Are you a fox or hedgehog?

Many of us still bear the scars from high-school science classes, from memorizing facts, figures and laws — Boyle’s law, the laws of motions, thermodynamics.

It was dull, dry, boring stuff and we couldn’t wait to write the final test so we could forget it.

But with the perspective of time, we know science isn’t as much a collection of facts as a worldview, one that most of us use when the fireplace won’t turn off or the TV won’t turn on.

We ask questions, check assumptions and figure it out.

While life is more art than science, we can use scientific method to fine tune our philosophy if we but awaken from our slumber — what Deepak Chopra calls the psychosis of social conditioning — and develop a central vision that’s part of a broader world view.

Werner Heisenberg, who devised the Uncertainty Principle, one of the cornerstones of quantum physics, said real advances are made at the intersection where two different lines of thought meet.

We are always at that intersection and the light is always green, but we spend so much time looking ahead, attempting to anticipate what will happen so we won’t be surprised, hurt or embarrassed that we don’t see what’s here now.

We jitterbug from one thing to another, juggling commitments and being tugged to and fro on our electronic leashes, but don’t take the time — think we don’t have the time — to figure out who we are beyond the labels and job description.

Granted, it’s easier to ignore the bigger picture and the bigger idea because they appear overwhelming and intimidating. It’s less threatening to grab a beer or a glass of wine and watch the hockey game or another rerun of NCIS.

But if we’re willing, we can reduce the seeming immensity of the problem by using the elephant-eating method: one bite at a time.

We don’t have to ask all the questions about all the issues. We just have to ask one.

“In science, we take great pains to design experiments that ask only one question at a time,” biochemist Scott Strobel is quoted in The Canon.

“You isolate a single variable, and then you see what happens when you change that variable alone, while doing your best to keep everything else in the experiment unchanged.”

That’s what the ancient Greek poet Archilochus had in mind. “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

“Princeton professor Marvin Bressler pointed out the power of the hedgehog during one of our long conversations,” Jim Collins writes in Good to Great. “‘You want to know what separates those who make the biggest impact from all the others who are just as smart? They’re hedgehogs.’

“Freud and the unconscious, Darwin and natural selection, Marx and class struggle, Einstein and relativity, Adam Smith and division of labour — they were all hedgehogs. They took a complex world and simplified it.”

We tend to admire foxes, or their human equivalent, for their cunning, smoothness and slyness and disdain the hedgehog for its simplicity and single-mindedness.

“Hedgehogs aren’t simpletons,” Collins writes. “They have a piercing insight that allows them to see through complexity and discern underlying patterns. Hedgehogs see what is essential, and ignore the rest.”

Cutting through the minutiae and seeing what is essential is a wonderful gift. Some of us spend so much dithering, trying to choose between A and B that we never decide either.

"We could be less fox-like and concentrate on the one big thing, like Alexander the Great did when he cut, rather than untied, the Gordian knot.

It isn’t just scientists, philosophers and writers who tell us to simplify, simplify, simplify.

“Got to ask yourself one question, where are you now?” James Blunt sings in Wisemen, on the Back to Bedlam CD.

How many know the answer to that question?

How many have even asked?

Journalism students are taught five Ws — and one H — but the one most neglected is why, and what’s true of journalists is true of the rest of us.

Ask why. It’s a simple, yet insightful question.

  • Why do we get angry over nothing?
  • Why do we fear the unknown?
  • Why are we the way we are?
  • Why do we do what we do?
  • And if we’re not happy, why don’t we change?
  • Why do we…?

Even if we ask, we often let ourselves wiggle free with a weak answer or no answer at all. We must ask with a single-minded purpose, never settling for because or we don’t know, but peel away each layer of deception until we find out.

Knowing why is important because we create our lives with our thoughts, our decisions and indecisions, our choices and lack thereof.

Each moment is a crossroads — and an intersection — and we are free to go one way instead of the other.

“Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then, ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question,” said Carlos Castaneda.

“Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use.”

As wonderful as science is, eventually we have to go into the deepest recesses of ourselves to find the answers to the central questions we pose.

We have to find the mystic in ourselves and part the veil we have hung to hide us from who we are.

“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature and it is because in the last analysis we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve,” said Max Planck, the father of quantum physics.

That's no bull

Zen has a wonderful, 900-year-old pictorial story, which, in modern terminology, would be called no bull.

It's actually called the Ox-herding Pictures, and since Zen essentially teaches without words, it's appropriate to depict man's search for himself in illustrations.

The ox is a metaphor for the mind, which refuses to conform to any discipline, and the oxherd is the Zen practitioner trying to find his true self.

The mind was compared with a wild ox because it had to be captured, tethered and broken, a long, slow process. Following the example, the Zen student is encouraged to directly experience his own mind through meditation, subdue anxieties and desires, experience oneness with all and to find peace.

But it isn't just in Zen; all literature is rife with search stories, variations of the ox-herding story.

Prometheus, Odysseus, Jason and the Argonauts, the Knights of the Round Table, or a native American on a vision quest — it's about anyone who confronts adversity, is changed in the process and then brings back something to his community.

Fairy tales are a variation of the search motif.

"The call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration — a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth," mythologist Joseph Campbell writes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

"The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for a passing of a threshold is at hand."

The process is always the same: departure, initiation and return. All the stories are really the story of all of us, on a personal search for fire, the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, or the bull.

Once we start on the path of self-discovery, there's no going back. We might never discover who we are, but we'll never be content with who we were.

"The journey begins as an exhausting search for an elusive quarry," Timothy Freke writes in Zen Wisdom. "The seeker is pictured in search of himself, but all he can find is rustling leaves and singing cicadas, and he does not yet realize that these are the very clues he seeks.

"During this stage, the student is often confused and discouraged. He doesn't really know what it is he is looking for."

The ultimate irony is, of course, that the bull only appears lost because the oxherd thinks he is alone, separate from others, from the world, which both religion and science argue is an illusion.

So the oxherd, the searcher — us — seeks, reaching crossroads, uncertain which one to take, going one way, doubling back, taking another until he discovers a teaching, a method that works, and he sees the bull's footprints everywhere. He sees through the illusion and realizes everything is a reflection of himself.

"Better keep yourself clean and bright," wrote George Bernard Shaw. "You are the window through which you must see the world."

The student must train his mind so it doesn't conjure fantasies or watch movies in his head and begins Zen training until the mind is tamed and he accepts that it is not other people who cause his anger and angst, but himself.

With practice, vigilance and discipline, the mind is calmed and the oxherd is no longer concerned with success or failure, or what the world thinks or demands.

"He realizes that the bull has only been a temporary subject of his quest," Freke writes. "His search has led to the realization that the separate self, that he previously took himself to be, is not his true self. The seeker knows his Buddha-nature — his deeper identity."

With that comes the realization all is one, that everyone and everything is but a reflection of a deeper reality, the Absolute.

"Although the vision that the seeker has been seeking has finally been attained, there is no self to glory in this achievement. Mind, clear of all limitations. Confusion is replaced by serenity. Ideas of holiness are irrelevant," writes Freke.

That brings joy, which encompasses sadness and happiness, but is greater than both. With joy comes acceptance of the self and the world.

The search is often portrayed as something outside ourselves, a heroic quest that summons physical courage and mental strength, but essentially is a journey inward.

The searcher goes "into depths where obscure resistances are overcome and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world," writes Campbell.

"The godly powers sought and dangerously won are revealed to have been within the heart of the hero all the time. He is the "king's son" who has come to know who he is and therewith has entered into the exercise of his proper power.

"From this point of view, the hero is symbolic of the divine creative and redemptive image, which is hidden within us all, only waiting to be known and rendered into life."

The final word goes to Zen: "Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water."

Even the enlightened have to pay the hydro and telephone bills.

Faith in everything

Faith can not only move mountains, it can transform lives, even the lives of the agnostic and the atheist.

Many have lost faith in religion, given up on the mystery and rituals because we think, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we have seen the man behind the myth.

We think we have lost our faith in faith, but we’re wrong.

Our whole life is governed by faith. Without it, we would be frozen in fear, afraid to peek out from under the covers. From the moment our eyes open until they close at night, faith guides us.

We have faith that the sun will rise, that when we drift off to sleep, we will awaken, that the alarm clock, the shower, the toaster and the coffee maker will work.

We have faith that the electricity flowing behind our walls will fry the bacon, but not us. We have faith that:

  • our car will start – and stop – and when we get out our feet won’t go through the pavement
  • gravity will work
  • the laws of electromagnetism won’t be repealed
  • the millions of neutrinos flowing though us won’t suddenly gain mass and rip as apart
  • the atoms coming into us will know the jobs of the ones they’re replacing.

“The atoms that come into my brain, dance a dance, then go out again, always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday,” said Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman.

We have faith our bodies will remember to renew themselves without us being aware we’re being replaced and unlike the snake shedding its skin or the tarantula molting, we are not left vulnerable. It just happens, like the owner’s manual proclaims.

We have faith that the TV will turn on, the balcony won’t collapse and that our kids will ask for money and the car on Friday night.

We have such faith in everything except ourselves.

 “Faith is a faculty of the mind that finds its highest expression in the religious attitude,” Ernest Holmes wrote in The Science of Mind.

“But always the man who has faith in his own ability accomplishes far more than one who has no confidence in himself. Those who have great faith, have great power.”

People with great faith change the world. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad are the obvious religious examples, but the men and women who had faith in what they were doing also made our world better:

  • Sir Isaac Newton
  • Michael Faraday
  • Charles Darwin
  • the Wright brothers
  • Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, the first to find microbes, a seminal discovery that has saved millions of lives.

Even misplaced faith can still change the world. Christopher Columbus believed fervently that he could find a shortcut to India and travelled to the great capitals of Europe trying to convince anyone who would listen to back his plan.

Finally, Queen Isabella pawned her jewels, Columbus ran into North America, and Spain became a world power.

We don’t have to make great inventions, or discover new laws, all we need is a little faith in ourselves and we can change the world as we are transformed. And we don’t have to make great sacrifices or spend out life cloistered away in a lab to do it.

The world exists only in our thoughts and when we change those, we fix the world. There is no objective reality. We see the world as we are; it’s a mirror of our intention and our attitude. We can argue for our limitations and get them or have the faith that we can do anything.

And it doesn’t have to be difficult. “Always think of what you have to do as easy and it will be,” said Emile Coue, the French psychologist called the father of applied conditioning. His self-hypnotizing slogan – every day, in every way, I feel better and better — has become a mantra of Silva Method.

Our thoughts create our physical reality, our biography becomes our biology; we can make ourselves healthy or sick.

“The greatest single discovery of my generation is that we can change our circumstances by a mere change of our attitude,” said William James, the father of American psychology.

We take so much for granted that we’ve become blind to the crucial fact that we are an integral and essential part of the world. It has been said that the universe is so finely balanced that if one atom were removed, it would collapse.

The big bang would become the big whimper.

Some believe the universe is god, that the big bang was his/her/its birth. Cosmic inflation was its initial growth spurt and the rapid expansion a few billion years ago was another spurt; it’s growing at the speed of light.

That makes us part of god, a sub-atomic particle in its little toe maybe – or the cosmic equivalent – but still god in the way that a wave is the ocean.

All we need is to have the faith in ourselves that we have in our microwave; when we press the start button we know, we believe, we accept that it will cook the food.

Would we transform our lives if we proclaimed 100 times a day that we have faith?

Though we seem to be sleeping
there is an inner wakefulness
that directs the dream,
and that will eventually startle us back
to the truth of who we are.
— Rumi


Kindness is best prescription

Pharmaceutical companies must love cold-and-flu season. Even the people who don’t go to the doctor buy chemical concoctions to make them feel better.

But we don’t need to go to the doctor or drugstore. We can write a prescription ourselves, even if we aren’t sick, because it’s preventative as well as curative.

The prescription is kindness. But we don’t have to be kind because it’s the nice thing to do; we act kindly because it’s good for our physical and mental health.

