There is danger in living on a non-stop endorphin high. In the first place, the human body is simply not engineered for such an existence. But more importantly the human soul requires an alternative to the nonstop, heated rush that such a life entails.
In my mentoring practice I regularly encounter people living peripatetic lives. They are constantly on the run … and constantly under (mostly self-imposed) pressures. Their days seem to run together into a ‘work hard – play hard’ formulation. Most of them seem to be running in place or as the old country song suggests “climbing a ladder that leads to a hole in the ground”.
When you step back and look at such a person’s life and times, it is hard to tell the difference between them and any other beast of burden. Humans as oxen-pulling-the-turning-plow unrelentingly through well-tilled sod. The ox, having made the domestication deal, lives and dies without serious contemplation of purpose or direction.
I don’t want to seem to be denigrating hard work, passionate dedication or dogged determination. All of these have a place in a productive and focused life. It isn’t a question of either/or … but one of balance.
When I was working on Wall Street I noticed that some of the very senior people seemed to have lots more time to reflect than those lower down the food chain. Initially I chalked it up to the intensification of the predator-prey dynamic … the lower you are in the organization, the more likely you would act as prey … the higher, the more likely as predator. Prey is always at risk … predators took their time and picked their spots!
But, over time, I came to have a different understanding. I encountered people still on the lower rungs … climbing the ladder … but with apparently more time for reflection than their contemporaries. And they seemed to be outperforming them in the ‘climbing’. They were just as driven as the competition but their lives seemed to be balanced differently. I began to think about the benefits of cultivating the habit of walling off sheltered time for slow breathing and thinking the higher thoughts.
After leaving Wall Street I started a number of companies and recruited and managed a wide range of team members, employees and partners. As luck would have it, some of these people were dedicated to making sure that they had regular time to think about what they were doing in terms different than just thinking about what you are going to do next. I learned a great deal from them and, as Frost wrote, it has ‘made all the difference’.
Then, while wandering around the high desert in the four corners region, I encountered an old shaman who took the time to teach me about the ‘long body’ … that vision of a human’s existence that sees life from start to present and beyond in one continuous thinking. I came to realize that the old man was teaching me something profound. What I took away from that unendingly hot day and long, starry night has stayed with me. Time is neither a ticking clock nor a beating heart … it is a span of days that begins and ends in oblivion. It is only what we do between the start and finish lines that matters at all.
One of the things that I noticed early on in my work as a mentor was that the sessions tended very early on to take on an almost ‘alternate universe’ aspect. By this I mean that the person seemed to shift into another reality at the beginning of each session. I took to thinking that they dropped their heavy coat and shed the halter, bridle and blinkers as they stepped through my door.
These people clearly wanted to spend time reflecting on this or that aspect of their business or personal life. They wanted to move into the more rarified regions of philosophical reflection and abstract thinking. I realized that they were looking to meet a very human, strongly felt need that was not being satisfied elsewhere in their life. In fact, the process of deciding to engage with a mentor seemed, at least in part, to be predicated on a prior decision to meditate on the larger issues of living.
Because of these thoughts, I understand better my role as a mentor. The Native Americans refer to a ‘spirit guide’. Over and over again I have had the experience of helping a person clear away the obstructions and re-start their lives on a different footing. And I can tell you this above all … this is something that you can’t do on the run or run down. You need to find and go into that quiet time and let it come to you. I will also tell you that the experience of helping another human to do such a thing is one of the primary reasons that I continue to mentor.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD