry Adney, Unsplash

Monday, March 21, 2016

Tea Combat

Once, hundreds of years ago in Japan, there was a master of the tea ceremony whose reputation was so widespread that he received an invitation from the emperor to visit. The master of the tea ceremony gathered his things and dressed appropriately which meant he had to wear ceremonial swords. He had never used swords, barely knew how to hold them, but was accustomed to having to wear them for the proper occasions. And so he made his way to the capitol. As he entered the bustling city, he was looking around at the crowds and the buildings when he came to a bridge. As he was crossing the bridge and admiring the scenery, a drunken samurai, a ronin or masterless samurai, actually, was stepping onto the bridge from the opposite direction. The master of the tea ceremony did not notice the approaching ronin who took umbrage that this stranger would ignore him. The ronin shouted drunkenly at the master of the tea ceremony saying, “Am I beneath your notice that you do not even acknowledge me with a glance.” The master of the tea ceremony did not know what to do and before he could even utter an apology the ronin challenged him to a duel. The master had no choice but to accept lest he lose honour. He bowed before the ronin and said, “I consent to this duel but have one request. Will you allow me an hour to prepare?” The ronin agreed and the master bowed and hurried across the bridge into the city. He knew there were many martial arts schools in the capitol and he quickly found a dojo where they taught sword fighting. He entered the school and asked the master swordsman if he could ask a favour. The swordmaster listened gravely as the master of the tea ceremony explained his situation and then asked, “but I cannot teach you to fight with a sword in less than an hour.” “No, no,” said the master of the tea ceremony, “I only want you to show me how I am to hold my sword so that I may die with as much dignity and honour as possible.” The swordmaster nodded and said, “then first show me your own practice.” The master of the tea ceremony was dismayed for time was short. But he unpacked his box while the swordmaster went for water. The master of the tea ceremony prepared the brazier to heat the water and with the methodical calm for which he was famous, he prepared tea for the swordmaster. As the swordmaster sipped the tea, he said, “you are, indeed, a master. I have never seen finer. And there is little that I can teach you. I will tell you only this: when you confront the ronin, hold your sword before you and raise it. Then close your eyes and imagine that you are performing the tea ceremony.” The master of the tea ceremony thanked the swordmaster and hurried back to the bridge where the ronin was waiting. The two men faced each other and the master of the tea ceremony did as the swordmaster had instructed: he raised his sword and, holding it steadily before him, closed his eyes and imagined performing the tea ceremony. He waited for the sound of the ronin swinging his blade. He waited for the blow that would end his life. But after some time nothing had happened. He opened his eyes to see the ronin on his knees, his sword laid before him. The ronin bowed and apologized for his arrogance. For what the ronin had seen was the master of the tea ceremony so profoundly centred and balanced that there was no possibility of attack that would not end in his own death.

I have told this story for over 25 years, first learning it from Dan Yashinsky's The Storyteller at Fault, and later coming across many versions in zen literature. The first time I told this story was to a friend and two four-year old boys, one of them my friend's son. It was the only story that came to mind in a pinch and i wasn't at all sure it would hold the attention of two young rambunctious boys. But afterwards, my friend noted with astonishment how deeply the boys had paid attention. And i did feel that, indeed, despite my reservations, they really got the story well. And i wasn't sure at that time if i even got the story that well. But over the years this story has grown in import for me. I recall a story told of the founder of aikido Morihei Ueshiba who once faced an opponent who chose not to attack, for once he had seen the poise of the aikido master he realized that there was no possible entry for attack. The fight was won without a blow being made. Another story of the same master is about his reputed ability to dodge bullets. He once confronted a hunter famous for never missing his target and the two faced each other in a contest. But before the hunter could fire, the aikido master told the master hunter not to shoot for his bullet would, indeed, hit him. The aikido master had seen the perfect mastery of the hunter and knew that he could not win. I've often wondered if these sikido stories are about things that actually happened or if they are versions of the master of the tea ceremony story. Either way, the truth within this story endures.

Lately, i've been thinking of this story apropos of my many years struggle to teach people to facilitate meetings the way i do. There are many things i can tell people about how to facilitate, countless tricks of the trade as well as numerous conceptual frameworks. But i'm always left with feeling that there are only two things that matter - watching what i do (and being critical of it) and finding some way to be centred in themself - connecting with what is most true about themselves, with what they are most passionate about, with their uniqueness as well as their sense of connection with everything around them, and to channel that energy into what they do. Or, possibly, simply reflect on the story of the master of the tea ceremony.

image: Opening the Brazier for Tea Ceremony, Ogata Gekkō 尾形月耕 (1859-1920), Meiji Era, 1909

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Heaven and Hell

There was once a samurai who wanted to learn the difference between heaven and hell. He searched until he found a master from whom he thought he could learn. He stood before the Master and asked, “ what is the difference between heaven and hell?” The Master pointed to the samurai’s sword. The samurai removed the sword from its scabbard and handed it to the Master. Turning the sword to the flat of the blade, the Master struck the samurai on the forehead. The samurai was surprised at this but chose to ignore it. He thought that the Master had failed to understand his question. He once again asked the Master about the difference between heaven and hell. Again the Master struck the samurai on the head. The samurai staggered back and puzzled over this. He knew such teachers were eccentric and the Master was very old and possibly hard of hearing. The samurai began asking his question for a third time and, before he could finish his question, the Master struck him a third time. Enraged at this behavior, the samurai grabbed his sword from the Master, raised it up and was prepared to bring it down on the Master’s head when the Master raised one finger and the samurai paused.

“That is hell,” said the Master.

The samurai was instantly overcome by the courage of this frail old man - to have risked his life for the sake of a stranger’s question - that he fell to his knees and bowed before the Master.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Parable About Dissent

Civil rights lawyer Arthur Kinoy and his partner were working late one evening in June of 1953 when they received a phone call from the distraught chief counsel for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs had been found guilty of treason (for acting as spies for the Soviet Union) and had been sentenced to death. A stay-of-execution had been granted and the Rosenbergs’ team of lawyers breathed a sigh of relief for the summer they now believed they could use to mount a new defense. The Supreme Court (the only body that could overturn the stay) had adjourned for the season. But such was the climate of fear of communism at that time that the Supreme Court justices were called back from their holidays for the sole purpose of overturning the stay. The Rosenbergs were to be executed the next day. At their wits end the Rosenbergs’ lawyers turned to Arthur Kinoy. There was only one thing to do and that was to get a new stay. But most courts were adjourned for the summer. Nonetheless, Kinoy found a judge willing to meet with him: the highly respected conservative Chief Judge Thomas Swan. It was a long-shot. They expected to fail. But they had to try. Judge Swan listened to their case and agreed that a stay was in order. But they needed one other judge to agree in order for the new stay to be granted. Judge Swan sent them to see Jerome Frank, the leading liberal judge on that court, the architect of the New Deal and much progressive legislation. Judge Frank had been an idol to Kinoy and his peers when they were law students. They felt they couldn’t fail. Kinoy repeated the appeal he had just successfully delivered to Judge Swan. And, having made their case to the best of their ability, Judge Frank said: “If I were as young as you are, I would be sitting where you are now, and saying and arguing what you are arguing. You are right to do so. But when you are as old as I am, you will understand why I … why I cannot do what you ask. I cannot do it.” That evening, at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted.

Kinoy writes:

“Jerome Frank might, in a profound sense, have changed the course of American history that afternoon. He could not do it. He was a prisoner of the system he served. As a liberal, as a progressive, he had risen to a position of leadership in society. He would jeopardize the usefulness of those labels and, accordingly, the position they afforded him if he participated in the act of courage that Judge Swan, the conservative, was prepared to take. The labels themselves, Frank’s “liberal” past, imprisoned him – kept him from the course he would have taken if he were “as young as” we were. When we were “as old as” he was, he was telling us, we would understand that to preserve our position in society, we must compromise with those in control.