Odd, isn’t it, that the most selfish thing we can do is help others.

That isn’t touchy-feely, warm and cuddly stuff. It’s cold science. Numerous studies show kindness causes significant health benefits, both physical and mental.

Kindness is a factor no matter where we are on the spectrum: from the first charka to the seventh, from survival to self-actualization, from biology to spirituality.

Being kind helped our ancestors survive in the jungles of Africa and it helps us survive in the workplace; when we’re kind to others, whether it was sharing food during a famine, or helping a stressed colleague finish a project, they reciprocate.

That’s survival and biology.

Jesus said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me,” while the Dalai Lama said, “my religion is kindness.”

That’s self-actualization and spirituality.

In his 1991 book, The Healing Power of Doing Good: The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others, Allan Luks, former executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of Health, documented a study he had done with 3,000 people.

His conclusion: “Helping contributes to the maintenance of good health, and it can diminish the effect of diseases and disorders both serious and minor, psychological and physical."

Helping others can enhance feelings of joy, emotional resilience, and vigour. It also:

  • reduces our sense of isolation
  • decreases the intensity of physical pain
  • increases our sense of self-worth, happiness, and optimism
  • feelings of helplessness and depression.
  • Kindness can be as simple as smiling at a harried grocery store clerk, being patient if he makes a mistake or complimenting her on how she handled a difficult customer.

There’s even a week — Random Acts of Kindness Week — where we can practise being kind so we can get in shape for the rest of the year. In the event our niceness muscles have atrophied, here are a few random exercises to kick-start our kindness regimen.

Check out the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation website: http://www.actsofkindness.org/.

  • Pick up litter
  • Take a dog for a walk at the SPCA animal shelter
  • Pay for the coffee and dessert of someone in a restaurant
  • Donate blood
  • Become a volunteer
  • Praise the work or attitude of a co-worker
  • Bring coffee or tea to a colleague
  • Say good morning to everyone
  • Give a compliment, especially to a spouse or a child
  • Practise non-judgment.

“Isn't it amazing how often we can touch someone's life, and enrich our own, by a very simple act? Kindness, pass it on ... what a wonderful way in which to pattern our lives,” Betty, a community worker in Washington is quoted on the Random Acts of Kindness website.

Since we often treat people how they treat us, we can take the initiative with one act of kindness and start a ripple effect that ends up washing over us.

“One synonym for the word kindness is the term humanity,” Claire Buckis wrote in a Reader’s Digest article. “Kindness is essentially a recognition of the fact that we’re all human, an acknowledgement that we’re all in this together.

“Most of what makes life worth living depends on at least some of us being altruistic some of the time,” Professor Sam Bowles told her. “We cannot address problems like global climate change, the spread of disease and political violence by appealing only to selfish motives.”

Bowles published a study showing people resent the idea of being offered a reward to do good. “People enjoy being kind to others much as they enjoy eating ice-cream. It gives us pleasure.”

Hans Selye, the Montreal doctor who coined the word stress, also came up with the term altruistic egoism as a way to combat it.

His prescription was to do good for self by helping others with “the creation of feelings of accomplishment and security through the inspiration in others of love, good will and gratitude for what we have done or are likely to do in the future.”

We can start being kind this week, practise all spring and summer for World Kindness Week World Kindness Day, in November just in time for the start of the next cold-and-flu season.

A few more random thoughts about kindness:

“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now, that I am old, I admire kind people.”  — Joshua Heschel

“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” — Aesop

“The ideas that have lighted my way have been kindness, beauty and truth.” — Albert Einstein

“Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust and hostility to evaporate."”— Albert Schweitzer

“Kindness is the kingpin of success in life, it is the prime factor in overcoming friction and making the human machinery run smoothly.” — Andrew Chapman

Unlike the United States, we don’t pledge allegiance to the flag, we can, however, pledge to ourselves that we will be kind, just like students at St. Vladimir School in Edmonton:

I pledge to myself, on this day,
To try to be kind, in every way.
To every person, big and small,
I will help them if they fall.
When I love myself and others, too,
That is the best that I can do!

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About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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