Angeles Arrien – Dancer in The Toll Booth

Angeles Arrien: It’s wonderful to be here at Mount Madonna. It brings back so many wonderful memories because this is a place that has really lived community and a place where there is no separation between community and education. It’s been a braided way, and in many ways in our deepest humanity we live a braided way. A place of many strands of experience coming together and that are undivided. It’s an self created illusion in many ways where we place artificial divisions between mind and heart or body and spirit or personal and professional or family and work, when, like the beautiful song this morning, everything is in the confluent flow of the river.

One of the things that has been interesting to me about the human spirit and about community is that in our inherent DNA, every human being on this planet, regardless of their cultural conditioning, or their family imprinting, is involved in three major processes that’s all one river. I love the image of the river that started with the beautiful song this morning and it reminded me of John O’Donohue’s beautiful one line poem, which he loved, called “Fluency.” Two years before he died he had written it and he used it as a personal vow every day, which was, I want to live my life like a river carried by the surprise of it’s own unfolding.

Mary Corrigan, Angeles Arrien and Peter Block
Mary Corrigan, Angeles Arrien and Peter Block

The three processes that are all one river in confluences that every human being is involved with every single day of their life is work with self. It’s the longest relationship we’ll ever have is with our self. And how do we befriend our self and how do we become to know ourselves? That’s a universal experience that every human being is involved in. I love what Oscar Wilde said, “You might as well be yourself because everyone else is taken.”

It’s so interesting that many traditional cultures of the world and indigenous wisdoms, in their language they have no means for comparison, like “better, best, larger, smaller” because they actually believe that inherently we have our own original medicine to offer that’s nowhere else duplicated in the world. So, no need to compare, no need to have to compete. And, I think it’s an awesome fact that if we really thought about it and believed it, we could change the world. For example, even with identical twins, no human being has the same fingerprint. If we put every voice on a sonogram in this room or in the world, even with identical twins, the voice pattern is completely different. And ophthalmologists, or eye doctors have long recognized that the texture and the color of every human being, even with identical twins, is very different. What does that say about the human spirit and the human species? That we have an original imprint and that it’s imperative that we give voice to what it is that we see. And that every human being is really here essentially for two purposes. One is to learn about love and to express love and the other is to create and to serve and to contribute.

We’re all original medicine. So the work with self is to befriend oneself. Who do I live with the most, shower with the most, eat with the most, sleep with the most? It’s myself. And so what is the quality of relationship that I have in the ultimate befriendment with myself and to recognize that I’m in a fallible mystery. Every human being is really a fallible mystery. How to befriend my fallibility and how to befriend the fallibility of others, as well as the glorious mystery, the original medicine that is nowhere else duplicated in the world.

Angeles Arrien
Angeles Arrien

The second process that every human being is involved with, besides the relationship with self, is this thing that’s called the “one to one relationship”: Myself and a partner, myself and a friend, myself and a colleague, myself and a child, myself and a dog, myself and a tree. Connection with one other is the crucible of intimacy and the crucible of friendship where we begin to learn about connection and being and relationship; the art of relating just to one other person – just to one other person. We all are born into a small community called a family. We enter life in community. And a definition of community and culture is three or more people; three or more people. So all of us enter into some kind of community. Whether it’s a single mom with the nurse and a doctor, that’s the first imprinting. Community is in our DNA. Being alone and self-sufficient is in our DNA. The ability to have a quality connectedness to another human being where we can learn about intimacy in the truest sense. “In-to-me-see” = Intimacy. How willing am I to allow others, “In-to-me-see,” or to see me in some way?

The third process that universally we’re involved in, besides work with self and this one to one work, is called group work, or teamwork, or community work or working within organizations or within teams or within sports or with ensembles, musical ensembles. Can I show up in my full power and gifts and talents and resources and the quality of heart and personhood that I am in a group as strongly as I do on a one to one, or as strongly as I do when I’m alone? – In my own sufficiency. Those are the three major universal processes where no human being is exempt.

Some of us love being by ourselves and being fiercely independent. Others of us like this one to one. We like the intimate conversation just one to one. We thrive on that. Others of us really like, we flourish within teams or we flourish within ensembles, or we flourish within a community, or we flourish within an organization. So it’s just interesting, in every decade of our life, the mark of a whole person is one who is in flow with those three processes. The mark of a healthy person that I’m as comfortable being alone and by myself as I am in a one to one relationship as I am in groups. That’s called the great confluence, or the great braided way.

The real function of a human being is what the philosopher Irenaeus said, “The glory of god is a human being that’s fully alive.” Many of us have succumbed to walking the procession of the living dead. Or we use the great gift of life as spectator’s sport. Or we get our feedings from each other like hungry ghosts because we cannot tolerate being by ourselves and we feed off of each other to keep reassuring ourselves we’re ok.”

One of the great questions that I’ve been thinking about is, “What really galvanizes community?” The children galvanize community. And there are no strangers anywhere in the world where there are children. We never make children strangers. And wherever there are children there’s always community. What else galvanizes community besides children?

You will always find a community present at the four great mysteries that every culture of the world ritualizes, and the four great mysteries that every culture of the world ritualizes start with birth. Wherever there’s a birth there’s a community. Wherever there’s death there’s a community. Wherever there’s marriage there is community. Wherever there is initiation there is community. Birth, initiation, marriage, death. All the four mysteries galvanize community. And they touch on all the three processes. In those three mysteries at birth, an individual changes, a partnership or a friendship gets deeper and the whole community is restored or healed or reassembled in a deeper way.

I’ve been thinking about also, “How can I track whether I’m still alive and refusing to walk the procession of the living dead? How can I track that?” Some of us don’t know that we’re in the procession of the living dead. So traditional people say, “You know you’re still alive and refusing to walk the procession of the living dead if you can still be inspired.”

It’s important to track just this year, who or what has inspired me? Because wherever I’m inspired, it has meaning, otherwise I couldn’t be inspired. So if you want to track what has meaning in your life, take a look at who or what is inspiring you. Just take a look at this year. Who or what has inspired me this year? I’m still alive. Refusing to walk the procession of the living dead if I can be inspired.

Second is tracking, who or what is challenging me? Because challenge in the truest sense is an invitation to grow and stretch and move beyond the knowable and the familiar. So, who or what is challenging me this year – Is asking me to stretch – to move beyond the knowable and the familiar? ……… And he came through the back door with his big black sombrero. Black snapping eyes, flashing smile that was contagious and riveting, and on his chest was a string of bullets, but if you looked closely, between the bullets, stuck were sweet little wild flowers. And he dared by his stance, that everyone look at him, and they did. And, there in the far corner was a silver haired woman that, with great doe eyes, held his gaze. And he took off his sombrero and threw it across the room, and it landed at the base of her feet. And everyone stood up and cheered, “!Viva Zapata!” Zapata was always known for saying, “Do not call me a revolutionary, I’m an evolutionary.” He had a charisma that changed an entire nation. That’s the kind of challenge. Where am I being challenged to a whole other level within my nature. Asked to grow and stretch, move beyond the knowable and the familiar, where am I currently being sized by the creative fire? The fire that takes no wood. Where is that fire in my life? The challenge where I’m seized and I lose hours of time.

The third river to track, besides the river of “inspiration” and the river of “challenge,” is the river of “surprise.” I love what the Inuit people say, “There are always two plans to every day. There’s my plan and there’s the mystery’s plan.” We all fill our life with appointments that we’re determined to keep but we don’t make enough space for the mystery’s plan. Every day you can count on a surprise or the unexpected. You can count on it. Because surprise is for purposes of showing us where our attachments are. And so what’s been the biggest surprise for me this year? How have I surprised myself this year? That’s the river of surprise.

Larry Inchausti, Mary Corrigan, Angeles Arrien and Peter Block
Larry Inchausti, Mary Corrigan, Angeles Arrien and Peter Block

Also, with the river of surprise, the surprise shows us where we’ve lost our sense of humor. Where we don’t think it’s funny anymore. And surprise and humor keeps us flexible and malleable and resilient. It’s good to track where I don’t think it’s funny anymore. I mean, where I really don’t think it’s funny anymore. It shows me where my attachments are. That’s why I love so much, in China they have a wonderful phrase, “Be like a bamboo reed. Firm, yet yielding. Not too firm because you’ll be breakable, and not too yielding because you’ll be too defused and undefined. Be like a bamboo reed. Firm, yet yielding.”

Surprise shows us, how flexible am I? How fluid am I? Children always approach the day, “I wonder what’s going to happen next. I wonder what’s going to happen next.” You know, and as adults when there’s a surprise we often go, “Who’s responsible for this? How did this happen?” So, how much joy, how much laughter am I willing to bring into my life? Because it’s part of our inherent aliveness.

Even cross-culturally we make sure that there are always three incredible uplifting aspects of the human spirit that are universal. There’s not a culture in the world that does not have song and music. There’s not a culture in the world that does not have dance and sports and movement. The body wants to move. The human spirit wants to move. There’s not a culture in the world that doesn’t recognize that story, storytelling and stories is the oldest healing/teaching art that we have. There’s not a culture in the world that doesn’t recognize that in the sweet territory of silence we touch a mystery in silence and in contemplation and reflection. A deep mystery that we cannot touch in any other way. Often when you would go to a shaman or a holy person or a medicine person in traditional people’s, they’ll ask you, and you say that you’re disheartened or dispirited or depressed, they’ll say, “When did you stop singing? When did you stop dancing? Or moving in your body? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? And particularly by your own life story? And when did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?”

Wherever we stop singing, wherever we stop dancing or moving in our body, or being enchanted by stories, and particularly our own life story, or comforted by the sweet territory of silence, is where we began to experience soul loss, or loss of spirit. The glory of god is a human being fully alive. Fully alive. Fully engaged. Not talking about life; engaged in life. Not talking about relationship; engaged in relationship. Not talking about community; engaged in community.

For the last ten years I’ve been obsessed with collecting little true stories. One of them you already heard about Zapata but here’s another one that is about a human being fully engaged no matter the circumstances and it’s a very short little story and it’s a true story. It’s written by Dr. Charles Garfield.

If you’ve ever gone through a tollbooth, you know that your relationship to the person in the booth isn’t the most intimate you’ll ever have. It’s a non-encounter: You hand over some money; you might get change; you drive off. I’ve been through every one of the 17 tollbooth’s on the Oakland/San Jose Bridge on thousands of occasions and never had an exchange worth remembering with anyone. How about you?

Late one morning, though, in the late 90’s headed for lunch in San Francisco, I drove toward one of the booths, and I heard loud music. It sounded like a party, or a Michael Jackson concert. I looked around. No other cars with their windows open, no sound trucks, I looked finally into the tollbooth and inside the man was dancing.

And I asked, “What are you doing?”

And he said, “I’m having a party.”

And I said, “But what about the rest of your colleagues?” And I pointed to the other tollbooths, no one dancing there.

And he said, “They’re not invited.”

I had a dozen other questions for him, but somebody in a big hurry to get somewhere started punching his horn behind me and I drove off. But I made a note to myself: find this guy again. There’s something in his eye that says there’s magic in his tollbooth. And there’s magic in his life.

Months later I did find him again, still with the loud music, still having a party. Again I asked, “What are you doing?”

And he said, “Oh! I remember you from the last time. Well you see I’m still dancing. I’m still having the same party.”

And I said, “But look, look. What about the rest of the people…” And I started to point at the other tollbooths.

And he said. “What do they look like to you? Those tollbooths.”

And I said, “Well they look like tollbooths.”

And he said, “No imagination! No imagination!””

And I said, “Okay, I give up. What do they look like to you?”

And he said, “Vertical coffins. Vertical coffins.”

And I said, “What are you talking about?”

And he said, “Well, I can prove it. 8:30 every morning the people get in and then they die for eight hours. And at 4:30, like Lazarus from the dead, they remerge and go home. And for hours, for eight hours, brain is on hold, dead on the job, going through the motions.”

I was amazed. This guy had developed a philosophy, a mythology about his job. I couldn’t help asking the next question: “Well, why is it different for you? You’re having a great time.”

And he looked at me and he said, “I knew you were going to ask that.” He said, “You see, I’m going to be a dancer someday.” And he pointed to the administration building. “My bosses are in there, and they’re paying for my training, you see”

Sixteen people dead on the job, and the seventeenth, in precisely the same situation, figures out a way to live. And truly be engaged. That man was having a party where you and I would probably not have lasted three days. The boredom.

He and I did have lunch later, and he said, “I don’t understand why anybody would think my job is boring. I have a corner office, glass on all sides. I see the Golden Gate, San Francisco, the Berkeley hills; half the Western world vacations here. And I just stroll in every day and practice dancing because you see I’m going to be a dancer someday.”

The creative fire – the fire that takes no wood, regardless of my circumstances, what has heart and meaning for me? And where am I being inspired? Where am I being challenged? Where am I being surprised? The last river: Where am I being touched and moved by life? Because where I’m being touched and moved by life’s experience, my heart is still open and I’m still alive.

This year, where have I been inspired? Where have I been challenged and stretched? Moved beyond the knowable and the familiar? Where have I been surprised and delighted? And where is my sense of humor? How flexible am I? “The shortest distance between two people is laughter,” says Victor Borge. So, the human spirit, regardless of if we’re by ourselves, or in a one to one relationship, or in a group, or on a team, the human spirit has three core competencies that are totally unshakable that are used every single day, consciously or unconsciously.

Those three core competencies are the human spirit and its DNA wants to learn to learn. That’s education. The desire to learn is inherent in the human spirit. It’s in the DNA and we learn in community. And we learn in one to one relationships. And we learn when we’re by ourselves with the internal conversations we’re having with ourselves or connected with a greater mystery that resides with the core of who we are. And they’re non-separable.

Gary Merrill
Gary Merrill

The first core competency: learn to learn. It’s in the DNA. The second aspect of the human spirit is: learn to choose. Human beings are a composite of every choice they’ve made. And a composite of every human being that has loved them or that we have loved. We underestimate the power of choice. It’s through choice that we can create a whole new reality. It’s through choice that we can let go of a reality. It’s through choice that, if we like this reality, we can maintain it and sustain it as long as we want it. The power of choice. Learn to choose. Learn to learn. Learn to choose.

Then the third great human core competency, which is all about love, is: learn to relate. Building connections and relationships garners affection. The human being, every human being, is always learning about connection and space. Connection and spaciousness, or another term for spaciousness is freedom. How to balance out connection and individuation, or connection and spaciousness, or connection and freedom. And they’re the inseparable Siamese Twins. Some of us need a little more space in some decades of our life and in other decades of our life we need a little more connection. But we’re not exempt, they’re always a creative tension that is an unbreakable rubber band. Connection and spaciousness; connection and freedom; connection and relatedness. Nothing in nature survives if it’s fiercely independent, or excessively dependent. Nature fosters interdependence. Interdependence.

This last core competency is about learning to relate. It’s all about connection and interrelatedness without fierce independence and excessive dependence. And interdependence is the formidable middle between excessive independence and excessive dependence.

I think it’s important to track, “Where am I choosing to learn consciously?” because it has meaning. And for some reason you consciously chose to come here this weekend, or these couple of days. It has some kind of meaning or relevance. You consciously chose to learn to learn. And you learned to choose, you made a choice about that, and this container forces us into relating. Learning to relate in different ways, with our self, with one other, or with a small group, or with a large group as a whole.