Monday, June 08, 2009

Profound Learning

“I don’t know who discovered water,

but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.”

Marshall McLuhan

The main article of the Allied Ronin newsletter normally doesn’t mention the courses or retreats available for you to attend. That’s usually left for you to discover by looking left to the “black side-bar announcement column”. But this month, and at the end of this article, we’ll depart from this practice. After reading what’s written below you may want to pay attention to the upcoming schedule, pick something that’s being offered. It could make a world of difference for you, or those you love, or for your business, or for other important matters you care about. If something resonates with you, we suggest you make a call and attend a program or retreat – or ask that one be created for your organization.

• • •

Profound learning does not require a profound situation, but it does require attention. When one is attentive, even the simplest or smallest situation can evoke learning that can be profound. Real learning comes from within. Meaningful lessons reveal themselves to the alert mind. Stay alert!

It’s the last weekend of May, and I’m sitting in Room 25 of The Falls Motel in Thompson Falls, Montana. This is my 12’ X 12’ cinder block, concrete box home-away-from-home for four days. It’s Saturday and approaching the time to leave for the first morning of Developing Your Warrior Spirit, the name given to the weekend training with the Samurai Game®. Shane English and I will conduct it. Our participants, students of a youth-at-risk boarding school along with some of their parents, are waiting for us down the road. Hopefully it will be fruitful, if things go as they did for us at a similar facility in Amargosa Valley, NV, three weeks ago.

Thompson Falls is green; at one time a thriving logging community. You see the logs and log cabin “factories” up and down the river. A constant roar of the water would seemingly entice one to go fishing, yet no one is fishing these waters. I wonder why, because the fish are here for the taking. Yesterday evening on the drive back from reconnoitering the boarding school, Shane and I watched osprey making their runs over the water. One cruised just above our car with its catch in talon. The mountains are high and lush, and they stretch forever with plenty of deer, elk, big horn sheep, bear and who knows what else. I have no recollection of ever seeing such densely packed old growth pine, fir and spruce. Abundance is everywhere if you look for it.

A café on the south side of the street appears to be the town’s cross generational hang out: all day long breakfasts, old timers with cowboy or VFW hats, young bucks wearing sweated through ball caps (properly turned bill-to-the-front) and their pony-tailed sweethearts. You pay your waitress (no male food servers work this café) who carries her own stash of cash on her belt. Even if you pay by credit card, your receipt goes into her wallet. She says it’s about personal responsibility. The sign outside reminds all to support the local team. The restaurant window frames a red-white-blue banner laden memorial across the street reminding passers-by to honor the town’s MIA and POW. There’s been one of each from Thompson Falls.

Amargosa Valley, NV, on the other hand, has the distinction of being as remote a desert entry point into Nevada via Death Valley as you’ll ever find. A search on Google Earth before arriving there earlier last month indicated that the most prominent piece of industry was a gas station turned bordello. (Or was it vice versa?) What I didn’t notice on Google Earth was the expansive underground nuclear repository trapped inside the mountains to the west. That fact was explained when I arrived in town. The terrain and environment here? Flat, scrubbed and parched. An expanse that extends seemingly into who knows where. Like the forest surrounding Thompson Falls, it, the desert, seems endless and in its own way abundant. The road to the school is straight. The speed limit is 35 mph, but anything under 65 is too slow for local traffic. The Longstreet Inn, Casino & RV Resort is town’s regular Friday night entertainment for family, the dating scene and parents whose children now reside at the boarding school. The Longstreet has slot and video poker machines, lively karaoke and a hired-in husband/wife band who entertain on a weekly basis. If the Longstreet’s pace is too slow, just step across the street to the biker bar. There, no challenge goes unanswered. [Does any challenge ever really go unanswered?]

But it’s the kids, our next generation, whose lives are at stake, literally, that summon us to Thompson Falls or Amargosa Valley. It makes no difference – if you’re a troubled kid taken or sent by your parents to live in one of these facilities in either of these towns you’re here for a serious reason. And if you decide to hop the fence or run out the door, you’re screwed. Not from a legal perspective. Rather, you’re flirting with death because there’s nowhere safe to go. And that’s the point, isn’t it. In life there’s really nowhere safe to go. Safety is an illusion. But you have to go somewhere with your life, don’t you? It’s more dramatic for the kids in these facilities in Thompson Falls and Amargosa Valley, because the reason they arrived here in the first place was that they were already flirting (literally) with death and there was probably nowhere else safer to go.

A train rumbles through Thompson Falls every so many hours and passes adjacent to my concrete block motel room; one rail into town; same rail out. It reminded me of Amargosa Valley’s one road in, same road out. Neither place is separate from the outside world. Remote, yes, but not separate. I consider that no matter how alone I sometimes feel, I’m really never separate from the world around me. There’s always a rail or road in and out.

A van pulled up while Shane was arranging for our rooms in the motel office. From it two older looking men with white whiskered chins, one wearing a black flat brimmed hat, emerged went inside to register. The hat’s expanse and color spoke loudly, “We’re Amish”, or at least that’s what I heard it say. I mention this respectfully because no one actually spoke those words. It was just my interpretation. And truthfully, being Amish is A-OK. [I have to be careful to not judge others because of the “ish”, “ic” or “ist” that any article of clothing or dialect announces. What’s more important is, that another’s “ish” or “ic” or “ist” really isn’t anyone else’s business.] An elderly woman (at least she looked elderly) wearing a blue sharply-ironed-and-starched-apron-like dress sat slumped with her head in hand. Rubbing her brow, she stayed in the back of the same van from which the men emerged. A small starched white bonnet with tie string topped her head. Tied low-cut black flat-heel shoes, soles well worn, covered her feet.

She looked ill, so I asked her if she was OK. “Yes,” she replied and smiled, “I’m just hot. It’s been a long trip.”

When someone smiles as warmly as she did to an inquiry it usually means to me that they appreciate the contact. So I continued, “Where are you from?”

“Idaho.” (her)

“That’s a long ways. That’s where my grandmother was from.” (me)

“Yes, we’ve been on the road for three days.”

“What are you here for?”

“A wedding.”

“That sounds nice.”

“Yes. My husband is getting married.” Then she smiled again.

Her answer gave me pause. Did she really say what I heard?

[Do other people really say what I hear?]

Many years ago I was diagnosed with tinnitus. The ringing in my ears that once was a now-and-then bleep, finally became one continuous loud tone. Now it persists non-stop. When I’m tired or if I focus on it, the tone can be as loud as the constant chatter of customers at Starbucks and I resort to lip-reading. Sometimes it’s so loud I cannot hear what someone is saying even if they’re right next to me, prompting a request to repeat. When I get a “why?” response I’m tempted to say, “Can’t you hear that ringing?” [What do you listen to frequently that is so loud that you cannot hear what another is saying?]

So when I heard the woman say what she did, I doubted my listening. On the one hand her declaration seemed unreal. And on the other hand, I wasn’t certain if her voice had momentarily dropped off my listening radar. Out of self-consciousness I didn’t what to blurt out, “What did you say?” Looking back, I’m pretty certain that she said exactly what I thought she had. Strange as it sounded to me, it’s what really happened.

Our interchange ran its course and as it did the two white chinned men stepped out of The Falls Motel office. The dark eyes beneath the black broad brim looked squarely at me and frowned. The mouth beneath the eyes beneath the black broad brim began to move and with some degree of instruction. The woman in the starched blue apron dress responded and climbed out of the van.

[This particular event is still churning through my mind, and I find myself thinking about equality and freedom and prejudice and limitations and incarceration and power and beliefs. Do you think about that too?]

A few hours later, alone in my room, I watched Jay Leno host his final Tonight Show. My small TV is bolted to the concrete wall just above the mini-fridge that doubles as a stand for a microwave sitting six feet from the radio alarm clock inside the box that’s my home until Monday. These technologies all work as effectively as would the most expensive plasma screen HDTV, or stainless steel fridges, or high quality sound systems, or – well you name it. Mine are just smaller and located in a more compact place. Before watching Jay Leno I checked email via the motel’s wireless. [Life’s essentials are everywhere if you look for them. The questions is: What’s become essential over the years?] I’m not separate from the rest of the world, but if I don’t pay attention it sure can seem that way.

Did you see Jay Leno’s last Tonight Show, too? Wasn’t it a sweet reminder of how simplicity and the average can be profound. But, you had to pay attention.

There were shots of Jay taking on the daunting task of replacing Johnny Carson seventeen years ago. Leno’s much grayer today, and of course Carson is long gone. There were shots of Leno introducing Conan O’Brien to the world on his (O’Brien’s) first ever appearance on TV, juxtaposed against the Conan who showed up tonight to accept Leno’s well wishes for the future.

Legendary James Taylor honored this last show and its audience with a slow and poignant rendition of Sweet Baby James. I wonder if someone, somewhere may have said, “Oh that’s soooo old! Hasn’t James Taylor got anything new?” But when you come to think of it, every time James Taylor sings Sweet Baby James it is new. Isn’t it?

And there was a humorous, yet thought provoking reminder of the price we pay (both real and perceived) when human beings go through life and aren’t challenged to pay attention and learn. This night it came in the form of sketch episodes for which Leno is famous. It’s called “Jay Walking” - a name that carries double meaning when you think about it. The sketch is where he walks the streets of Los Angeles with microphone in-hand asking far more sophisticated looking people than you’ll find in either Amargosa Valley or Thompson Falls (Yes? No?) the simplest questions to which they have either no answer or the wrong answer.

Tonight’s examples went something like this:

• “Who was our nation’s first president?” (answer given – “Ah, Ben Franklin?”);

• “What country borders the United States to the north?” (answer given … “Ahhhh. Ahhhh. Ahhhh.”);

• “What president of the United States had the nick-name ‘Tricky Dick’? (answer given with firm degree of certainty – “Bill Clinton”).

• “Our nation’s capital is Washington, D.C. What does the ‘D.C. ‘stand for? (answer given – “Da Capital”)

Leno marked his finale’ by bringing a young woman onto the stage. She was the first child to be born to any of his Tonight Show staff seventeen years ago. He produced her picture as a newborn to prove it. He then began to name one-by-one all of the average people who have worked for his show and who met each other during careers and fell in love and had children. With that the curtains opened. There they all stood by the scores – mothers, fathers and children. He tickled one of the kids running around the stage. Then he, Jay Leno, laid down on the floor and along with all of them, simply smiled and waived goodbye. He really didn’t have to say much. It was a simple, yet profound way of acknowledging the fact that every story, every person, every generation has a beginning and an end, as do the various situations of our lives.

We all have many options that eventually lead to a single road in and a single road out of every event. We meet average people along the way. They become our friends, our families, our clients, our adversaries, our enemies, our benefactors. They matter. Simple? Yes. Profound, only if you think about it.

Allied Ronin took shape sixteen years ago. The year after Leno inherited his job from Johnny Carson. This work has afforded me the opportunity to visit and be with people in some important and historic places. Hero’s Square in Budapest, Hungary. The Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Imperial Temple of Heaven and the magnificent Beijing Hotel in PR China. The Winalow Palace, the Wieliczka Salt Mines, the Wawel Castle and Auschwitz in Poland. The ancient castles and battlegrounds outside of Bratislava, Slovakia. The Great Pyramids, the Sphinx and the National Museum in Cairo. The memorials dedicated to Dr. Sun Yet Sen and Chiang Kai-shek in Taipei. Anne Frank’s home in Amsterdam. And I should also mention the Vietnam Memorial Wall, the Lincoln Memorial, World War II Memorial all located in, you guessed it, “Washington, Da Capital”.

It bears saying again and again that people in “important” places really are the same and quite like the people in the “not-so-important” places. We all face similar issues. We all have similar joys and concerns. We encounter similar challenges. We want similar things for our kids and our parents and our neighbors. We take joy in wining and cringe in some fashion at losing. Jobs, health, prosperity and relationships are important the world over. The opportunity to learn about all of this exists everywhere at any given moment – provided, that is, if one is alert and pays attention, including along the dusty road in Amargosa Valley or aside the railroad track in Thompson Falls.

Over the next few months the Allied Ronin journey will include the programs and events listed in the black announcement bar to the left. Most of these are open to the public, i.e. available to you. All involve profound learning in healthy, constructive and respectful environments. This commitment was made in 1994when Allied Ronin was founded, and it is a significant departure from many programs offered elsewhere. I will add, that if you are interested in some top-notch offerings by others you might start with the list found at These include the work of: George Leonard, Richard Strozzi-Heckler PhD, Kathleen Kane PhD, Susan Hammond, Madeline Wade, Lisa Ludwigsen, Jenaro Pliego Fox, Pawel Bernas, Pawel Olesiak, Andrea Burgis and others.

If you are of the mind to attend any of the upcoming Allied Ronin retreats or seminars or Facilitator Training, I look forward to seeing you along the way and soon. If your interest can be served by one of these, then pick up a phone and call the contact person listed, or send an email to the appropriate address. If you want something designed uniquely for you (as in coaching or consulting) or your family or team or organization, just make a request. No call, no email, no request goes unanswered.

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