Monday, November 21, 2011

You're So Critical!

Any problem, big or small...
always seems to start with bad communication.
Someone isn't listening.
~Emma Thompson

Sohbet (c) MJohnson 2011.
You’re so critical!” he said to her, driving home from dinner that night. It was a moment—just words—that could have derailed their evening together had she assumed the worst. But she wanted to understand him; she always wanted to understand, so she asked, “What do you mean?” Then she listened.

Turns out, he meant that she was critical to him, to their relationship, to their peaceful life together. A very different “critical” than she had at first imagined.

An example so simple but so profound, with the power to shift our understanding of the way we communicate and perceive each other. Yet how often do we nearly kill ourselves jumping to conclusions?

I’ve seen it in friendships and partnerships; in the boardroom, the bedroom and in the courtroom. I’ve done it—selectively listened and assumed the worst—and I’ve watched with horrified amazement as others have done it too. I’ve witnessed folks come together for the right reasons and with the best intentions only to walk away from their common cause because what they heard and focused on was how far apart they were instead of how very closely aligned their interests had become.

There have been missed opportunities, hurt feelings, lawsuits, and, yes, even wars over the way we communicate and respond to crisis. We’ve ruined perfectly good times with loved ones because we’re so busy making assumptions about what they did or said or meant rather than assuming the best of their intentions and bridging the gap between our hearts. Misunderstandings have escalated into full-blown battles because we’re caught and entangled in our comforting but destructive habit of choosing to be offended.

But we’ve also created thriving businesses, communities, relationships and families through our conscious communications. We’ve expressed love, hurt, excitement and joy, and we’ve shared our plans and desires as others have heard us and responded in kind. What a relief to be heard and understood!

Sufi mystics describe this connection as “sohbet.” Though a bit difficult to translate in English, this word—pronounced “so-bet”—speaks of a different kind of conversation. It involves deep listening between the heart and spirit. It refers to a way of communication that is more than just words; it is, in essence, the transmission of one’s heart to another in conversation. But it’s even more than that, for true sohbet encompasses the many silent conversations taking place each moment between every living thing in the cosmos, and it is believed that those with ears attuned to the inner heart can hear these subtle exchanges.

True sohbets can be so powerful that those involved can bring about incredibly deep understanding in a very short period of time, much quicker than prayer and meditation alone. So significant is this to our highest way of being in the world that most every spiritual tradition describes a version of this “great listening”—Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and many Native Traditions—where we are encouraged to listen deeply and respond with the whole heart. And though many speak of listening to Spirit as the highest directive, this wisdom translates well into our relationships. Imagine what we could accomplish if we brought this practice to our business and personal affairs!

But to reach the level of sohbet, we have to put away our cell phones and laptops, video games and DVDs, turn off the television and tune into each other—eye to eye—and really connect with the truth of the heart and all that it reveals. That’s where the magic happens.

So as we move into this magical holiday season, giving thanks for all that is, why not give the gift of sohbet.  Be that person who seeks to understand before demanding to be understood, and there in that space discover the truth of just how critical you are.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

No tree has branches so foolish
as to fight amongst themselves.
~Ojibwa Saying

When teaching pre-law students the finer points of logical reasoning, there is a type of argument I like to call “Resolve & Explain.”  In it we are presented with a set of facts that appear to be self-contradictory yet in reality they express a possible truth, and we’re asked to resolve and explain this discrepancy.  The correct answer choice will always be that piece of information that explains how both sides of the contradiction can be true at the same time.  Oh the paradox!

Can you imagine it—the ability to hold opposing thoughts in your mind at once and allow them both to be true?  Without feeling threatened by what the other “truth” may mean to your own?  It’s a fascinating way of viewing the world and no easy task; especially when you consider how we cling to our positions. 

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in our world’s religions.  Take for instance the recent showdown in the media between Mitt Romney and his rival, Texas Governor Rick Perry, following senior Baptist minister and Perry supporter Dr. Robert Jeffress’ commentary that Romney wasn’t a true Christian and that Mormonism is a cult.  Oooh, wee!  Can’t you just hear the Bible-thumping going on down there deep in the heart of Texas!  And the presidential race is just getting started…

Consider my Christian friends who feel it their duty to “convert” others to Christianity; or my Muslim friend who believes that Jesus, a high profit, was born to the Virgin Mary but considers it a “blaspheme” to say that Jesus was the “Son of God” because God is Spirit and Spirit can’t have sexual relations.  What tiny little hairs are we splitting here, and what does that really have to do with the core tenements of leading a spiritual life:  faith, hope, love and kindness?

Or consider my father’s deeply held conviction that all those who don’t believe in the Trinity—father, son, Holy Spirit—will, in fact, burn in hell.  What about those who simply choose the path of peace and kindness and live out that example every day?  What of my Bible-quoting, God-fearing colleague who claims astrology to be “the Devil’s work” anytime anyone makes mention of a horoscope or “guidance” from the stars, yet, wait a minute… weren’t the Three Wise Men guided by the stars to Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth? 

Even within certain groups there are smaller and smaller divisions based on opportunity and belief.  Bucket-loads of money are spent every year securing our relative “stakes” in the community and the world at large, convincing others to join us in our way of thinking.  Like the recent string of commercials showing the everyday lives of people who call themselves Mormon, illustrating that they are, in fact, quite normal folks just like you and me lest you buy into Dr. Jeffress’ attempts to color them cult-like.

Take a look around; examples abound.  If we are to have any chance of creating a world that works for everyone, we must ask ourselves:  What is that piece of information that will allow both sides of the contradiction to be true?  That Mormons and Baptists are basically good?  That Muslims and Christians are right?  That two folks who believe different things—one in the Trinity, the other simply in kindness and compassion—will both arrive at the same place in the end?

I ask and I ask and I ask, and I keep coming back to this answer:  There is only One source from which all of life flows.  We, us, them—we are but different expressions of the One, energetically speaking; molecules in motion dancing endlessly through time.  We can split hairs with semantics; divide ourselves in to smaller and smaller pieces of One pie; make “them” wrong so we can be “right” and duke it out in very public and heated debates that will never bring anymore clarity than this.

We came from One and, in the end, to One we shall return.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

We Are Born Winning

The greatest defense is being who you are.
~Mark Nepo

YOU ARE A WINNER!  Yes, you!  There.  I said it.  Cliche perhaps, but true.  Think about it...

The whole process of coming to Life is like a championship sporting event.  The female ovaries release an egg.  Hundreds of sperm race to meet it, but only a lucky few actually make it to the Fallopian gate to compete for a chance at fertilization.  My brother-in-law calls it "getting one past the goalie!"  I call it a miracle.  

No matter the argument for when life begins, there is this moment when the lone sperm penetrates the mature egg and all kinds of stuff starts happening.  Cells change, divide and Life begins to express itself in unique and incredible ways.  

It's mind-blowing, really, everything that has to happen and everything that could possibly go wrong in the process.  If the ovaries fail to produce an egg, or if it is brittle and defective, nothing happens.  If there's no sperm around to fertilize that egg at just the right moment, nothing happens.  If more than one sperm penetrates the egg at the same time, again, what we have is a failure to fertilize.  

Then there's everything that can go wrong during a pregnancy and complications at birth, not to mention the million-and-one things that can derail our journey once we're here--accidents, disease, careless mistakes--it's a wonder any of us make it to adulthood; especially when you consider the crazy, compromising situations we can get ourselves into because we're human and sometimes make really bad decisions even with the best of intentions. 

Then one day we're walking around--all arms and legs, opinions and attitudes--drowning in feelings of low self-esteem because everything seems to be going so horribly wrong.  Yet that's precisely when we need to remember the simple fact that we're here.  

You, in human form, having this fabulously strange, wonderful and, at times, heartbreaking experience.  And that, my friend, makes YOU a winner!

Melissa Johnson; (c) 2011.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Coming to Terms

For the flower it is fully open at each step of its blossoming.
~ Mark Nepo

            I have a lot of freckles—I mean everywhere.  I have no idea where they all came from because they weren't there when I was born.  But there they are. 
          For most of my life I hated my freckles.  I dressed to conceal—a victim in my own skin—while all around me beautiful people with smooth, freckle-free skin, embraced the world in cute little dresses and sleeveless tops, showing as much skin as the law would allow.  I was too self-conscious to join them. 
Then one night at dinner, my friend Jonathan spotted a patch of freckles peeking from beneath my shirt sleeve.  Le poins des carrot,” he mumbled to himself, running his finger over my freckled skin.  My French was rusty, but I could have sworn that he said, “The skin of the carrot?”  And he had. 
“When you see the orange skin of a healthy carrot, it is a beautiful thing—the color, the texture, its richness and vibrancy; the skin of the carrot is beauty itself.  It’s like that with freckles.  The French view them as a sign of great beauty.  And some cultures believe they’re a sign of great wealth.  Just think how lucky you are—beauty and wealth!”  He laughed, “This is your destiny!” 
And to think that all this time I had been trying to cover them up!  Yet with a simple shift in perspective all of a sudden I had the world on a string—beauty and wealth.  I laughed so hard I cried. 
My freckles looked different after that.  I studied them and patterns emerged like brilliant constellations in the night sky.   I had been an astronomy buff for years, could it be that my freckles weren’t so random after all?  “As above, so below,” they say.  And I laughed at the sense of humor displayed in all of creation. 
There are other things I’ve struggled to reconcile.  Like how hard I’ve had to work to find even the slightest measure of acceptance in my heart for an extremely difficult family situation; or my growing disillusionment with a long-held belief as I’ve watched its opposite unfold in the world around me; or perhaps, worse yet, the horrified amazement with which I have, at times, viewed my own life in hindsight as I see so clearly how I’ve gotten in my own way.  These are, perhaps, among the hardest parts to make peace with, especially when we consider how very different the outcome may have been if only we had done this or that.
We do ourselves a great disservice when we judge ourselves so harshly.  For aren’t we always where we need to be?  Perhaps that’s why they say that struggle is sometimes necessary but always optional.     
In the end, reconciliation is an inside job.  Without it, our contempt of a thing creates obstacles to our own happiness.  So we best make peace; learn how to soothe ourselves and move beyond the suffering in our lives.  Because when we are reconciled with that truth, all self-love and acceptance, there is freedom at last. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Eat Your Peas: Simple Truths & Happy Insights

