Originally published in the OC Magazine - Fall 2018
When I was a youngster I summered on Cape Cod, where my maternal grandparents owned a cottage that our family relished as a retreat from Washington, DC’s legendary heat and humidity. It was there that I once saw a sign hanging in the window of the only general store in town that read, “Too soon old, Too late smart.” I thought it was just supposed to be funny. A few decades later when I took my own family out to Amish country for a day trip back in time I saw a different version of the same saying. This time, it made more sense. Now, several more decades later, it feels like a painful truism.
I’m not sure if this qualifies as smart or not, but I do have the feeling that things I have been pondering for much of my adult life are finally starting to make sense. Similarly, various concepts and recurring thoughts are knitting together at a faster clip, thanks in part to my exposure to new thinking that is acting like a glue that is holding separate pieces of a puzzle together. I am definitely not saying that I have untied all of the knots in my mind (to flagrantly mix metaphors); however, I do think I am making some progress in understanding what’s going on in life—both mine and in general.
The glue to which I refer is a CD that I picked up two years ago at a conference that features lectures by Ram Dass titled Consciousness, Aging and the New Millenium plus An Evening with Ram Dass. (Here is a bit of background about him for those unfamiliar with the name. Ram Dass was previously known as Richard Alpert, a Harvard psychology professor most notoriously known for getting kicked off the faculty after dropping acid (LSD) with his cohort, Timothy Leary, also formerly of the same university. Ram Dass/Richard Alpert later published a two-million-copies best-seller about yoga, meditation and spirituality titled Be Here Now.) Although I had heard of this work several times over the years, listening to the CD was my introduction to Ram Dass’s message.
The relevant piece here is the concept of viewing life— reality, actuality—as being like four different channels on a tv. Most people, he maintains, live tuned in to channels 1 & 2, which represent, first, our material selves (our physical bodies and everything they bring with them), and second, our Ego, including our personna, what we do, how we are viewed by the world (e.g., “Hi, I’m Joe, I’m a plumber who lives in Brooklyn”). While tuned to these channels, we focus on everyday reality: earning a living, developing skills, relating to people in all of the familiar ways, identifying and following our interests and passions, etc. etc.
Then come the somewhat novel and more confusing realms/ channels which I shall refer to as The Spiritual and The One. As I interpret Ram Dass, the spiritual level (channel 3) is the one that takes us out of and beyond our Ego and into the more highly developed realm of purpose, love, compassion, goodness and mercy, and on channel 4, the totally woo-woo mindset known as The One. This is the place where you can see that the whole universe exists in even the tiniest particle of it—a grain of sand, for example. Organized (and dis-organized, for that matter, whatever that means) religions see this as Heaven, or Nirvana, or wherever one imagines perfection to exist, absent all of the cares and woes of the material world. Everything is everything and it is all beautiful and as it should be, so there is nothing to worry about.
With that backstory, here are some of my most recent ponderings—puzzle pieces looking to be glued together in a way that makes sense, at least to me. They were initiated by two experiences at the beginning of this past summer.
The first piece that grabbed my attention came to me while watching the performances during June’s Pausing Ceremony at OC. Every one of them sparked the same thought; I’ll give you two examples. One was young Jane’s dance, which was at least five minutes straight of hopping up and down back and forth across the stage to the beat of a favorite song. The other was Brendan’s performance on his tiny Suzuki violin, which brought a flood a memories back from my three daughters’ youths. In both cases, my heart swelled with the pleasure of seeing these enthusiastic young people so excited to be sharing their love with such a large audience. Who knows what their perceptions are of their various skill levels? To traditional eyes, they are quite early in the developmental processes of producing dance and music. More to the point, however, is that that was irrelevant to their willingness (and seeming pleasure) to get up on stage and let ‘er rip. As we often say at OC, Process trumps Content almost every time.
The second puzzle piece that Ram Dass’s talks helped glue into place came the next day as I watched my grandson Cade’s final pre-Little League baseball game of the year. Needless to say, the skill level of these 6-and-7-year-olds is similarly in the earliest stages. I watched as each of the boys did his best to replicate what he had seen adults and older youths do and had been coached to replicate the best he could. Never once did I see a single indication of frustration or disappointment, even if it meant swinging fifteen times before making contact, or never catching a pop fly. The coaches, to my delight, congratulated the players, regardless of the outcome, for both their effort and whatever aspect of their play approximated their ultimate goal. Best of all, and typical of my darling grandson, was when I asked him after the game if he had enjoyed his afternoon and what was one of his favorite plays of the day. Without hesitation, Cade said that his most favorite was when he almost caught a fly ball.
Almost? I thought. For a second I thought about a saying often heard during my youth: “Almost doesn’t count except in horseshoes!” But then I upped my game and thought, “How wonderful! His experience of the game is fully grounded in the pleasure of the activity both in the moment and as a developmental, goal-oriented time. He is not at all burdened by anyone else’s expectations let alone demands. There were no expressions of disappointment from either his coaches or fellow players. Sure, there were calls of “Nice try, Cade,” thereby signaling a less-than-desired result, but even those were muted and often non-existent. So, he dropped the ball? So, he caught the next one—or, more often than not, failed to catch the next one, too, and the next and the next. It almost didn’t matter except for the fact that all of the boys wanted to become able to catch flies and grounders eventually, and make accurate throws to the proper base. It’s as if they knew that, eventually, such successes would come. What was important now was to have fun and keep “working,” i.e., doing. Cade and his teammates, like Jane and Brendan, seemed to know inherently that if they just kept at it in an enjoyable way, they would naturally rise to the performance level in their imagination. Enjoyment of the process was what ruled.
It may be obvious how these young people’s play fits with the schema I took from Ram Dass. To my thinking, the youths were operating on channel 3. (They’re too young for the meta-thinking of channel 4, I believe.) They were embracing the spirit of sport as it was meant to be—or should I say, as I wish it were meant to be. Channel 1 & 2 thinking produces the kind of parent or coach (and soon, young player) who screams directions, and then corrections, in a way that makes the quality of production of all of these Egos (both young and old) what the activity is all about, not the quality of the experience. Egos replace the fun of playing with the measurement of achievement. Not, Did you have a great time playing?, but rather How many hits did you get? Did you make any errors? How many wrong notes did you hit? Can you do anything other than just hop around?
Ours is a society obsessed with achievement. We measure it every chance we get, often to the point that we crush whatever interest there may have been originally in the activity. I think this is most evident in the very flat pyramids that we see when we graph the number of youths starting out in any form of activity in which adults are involved at a judgmental level. To wit: Look at the number of youths who start taking piano lessons and quit within two years. Only “the best” advance, and they know who they are because the others are not allowed to learn to play (sic) at their own pace. Look, also, at the number of youths involved in sports, especially after the years when physical education is no longer mandatory. It is “the athletes” who continue to play into high school, but even most of them stop afterwards because they “aren’t good enough” for the next level. More often than not, so-called organized sports take the play out of playing. As a result, we have a staggering obesity problem in our country and not just because of diets loaded with sugar and processed foods. In fact, I would suggest that those are poor substitutes for the play that was lost once achievement-measurement was introduced into the lives of the young.
None of this is to say that channels 1 & 2—Ego—don’t have their rightful and realistic place in the world. Obviously we are more than Spirit. We are body and soul. My wish is that we not rob our youths of the enjoyment of Spirit, which they bring with them naturally into the world, out of a concern that Ego won’t win the competition for high achievement if we don’t engage in compulsory instruction. I say, let them play...