Monday, October 22, 2012

The Game and The Art

Last July 60 at-risk High School youth from East Stroudsburg University's (ESU) UPWARD BOUND program played the Samurai Game® accompanied by The Art of Practice & Organizational Dojo.

Since its creation the Game has existed to address core issues related to conflict, specifically in its ultimate form - war.  The Game's author, George Leonard, used it to beg this question: "We know that throughout history war has done nothing but destroy. So why do we, the most intelligent species on the planet keep practicing it?"
In an effort to provide youth with alternatives to conflict ESU's Upward Bound Director Uriel Trujillo requested the July program.  As a result he and those young people inspired this writing.  

Upward Bound   
(continuing from the August and September 2012 issues of The Ronin Post)

Today, in 2012, our national conflicts are front and center. We are engaged in a great debate. It's good that we debate; free speech is important. We are gearing up to an election. Also good - we can still freely elect. But is our debate being conducted or held as dialogue, a dignified communication of differing perspectives for the sake of learning and acting anew? Hardly. Rather, it offers little more than sound bite positioning. Little room exists for alternative perspectives regardless of what side the debater takes or to what political party he or she subscribes. How rigid we've become! This kind of rigidity, this unwillingness to look at a situation from alternative viewpoints, is symptomatic of war.

The kind of struggle we are engaged in as we run up to our election is not new. In Chapter I (The Coming Crisis) of his Civil War Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant wrote: "The [Constitutional] framers were wise in their generation and wanted to do the very best possible to secure their own liberty and independence, and that also of their descendants to the latest days." And he continued: "It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them, and under unforeseen contingencies."

Grant was 62 when he wrote his memoirs. He was reflecting on the kind of rigidity that drove his country to war against itself. To this day that war remains our bloodiest. A year after completing his writing Grant died. Grant, the self-deprecating and reluctant West Point man who returned to soldiering only after the needs of his nation demanded that he do so. Grant, who felt himself ill equipped to command, yet he rose to lead armies and their generals into battle. Grant, who accepted Robert E. Lee with dignity and afforded him respect (not humiliation) at the Appomattox Court House. Grant, the former 18th President of the United States who lived his last years in severe ill health, on borrowed money, and bankrupt by reason of "the rascality of a business partner" - his financial standing having been ruined due to "universal depression of all securities" (his own words). Grant, a man of the nineteenth century could well be described as a man living through own last decade.

Who said, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it", was it Burke? Perhaps Santayana? Maybe Churchill? Does who said it really matter? Probably not. But the WHY it was said it certainly does. And what truly matters is that these words remain relevant today.

What about learning, what does this word mean these days? Is learning simply a becoming aware of data, fact and information? OR, is learning an actualization accompanied by a transformation of practice? In other words, something NEW or DIFFERENT becomes so rooted and acted upon that past practices and realities (while never forgotten) dissolve to be replaced by new more effective actions and practices.

Of what value is it that we should continue to put forth the need to create peaceful practices rather than practices dedicated to increased conflict and war? Is it important that one be able to recognize what drives his or her personal desire or need to attack and/or fight (even against one's self) - when attacking and fighting have become unnecessary or counter productive, or both?

Five years ago I walked through Auschwitz. Its ground and barbed wire fences, barracks and ovens were silent reminders that surrendering to bigotry cannot work. But they also informed me that if mouths had spoken up (rather than remaining silent) and bodies had taken action (rather than remaining still) things in Europe and for the rest of the world would have been different from 1933 through today.

Where do our personal wars exist and what perpetuates them?   In 1957 a WWII veteran watching the film The Bridge Over the River Kwai had to step outside of the small theater. Why? Because the images on-screen returned him to a reality of vivid sights, feelings and odors twelve years past, memories so alive that his body shook uncontrollably. Only a silent lamppost on the street could console him. That man was my father. What were his wars about? Why did they start and why did they continue? How did they affect his family, his neighbors and his community?

In 2012, a young woman in Sonoma County, California, stands on a sidewalk outside her home and rages. Screaming insults and obscenities at her aunt, father and grandmother she's trying to get her way. She's my neighbor. What are her internal wars about? Why did they start? How long will they continue? Will she pass them along to a someday-to-be-fathered child? And if so, will she be aware enough to get it - that what goes around, comes around?

Reading Grant's memoirs I recall Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the story of America's post-Civil War westward expansion, and how it silenced the voice of our continent's indigenous people. Ever read it? As a study in the aftermaths and effects of war it should perhaps be required reading in high school history classes and college psychology courses.

The June 23, 2012 issue of TIME magazine (p 22-23) carries a sullen image of a young widow. Beside her are these words: "More U.S. soldiers have killed themselves than have died in the Afghan War. WHY can't the Army win the war on suicide?" As a former Army officer myself, my immediate response is that this war on suicide is not just the Army's problem. It's a problem that belongs to us all.

I step onto US soil, inbound from Hong Kong or Poland or Mexico or Australia or China, and am greeted by bodies vastly larger than what we all know to be healthy. We are at war with our own bodies?   Why? Don't we know we're killing ourselves? Obesity in America is rampant. In 1960 our nation's obesity level stood at 9.7%. By 1994 it had reached 24%. Today we sit at 36% and by 2030 we are expected to hit 42%. If we were to view what we doing to ourselves in the context of a national security issue our national debate over health care might get more traction than seen only within the context of it being a health issue. National security? Sure, why not? Historically, what has always happened to nations whose citizens became collectively ill prepared and unfit to care themselves, nations who relied on the technologies of their day and sought to hire in professional militaries in order to maintain the appearance of power and strength rather than finding strength (physical, mental and emotional) from the vast pool of the average people who lived within their boundaries?

Back to July and East Stroudsburg University and Uriel Trujillo's UPWARD BOUND PROGRAM. His students are walking into a world we have created with the help of our ancestors. Perhaps Uriel is onto something by inviting me to join him in small step, to assist his at-risk youth; helping them to seek alternative ways to deal with the stresses and conflicts of life, to consider principles of dignified and peaceful living, to think about what they might be able to then carry forward into the world they will inherit from us.

Interesting what thoughts a Game - in this case The Samurai Game® - can inspire.

© Lance Giroux, 2012

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Things I’ve Noticed Along The Way

Obesity in the America: what if we reframed it as an issue of national security?

The past months have taken me abroad a lot.  Whenever I travel, especially outside the US, my sensitivities for observation are heightened.  Entering China a few years ago for the first time introduced me to a reality of smog far worse than warnings had prepared. Shanghai was particularly jaw dropping as my first experience of noon-time black sky on a clear weather day.  That experience caused a shift in the way I think of Los Angeles – even on a bad California air day.

Travel also affords encountering people, in my case hundreds of thousands in just the past twelve months … on sidewalks, hotels, restaurants, streets, in trains and airplanes, and at airports.  The noticing??  Not really new news - people living outside the US are definitely thinner than we Americans, and in surprisingly large numbers.  In fact, the difference was so stark that I had a hard time believing my eyes when I first noticed it.

Passing back across US borders can be jolting.  The past year has included numerous walks through those final steel doors after the questioning eyes of Immigration and Customs officials have turned to gaze elsewhere.  And when I do pass into the airport lobbies the body sizes of We The People is often alarming. 

I’m not hitting a new drum.  The news abounds with the fact that obesity in the US is a problem.  But the reality of actually experiencing it gives pause. When you leave the US long enough you can get used to seeing so much thinness (by trainload, busload, sidewalk load, bicycle load, truck load) that you can forget what it’s like back home. You can also forget just how large our food is portioned out with such regularity.

I decided to do a bit of research.  Here’s the skinny on what I’ve found so far.  Thirty six percent of adult population of the US is obese, so say numerous valid reports.  A few months ago on a trip to Petaluma’s Bounty Farm (in the small town where I live) I found myself listening to a concerned nurse addressing the amount of sugar actually contained in one soft drink.  I had heard about the data, but until I actually saw her produce a pile of sugar stacked aside a twelve-ounce can of soda the numbers didn’t really mean anything to me.  Now those numbers do.

From 1950 to 1960 our national statistic was 9.7% adult obesity.  By 1970 the percentage had grown to 11.3%.  1994 placed it at 23%.  Today we’re at 36%, and the forecast is that by 2030 we will hit a staggering 42% adult obesity level. 

Another interesting statistic has to do with the amount of food we waste.  Reports of mid-2011 placed our national waste – food thrown away unconsumed – at 25%, and calculated at approximately 200 lbs of food per person wasted per year. Last week an NPR program reported data showing we’ve now hit 40% waste.  Interesting: we’re discarding a higher percentage of food, and simultaneously growing larger plumper bodies.  Hmmmm?

Back to the original question:  Should obesity in the USA be reframed as a national security issue rather than a health issue?

I’m of the mind that we may want to consider thinking of it from this perspective.  Why?  At least three immediate reasons come to mind:
#1 – A casual observation of the political dancing we do here in the US, especially the past few years, indicates that hot topic health related issues wind up producing gridlock.

#2 – Most of the US – certainly our politicians, regardless of party affiliation – would shake in our boots if we were thought to be embracing weak national security, especially since September 11, 2001. We believe and promote the notion that it’s better to be strong than weak.  Actually, being strong is a pretty good idea in a world wrestling with its predatory tendencies.  America measures her strength using yardsticks of national defense and national security.  And - according to our Constitution - we the people have a right, ACTUALLY A RESPONSIBILITY, to protect ourselves, fellow citizens and our liberties.  Most of the world agrees with that notion, by the way.

#3 – Individuals unable to muster the physical stamina to care for themselves in the most basic ways are forced expend increasing amounts of time, energy and money in order to find and secure others who will do that for them.  The statistical tendencies show us that our pool of weaker bodies is growing, while our pool of strong bodies is diminishing. 

Powerful technologies, some say, provide security, hence the need for physical stamina isn’t all that important.   Really?  History speaks otherwise.

Look again.  From 1950 to 1960 with 9.7% adult obesity, about 90% of us could be counted upon to answer some kind of minimal call to action – but it’s even less that that when considering other “health related reasons”.  But let’s forget that for a moment and continue the count down. By 1970 with obesity at 11.3%, that call could be answered by 88%.  By 1994 those able to answer the call had dropped to 77%.  And if the predictions are accurate, then by 2030 our collective capacity will shrink to 58% able to take some kind of effective action.

What do you think?  If the issue of Obesity in America were reframed to include seeing it through the lens of national security might we be able to understand it in a way to reverse a trend and solve a problem?  Leading, by the way, to a physically healthier nation.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Game and The Art Part 1 (continued)

Part 1 is first in a series of Ronin Post articles dedicated to The Samurai Game® and to the man, George Leonard, who created it; and to Aikido, the martial art that directly influenced his later years.

Uriel Trujillo and his East Stroudsburg University UPWARD BOUND students were the immediate inspiration for these articles. On July16, 2012 we were vistited by two television news crews there to capture what we were up to. To view what was aired that evening in eastern Pennsylvania on regional and local TV hit these links and ENJOY!

Regional Channel 69 news- View Video Here 

Local Channel 28 news- View Video Here 

A quote from Mary Oliver  
In 1977 George Leonard invented the Samurai Game®. How he did that will be addressed later. For now what's important is that he ended his first delivery with a powerful and timeless social/psychological inquiry: Why do human beings continue to engage in and practice war as a means to resolving conflict? Given we know that for as far back as we can look into history war (the most intense form of conflict on our planet) always results in massive destruction, complete ruination of economies, severe emotional and psychological damage to generation upon generation - why do human beings keep practicing it again and again and again?   We're smart, aren't we? We know for a fact what war always results in. People all over the earth proclaim themselves to be peace lovers. So why do we, the most intelligent species on this planet, keep doing this?

--- continuing from August 2012 issue of The Ronin Post ---

George Leonard was a combatant in two major wars. He well understood the need for nations and peoples to protect themselves. Throughout the nineteen years that we knew each other, including at our last meetings in late 2009 just prior to his death, the dilemma of war occupied the foreground of our thought and discussions: What is needed such that individuals and countries can stand strong, yet be willing and able to deeply listen to others no matter who they are such that harmony can prevail? What fosters understanding? Can new paths be taken for combined peaceful futures?

Part of his answer is found in something he wrote a short one page piece "Toward A More Vivid Peace". [request copy via email here] George knew war from the inside: its sights, smells, sounds, energy and taste. He was shaped by experience to look for better ways and to encourage others to actively do likewise.This fueled his notion to create a Game wherein the players would take on the role of samurai, engage in an intense competition through which they might uncover the seeds of peace - yet all the while knowing that samurai were considered to be some history's fiercest warrior examples.

A provocative undertaking. But why? His reasons were (and remain) at a minimum three:
* to beg the above big questions,
* to confront individuals and groups with their personal and individual habits that foster fighting when a different practice could create solution and/or resolution, and
* to promote strong peaceful long-term practices for healthy living.
By considering the above ourselves we can all begin to delve into our own exploration of the WHY of The Samurai Game®.

For some war is an abstract - men and women of sinew racing through jungles or across deserts or down snowy slopes. It becomes the stuff of TV or talk show radio, or ball game and bar room blathering. It's found on big screen and in Netflix cinema. Whether romantic, grotesque, promoting bravado and idealism (e.g. Act of Valor), or illuminating the deep costs and trauma of combat (e.g. Restrepo and The Hurt Locker and Joyeux Noel) - we dig into our wallets to watch and in some interesting way, be entertained. But shrink war down a bit from its global or regional arenas to its smaller neighborhood and household areas of operation and it becomes something personal, more real for those of us who have never stepped into a combat zone.

The smaller wars: senseless bickering in boardrooms; sibling rivalries lasting well into adulthood; arguments over who is right and who is wrong based on skin color or ethnicity or religious affiliation (or non-affiliation) or family heritage; forced policies driven by antiquated perspectives that will not yield to sanity, meaning that the practitioner ought step back a bit to look and listen. These also are wars, aren't they? Wars that undermine mom and pop shops, market places, churches supposedly housing spiritual roots of the planet's varied religions. Wars of health care practitioners and insurance companies. Wars of lawyers and political parties scraping to control the economic turf and narrow thinking that goes along with the incessant need to acquire more and more - at all costs.

Yes, these too are wars. And as with their larger cousins they bring vibrant states and nations to their knees. Wars could be avoided if our daily living could anchor to the vividness of peace with the same intensity that it anchors to the juice of conflict. But this re-anchoring would take shifts of awareness and consciousness coupled with repeated acts of individual courage - thus forming new practices - and this could generate constructive living.

Today, in 2012, our nation's internal conflicts are front and center. We are engaged in a great national debate. It's good we debate; free speech is important. We are gearing up to an election.   This too is good; we can still freely elect. But our debate is not being conducted or held as ...

(to be continued in The Ronin Post, October 2012)

© Lance Giroux, 201

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Game and The Art

Part 1 is first in a series of Ronin Post articles dedicated to The Samurai Game® and to the man, George Leonard, who created it; and to Aikido, the martial art that directly influenced him during the later years of his life.
Participants Upward Bound
Participants Upward Bound
The call came last February from Uriel Trujillo of East Stroudsburg University (ESU - Pennsylvania). His request - delivery of The Samurai Game®. The attendees would be high school age at-risk youth enrolled in UPWARD BOUND, the program he directs for ESU. I agreed and offered to include two additional days involving aikido, in this case adapted for that age group and to be called "The Art of Practice and the ESU dojo". It wasn't until July that I appreciated what Uriel had done to make this available. I began to get answers to the why of his February request. The potential impact of both the Game and the aikido-based program become more clear. By the afternoon of July 17th students, parents, faculty, staff, university officials and Uriel had all been touched. Regional TV reporters showed up to catch the story- to view click here.

Privately, when all had gone back to their dorms, Uriel asked how I was feeling. "There have been a few days in my life," I said, "when I've fallen in love with the entire world. Today was one."

Uriel's February call outlined a definite need. "These students are on track to be the first in their families to attend college. Being at-risk youth means that most come from financially disadvantaged and/or broken homes. Many live in the midst of familial or neighborhood disturbance and trauma. A broad spectrum of ethnicities and beliefs are involved. They represent grades 9 through 12. What you bring can help them stay on track, deal with issues of peer and family pressure, plus overall appreciation of principles needed for healthy relationships and principles for life success - dignity, courage, honor, etc."

Only a third of my fee for the Game could be covered. I told him this wasn't a problem. His surprising, "Really, why!?" - prompted my, "Because, it seems like the right thing to do." "OK," he said, "but I'll try to get additional funding so you can bring the aikido work too."

Over the next few weeks Uriel worked on financing issues. A martial artist himself, he knows the value this kind of metaphor brings to people, provided proper interpretations are made. Meanwhile, I sought help from two acquaintances, Carmela Bennett and Tesfaye Tekelu, explaining the potential difference to be made. Both are black belt ranked aikidoka, and both live in New York City just 90 minutes from the ESU campus. Carmela had recently received her doctorate in education. Her thesis addresses the impact that somatics has in the teaching/learning process. Tesfaye, a young Ethiopian, had founded the Awassa Peace Dojo in his home country, thus opening the horn of Africa to aikido. Because of him some 500 youth have been introduced to the art and opening the door for thousands of people to approach conflict resolution through non-violent means.

Calls and coordination continued. A few months into the process Uriel connected with, "Sorry, no funding for the aikido work. We can only fund the Game." I told him I understood, but offered: "let's do it anyway." He: "What? Really! Why?" Me: "Because we'd be insane to pass up the opportunity. If we don't do it now we'll have to wait a year or two longer. Then what?   We'll just be in the same place that we are today."

The days July 12-13 and 16-17 at ESU with sixty-some UPWARD BOUND students got to me, and it also got to the staff, the university officials and Carmella and Tesfaye. With this came a broader understanding of and possibility for UPWARD BOUND. ESU's program is just one of 900 scattered across the US, all housed on college campuses.   If similar results can spread elsewhere then the potential impact will touch hundreds of thousands of people.   Everyone involved these past months had his or her own reasons and needs for wanting this to happen. Those reasons were addressed and the needs were filled. A few weeks after the program was complete I was having supper at Dempsey's, a favorite hangout back home in Petaluma, California. My son, Alex, plus three black belt aikidoka from the dojo where I train joined me.   All had played the Samurai Game® at some time. We talked about Uriel, his students and the resulting delivery. Someone at the table offered, "There's an important book to be written here, not just this most recent thing, but about the Game itself, what it is and what's transpired over the years because of it."

So the next series of Ronin Post articles will take a step in that direction.

What is the Samurai Game®? Where did it come from? What are its objectives and how does it accomplish these? Who is it for and who has used it? What impact does it have for individuals, teams, schools, universities and organizations that engage in it? Who can produce and lead it, and what is involved with that? A myriad of questions need to be answered.

But the question to start with is WHY? Why the Game?

Years ago one of my mentors offered that the question 'Why?' always influences and provides insight into: 'Who?', 'What?', 'How?', 'Where?', etc. He contended that those who deeply understand why will always lead those who know what and/or how. Good consultants know that the first step in getting an organization back on track is to ask the founder, "Why did you start this thing (business, nonprofit, law firm, etc.) in the first place?"

In 1977 George Leonard invented the Samurai Game®. How he did that will be addressed at a later time. But for now what's important is that he ended his first delivery with a powerful and timeless social/psychological inquiry: Why do human beings continue to engage in and practice war as a means to resolving conflict? Given we know that for as far back as we can look into history war (the most intense form of conflict on our planet) always results in massive destruction, complete ruination of economies, severe emotional and psychological damage to generation upon generation - why do human beings keep practicing it again and again and again?   We're smart, aren't we? We know for a fact what war always results in. People all over the earth proclaim themselves to be peace lovers. So why do we, the most intelligent species on this planet, keep doing this?

(to be continued in The Ronin Post, September 2012)

© Lance Giroux, 2012

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Student

I had no idea that Papi Conpelo was a film buff.
He lived in the desert. We often met over campfires.
He boiled coffee in a metal pot and drank it out of a metal cup.
He wore grimy jeans and a floppy hat, and repaired his own boots.
One April morning he asked me to go fishing on Gila River so we could talk.
Around noon a male quail bird, breast out and top notch high,
perched himself on a nearby saguaro cactus to call his covey
across a dirt road to safety.
Always an alert student and able to view the world around him as offering
 lessons of life, Papi shushed me. Then he leaned over and
whispered the strangest thing.
"Hey, remember those movies about Star Wars?"
"Yea," I whispered back, watching the quail dart across an open space.
"What killed Darth Vader?" he asked.
-from the Life and Times of Papi Conpelo

I walk into the Aqus Café not knowing exactly how to articulate and write what is churning and burning inside me. I glance left. There sits Peter Welker He was the subject of "Friends" published in my April 2007 newsletter - see

 Peter Welker, world-class musician. He and his trumpet, cornet and flugelhorn have graced albums and gigs with the likes of Huey Lewis, Carlos Santana, Natalie Cole, Al Jarreau, The Four Tops, Van Morrison, Boz Scaggs, The Temptations. And that hardly begins his list of colleagues.

Peter Welker, chess player - not world class, but certainly expert class - which means he's pretty damn good. We play each other periodically, and for over a decade he's been kicking my butt.

Peter Welker, fun guy and friend; sincere about his beliefs regarding life, family, relationship and politics. He's the only person who introduces me to his other friends as "a cool cat." We don't see eye-to-eye about some things, but so what? We appreciate each other's sincerity and company. Our discussions are dialogues. We talk about deep stuff so as to understand each other and the world going on around us. We don't insist on a change of viewpoint. Ours is a friendship, not a viewpoint-ship.

At chess, Peter is much better than I. Every game is a lesson. I'm getting better; finally making him sweat over the board. But as for keeping score after ten years, it's Lance 1 - Peter Welker everything else.

Peter is one of my teachers. He didn't ask for that job, and I didn't ask him if he wanted it. In fact, the decision wasn't his to agree to. I made it that way without his knowledge and without his permission. How come? Because he's always a student. I study the student that he is, as well as what he does to attain and expand his level of mastery.

Everybody has some level of mastery at something. What's yours? Who are you studying? Who's studying you? Who are you watching? Who's watching you? Do you know? Is it constructive? Are you certain?

Peter's competencies at chess reflect his mastery of the horn. Both sit on a foundation that, in addition to always being a student, includes the following:
(1)He encourages and helps others in their learning, and often just for the sake of their learning and development.
(2)He understands and accepts that the objective of his own learning and development often involves enriching the world more than enriching his own pocket book.
(3)He is always engaged in a practice.

Yesterday we played three games of chess at a local café. As we wrapped up our third game another fellow - a truly eccentric type who (no kidding) wears a plastic Viking helmet when playing chess - came walking in to watch and asked Peter if he could play him next. I sat and watched their games. When they finished, Peter lost all but one which ended in a draw.

Some time ago Peter contacted his chess cronies from around town for a get together at his home to play a few hours, and he invited me. "Why are you asking me?" I wondered aloud. "Heyman, you're good. You'll fit right in." I shook my head, because all the other invitees also hold "expert" level, all except for one who is a for-real chess master.   "OK," I laughed, "I'll come and be the day's cannon fodder." He grinned, "Trust me. You'll be OK."

So in preparation for the gathering I invited myself over to his house a few days early. This way we could play and talk without distractions, and work on my game. While we were at it he turned on his satellite radio to a jazz station for background music. In the midst of one game his eyes closed and he began mentally groovin' and physically movin' to the tunes. Then he got up, walked over to the speakers (I pondered the predicament he had me in), sat down to his piano (I didn't know he could play that too) to accompany the artists streaming in from outer space.

(I know the joke is cliché - and you know it's coming - but I have to repeat it. Guy on street in Manhattan hails cab driver to ask how to get to Carnegie Hall. The cabbie answers, "Practice." For some people the previous twenty words are a worn out joke. But to one of the top cornet players in the world, who is also a not-to-shabby chess player, the last word of those twenty words is a way of life - actually, it's THE way of life.")

Back to today. I walk into the Aqus Café and not knowing exactly how to articulate and write what is burning inside me, I glance to my left. There sits Peter Welker scribbling away. So I sit next to him. Now each of us is working on something we apparently need to express. But our methods and tools differ. I use a computer and type alphabet into strings of words on a plasma screen. He uses a pencil with an eraser and jots musical notes and symbols into strings of chords and shrills and tempos on paper score sheets strewn across a table. Hopefully we'll both communicate what we're studying. Hopefully we'll communicate something that matters. Hopefully someone will listen.

What are you studying?   What are you practicing?
Is it constructive?   Are you certain?

"Papi, what are you talking about?"
"What killed Darth Vader?"he repeated.
 "Papi, it wasn't what, it was who,"
 "Nope," he continued in a low voice.
" It's never the who that does the killing. It's the what.
And in Vader'scase, it was arrogance. He stopped being a student."
-from the Life and Times of Papi Conpelo

© Lance Giroux, May 2012

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Interview And The Sherfu

We might hypothetically possess ourselves

of every technological resource on the North American

continent, but as long as our language is inadequate,

our vision remains formless, our thinking and feeling

are still running in the old cycles, our process may be

“revolutionary” but not transformative.

-Adrienne Rich-

March 2012. The Interview. Napa, California.

I’m sitting in a small coffee shop. Nearby, a young man is completing a job interview. The interviewer just complimented him on how he has shown up. He’s on the team! Now, the interviewee asks the interviewer how he got started in this work. “Well,” the reply begins, “I attended a men’s seminar years ago, conducted by a nationally recognized group and based on Robert Bly’s book Iron John. It examined the shadow side of a man’s development. When I was done with that weekend I decided to copy as much of it as possible. That’s the way things work in this industry – we find things, borrow them, and make them our own to use.”

I cringe and shake my head. Years ago I worked for a company that operated much in the same way. Some time after leaving that organization I attended the seminar that this man has apparently just referenced. Bly’s book was the text. The men who crafted the course were an integral group. Their work was well thought through, intense, respectful, deep and profound. The course leaders and their staff had all undergone rigorous training that demanded they hold attendees’ well being in the highest regard. Moreover, we who partook knew to never “borrow” what that organization had designed. This was not ours to run off afterwards and produce on our own. Not only would that undermine our own integrity, it would be unsafe. This young job seeker has just stepped from what could be a “study” and into what has become, as the interviewer has aptly stated, an “industry”.

The revelation reflects a problem plaguing our world and many (but not all) groups engaged in the work of the human potential. As far as I am concerned the ones to avoid are those that seek to “McDonald-ize” – creating get rich/smart/enlightened quick programs – yet calling their work “transformative” in nature. Sadly, rarely is their behavior “transformative” in practice. Rather the approach goes something like this: (1) find a training recipe with just the right sizzle so that it is attractive to the masses; (2) create a marketing machine that delivers students at the flip of a switch, i.e. good sales pitch; (3) put the students through a series of cathartic processes; (4) define the resultant release of energy that accompanies catharsis as “a breakthrough”; (5) condition the students (now repeat customers) to seek future catharsis (i.e. breakthroughs) through a continuing stream of advanced level seminars; and (6) actively use those students as unpaid sales agents to promote their “product” by encouraging a belief that “life is really all about enrollment” and that if the student does not participate in feeding the promotional system it means he or she lacks in understanding - particularly regarding the concept of loyalty.

Stop. Think. Is life really all about enrollment? Are the organizational leaders engaged in their own rigor of personal learning? Do they have mindful practices that include physical embodiment of the philosophies they espouse? Do their courses accordingly encourage, provide for and promote embodied practices within which the individuals can continue in their own way to self develop and unfold as human beings?

Do some homework and research. Pick up a dictionary. At the very least visit Wikipedia, and enter “transformative learning”. Here you will quickly find the following -–

The role of the learner

The educator becomes a facilitator when the goal of learning is for learners to construct knowledge about themselves, others, and social norms. As a result, learners play an important role in the learning environment and process. Learners must create norms within the classroom that include civility, respect, and responsibility for helping one another learn. Learners must welcome diversity within the learning environment and aim for peer collaboration.

Learners must become critical of their own assumptions in order to transform their unquestioned frame of reference. Through communicative learning, learners must work towards critically reflecting assumptions that underlie intentions, values, beliefs, and feelings. Learners are involved in objective reframing of their frames of reference when they critically reflect on the assumptions of others. In contrast, subjective reframing occurs when learners critically assess their own assumptions.

The role of the learner involves actively participating in discourse. Through discourse, learners are able to validate what is being communicated to them. This dialogue provides the opportunity to critically examine evidence, arguments, and alternate points of view which fosters collaborative learning.

The role of professional development for the educator

Transformative learning about teaching occurs when educators critically examine their practice and develop alternative perspectives of understanding their practice. It is essential that this becomes the role of professional development. With this taken into consideration, the role of professional development is to assist educators in bringing awareness to their habit of minds regarding teaching. When this occurs, educators critically examine the assumptions that underlie their practice, the consequences to their assumptions, and develop alternative perspectives on their practice.

Be clear: there is nothing wrong with educational systems (including some of those engaged with the human potential) that move people from basic lessons, through intermediate steps and on to more advance stuff. We all know the models. Kindergarten to elementary school to high school, etc. Ground school to visual flight training to instrument-only flight training to airline pilot school, etc. Healthy educational processes exist for the purpose of serving learners and the learners’ constructive futures, the world into which they are moving, and the lives they now and will some day touch. Healthy educational programs must be led and conducted by people who simultaneously are on their own path of self-examination and learning, i.e. teachers must always engage in the rigor of being students themselves – willing to self-examine right along side those who seek their services. Healthy educational models are not closed loop systems instituted for the purpose of developing learner dependency. Healthy educational systems do not dedicate themselves to creating never-ending needs on the part of the learner to seek only those viewpoints that the system espouses in order to keep marketing and sales machinery alive.

As I sit here, an imaginary (and somewhat critical and cynical) Ian Malcolm appears in the coffee shop and plops next to me. He looks to the adjacent table, then back at me and continues his admonishment found on pages 305 – 307 of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.

Will you listen to this guy over here! He’s selling a program about which he knows almost nothing at all. And his soon-to-be assistant has no clue that he is about to get involved with something that has been slapped together in very short order without much learning. Our interviewer has forgotten about, or doesn’t care about, how little he knows and what his competencies really are not. He believes that what is in front of him is simple. He doesn’t know a thing about why Michael Crichton created my character as a way to remind people that most kinds of power require a substantial sacrifice by whoever wants it. He overlooks the years of apprenticeship and discipline needed. He lives and believes in a get rich quick world. His toys - laptop, mobile phones, search engines, and instant bill pay – have become his tools of trade. And because he can source information very quickly he has convinced himself that he has the right to have and to use whatever is available at his fingertips.

All he has to do is write a check or lay down a credit card to attend someone else’s class, and bingo - he’s an instant guru. And because he has memorized a few words and moves, he fashions himself a leader or teacher or master or boss. Whatever! He mistakenly thinks this stuff is for sale and can be purchased. He has no appreciation for a life of discipline, self-examination and practice.

I’ll bet he does paint-by-numbers and calls himself an artist. He probably buys a new car every other year, and when he flips on his Sirius satellite radio he honestly considers himself a musician.

My imagined Ian Malcolm stands and disappears to return to his fictional world and I am left sitting alone again in the coffee shop. A particular poignant scene from the film Amazing Grace comes to mind. William Wilberforce, the man who eventually led Britain out of the slave industry, sits in his garden, wrestling with mid-life crisis. There he is joined by his butler, who for a few moments quotes Francis Bacon with the hope of helping Wilberforce through his dilemma: “It is a sad fate for a man to die too well known to everyone else, and still unknown to himself.” The butler then grins and admits, “I don’t just dust your books, sir.”

Over my shoulder the interview is wrapping up. I wonder if the man conducting the interview is walking a path into his own sad fate? Is an unaware interviewee about to join him on the trek?

I imagine a conversation might accompany and finalize such business dealings.

Question: And, the end game – what then?

Answer: Franchise our model, of course! Then retire and play golf, but don’t forget to check the quarterly balance sheets.

Question: What about the end users?

Answer: They’re not our problem. They’re just units. Remember, this IS a business.

March 2009. The Sherfu. Yi Lan County - the northeast side of Taiwan.

I had the good fortune to travel here and stay a few days. My temporary home is an apartment midst miles of rice fields. My bed is a two-inch thick tatami mattress on the wooden floor. My visit comes at the request of a woman who has asked me to deliver the Samurai Game® for her students. From that day to this day I know her only as Sherfu – meaning “teacher”. In my lifetime, including the three years since our first encounter, I have never met nor engaged with a more mindful, focused, peaceful or serene human being as she. (

Sherfu. Buddhist nun. Known throughout Taiwan. She travels this island nation west to east and from Taipei to Kao-hsiung helping people solve problems of communication and relationship. Her school is small, as is her temple; but her students and followers number possibly into the thousands.

Sherfu’s classes are dedicated to teaching meditation, calligraphy, flower arranging and tea ceremony. These arts she practices. They are her study and her path. At these she is personally masterful. But what people learn as a result is so much more than the skills involved. Her true work is that of being a problem solver beyond the walls of her school. She sleeps very little.

“Why do you want the Samurai Game?” I asked on the day we first met. Her reply, “The people are too dependent on me. They need to stand up on their own and solve their own problems. I’m a simple woman. What you are bringing will help me and them with that.”

“I have some personal concerns,” I say.

“About what?” she asks.

“Well, people know you to be a holy woman, a woman of peace. Sometimes I get moody and resentful. I’ve been married and divorced. You are asking your students to be my students for a while, and you are telling me that you also are going to be one my students. I’m worried about this.”

Sherfu smiles. So do the three nuns who sit with us and our translator. She reaches across the table and touches my hand, smiles again and says, “I was once married. And like you, I am now divorced. Don’t worry so much.”

How do people come to her school? I don’t know. Her focus is service, not sales; giving, not getting or taking; practice, not intellectualizing or lecturing about the newest fad or theory that she’s just come across through someone else’s lecture or Powerpoint or that she found in some article in Psychology Today magazine. She does not get wrapped up in deal making. She inquires. She listens. She speaks. She studies. She practices. At 5:00 a.m. every morning her meditation begins and lasts an hour. After that she breakfasts and starts helping people – in person and by phone. This goes on all day. Some time after midnight she goes to sleep. And then, at 5:00 a.m. she begins again.

Sherfu. She does not look to find what someone else is doing so that she can slick it up, re-brand and market it. She invests in serving life. She has not created a business. But she definitely has business to do.

Today, as I write these words, I imagine Sherfu ending an interview with someone who seeks to engage or work with her.

Question: And the end game – what then, Sherfu?

Answer: What do you mean, end game? I don’t understand what this means.

Question: OK then, what about the end-users?

Answer: There are no end-users. All human beings, including myself, are users and we are all servants. But if you mean what of the people I serve? They are my teachers. I am fortunate, because they come and go, and sometimes they come back. They are always welcome to do either. I will be learning from them about myself for the rest of my life.

© Lance Giroux, April 2012