Eat Your Peas for Mothers

“Like the loving stitches of a quilt
you connect us to what matters.  Each other.
Our stories.  The heart of who we are.”
~ Cheryl Karpen

Years ago, my mother gave me a serving of peas.  Not the edible kind, but the inspirational kind printed on business-card-sized stock, with a stylish desk-top card display to serve-up these peas of wisdom. 

You are

it reminds me every time I sit down at my desk.   

And now there’s a serving of peas for Mom too!  Eat Your Peas for Mom is the newest in a series of books filled with simple truths and happy insights to nourish mind, heart and spirit.  In this 3-minute read, author Cheryl Karpen captures the unconditional essence of a mother’s love and offers a gift of gratitude from you to her in return.  It's the perfect little gift book for Mother's Day and a forever reminder of your love.

To learn more about Eat Your Peas for Mom and other titles, visit

Don't forget to eat your peas! 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Always Pearls...

 I’m a grain of sand becoming a pearl…
~Paula Cole

I remember it clearly, standing with my grandmother in her bedroom, looking through her closet for just the right dress—she would be burying her beloved of 60 years the next day—and she needed accessories to match.  

Later, as she sorted through her jewelry, fingering chains and broaches, she pulled an item from the wooden box with a delicate hand.  “There are always pearls…” she said softly, almost childlike, as she slipped the strand around her neck and smiled in front of the mirror. 

I’ve thought a lot about that moment in the three years since.  So many things have changed the landscape of all that I once knew.  Still, the wisdom of her choice lives on, for, indeed, no matter the circumstance, there are always pearls. 

Consider the way of a pearl.  It’s this hard object produced within the soft tissue of a living cell, borne from a set of circumstances where an intruder has slipped through a crack in the shell causing great irritation to the soft underbelly of the mollusk.  Rather than dying from this irritant, the mollusk forms a sac of tissue and secretes a concoction of calcium and such to soften the rough spot.  Yet through this process of repeated irritation and secretion, an incredible jewel emerges, valued all the more for its wild beauty.

We’re not so different, really, when we allow the small and buried irritants of life to open the cracks in our hearts wider still, transmuting our grief, sadness and doubt into great pearls of wisdom.  This powerful process is but one of the many reminders of how we may transform what seems most dark and unknowable within us into a polished light of beauty and promise to the world—that all has a place and meaning in the greater scheme of things. 

It’s not by chance that life so imitates nature, and in fully living we soon discover there are always pearls.
This article is dedicated to my Grandfather, Karl Mason (April 9, 1919 - July 17, 2008).  Shine on.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Learning to Fly

In a sky full of people only some want to fly…
Isn’t that crazy?
~Seal, Crazy

My friend Doug is a brilliant aerospace engineer.  For a while now he’s been working on a project to design the wings for an unmanned helicopter.  Last year, while on a white water rafting trip in the Pacific Northwest, our conversation turned to the science and art of flight as I asked him about the down-and-dirty process of wing design.

He explained that if the wings are too stiff, the plane will shake itself apart and break.  On the other hand, if too flexible, the wings will oscillate so much that the aircraft won’t fly.  “You have to create the right balance,” he said as he went on to explain some of the design issues unique to his project.  And I laughed at his unintentional analogy.

For like these aeronautical creations, we, too, face the risk of breaking when we approach life with such rigidity that we can’t withstand a harsh shaking from the winds of change, and yet if we are too flexible in our thinking and doing we may never take flight, instead just spinning around in the unrealized possibilities of living.

And so we are called to balance mind-body-spirit, generally, in work and play; calibrating the expression of masculine and feminine energies within us; aligning the wisdom of head and heart when discerning our best path forward; and balancing the need for togetherness with autonomy within the context of our most important relationships.  In many ways, every day, we are called to harmonize the issues of our Self.   

