Believe it or not, I overheard a man ask someone that question while I was at the airport this past December. No kidding. I wasn't eavesdropping until I heard this man say, "Listen to me because I want to ask you something and then I want you to ask it of yourself. What are you willing to do to become a better person? How you answer that question should really matter to you."
Well, who would not eavesdrop after that? I wanted to glue myself to this guy's phone. I had to find out who he was talking to that would merit such a provocative question and who he was and what inspired him to ask that question and, and, and...My head was spinning with questions. I was awash with a wild rush of life force that envelops me when I feel catapulted into that sparkling virgin air of inspiration. I breathe life anew in that atmosphere.
Every single time I touch that altitude, I am awash with gratitude for my life, for every breath I take, for the world I see around me, and for the preciousness of one clear unobstructed perfect perception that I have never before even considered, much less understood. The power of that one perception - that single insight, that revealed truth - shapes the whole of my life all over again. Like an old house that gets refurbished yet again, I re-enter my inner world like a new residence.
The question this man posed to whomever he was speaking to sent chills down my spine. The exhaustion and endless boredom I always feel while sitting at the airport instantly evaporated, as I found myself on the threshold of a new way of thinking. I had to figure out a way to sit next to him without being forward or pushy - not that I am incapable of employing such tactics. Indeed, I have no problem in simply asking someone to swap seats with me because I've decided it's a good idea. (In fact I find the shock value of doing something so bold helps a great deal in getting what I want, but it is a tactic one uses sparingly.)
But this situation, I decided, might just call for exactly such forward behavior. I made the executive decision: The heck with etiquette.
I was shaken out of my plotting by the call to board the plane. I turned to look at all the people lining up to board, wondering if I should wait until he made a move. Then I turned to see if he had gotten up from his seat. He was gone. Disappeared. I scanned the area but there was no sign of him anywhere. I waited until almost every person had boarded before I walked onto the jet way, hoping that perhaps this man had a reason to be late. He was gone - and that was that.
You might not believe me when I tell you this, but I actually felt "psychically deflated". I could feel myself tumbling from the "height of enthusiasm" to ordinary reality while walking to my seat. To make matters worse, I had a window seat, which I abhor as much as the middle seat, as I feel locked in, contained, in short - just shy of claustrophobic. I plugged myself into my Ipod, closed my eyes, and thought, "Oh, well," and then the question, "What are you willing to do to become a better person?" popped back into my head. Obviously this man was gone, but he had left his mark in my mind.
I opened my eyes and glanced out the window, thinking, "What am I willing to do to become a better person?"
Better than what? Better than I am now? And first of all, AM I willing? I fell into the gravity field of that question, realizing that you cannot just say, "Oh, sure I am," and leave it at that. This is not an ordinary question. It's one worthy of a rich, well-planned weekend retreat led by a seasoned retreat master. So while a Salon hardly qualifies as a weekend retreat, let's do what we can.
Imagine Yourself on a Mini-Retreat (with me)
If we were on a retreat together, we would be gathered in a room and we would be silent because we would share an intention to enter into our silence, not avoid it with distractions in our everyday life. We know that our focus is on deciding whether we are willing to become a better person and if so, in what way?
That question by its very nature requires that we evaluate how we define what it means to be a good person. What, for you, is a good person? Separate and apart from who you are - and those you love - what are the generic qualities of a "good person"? Why do I select the word, "good" as a starting point? Because that word and the qualities that go with it are inherent in the progression of good to better to best. Those are our three categories: Good, Better, Best.
Each of us has our own way of answering that, as this is a subjective question. The answer will vary from person to person. There is no right or wrong list of qualities, though I would think many of our lists would have qualities in common. A description frequently used to describe people is, "He or she is a good kid," and "He's a good guy." What do we mean when we say that or when we don't say that about someone? I mean obviously there are people and kids we have encountered that do not belong in the "good" category, though we may be especially loathe to admit it publicly about kids.
But I've met a few kids through the years whose parents have told me their kids were "good", and you know what? They weren't. In fact, they were bullies, drug users, and one was an absolute monster. School playgrounds are peppered with kids today who are bullies. We all know that. I remember a conversation with a mother describing this nightmare history with her son - in and out of rehab, stealing, drug involvement - and so on. She ended her long tale of heartbreak with, "But he's a good kid."
I said, "I'm sure he is," but I didn't believe a word that came out of my mouth. I knew she was picturing the little boy she held in her arms years ago, and who could blame her?
So, what characteristics qualify for being a good person?
The Good Category: Passive and Well Meaning
I imagine many of you would list some of these: Nice, kind, thoughtful, generous, helpful, dependable and reliable. If I had you on a retreat, I would open up a discussion on, "What does it mean to be 'nice' or 'kind' or 'thoughtful'? And do you have to wait to be asked before you are actively helpful? Are you nice to strangers? Do you put up a, "Don't bother me" field around you? (Somehow I imagine people reading my work don't do that - but I have to ask. Just like I always meet kind, thoughtful people - but I need to ask these questions of you, just as I ask them of myself.)
What about the quality of being generous? There are so many expressions of generosity that go beyond money. You can be generous with your time, with patience, with listening to another person, with offering your talent, with providing a meal for someone. In other words, time and effort are gifts of generosity that are so appreciated. But the operative word is effort.
I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, "He's really a great kid. He'll do anything you ask." But how come he never notices what has to be done? How come he - or she - doesn't think to do something without being asked? Asking all the time is exhausting. And my experience with people you always have to ask is that they do only what you "ask" them to do and nothing more. They do not notice your needs or the needs of the people in their life, but only their own. They are their first priority. Doing what you are asked to do or paid to do might qualify someone as a reliable person and put that person in the Good category, but it takes effort to think of others. A person needs to come into the realization that the needs of other people matter and at times, even more than his/hers.
The characteristics that fill the "good" category tend to be "good as passively expressed" versus goodness in action. It's difficult to find words that present this subject matter so that it reads without judgment; after all, how can any expression of good in the world be bad? So let's not get caught up in some twisted way of thinking such nonsense. But the nature of life - indeed the journey of the Self - is to become increasingly conscious of the choices we make, why we make them, and how we can refine our actions, as all our choices and actions have profound consequences. This is a cause and effect universe we dwell in, after all.
The Better Category: Upgrading and Refining Your Qualities
What is any of us willing to do to become a better person? Again, this is a profound but subjective question. Every one of us has his or her own starting position. But let's agree on this one point: The "good" category tends toward passive characteristics more than action oriented; that is, a person can qualify for the rank of "good" just because he or she does no harm to others or society. Becoming a better person, however, requires conscious choice or getting asked, "What are you willing to do to become a better person?"
Noticing the needs of others and the world around us changes the way we live. If we intend to navigate our world consciously and with integrity, including others in the landscape of our life, we must mature and refine our worldview. I always begin teaching my workshops - even my webinars - by presenting the image of a 10-story apartment building. This building is an analogy for the many floors of perception, truth and reality that we have within us. As buildings, we always look the same from the outside. But from within, we know that our view of the world is altered with each ascending floor. Even though the building never moves an inch, our view of the world shifts every time we walk up just one staircase. But with each new floor, the cost of living gets more expensive, and life on the ground floor becomes more distant. The view from the higher floors becomes impossible to describe to those who have never gone beyond the first or second floors.
So using that analogy, becoming a better person is a conscious choice to move up a floor and live by the rules of a different level of awareness. Imagine that you go from just being able to see the building just across the street to having a view of a whole neighborhood. You would then have to recalculate your way of thinking about the hood you lived in and your significance in that hood. It would appear others were living all around you all the time and you never noticed them - and now you did. And they never noticed you - and now they are noticing you. You can either matter to them, and they to you, or not. It's up to you.
The upper floors of your consciousness are all about choice. They are active power positions. You see more. You know more. You integrate more. You comprehend more. You rely on your intuitive and emotional senses as much as on your intelligence and your earthly resources to navigate your life. The choices you make obviously reflect your expanding base of perceptions. Being a better person takes on several different forms of expression as a result.
So, let's take the same qualities we listed in the Good category - nice, kind, thoughtful, helpful, generous, reliable, dependable - and transition them from passive to active. Being a passive nice person really does not take effort, but if you decided to become conscious of being nice or kind, what changes would that introduce into your life? Said differently, what are you willing to do to consciously become a nicer or kinder or more generous person?
Again, that's a deeply personal question. I'll share some of my commitments - and I emphasize that these are commitments and not passing New Year's Resolutions that I can't remember come February 1st. I've really thought about what I am willing to do to become a better person because let's face it, when it comes to becoming better, there is endless room for improvement.
I receive so many emails from people - so many. I would love to reply to each one individually, but I just can't. I would never do anything else and even if I only responded to all the many emails I receive asking for help, I still wouldn't get to the middle, much less the end of the pile. I find it heartbreaking, especially since not receiving a reply from me gives the impression that I don't care or that I have not read each person's email. Nothing could be further from the truth. I read each one, which is all the more heartbreaking for me. I've decided that no matter what, I will answer two each day and three if I can. It won't make that big a dent in my stack, but I will get to at least 20 letters per working week.
And I will not lose my temper (so much) at other drivers. This one will take a great deal of conscious effort, as I absolutely can't stand...and I mean I can't stand...to be caught behind a slow driver. I nearly have to be tranquilized. People who ride with me report that when I cannot get the person in front of me to get out of my way, my language can and often does become the sort that requires editing, as if I care. All I care about in that moment is getting past them any which way I can - and let me say that as a well-seasoned city driver, I've learned all the tricks. I remember one time being with my spiritual director for two hours, describing a personally very profound and deeply sacred mystical experience. Even the retelling of that experience filled me with a type of grace that opened a small passageway into a parallel reality that I did not want to leave.
I did not remember, though I should have, how quickly the ego craves sacred oxygen because within seconds of experiencing bliss, I started to tell myself nonsense I should have realized was nonsense, such as, "I can just stay in this tranquility now." I got into my car to drive home, thinking how lovely the world is. And then I got behind a slow driver. OMG. That's all it took and out the window went my bliss, tranquility, and good manners. And then I caught myself and laughed inside. We rise, we slip, we catch ourselves. But we do this routine faster and faster and with greater ease and confidence. So I decided that it is worth the effort for me to become a kinder, more conscious driver.
I don't know how much longer my list is going to get, but it is going to get longer. That is my third decision. But I will not add to this list casually, as I intend to follow through on this commitment of becoming a better person. I see the category of Better as characteristics or qualities that are required of the greater heart in us. What are we willing to do to make this life and our life a more comfortable dwelling place for others? Isn't that a lovely image? Think of your whole life as a dwelling place and then ask, "What am I willing to do to serve others in the dwelling place that is my life?"
I love the image that you are in the dwelling place that is my life and hopefully I am serving you in this place. I hope this article has inspired you as much as that stranger at the airport inspired me.