By Jon Berry
IN THE 1950s, LOU CASSOTTA DECIDED TO LEAVE HIS JOB as an electrical engineer and become a psychologist. He was accepted into New York University’s Ph.D. program, and began taking classes at night as a part-time student, continuing to work during the day. He knew at some point he’d have a problem: When he started his internship, he’d have to give up his day job. His income, in turn, would drop precipitously. But he resolved to deal with that day when it came.
“I had a feeling that, if you commit yourself to something, and you’re really open, things happen that you don’t expect,” recalls Lou (pictured above).
And they did. One night, a friend invited him over to see her new prized possession – a radio tape recorder that she’d won in a contest. To demonstrate, she put on a tape she’d made of her therapist talking about a research project involving the new technology of computers. As Lou listened, a light bulb went off in his head: “I’m an engineer and a psychology student. I know computers. That guy’s got to want me.” He wrote a letter, the man wrote back, and within a few months, Lou was offered a position on the project. The flexible hours enabled him to go to school full-time. The project kept him on salary while he was on his internship. The work became the subject of his thesis.
Coincidences like Lou’s are rare gifts. But many of us have had moments when, in a term from early Quakers, “way opens.” A door appears that we weren’t aware of. Such moments of recognition have been a theme in my interviews so far in Insight Trails interviews. Some of the stories sound like examples of synchronicity, Jung’s “meaningful coincidence.” But many are simply realizations that opportunity has knocked – moments of inspiration. Joe Kelly’s wife, Nancy Gruver, had such a moment when the idea for New Moon magazine sprang fully formed into her mind. George Russell had a more gradual realization of his skills as a healer when his fellow dancers started asking him to do bodywork on them, then making appointments, then giving him money.
In an ideal world, opportunities would come to us in the form of burning bushes – preferably, a burning bush that talks to us. In their absence, we must develop a practice of learning to recognize opportunity.
A lot comes down to two ideas that Lou Cassotta intuited as a young man: commitment and openness.
A lot, I think, comes down to two ideas that Lou intuited as a young man: commitment and openness. “If you make a bold move, it changes your life,” says Lou. “It changes your view. Things come up that you can’t foresee.” Lou, a golfer (photo), compares the phenomenon to athletes who are in “the zone”: Time slows down (an approaching baseball) so that what to do becomes clear. The athlete is simultaneously focused (“hit the ball”) and open to input that will help reach the goal (“the rotation of the seams means…curve ball”).
To be open, we need to be able to listen. A conflict resolution manual published by the Mennonites that I read years ago said something that has always stayed with me. Listening, the book said, is more than a tool to help someone feel heard. It’s “opening ourselves to the possibility of being changed.” Meditation is, essentially, deep, transformative listening (a meditation exercise on attuning ourselves to our environment follows this essay).
Commitment to a cause can change those around us, too. Ellen
Baker’s friends helped her set up her bookkeeping business, offering
encouragement, creating ads, designing her business
cards, even bringing her clients. Kristen Laine says people around her took her more seriously after she
began to thinking of herself as a writer. “You recognize it in someone,” says Kristen. “I think something actually, physically changes in people, in how they
hold themselves, when they’re committed to a path.”
My mom, I think, got the gist of it in one of her favorite sayings: “You make the bed you lay in.”
Mom Was Right. Those who have read or seen the New Age best-seller The Secret might call “opportunity knocks” moments examples of the law of attraction – you attract what you think. But the idea is much older and more widespread. It’s the Hindu concept of karma – our actions create our fate. It’s in the phrase Ellen Baker heard in 12-step meetings: “You get back what you put out.” A lot of practical, common-sense advice passed down from generation to generation is about the messages we send to the world.
My mom, I think, got the gist of it in one of her favorite sayings: “You make the bed you lay in.” As a kid, I used to chafe at the notion: What about all the children born into poverty? Did they make that bed? But my parents, who grew up in the Great Depression, saw a gritty truth in it and a corollary saying my Mom also invoked, “You make your heaven and hell on earth.” To them, being focused, resourceful, and mindful of others – “keep your eye on the ball,” “make hay while the sun shines,” and remember the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), in other sayings of their day – increase your chances of getting the life you want. If we want a meaningful life, we need to put our thoughts and actions into creating a meaningful life.
My dad’s parents are legendary in our family for their resourcefulness. Grandpa Don learned to repair his farm equipment; this, in turn, got him work repairing machines in the factories in town. When rural electrification came, he wired many of the farms in the area. He knew plumbing, built houses, and was barber to local kids. My grandpa and Grandma Clara, with their four sons, raised much of their own food. They cured their own ham.
“5-4-3-2-1 meditation.” This is a great exercise for tuning in and opening up to the world around us. I learned it in a workshop led by Arizona psychologist John Dore. Start by closing your eyes in meditation. Keep them closed for several minutes. When you open your eyes, make a mental list of five things you see; five things you hear; and five things you’re feeling. Then close your eyes for several minutes; open them, and tick off four things you see; four things you hear; and four things you’re feeling. Close your eyes and repeat the exercise for three things you see, hear, and feel; then two; then one. I’ve tried this meditation to start the day, and before writing, speeches, and important meetings – and think I’ve just tapped the surface of its potential.
To read the following Insight Trails interviews, click on the links below: