May 9, 2010

A Game Worth Playing

Seek above all a game worth playing. --Robert DeRopp

Helen Keller famously stated that life is an exciting adventure, or it is nothing. Her written words were no mere platitude. She couldn’t see or hear or speak; yet she considered every moment of her life as an adventure.

Sometimes our adventures aren’t adrenaline rushes or extreme sporting events. Some of our greatest challenges come about in our darkest hours.

This came home to me in 2001. That was the year that terrorists destroyed the world trade towers a few blocks from where I was living. It was also the year my marriage failed, my business crumbled, and I got cancer.

I was touring an old theater on Times Square on the morning of September 11th to see if it could work as a training facility. When I stepped out of that dilapidated building into the daylight, people were standing around, murmuring in horror.

“What happened?” I asked a crowd of people who were gathered on the street. One man looked at me with shock in his eyes. “Go home and turn on the television,” he said. When I did, I was astonished to see one of the World Trade Towers in flames, with an aircraft sticking out of the side of the building. Moments later, a second jet impacted, and the world changed forever.

Earlier that year my wife had asked for a divorce and had moved to a house in downtown Manhattan with my children. I was devastated by the loss of my family. Fortunately they were out of town at the time of the attack. As I wandered the empty streets of Manhattan alone it seemed to me that the whole world was being consumed in some kind of destructive force.

The events of that day were a trigger for a total collapse of everything I had lived for up to that point. I believe that our immune systems react to emotional loss. When my life fell apart, the left side of my body seemed to collapse. My face sagged and my left eye drooped as if I had Myocenia Gravis. Everything I had lived and worked for had ended, and I had no one to blame but myself. A small lump that had been sitting in the lymph glands in my neck suddenly began to grow.

The only thing left in my life by the end of that year was my work. My clients needed me, and that gave me a reason to live. When I coached I felt bathed in forgiveness. By putting my attention on the goals and aspirations of other people I could put my worries aside.

Despite the gloom, the events of 9/11 jarred me into action. I opened Sage Theater on Times Square to create a playing arena for training entrepreneurs and business leaders. Diana Blake now operates the theater, where people learn to build teams by producing and performing Off Broadway shows.

Our business clients love the innovative format. They learn innovation and project management, along with courage, spontaneity, and people skills, by writing, rehearsing, and presenting full stage productions. In retrospect, that project saved my life.

I spent the next year in denial, alternately pretending that the lump in my neck was only a symptom from an infected wisdom tooth, and believing as hard as I could that whatever it was, it would heal itself. Whenever people would ask about it, I was able to convince them that it didn’t need attention. Then, after a year of denial, the tumor abruptly grew to the size of a small chicken egg, and a second lump appeared. There was nothing left to do but submit to treatment.

The day I received confirmation of cancer I laid awake in fear the whole night. I was alone in Austin, Texas and I had to conduct a Self-Actualization workshop the next day. My closest friends, Jeffrey and Carly Smith were attending the course, and they were the only people I could confide in. I spent the breaks with them weeping with sorrow. When the class started up again, I was able to put my worries aside by immersing myself in the lives of the people who came there to change their lives.

Having waited so long to face the diagnosis, the cancer had a pretty good head start. My doctors assured me that I still had better than a fifty-fifty chance of survival. When I showed up for the first dose of radiation I saw men and women in all stages of the same cancer. Some were responding to treatment, others not. One guy had lost his entire nose from the bombardment of radiation. Another had big lesions all over his head and neck where the disease had metastasized to his skin. Many were dealing with the advanced stages of cancer and clearly would not pull through. I was afraid I had waited too long.

Under the bombardment of radiation and chemotherapy I felt dazed and nauseous. Sleep was the only relief I could find from the sickness and pain. The course of treatment lasted throughout the summer and fall of 2003. Throughout the ordeal I had to eat liquid through a tube in my stomach.

Then came the first major surgery in which doctors inserted tubes in my neck and performed a tracheotomy. After a few days they jammed radiation pellets into the tumor. I was awake throughout the procedure, and in a panic, I accidentally knocked over the apparatus that supplied the anesthetic.

More chemotherapy followed. When I tried to lie down, the sticky substance that provided my nutrition flowed up my digestive tract and clogged the tube in my neck, cutting off the breath. When I couldn’t breath, I panicked even more. Finally I just stopped eating. The weight began to drop off my body.

I remember standing in the center of that bleak room for hour after hour, waiting for the nightmare to end. Visitors were forbidden due to the intensity of the radiation imbedded in my neck. When the doctors finally ripped out the tubes, I signed myself out of there against the recommendations of my physicians. I had to feel something of life again.

My great good fortune was that I am a coach. A few loyal clients still needed me. Other than a few brief periods that year, when the most intense surgeries laid me low, I worked every day.

Most days I felt terribly sick and weak. Worst of all, my mind lost its ability to hold a linear grasp of reality. Unable to handle details, my anxiety grew into hysteria. I wanted to be brave, but it just wasn’t in me. Despite that, I felt that people needed me, and so I roused myself nearly every afternoon and took a taxi from the Beth Israel hospital where I was receiving radiation treatments, to the Sage Theater on Times Square.

On one occasion I was conducting interviews in my office--reclining on the couch, propped up on pillows--when the lights went out. I assumed that the building had blown a fuse, but it soon became apparent that the entire city was in a great blackout. Gathering my children around me, I began the long walk downtown along the Hudson River to my apartment near the ruins of the World Trade Towers. Crowds thronged the streets and I wilted under the hot sun. I lost a couple of days there, recovering from the exertion. But the moment those lights came back on I fought off the pain and nausea and returned to my game. It was the only relief I had.

When I coach people, I forget myself. Pain dissolves to a manageable level and fear dissipates entirely. I am not a brave person. Timidity and shyness have followed me all the days of my life. When people told me that I looked strong, I couldn’t imagine who they were talking to. My experience was pure horror and terrible weakness. But the moment I stepped into the playing arena as a coach, a little courage flowed in from somewhere. It was enough to activate something bigger than me.

When the coaching process begins, I feel a spark of life in myself. I hear strength in my voice that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with me. As I look out into the room I see people becoming peaceful and confident in the flow of that strength. For the life of me, I don’t know where that force comes from or how it works. I am just deeply grateful that it does work.

Some people believe we are only flesh and bone, moved by behavioral factors. They would consider the courage that I feel from coaching as a contrived psychological state based on movement and postural cues. I can’t buy that. During cancer and recovery I felt so sick that I could only slump. The pain was constant and unbearable. When I was home alone I felt engulfed by delirium. But in the connection with those people my awareness expanded, despite my broken body.

Throat cancer reduced my voice to a distorted croaking sound and reduced my body to a cringing hulk. Yet, the spirit came. It came in the link between my players and me. It was so powerful and so palpable that we were all swept up in it. The courage appeared in the room before it appeared in our hearts and minds. There were no strong words or wonderful messages. In fact, the less I could see and do, the more potent the force appeared.

A couple of months later my daughter, Makena, assisted me to get to the airport and flew with me to the Bahamas where I conducted a ten-day workshop. I was bedridden nearly twenty hours each day. When I tried to eat out with my clients I ended up weeping helplessly throughout the meal.

The few hours I could sit upright, I trained. The transformations experienced by the clients were more dramatic than anything I had ever seen. I weighed 130 pounds, down from over 200 pounds, and I looked like a skeleton. But when I had an opportunity to conduct a 30-day training on the island a few weeks later, I jumped on it.

The hardest thing for me during that time was the desolation I felt from losing most of my friends. Catastrophic illness has a strange effect on people. Finally, most people pull away. A feeling of abandonment overcame me. Again, my game pulled me through. Coaching was my only link to sanity. It gave me a reason to live by giving me a way to connect with other people.

The Caribbean was warm, but my body was freezing. I spent most nights shivering against the coldness in my body and crying hopelessly against the loneliness. Whenever the panic became too much I called Ginger Goldsmith, who coached me throughout the ordeal. Some nights I had to scream out the pain and fear. Her kindness and strength pulled me through some dark nights of the soul. Then, when the sun came up each morning, associates showed up to transport me to the training room and to the game that had become my lifeline.

Over 50 people signed on for that month-long training. We hit peak performance within a couple of days, and entered a peak experience together shortly thereafter. For most of us, that event became the highest point in our lives. The experience was so moving that nearly every participant signed on for follow-up work.

By that time I could stand upright for brief stints. I will never forget how wonderful it felt to stand in front of that room for a few hours each day and conduct the incredible flow of love and affection we all shared. People found excuses to hang around after the event ended each night. Sometimes we cranked up the stereo and danced until the wee hours.

You can probably remember the moments in your life when a peak experience suddenly erased all the ordinary meanings and carried you into an altered perception of a reality too beautiful for words. You can view those exquisite moments as a window to a higher possibility, or you can use them as a door to another life altogether.

You can believe me when I say that your spirit is greater than the worries and petty squabbles that capture the attention of most people. We all make mistakes and we all fall into misperceptions that hurt the people we love. But behind that foolishness, we are manifestations of a great spirit. Love is the doorway to that higher self. In my experience that love grows strongest when we discover our calling and pour our lives into the game we were born to play.

During my recovery some of my associates took the opportunity to embezzle what remained of my money and steal many of my personal possessions. They seized my intellectual property and put their names on the books I had been writing, as well. Then a couple of my creditors sued so they could inflate small debts into large payouts. The impact of all that slammed my body and broke my will. My family became embittered and cut off contact with me. The pressure made it impossible to reconstruct my business. But none of that bothered me as much as the loss of the friendships. I felt betrayed. Again, my game pulled me through by shifting my mind off the perception of injustice.

The days that followed were filled with loneliness and uncertainty. When the last of my friends burned out on trying to care for me, I lost all hope. Shivering alone under a pile of blankets, I finally gave in to it all. I would always be sick. Pain would fill my days for the rest of my life. There would never be anyone to care about me again. There was nothing left but to surrender and cry myself to sleep.

When I woke up it was still dark outside. But I was on fire with love. In fact, the whole room was glowing and burning with the flames of that love. The bed, the walls, and the furniture were ablaze with rapture. A voice from inside spoke to me with forgiveness. I saw that my whole existence was only love, and there had never been anything else. I wept for joy.

Sleep descended again, but it was restful for the first time in many years. When I woke up the next morning, the world was a different place. Everything and everyone was alive with pleasure. The madness between people was only a wave on the surface. The details that people worry over only existed as a light breeze across the surface. The real life was deep, vibrant and powerful.

I couldn’t wait to put my new insights into coaching people--to share this new sense of life. But I needed to get money out of the equation. People are crazy for money; yet money makes them crazy.

The happiest time of my life was in 1969 when I entered Seminary. As divinity students we vowed poverty, chastity, and obedience. God provided for our needs. All that made sense again. So I made a choice to follow the love, and to trust the universe to provide. I began to volunteer my services, and to let a few close friends take care of me. With that, my work took on a deeper quality of love and appreciation. I was surprised to find a sweeter kindness in my voice. Again, I discovered that my life game was far and away the most sustaining element in my life.

Cancer left me with some lasting physical handicaps. Over the past several years my days have been organized around the pain and physical damage from the treatment. I suffered severe spasms in my neck, along with constant pain that engulfed the shoulder, chest and neck on the left side of my body.

Radiation and chemotherapy had burned out the cancer, along with my salivary glands, taste buds, and a large quantity of brain cells. My body hurts and my mind remains hazy to this day. It feels like I smoked a joint and the buzz won’t wear off. I can't learn new tasks or handle the details of running a business--or even remember from one day to the next how to open an E-mail. But strangely enough, that present moment thinking has increased the sensitivity that goes into the coaching process. That means I have to transcend mental, emotional and physical limitations each day and to speak from my heart.

Fortunately, my long-term memory is still pretty good. So now I am writing and recording coaching lessons to help people earn their living in this difficult economy. Helping people has become very exciting for me. A friend in Austin told me that Lance Armstrong often interrupts his busy training schedule to speak with people in the audience that have cancer. As a cancer survivor, I understand that need. The greatest adventures in life are those that trigger transcendent moments and peak experiences. Mine have come in equal measure through experiences of pain, and from the experience of pure pleasure that comes from helping someone along. What transforms an experience into an adventure is discovering the higher awareness that radiates behind every event.

Life looks different when the end is in sight. We feel the connection to our loved ones more because we know that our time on this earth is limited. Finally we are all separated by death. That knowledge deepens our appreciation of the time we have together. We cherish our own existence far more when we fully realize how quickly it passes. Paradoxically, that perception of limited time provides the window to our infinite nature.

Before cancer I could fall into a habitual perception of people and take them for granted. Now I feel everything deeply in my heart, as if every day would be my last. I don’t sleep much, and I don’t have even a moment for petty issues. Every second counts.

I would love to share that deeper perception with everyone, but I can see that most people are distracted by a more ordinary reality. For me, there is no time for clawing my way up the ladder of success. Some sense of inevitability forces me to move deeper into my soul, and to focus on people that are curious about the deeper meaning of existence.

Even our weakness and handicaps are a source of great adventure. Since I cannot handle linear tasks, I decided to retire to Ibiza, where I continue to work as a volunteer with a few good clients. My thinking may be fuzzy, but my deeper faculties have never been sharper. Life has become a celebration.

Some people say I am a better coach for all those trials. Others believe I just used cancer as an excuse to escape responsibilities. But other people’s opinions no longer mean anything to me. I am just grateful to have a little time left to put my coaching skills and observations into books and DVD’s that will assist other coaches who love this game as much as I do.

Tim McGraw sings a song about wishing that everyone would get a chance to live like they were dying. I can echo that. Yet more importantly, I wish for all of you that you find a game worth playing, so that no matter what adventures life brings, that you will have the link to that aspect of yourself that transcends life and death.