“… [Frank] was afraid – afraid of threatening the already shaky position of himself, of all the liberals, of the progressives, and even of the Jews – although that was a thought which I, as a young Jewish person, was most reluctant to face. It simply was not prudent for a “liberal Jew” to be the one to save the two “Jewish atom spies.” This was what we would understand only when we were “as old as” he.””
(Arthur Kinoy, Rights On Trial: The Odyssey of a People’s Lawyer, Lexington, MA, 1983: Bernel Books, pp. 125-126)

Kinoy concludes this hard-won lesson: “However, Mike Perlin and I came through the experience with the inner hope that at least never in our lives would we become “as old as” Jerome Frank was that afternoon.”

I wrote this piece many years ago now. And it was long before that (in 1984) that I learned about Arthur Kinoy. Living at that time in Northampton, Massachusetts, I went to a book launch and was both introduced to American civil rights law and utterly captivated by the passionate Kinoy whose book I had soon read cover to cover. And a stunning read it was with his accounts of the Rosenbergs and an enigmatic brush with the Watergate conspiracy (and about which he drops a rather shattering implication of corruption that I believe remains uninvestigated and is perhaps uninvestigatable). But it was his account of his encounter with Judges Swan and Frank that was seared onto my soul. I have carried this story with me for over 30 years now and it remains a “parable” that challenges me daily. I have long wondered if, given the choice between reputation and principle, which I would find myself choosing. And while I have chosen to live a life of principle over reputation, I cannot make any claims. I believe we all face such tests as Jerome Frank did – perhaps several times in a life, perhaps many. But not all these choices are as grand and consequential as what Frank failed at. In fact, such consequential choices are perhaps the less complicated to engage. What of all the many moments in our work and family lives when our principles come up against the limitations of our egos, our desires and fears regarding our physical needs and comforts, our reputation in our communities? How do we choose? Do we even notice when we make such choices? Perhaps the more subtle (but nonetheless crucial) challenge is precisely to learn to see when those choices are before us. For it is the witnessing of ourselves making those choices wherein lies the hope of our learning always to make better choices. And Kinoy’s experience helps me to see.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Word came to the Jews of a small Russian town that a much beloved and very wise rabbi was to pay them a visit. The village was off the beaten track and rarely had visitors of any kind. So excitement was high in anticipation of the visit of this well-known rabbi. The whole town prepared. The wise men and the talmudic students polished their questions. Foods were prepared for a feast.

On the day the rabbi was expected, people waited at the edge of the village watching the road. As soon as someone spotted the dust of an approaching cart, children ran out to greet it. And as the rabbi neared the village he was surrounded by more and more people. The rabbi and the growing crowd walked to the village centre. Now all the townspeople gathered. And some, noticing the large number of people, were so eager and worried that their questions might go unasked that they simply blurted them out. Very quickly there was a clamour of voices directed at the rabbi.

The rabbi raised a hand and many people fell silent. He held his hand steady and all listened. The breeze stirred the leaves of trees. Birds chirped in the warm sunlight. The rabbi began to hum a tune. He closed his eyes and swayed back and forth. First the children followed suit, humming the gentle melody and swaying on their feet. Now everyone was silent. And one after another the villagers joined the rabbi and children in humming and swaying. The rabbi picked up one foot and took a slow step, followed by another and another. Slowly he turned, still taking slow and measured steps. The children followed suit as did all the villagers. Then quicker and quicker the rabbi stepped and hopped until he was spinning around the square. The villagers all joined in until the square was a mass of dancing and spinning and singing people. The joy of the dance and the song reached out and touched the trees and the birds, the sunlight and the clouds in the sky. The entire earth seemed to be vibrating in time with the dancers.

Hours passed before the dance was done. One by one the villagers rested and when the last dancer was still and all sat in the square, tired and at peace, they looked to the rabbi who said, “I trust that I have answered all of your questions.”

image: drawing by Marc Chagall from Chagall: Burning Lights by Bella Chagall, Schocken Book, 1946, p.188.