I’ve been dancing with a Zen koan for the last few weeks — something John Tarrantonce taught me. It goes, “Medicine and Sickness are in accord. The whole world is medicine. What am I?” It’s been a slow, methodical and, at times, difficult dance … like dancing the tango while wearing a heavy backpack. At times I lean into to the koan and at times it leans on me – the yin and the yang…
It’s been a wild adventure just to arrive here, to be pondering a koan (or even know what one is) and to be asking the question “what am I?” in the first place.
I grew up poor with my single mom in a trailer in the Arizona desert. I wanted to live the dream, and I did; I worked my way up to overseeing 20,000 concerts a year around the globe as head of the concert division for Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter. (If you’ve been to a big concert, chances are it was one of ours.) I had a great boss, was named to Fortune Magazine’s list of top paid executives under 40, and worked with some of the biggest stars in the world. See what I mean … what more could you want?
But I did want more. Everything I thought I was, my identity as the brave business warrior, was tied up in the tenuous bow of my career, possessions and power. To feel good about myself, I always needed more and with the more came its companions in the form of the ever increasing pressure, stress and friction I was experiencing. And then it burst.
The rocket ship I’d ridden to the top came crashing down just as dramatically as it had risen. In a matter of months, my mom died from stomach cancer, I endured my second divorce and I lost my job. I looked around in a daze and found my dream in shambles. Everything that had seemed real to me – my mom, my wife, my career — was gone and I grasped around in the dark looking for something to hang on to … searching for an identity beyond the warrior who had somehow managed to win all the battles and yet still felt lost.
A few months later, still searching, I travelled to the Shaolin Temple in China with a new friend I’d met at a wellness conference, the herbal master Ron Teeguarden. Together we climbed the one thousand steep mountain steps that led to the cave that Bodhidharma is said to have meditated in for nine years before establishing what is now Zen Buddhism. I liked Bodhidharma. He was scrappy, fierce, a barbarian, a stranger in town, who was also a saint. He walked from India to China and converted a monastery full of overweight monks into the home of the seemingly odd mix of Zen and Kung Fu. This story resonated with me as I struggled to unite my own odd mix of the business warrior and the peaceful monk who was slowly emerging inside me. What I found, through the teachings of these descendants of the teachings of Bodhidharma, was that I couldn’t find peace; I had to learn instead to be at peace with what I found in me … both the warrior and monk inside.
I remember the moment it all sunk in for me. I asked one of the monks how he reconciled his peaceful nature in the midst of Kung Fu battles. “When I was little all I wanted to do was fight. My punches were stronger, my technique was better and I always won. Then one day I met a superior opponent who beat me, badly. For the first time I understood what it felt like to lose, to be in pain and to doubt my ability. That day I gained a true understanding of compassion. Now I try to solve problems with my heart instead of my fists. I am a monk and I am also a warrior. I use them both in life. Compassion is my guide.”
His explanation made sense to me. The peace I was searching for wouldn’t come as the result of denying my warrior nature. Instead it was about embracing the entirety of my being, both the warrior and monk, and learning to apply them both compassionately in my life. I could fully engage in life while fully embracing my spirituality, and as a result experience peace.
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