Friday, October 1, 2010


When solving problems,
dig at the roots instead of just hacking at the leaves.
~Anthony J. D’Angelo

Wild WeedsMJohnson  © 2009.
I’ve learned a lot about life by working in my yard. For instance, here in my mountain community great emphasis is placed on keeping things in their natural state. Aside from the main roads, very few surfaces are paved. Instead, roads and driveways are formed with packed sand and gravel.

Likewise, my back patio was designed to be gentle to the land, created from large slabs of flagstone that fit together like puzzle pieces with tiny pebbles in between, rather than grout or cement. The downside to this design reveals itself in the warmer months when I am faced with a mass of unruly weeds, awkwardly sprouting between the stones.

At first I went on a weed-pulling frenzy, bent over for hours as I pulled and tugged at the stalks of things I couldn’t define. After a while, my back hurt and my hands were tired, so I settled for the appearance of no weeds; I wanted to have my friends over for a fabulous party on the patio. At that point, I started grabbing handfuls of weeds, pulling wildly as I went for a quick-fix to the problem. A quick-fix it was not, for within two weeks those pesky weeds were back—thicker and stronger than ever—and, once again, I found myself slumped over for hours pulling them from the ground.

The next spring, older and wiser, I decided to take a different approach. Armed with a variety of earth-digging apparatus, I settled in for an afternoon of weed pulling, moving methodically between the stones, taking my time, digging deep into the earth to get to the root. It took me most of the day, but that season I only pulled weeds twice.

I thought it was a done deal. Imagine my surprise to see new weeds sprouting the next spring. My effort to get to the root wasn’t deep enough, and failed to take into account the many branching veins and structures supporting their unruly growth. This time, armed with an animal-friendly weed killer, I made a cocktail strong enough to take them all down, gently pouring the mixture between the stones in an effort to eradicate them forever. That year, I only pulled weeds once. Now it’s all about maintenance.

My experience with weeds—as difficult and frustrating as it was—gave me great insight into the depth of human nature and the truth of effective problem-solving. All of life, every creation, every problem, everything we think, say or do can be traced to the fundamental core from which it grew. When we ignore the root, we miss an opportunity for greater understanding, and without understanding we cannot possibly hope to solve the problem in a meaningful way.

So it is with social justice. When dealing with the great issues of our time, especially in this “day of the non-profit,” where giving is seen as fashionable among the “haves,” the first thing we should do is ask: What’s really going on here? Then start digging at the roots. That’s what many of the great charitable organizations are trying to do, often in tandem with offers of temporary relief.

But simply throwing money at a problem or attempting to lift people out of their problems without more—understanding why it persists or requiring some form of self-help from the receiver while sharing critical tools for future problem-solving (“teach a man to fish…”and such)—is no better than hacking at the leaves of pesky weeds.

Some criminal and civil justice systems have been examining their roots as well, evolving toward a more holistic approach to problem-solving, albeit slowly at times. Rather than moving forward in a strictly adversarial way, restorative justice is a unique approach to law—a social movement, really—that focuses on the needs of the victims, offenders and the communities affected by their actions; digging deep to uncover root issues and bring forth peaceful approaches to harm, problem-solving and violations of legal and human rights.

After all, if the root problem that led an offender to commit burglary is her drug addiction, simply throwing her in prison in an effort to punish and exact revenge does nothing to address the underlying issue of addiction and its psychological cousins. In this way, a restorative justice approach demands compassion—a willingness for those harmed to see beyond their anger and grief and cooperate in arriving at a peaceful solution that considers the safety and dignity of all—together with the offender’s commitment not only to repair the harm done, but to eradicate the root that led to the crime or civil malfeasance in the first place.

Examples abound; because in the end, everything has a root. So do we.  And we must go there to understand what keeps us grounded—for good or ill—for it will determine much about the direction of our growth.

By  Melissa Johnson; © 2010.  All rights reserved worldwide.  

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Monkey Business

in this world
has a hidden meaning.
Men, animals, trees, stars,
they are all hieroglyphics.
~Nikos Kazantzakis

Monkey Business (c) MJohnson.

I was never one to carry around a camera, and I never really understood those who did.  I mean, why not live the moment instead of trying to freeze it in time?

Even when traveling abroad, I carried a cheap digital camera, at best; sometimes, a plastic, disposable one, feeling obligated to return with proof of my journey.  Often the pictures were grainy or out of focus, and sometimes the subject was so far away that, when printed, the photo made no sense.  Just so, good camera equipment seemed to me yet another thing to keep up with on my mission to travel light.  Besides, how could a one-dimensional photograph ever capture the magic and beauty of my multi-dimensional experience?  At least that's what I thought . . .

Then a fabulous holiday in Bali and a little monkey business changed everything…

Monkey Business (c) MJohnson.

They came from the Ayung River Valley--from behind bushes, swinging from trees--wild monkeys running toward me from the dense tropical vegetation surrounding my mountain villa.  One-by-one they came, more than a dozen in the clan, and as they played on the terrace railing I photographed them.

My friend called me the Monkey Counsel.  He said they came to tell me of their endangered habitat and share with me their monkey ways.  I think he was right. 

I dared not feed them, but I welcomed them with sincerity and a pledge of non-violence.  I talked to them like any old friend, watching their gestures and listening to their chatter; trying to intuit what they might be saying.  We were very different but we understood each other well.  They reminded me to play, which I did; and they stayed, greeting me each morning as I read the paper on the terrace and again in the evening when I returned from a day of exploring.  We definitely had some moments—me and those monkeys--that fed my zoological curiosity and forever changed my mind about photography. 

Soon after, I began to rearrange my life.  I relocated to the mountains of Colorado.  I invested in some quality equipment, including a professional camera with an extra-zoomy lens.  I studied art and photography.  I read voraciously on issues of human rights and wildlife conservation.  I started working with animal and human rights groups dedicated to finding global solutions.  And as I learned the art of Animal Speak, they all came out to play.

Before long, I found myself engaging in paparazzi-like behavior as I followed my new friends around in the yard; hiding behind big Spruce trees, lying in wait behind rock outcroppings, patiently surveying the land at dusk and dawn, all in the name of the ungettable-photo-get.  (Don't try this at home kids.) 

Who knew that I would share this land with so many amazing four-legged and winged friends?  I love my neighbors.  They are patient, fascinating creatures, and they teach me the secrets of the land.

For instance, a visit from bear reminds us to call on our powers of introspection to help bring balance to our lives, drawing on bear’s most noted habit of hibernation.  Coyote lurking about can signal the ways in which we may be tricking ourselves or others, or herald the arrival of unwelcome news.  Rabbit hopping across our path encourages expression of our creativity or speaks to the fears we carry with us through life, reflecting her most paradoxical characteristics of abundant creator and fearful animal of prey.  Hummingbird reminds us to drink in the sweet nectar of life.

Our Native Ancestors call this “animal medicine,” encouraging us to look at the very qualities, habits and characteristics of an animal from which we may draw strength and wisdom, for there we find great lessons on how to harmonize our world.
And it was through this lens that I looked for bobcat’s wisdom when she came round a couple of weeks ago.  There I was in my bedroom trying on suits, hoping to pull together a polished look for an important meeting the next day, when this mysterious beauty caught my eye.  She was sitting on the top step just outside the French doors leading from my bedroom to the back yard. 

Slowly, I approached, moving towards her like a cat so as not to startle or chase her away.  And there I laid belly down, with my face just inches from the glass.  She looked at me, then moved closer, touching her little bobcat nose to the door.  I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there she was.  And when she crawled onto a neighboring rock and lounged, crossing her paws all lady-like, I watched with anticipation for what might happen next.

Minutes later, she rose slowly from the rock, looking in the grass below, and pounced with precision, returning to the top step with a furry little four-legged treat, which she ate in three bites while looking at me through the glass door.

Whatever else she may symbolize, I viewed it as a message of encouragement and a reminder to be patient with my process of change.  Fear and immaturity will not serve me now.  Rather, I need to be in it for the long haul and persevere in my efforts to forge this new path—one where I seek to blend my business and legal interests with my passion for creativity, philanthropy and value-driven social change.  No small task, to be sure.  But this bobcat reminded me to slow down, look carefully and then move with confidence.

Looking back, my life is very different now than when I first began my career.  Today, I’m a different kind of lawyer, finding inspiration in both man’s law and in the universal wisdom left behind in the delicate footprints of nature.  And to think it all started with this monkey business . . . animal medicine, indeed.

Secrets of the Land

What would our four-legged and winged friends say to us if they could speak?  Or consider the wisdom of a flower, rock, tree, or waterway.  They all have secrets to share, inherent in their nature, and I bring them to you now in this unique collection of wildlife portraiture, storytelling and botanical beauty.  With more than 130 wild images and musings of my natural curiosity, “Secrets of the Land” will delight and inspire nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts of all ages.   

This is a large coffee-table-style-photography-book.  It makes a great conversation piece and fabulous gift!  

And a portion of all sales proceeds will be donated to various wildlife conservation and rescue organizations in the U.S. and abroad.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Be the Mountain Goat...

Her great merit is finding out mine…
~Lord Byron
Mountain Mystic.  © 2010 by Melissa Johnson.

I met John while living in San Francisco.  Quickly, he became my friend-spiritual guide-and-massage therapist all rolled into one.  Such magic in those hands, such wisdom in his understanding—after one session I was hooked. 

Trained in the healing arts of Chinese medicine, John began each session with a simple question:  “What’s going on?”  This meant that he wanted a brief State of the Union on my physical, emotional, spiritual and mental health because, to him, it was all connected. 

During the time I lived in the city, I met with John every week.  Through our conversations and his amazing body work I began to experience shifts in consciousness on many levels, but none more compelling than my understanding of what it means to be discerning.  We spent hours talking about life paths—his, mine and those of our friends.  We dissected, analyzed, and waxed poetic about love.

Then one day, while discussing my relationship with a man whom I loved deeply but who lacked certain core qualities that I wanted in a partner, John suggested that the key to my dilemma could be found by taking on the persona of the female mountain goat.  

You see, female mountain goats—or nannies, as they’re called—will climb to the top of a mountain peak and sit there.  She’s holding out for the billy with certain qualities—like horn symmetry; and short sturdy legs with a heavy body; top-of-the-line hooves to help him move about the rocky ledges; and, of course, social rank because this will determine his access to resources.  

© 2010 by Melissa Johnson.

Below her, all the billies are doing their male mountain goat thing—snorting, bleating, locking horns, fighting, pushing each other around in an effort to win her.  Some of the billies are killed or give up and move along in search of greener pastures.  But the strong contenders continue their ascent to claim the prize at the top of the mountain. 

They battle all the way, trying to edge each other off the rocky cliffs as they charge ahead.  But no matter what, no matter which billy she may fancy from afar, no matter what’s happening to him below, she does not reach down and help him up in his journey to win her.  Instead, she waits on her mountain perch and allows her suitors to exercise their determination and strength, for only those who make it to the top win a chance of partnership with her.  Then she gets to choose.

It all made perfect sense.

Now I’m not suggesting that men are the same as male mountain goats, although I must admit that I have witnessed some behavioral similarities.  Nor am I advocating that women (or men) just accept whoever shows up in their lives as “the one” by virtue of the fact that he (or she) beat a path to their door—that could get pretty creepy. 

And certainly in this day and age the need to select partners based on purely physical or biological characteristics has diminished; though let’s face it, the dictates of “survival of the fittest” lie innate within us.  So in a sense, I guess we all prefer a little horn symmetry.

But John’s mountain goat metaphor brought great clarity and the shift in intention I needed.  For months I had been riding the fence of indecision, torturing myself with what could have been fairly simple… if I was honest about my needs and desires.  And like the flick of a switch, suddenly all that was once dark and seemingly unknowable became illuminated by the light of my heartfelt truth. 

So I started applying this wisdom to every part of my life—personal and professional—and soon found myself initiating some major life changes, beginning with the end of my relationship and ending with a brand new career path. 

It hasn’t been easy.  At times I have second-guessed my decisions and the overall direction of my life.  Some of that’s natural, I suppose.  Just so, before I made any real progress, I had to revisit my ideas about what I thought it meant to be “successful” and make peace with the notion that I was my own greatest block when it came to creating the life I desired. 

And I learned to recognize that while people and situations show up in our lives often when we need them most, that doesn’t mean that every relationship, job or experience is meant to last forever.  Some things fall away because we’ve outgrown them or we need to be available for something else.  But we’ll never find that “something else” if we’re clinging desperately to that “not-quite-right-what is” because we’re afraid of change. 

Ultimately, discernment is the lens through which we make choices.  It does not mean that we're judging people and opportunities from a position of superiority.  Rather, it is to tune into the soul’s wisdom as we discriminate between this option and that, truthfully evaluating what’s before us while engaging our intuition about what’s best for our lives.  No easy task, to be sure.

Perhaps Steve Jobs said it best:

“You’ve got to find what you love.  And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers.  Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.  And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.  If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.  Don’t settle.  As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.  And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.  So keep looking until you find it.  Don’t settle.”


Friday, May 21, 2010

Calling All Bears...

When a pine needle falls in the forest,
the eagle sees it; the deer hears it,
and the bear smells it.
~Old First Nations Saying

To our four-legged, woolly bear friends,

We owe you an apology. Truly, we’re sorry. Please forgive us for forgetting that you will always do what is in your nature to do. In our negligence, we have endangered your very survival.

You see, in our effort to be organized and keep our space clean, sometimes we put our trash outside the night before a scheduled pick-up, rather than waiting until the morning of. And sometimes, in our laziness, we dump leftovers in the trash and leave our bags by the door with every good intention of taking it to the dump or putting it in a trash can the next time we go out to the garage. Then we forget.

But in forgetting, we have forgotten you . . . we have forgotten that you are waking from your winter slumber, hungry, in search of food. And we have forgotten that you, like us, often take the path of least resistance—why forage for berries, fruit and nuts when a fabulous dining extravaganza is laid before you in a Hefty cinch-sack?

And in our love of nature—in our desire to attract and visit with our winged friends—we put out our bird feeders, hanging low from trees, filled to the brim with delicious seeds and sugary-sweet nectar, without considering what a challenge it is for you to turn away from that which you most desire. Willpower is not your strong suit.

Yet we unknowingly reward you for fearlessly exploring human places, turning our bird feeders into bear feeders and giving you a false sense of security around humans; a deadly lesson for you indeed, leaving you vulnerable and exposed to human conflict; at worst—euthanasia.

As with many life lessons hindsight is our great teacher. Now we know that if we change certain aspects of our behavior, with you, our bear friends, in mind, we will help reduce human-to-bear conflict and possibly save your lives.

So from now on, we promise you this:

Never again will we forget how very smart, curious, and resourceful you are, the way you follow your sensitive noses—smelling food five miles away—returning again and again to lucrative food sources.

From mid-March through early November, we will commune with our winged friends in less intrusive ways. We know that it’s best not to feed the birds when you’re out and about but, if we do, we promise to bring in our feeders at night—before sundown—or hang them at least ten feet out of your reach. And we promise to be vigilant in our clean-up efforts, keeping the area beneath our feeders clear of debris.

We promise always—ALWAYS—to remember these four rules of trash storage:  (1) Store trash in air-tight containers; (2) Set out trash on the morning of pick-up only; (3) Wash all disposable food containers with soap and water; and (4) Periodically wash-out our air-tight trash cans with a solution of bleach or ammonia and water.

We know you’re tempted by smells—that’s why it’s better that we freeze our smelly food trash and put it in the garbage on the morning of pick-up—but, hey, we’re human and sometimes we get busy or forget. We acknowledge that any action to protect you—even if not perfect—is better than no action at all. So at a minimum we pledge to set out our trash on the morning of pick-up only, having washed our disposable food containers and stored trash in air-tight, bear-proof cans.

And we promise not to tempt you with anything that has an odor (food, beverages, scented candles, air fresheners and toiletries)—keeping our bear-accessible doors and windows in our homes and vehicles closed—even when we’re hanging out at home.

The mountains have always been here
and in them the bears.
~Rick Baas, from The Lost Grizzlies

It’s a challenge to stay one step ahead of you, but we know it’s our responsibility. You are our mountain neighbors, and you were here first—long before the first pioneers arrived. And our human behavior determines your fate. As they say up here on the mountain, “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

We know that if you exhibit aggressive bear behavior because you’re a bit too comfortable in human places—breaking into our homes, attacking people or lingering in our school yards—you will be considered a threat and you will be killed.  And we’ll have your blood on our hands.

So please take your cue:  If we should encounter you face-to-face in all your bear glory, hanging round our homes or campsites, we promise to scare you away—clapping our hands, blowing a whistle, yelling, or banging on pots and pans—not because we don’t like you, but to preserve your people-wary nature and save your life.  Please don't be offended ... just run along and get back to your hunting and foraging ways.  And we’ll do our part to keep you safe.

This is our promise to you.

With much love,
Your Two-Legged Friends

To take the “Keep Bears Wild Pledge,” or to speak to a Bear Aware Volunteer, contact the Colorado Division of Wildlife, Denver office, at (303) 297-1192. Learn how to bear-proof your home by visiting or Or look for similar programs in your state. Educate yourself.  Protect our wildlife.

All photos and content © 2008-2010 by Melissa Johnson. For e-mail subscribers, if you’re having problems viewing this article and photos, click here HEART LAW to link to the blog home page. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Call of the Wild

If you talk to the animals
they will talk with you
and you will know each other.
If you do not talk to them,
you will not know them,
And what you do not know you will fear.
What one fears one destroys. 
~Chief Dan George

Eye of the Tiger ~ Photo by MJohnson © 2009.
Not so long ago, I had the great fortune to learn of a sanctuary for exotic wildlife located practically in my backyard—the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keensburg, Colorado, just on the other side of Denver—so I went there to visit these four-legged friends and see what the rescue was all about. And there I found a refuge beyond my wildest expectations, a world-wide movement of recovery, healing and hope.

Play Therapy by Wild Animal Sanctuary.
Driving into the facility, situated on some 320 acres in the middle of nowhere, I felt as if I were driving through the rolling grasslands of a real African safari, passing acres of wild animal habitats on either side of the graveled road until I came upon the large, temperature controlled, round-house facility, centrally located on the property and designated as the educational center and receiving area for newly rescued animals. This is the first point of rehabilitation—fabulously staged playgrounds and swimming pools—where the abused animals are allowed to recuperate, play and readjust to life before being integrated into their new habitats.

Walking Wounded:  African Male Lion ~ Photo by MJohnson © 2009.
And it was here that I learned the truth about the Captive Wildlife Crisis facing many lions, tigers, bears, leopards, jaguars, wolves and other exotic animal friends that find themselves out of their element and living in basements and backyards of private homes as a result of the careless attitudes and behaviors of another great species—the human. I had no idea how serious the issue was.

The problem looks like this: Man has a great desire to study wildlife and understand these rare and often endangered creatures from far and distant lands. Teams are sent out to capture these fascinating animals for public zoos around the world where everyone can enjoy them. But it doesn’t stop there, for in an effort to increase zoo attendance, more and more animals are captured then bred, producing cute and precious little baby animals that draw large crowds of zoo-goers, but which ultimately endangers their lives; for these exotic captive populations grow beyond what is manageable and sustainable and, soon, the zoos either have to euthanize their captives or sell them to private animal traders to keep populations in check.

Spotted ~ Photo by MJohnson © 2009.
These careless practices pave the way for breeding, commercialization and abuse. Some people even think they can keep these great cats as house pets! Insane, right? But prevalent; so the issues of licensing and the humane care and treatment of captive wildlife present additional problems to contend with.

Black Bear in the Wild ~ Photo by MJohnson © 2008.
That’s where the Wild Animal Sanctuary comes in. This 501(c)(3) non-profit organization is committed to exotic animal rescue, care and public awareness through education. They take in these “cast-off, unwanted, abused, abandoned and exploited wild creatures which man brought into civilization, bred and profited from, and no longer has use for.” And they’re really making a difference.

As I explored the sanctuary, I was overwhelmed with the sense of calm these animals reflect in their new, healthy environment—a place that honors their right to be cared for with dignity and respect. Lions, tigers, leopards, bears and wolves greeted me with yawns and roars while lounging in the setting sun, sharing with me their scars and histories of abuse. 

Scarred ~ Photo by MJohnson © 2009.
Like this guy, who had been kept in a cage much smaller than his size—where he couldn’t fully stand up or turn around—in the parking lot behind a gas station somewhere in Texas, where for a small fee patrons could go out back and gawk at him through the bars of his prison; and where he was beaten by his “owner” for doing what was in his nature to do; for being irritated by his show-and-tell life.  Why do people feel the need to dominate animals in this way? 

Still, notwithstanding his scars, here in the spaciousness of his sanctuary den, he portrayed a sense of relief as he lounged peacefully in his new environment.

Rest Easy: You Are Safe ~ Photo by MJohnson © 2009.
I stood in awe as I watched him, amazed at nature’s splendor and the telepathic way that animals communicate with us. I believe they want us to know them—their struggles, their pain—and we can, but we must quiet our minds enough to listen with our hearts and engage their living spirits, an ability that goes far beyond any act of anthropomorphism that we may conjure up. It is to connect to the essence of Life itself. And when we do—when we open ourselves to these healing connections—we see beyond our impermanent human condition into a shared mystical experience of life, even if for just one moment.

And as the sun prepared to do its disappearing act in the night sky, the wolves gathered round to howl a great “goodnight.”

Good Night ~ Photo © 2009.

By Melissa Johnson

To get involved or find out how you can help, please visit the Wild Animal Sanctuary and follow them on Twitter at  All photos except for Black Bear in the Wild were shot on location at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keensburg, Colorado © 2009.

E-mail subscribers:  Are you having trouble viewing this article and photos by e-mail?  Click here Heart Law to be redirected to the blog home page.  Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Consciousness Unfolding

One thing we do know:
Life will give you whatever experience
is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness.
~Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

Consciousness Unfolding © 2008 by Melissa Johnson.

I was having dinner with a friend in a small North Beach restaurant in the heart of San Francisco—one of the most culturally diverse cities in America—when two guys with shaved heads walked in dressed in camouflage, suspenders and black boots, bearing the Aryan Nation insignia. They were loud and boisterous, making everyone uncomfortable from the start, and we just knew they weren’t from the city. Within moments, two of the ethnic customers got up and left the restaurant in a hurry while the supremacists made snide comments about their departure.

They placed their orders, taking pleasure in harassing the young Middle Eastern woman working behind the counter, and then took seats at a table in the middle of the restaurant where they continued with their mean-spirited banter, making loud racist comments and laughing at their power.

When their orders were ready, the young woman carried the tray from the kitchen and as she approached the men, one of them hit the tray from underneath, knocking it up into the air before sending it crashing to the floor, scattering food all over the restaurant. The girl immediately knelt down to clean up the mess, apologizing to the guys and telling them that she would bring more food.

“Avert your eyes,” one of the guys said loudly, scaring the girl even further into submission. “I said avert your eyes!” He commanded, laughing at her nervousness. Soon her Spanish co-worker appeared from behind the counter to help clean up the mess. Everyone in the restaurant held their breath, looking around nervously, afraid of what these guys might do—possibly planning their emergency exit—but no one doubted that we were in the presence of evil.  My friend and I ate quickly and left the restaurant, alerting a nearby policeman of the trouble brewing.

This is an extreme example given to illustrate the state of unconsciousness in which so many people live, disconnected from the essence of who they are and why they’re really here; focused on the physical illusions and thinking them real. But we don’t have to be racist pigs to be sleepwalking through life.  Unconsciousness comes in many forms.

Conscious [kon-shuhs]
To be conscious means that we are aware
of the true nature of our existence,
our sensations, our thoughts, our actions, our patterns,
the environment and the people around us;
it is to be mindful and willing participants
in the unfolding of our lives.

When we’re disconnected from Spirit, so identified with our egos and living in fear, we are asleep. When we participate in the human drama, caught up again and again in the pettiness of life, constantly on guard and doing battle, we are asleep. When we attempt to control or oppress others through manipulation, fear or domination—believing that we’re somehow entitled to our “superior” status—we are asleep. When we fail or refuse to see that our actions, habits and attitudes impact the people and environment around us, we are asleep.

When an inner situation is not made conscious,
it appears outside as fate.
~Carl Jung

That we find ourselves now on the brink of environmental disaster—struggling with a laundry list of social issues—should come as no surprise given the way we have collectively lived here on planet Earth; the way we have so often put our personal interests above the greater environmental concerns, failing or refusing to take action when doing so would infringe on our comfort and convenience or otherwise threaten our bottom line. And then when faced with a crisis FINALLY we start to wake up and take steps to correct our course, all the while bemoaning our fate, some even viewing our reality as punishment from an angry and vengeful God.

Or consider the role of the United States in breeding anti-American sentiment in the world. The way we have knowingly supported the rise to power of certain unsavory characters (Saddam Hussein, for one) and then when we lose control of them, we invade their countries—hunt them down like dogs—and remove them from power, often killing innocent people in the process.

Or the way that our government has a history of selective intervention when people are being oppressed or subjected to horrific crimes against humanity, with such decisions—to intervene or not, and to what extent—based largely on our economic interests in that region.

We tiptoe all around the issue of sovereign rights even as basic human rights are being slaughtered by those in power, yet we barge right in with our bombs and self-righteousness when our oil interests are in jeopardy. Think of our failure to intervene in the mass political genocides of Rwanda in the 90s; or our soft trade embargos against Burma and our refusal to intervene in the torture, rape, murder and oppression of people taking place everyday by Burma’s junta (police); in large part so as not to disturb our economic interests there, and because China and Russia are Burma’s staunch allies in the UN and we wouldn’t dare cross China and Russia.

Or the way that Anti-Americanism continues to grow in Pakistan as a result of U.S. Drone attacks (by unmanned aerial vehicles) in their country, introduced first by President Bush in 2004 as part of this “War on Terror” and continued by President Obama today.

Or the Latin-American anti-American sentiment (dating as far back as the early 1830s) expressed by Che Guevara in 1961 for these unjust reasons:
“The United States hastens the delivery of arms to the puppet governments they see as being increasingly threatened and it makes them sign pacts of dependence to legally facilitate the shipment of instruments of repression and death and of troops to use them.”
Let’s be clear: I neither condone this hate nor give license to their retaliation anymore than I support the bad behavior of our U.S. leaders. As a criminologist, lawyer and human rights advocate, I have learned that we all have within us the capacity for good and evil.  So I'm not selectively bashing our great country.  To be sure, I am proud to be an American, and I continue to be amazed by the stories of heroism, community, selflessness and love of humanity expressed between neighbors, states, countries and so on, equally as powerful in breeding love as those that breed hate. 

But we are not innocent "victims" of our fate.  Our good does little to mitigate the damage our unconscious ways, and our failure or refusal to look at our collective role in the social issues we face is just another way that we sleepwalk through life.  To assume that the government or someone else will "take care of it" is equally unconscious.

Consciousness is not an all-or-nothing proposition; rather, it is a continual unfolding, day after day, year after year, lifetime upon lifetime—like the petals of a fragrant flower, opening wider and wider still to reveal its beautiful truth.

Eckhart Tolle says, “We are here to wake up.”  And as many people and societies have learned through time, either we can help ourselves in that process or we can have awareness forced upon us by circumstances seemingly beyond our control.

Because in the end, everything we close our eyes to or ignore will block us, and we will find ourselves drifting along on others’ agendas.  Our personal lives are no different.  And the more we back ourselves into a corner, the fewer choices we have.

In all things, we must seek the light of awareness. This is our big job, as my grandfather liked to say.  We must not look away because it’s difficult or inconvenient, or because it demands something of us. We must not wait for someone else to do what is within our power to do.

Instead, as we continue to ask ourselves as individuals, governments, nations and the world at large "Why do we do what we do?  How can we make it better?" perhaps, eventually, we'll break through the illusions that keep us stuck, layer by layer, until we no longer need such harsh reminders of this truth.

Some say I’m a dreamer; idealistic to a fault.  But I believe that our greatest creative choice on any given day is the choice to be conscious participants in the unfolding of our lives.

And you?  What story are you writing in the great book of humanity?
By Melissa Johnson

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dancing Through Eternity

Everyone has been made for some particular work
and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.

In the Silence of Purpose ~ Majestic Redwoods

Did you know that redwood trees connect with purpose? Call me crazy, but I swear it’s true. I saw it with my own eyes while on a guided hike through the redwood forests of Big Sur, California. “Amazing” doesn’t even come close to describing this scene.

There he was—an 800+ year-old tree on the edge of a steep embankment in the forest. You could see where his age, weight and precarious position so close to the edge had caused his massive root structure to begin separating from the earth as the soil eroded beneath him. He had been on the verge of uprooting entirely, which would have caused him to plummet to his death in the ravine below, until his Lady Redwood stepped in.

Being about 200+ years his junior, she had youth and strength on her side and solid ground beneath her trunk, so she leaned toward Sir Redwood, excreted a sappy substance to aid her in melding her trunk to his, and then leaned back, pulling him upright and saving him from death, forever binding them together.

Now I didn’t actually see this merger take place in real time, but I saw the lasting effects of the commitment created by their common purpose. And there nestled between them was their love child—Baby Redwood, a mere youngster at approximately 150 years old.

And I thought:  If the redwoods connect with purpose, shouldn’t we?

We are here on purpose.
So, too, are the people and events in our lives.
They are here for our learning and growth...
and they teach us of the qualities of our soul.

All of our connections bring something to our lives—for good or ill.  Some enhance us; others distract us as we spin around in the muck, confused by our mindless living.  Yet even those that distract and confuse help us learn something about ourselves.

The longer I live the more I understand the importance of clarity and purpose—opening our hearts and minds to the greater truth of why we’re here, whatever that means for us individually—so that we may form more conscious connections that support us on our path.  In so doing, we bring greater depth, meaning and purpose to our lives.  And in this we honor Life itself.

So as you move through the world, ask yourself:

1.  Why am I here? What unique thread am I here to weave into the tapestry of Life?

2.  Am I living with purpose? What can I do to become more conscious in my connections?

3.  Do my personal relationships honor my greatest Truth? Do they support my path or drain my precious energy and distract me from my true purpose? How can I be more discerning?

4.  With respect to that difficult or challenging connection with “X”, how may I begin to view this relationship through the lens of purpose?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Space Between

Even the Rose,
Vibrant and full of blooms,
requires just enough manure
to flourish.
~Grounded, by TR Hughes

In the fall of 2005, I found myself standing on the precipice of major professional change, having gradually inched my way to the edge during the previous year. Caught between two worlds, I wasn’t sure of my place in either. All I knew was that I was on the edge, and it was time to jump or find a peaceful way to retreat into the world I felt so inclined to leave behind. I needed a fresh perspective.

So I took some time off and traveled around the island of Bali, studying its culture and cuisine, learning to paint with acrylics, soul searching and basically getting my body rubbed by every massage therapist between Ulu Watu and Ubud.

I went to the doctor,
I went to the mountain;
I looked to the children,
I drank from the fountain . . .
(Indigo Girls)

Somewhere along the way I learned of a traditional Balinese healer named I Nengah. They said he had the gift—he could lay his hands on your body and tell you exactly what was going on in your life—a real spiritual man, they said. I was fascinated to see if it was true and equally eager to be enlightened, so I had my Balinese-speaking friend arrange for him to come to the resort to meet with me; he would do his healing work in one of the private open-air bales nestled between the sea and Mt. Agung.

Ten dollars an hour was his charge—what a bargain!—so I booked two, thinking he might need the extra time to sort out everything that was going on with me. And, too, my tolerance for body work was on the rise so that one hour was never long enough; like a junkie, I needed more to get the same effect.

Now I’ve had lots of massages. I get them everywhere I go. While some people collect postcards and shot glasses, I love spa treatments—the more exotic the better. I’ve been massaged by two people at once in a “Twin Sleeping Tiger” therapy.  I’ve been covered in milk and honey and wrapped in plastic.  I’ve had crystals and healing turquoise rubbed all over my body and hot oil poured on my third-eye chakra.  I’ve had my spine reorganized by a woman named Helga following a most unfortunate snowboarding incident in France.  I’ve been dipped in wax and soaked in mud.  I’ve even had a watercolor painting done of my aura.  But nothing—and I mean nothing—prepared me for my session with this “traditional” Balinese healer.

I was meditating in the bale when he arrived. He knew only one word of English, so he greeted me with a courteous bow and said “good.” Wearing a traditional songket and some kind of fancy hat, he appeared to be authentic. But when he turned to prepare his work space I caught a glimpse of a cell phone on his hip. What kind of wizened-sage wears a cell phone, I wondered?

Within minutes he began his therapy. At first it was like a normal massage. I laid face down on the table, and he rubbed my back, adding some deep pressure at points on either side of my spine. After 30 minutes or so, his movements became hard and fast, to the point that my skin started burning, which was somewhat alarming given that suddenly I smelled smoke.

About that time his cell phone rang and its crazy-disco-Get Down On It-ring-tone startled me. Okay, so I like that song and if I was in a club I would probably be the first one on the dance floor shakin' it down, but if he was going to have a cell phone, I thought, shouldn’t he at least have a ring befitting a spiritual healer?  You know, like a harp or chimes or the sound of water dripping? And shouldn’t he at least turn that phone off while doing his healing work?

Imagine my surprise when he answered it. There he was, laughing and carrying on with his phone buddy, as I lay face down on the table growing more and more anxious by the second. And that smoke—where was that smoke coming from?

As I turned my head and looked back over my shoulder, I saw that not only was he talking on his cell phone, but he was smoking a cigarette, too, and rubbing my back with his free hand. In that moment, my expectations of connecting with him as a healer shattered to pieces. I had no idea what time it was; surely it would be over soon?  I just wanted to get out of there.

But he had other plans, insisting that I turn over onto my back as he began a rigorous stretching routine with my arms and legs, working them in wide circles around my body, pushing and pulling my legs back over my head, all of which would have been okay had I been wearing shorts or a bathing suit—anything—but I was naked under that sheet.  When I tried to alert him to my discomfort, holding the sheet tight against my body, he just smiled and said “good.”  It was the longest two hours of my life!

When the treatment was over he consulted with a translator to deliver my report. He said that I was in good mental and physical health, except that he wanted me to eat more protein during the day to regulate my blood sugar. He said that he could see the machine of my mind working, working, working—that I think too much. He suggested that I meditate more. And as he turned to leave, he congratulated me on the baby.

“What baby?”

The translator spoke in hushed tones to the healer, then turned to me and said, “He says that you are pregnant—”

“What? There’s no way I could be pregnant. Trust me. Ask him what he means. Ask him why he says that...” I panicked, with visions of an Immaculate Conception dancing through my head. Within seconds the translator returned with an apology, explaining that when I held the sheet against my most feminine parts, the healer thought I was telling him not to massage my stomach because I was pregnant. “Many apologies,” he said, bowing out of the room.

What a mess!  Though I can laugh about it now, the whole thing was terribly confusing: His appearance and “healing” treatment, my expectations of having a spiritual experience, his diagnosis—all of it. On the one hand I was keen to throw out the entire experience; chalk it up to a bad decision on my part. But the more I thought about it, the more I could appreciate its duality.

There's more than one answer
to these questions,
pointing me in a crooked line. . .
(Indigo Girls, Closer to Fine)

There is a tendency, I think, to view people and situations as being this way or that; one way or another; black or white. I say of the healer, “Oh, he’s a spiritual man,” and then in my mind, automatically I ascribe to him certain qualities and exclude others. When in fact he may be all of those things—a spiritual man who heals while smoking cigarettes and talking on his cell phone. It doesn’t negate his healing ability or his otherwise sincere intentions.

Or, for instance, I arrive in Bali believing that I have traveled to a sacred land, looking for enlightenment, only to find in places the same trappings of any big city—retail shops selling the latest designer fashions and a host of fast-food joints like McDonald’s, KFC and Dunkin’ Donuts lining the streets to and from the airport. Yet I’m judging my experience, disappointed with what I find; when, in truth, a place can be both material and otherworldly. Likewise, I can be inspired by a place and the source of my own inspiration.

Duality [doo-al-i-tee]
The quality of being twofold; dichotomy.

How could it be any other way?  The nature of our human experience is twofold from the start—we are at once invisible spirit and a physical body. And within us lies a dualistic nature, a tendency to experience our thoughts, feelings, emotions and actions in extremes. Love and hate, strength and weakness, hope and despair, ambition and laziness, happiness and sadness, kindness and cruelty; one moment we’re riding high on a wave of joy and inspiration and the next, feeling low of energy and lacking the will to get-up-and-go. The same is true of how we experience others.  These are all manifestations of the polarities within us.

The spiritual principle of non-duality suggests that these extremes are simply different expressions of the same energy—that there's no real separateness or distinction, only our perception of it. Ultimately, we wouldn't have an inner world without the opposing dynamic of an outer world. We can't have a front without a back; or a left without a right; or light without dark; and so on.

Just so, I think the challenge is in learning how to soften our hard lines—balance our extremes—and bring together opposing thoughts, emotions, and actions into perfect synergy in that space between, creating a beautiful life-energy rich in depth and meaning.  In this way, for instance, we relax our minds enough to see Life not as a case of either / or, but maybe both.  

And like the rose we learn to view the metaphorical manure in our lives as the smelly, messy yet beneficial catalyst of our growth.

~Photos taken on location in Bali, Indonesia during the ceremony known as the Kecak Dance or the Balinese Monkey Chant.  Taken from the Hindu epic Ramayana, the dance tells the story of Prince Rama and his rescue of Princess Sita, who has been kidnapped by the evil King of Lanka, in the ultimate battle of good versus evil.

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sweet Surrender

Faith consists in believing
when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.

Sweet Surrender © 2010 by Melissa Johnson.

My friend Jimmy got into a bidding war on eBay for the purchase of a human soul.  He didn't go there looking for a soul, but he was charmed by the illusion of buying one when he found it was for sale. “Well, I thought it might be nice to have an extra one in my pocket just in case…” he joked when I teased him about his near purchase.  Ultimately, he missed the cut-off time for entering his final bid and the random soul was sold to the highest bidder for $50.

And to think … the Devil went down to Georgia looking for a soul to steal.  Now you can buy one on eBay from the comfort of your living room--and relatively cheap!  The world is flat, indeed.

All joking aside, Jimmy’s eBay auction really got me thinking: What is the value of a human life and the soul that dwells within?

I contemplated the extraordinary capacity of survivors to rebound from tragedy and loss—like those who lived to tell of the atrocities of Hitler’s Germany; children rescued from brothels after being sold into slavery by their families; ordinary people beating the odds of cancer or other life-threatening illnesses; rising from the ashes of violent crimes, disfiguring accidents or financial disaster—and I wondered, what allows these people to surrender with grace to their crushing circumstances?

Sure there are stories of human survival aided not so much by a spiritual belief system but by a strong will to live, rising up from somewhere deep within their DNA—fight or flight. But more often than not, the common thread running through these stories of survival can be traced to a fundamental faith in something far greater than the individual even when the events of their lives made no sense; even when it seemed that they had been forgotten.

When things run amuck in our lives,
without a spiritual root,
what do we hold on to?
What do we surrender to?
How do we hope for something better?
Where do we put our faith?

Consider these equally tragic examples with very different outcomes.

Rwanda in the 90s was a dark place. Tensions ran high as the two main political groups—the Tutsis and the Hutus—were pitted against each other in much the same way that Hitler seized political control of Germany, turning Nazis against Jews. As it was in the 90s, if you had the great misfortune of being born into a family of Tutsis, regardless of your independent beliefs, you were a target for political genocide.

Imaculee Illibigiza was one of the few Tutsi women who survived. On the run, she was taken in by a Hutu minister and hidden from her would-be killers, while her parents and brothers were slaughtered along with a million others.

Her refuge was a tiny bathroom measuring 3 x 4 feet, hidden behind an armoire in the minister’s bedroom; she shared this space with six other women for more than 90 days as they waited and prayed for their rescue. They couldn’t speak out loud or make any noise for fear of being heard. They were instructed to flush the toilet only when someone was using the adjoining bathroom. Believing that the minister was hiding the enemy, Hutu soldiers repeatedly raided his home in search of more Tutsis to kill. Yet they never found the tiny bathroom concealing these women.

While in hiding, Imaculee prayed and meditated for hours each day. In her state of exhaustion and hunger, she saw a vision of herself working for the U.N.; she believed it was a vision from God. And she knew that she would have to learn to speak English so that she could communicate with the other U.N. workers. Trusting her vision in spite of the circumstances surrounding her, she convinced the Hutu minister to bring her a French-English dictionary and some other English-language books. French was her second language; but there, in that tiny bathroom, while hiding from vicious killers, she taught herself to read and speak English without ever saying a word out loud and with no guarantee that she would even make it out alive.

In her memoir, Left to Tell, Imaculee recounts her long and painful ordeal. What strikes me most about her story was her path of sweet surrender. She didn’t panic or freak out. She accepted the circumstances of that tiny little bathroom as being temporary, while never losing faith in God and what she knew to be true despite outward appearances. She believed with all of her heart that there had to be a reason for her survival--why she was the one left to tell this horrific story--and she was right.

Not long after her release from the refugee camps where she stayed after her confinement in the minister’s bathroom, she was offered work with the U.N., helping to rebuild Rwanda and using her English-language skills in the process. And while grieving the loss of her family, she met the man who later became her husband and loved her through her pain.

But what makes one person surrender to life
and another surrender to death?

In September of 2008, in the throes of financial disaster, Kirk Stephensen, a 47 year-old husband and father of one, and the chief operating officer of a private equity house, stepped onto the tracks at a rail station west of London. He was struck by a train and killed instantly. His death was ruled suicide.

Later that same year, in New York City, just two days before Christmas, Frenchman Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet slashed both of his wrists—found dead at his desk next to a bottle of pills—after losing $1.4 billion of his own money (and money belonging to his family and clients) that he had invested with Bernie Madoff, making him one of the biggest losers in Madoff’s fraud. Having tried unsuccessfully to recover the money, his brother described him as “totally ruined.”

Then at the beginning of 2009, German billionaire Adolf Merckle threw himself in front of a moving train, taking his own life and leaving behind his wife and four children. His spirit broken by helplessness and fears of financial loss and devastation, Merckle’s suicide is yet another casualty of our global economic crisis.

As I watched these events unfold in the news, I felt sick. What is wrong with a society that supports a mindset where an individual’s worth is measured by their bank balance rather than their acts of kindness, or the kind of parent, friend, spouse, lover, boss, or brother they are?  Where financial loss leaves people not just devoid of cash, but bankrupt of all faith in the ability to recover and create something better for their lives?

In his compelling book, Creating a World that Works for All, Sharif Abdullah suggests spiritual starvation as the root issue. He writes:
“Lest you believe that spiritual starvation is the by-product of race and poverty, let me present a nightmare about the children of affluence. From 1992 to 1994, I was on the core faculty of the Oregon Governor’s School for Citizen Leadership (OGS)...The students were predominately white and middle-class.
"One of the exercises we would conduct with them was 'Stand Up If . . .' On a purely voluntary basis, participants were asked to stand up if certain statements were true of them. Among the items was 'Stand up if you have either attempted or seriously contemplated suicide.'
"Consistently, 60 percent of the students would stand up. They wanted to kill themselves. Why would these mostly middle-class kids attempt or consider suicide? As children of material affluence, they are told they have everything this society can provide. But they are still hungry. So they incorrectly surmise that something must be terribly wrong with them. Or they choose to leave a society that seems to have nothing else to offer... They want connection and instead get materiality. They want meaning and instead get a life devoid of cultural and spiritual richness, a life ripped free of context—historical, social, spiritual, communal… America’s middle-class children face spiritual starvation on a mass scale.”
It's not just our children who are starving.

So maybe we're not ready to sell our souls on eBay or throw ourselves in front of a fast moving train, but at some point in our lives—probably more than once—we will face some form of hardship and intense life challenge. And while I am not suggesting a course of pounding people over the head with our religion, I do believe there is a quiet, gentle way of influencing others by looking first within and shoring-up our own faith.  After all, believing in a higher power and actually surrendering to it are entirely different things.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Opportunities surround us everyday to practice faith and surrender in our lives, especially with the small stuff, which prepares us for the greater challenges.  And perhaps in so doing, we will send a calming, healing energy into the world, like ripples in a pond.

Here are some ideas to start:

1. When faced with a challenge, set-back or great difficulty, STOP SPINNING. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself of at least one time in your life where you have overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle or survived a tragedy. Consider the source of your strength and how you made it through your ordeal. Follow that thought with a memory of a good time that came later. Look for the lesson.  Remember, you are strong; you've already worked through many challenges in your life. In every instance you have a choice in how you react to the problem.

2. Stay calm when possible and ground yourself. Seek sound, practical advice before making any hasty decisions. Get clear about what you need to do; stay alert and aware of all that is happening around you. Remember that love engages; fear reacts.

3. Connect with the comforting rhythm of a routine; yes, even in the midst of difficulty. Think about Imaculee in that tiny little bathroom with 6 other Tutsi women for more than 90 days. Even though she was hiding for her life, she still devoted herself to prayer, meditation and studying her French-English translations rather than surrendering to the fearful mind. Especially in difficult times, routine can bring peace and help us feel as if we have some command of our life. Eat nutritious meals whenever possible, take care of your hair and skin, exercise, sleep, pray, meditate, read books that inspire, and believe in good times to come.

4. Meditate on the image of a lion; contemplate his strength as you connect with your own spiritual strength—life-giving and eternal—radiating out from your heart like the energy of the sun itself.

5.  Be gentle with yourself.  As the saying goes, Everything will be okay in the end.  If it's not okay, it's not the end. (Unknown)

And as you move through the world, be ever mindful of the true value of Life and the precious liquid of your soul:  PRICELESS. . .