In this we strengthen our wings and learn to fly. 

Where does your life now call for more balance?

Friday, March 18, 2011

No Ordinary Art

We do not see things as they are.
We perceive them as we are.
~The Talmud

Jagger Rock (c) 2011.

There was an Italian farmer who lived in the Tuscan countryside. He had only his son to help him with the many chores attendant to farming. One day while out riding his horse, the son fell and broke his leg, leaving him bedridden and of no help to his father. “Oh no!” said the farmer, disappointed with his son’s carelessness. “This is bad! Who will help me milk the cows and tend the crops? This will surely bring ruin to our family.”

The next day, the general of the Italian military came by on horseback, looking for all able-bodied young men to take into battle. Because his leg was broken the General passed over the farmer’s son, leaving him to his bed rest. “Oh, yes!” said the farmer, “This is good . . . this is very good, indeed. Now my son will live.” And before long, the son’s leg had healed and he was back to work, helping tend the farm.

The parable of the Italian farmer is helpful in understanding that things are not always as they at first seem. Learning to remain open and fluid like water is no ordinary art.  But if we can temporarily suspend our judgment about what's going on around us, especially when in the midst of things, we may find that we've lost nothing by considering another possibility, yet what we've gained is great indeed.

Sit quietly and contemplate a time in your life where once you were convinced that a certain event was to your detriment, only later to discover its blessing.  Recall the moment that revealed the lesson.

What in your life now calls for a second look?

As you breathe, give thanks for your choice of perception.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Straight From the Heart

The heart of the wise instructs his mouth
and adds persuasiveness to his lips.
(Proverbs 16:23)

Imagine that for one week your conversations with others were secretly recorded in high-definition video; then, later, you were led into a viewing room with surround sound where you were forced to bear witness to yourself. At the end of the day, how would you feel? Relaxed and understood? Impressed with your stellar communication skills? Troubled by the way you come across? Embarrassed? Ashamed? Misunderstood?

Your words are a very good indication
of what is going on in your heart.
~Dr. Emerson Eggerichs

An interesting point to ponder, I think, as we make our way through the day-to-day world of relationships where communication is everything. For there’s no doubt that the way we communicate opens a window to our soul for all to see, an idea reinforced in his book “Love and Respect for a Lifetime,” by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs.

The good news is that we're not stuck! Unlike our height or the color of our eyes, we can make conscious and gradual changes in the way that we relate to each other and up our happiness quotient in the process. Whether we find ourselves in constant conflict with others wondering why we’re so misunderstood or we simply want to sharpen our skills, with a commitment to clear communication, peaceful resolution of conflict, and a few simple tricks of the trade, we can transform the way we express ourselves.

In his companion guide for couples, Dr. Eggerichs takes a closer look at what it means to “love and respect” and the deeper yearnings of the heart. He says:

Men and women both need love
and both need respect.
But the cry from a woman’s deepest soul
is to be loved
and the cry from a man’s deepest soul
is to be respected.

From there he distinguishes the crucial differences between men and women and the way we love and communicate with each other. Perhaps “love your wife” and “respect your husband” makes you bristle with inequality. I admit to a bit of bristling myself as I read these words. In fact, that verse in the Bible (Ephesians 5:33) always felt to me like it was written by men for the benefit of men. But getting behind the words and understanding the deeper meaning of what “respect” looks and feels like to a man and what makes a woman feel “love” is a necessary step in getting the love we want.

No matter what your struggle—
criticism, constant conflict, sex, money, parenting, harsh words—
learning to communicate the Love and Respect way
can help you make crucial changes…
~Dr. Emerson Eggerichs

Love and Respect for a Lifetime” is a quick read and makes for a thought-provoking bedside or coffee-table guide for reflection. Blending related scripture with everyday tips for heart-felt communication, it is a gentle yet effective reminder to be mindful of how we express our truth, with suggestions for making our relationships better.

And while this book was borne from Dr. Eggerichs’ work as a pastor and couples counselor as an inspirational guide for improving and sustaining marriage relationships, I suggest that there is wisdom within its pages for us all; for understanding what motivates others is an important tool in reaching across the table and communicating with anyone—friends, colleagues and lovers alike.

And for my loyal readers a special Valentine’s Day treat—I am giving away a copy of Dr. Eggerichs’ new book. Simply post a comment to this blog entry with your favorite tip or technique for heart-centered communication (or send me an e-mail at and have your name entered in the drawing for a chance to win! (Please make sure I have contact information for you in case you’re the winner.) The drawing will take place on Monday, February 14, 2011.

As we celebrate this month of love, I wish you all clear communiqu├ęs, heart-centered connections and peaceful relations.