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Regeneration in a Changing World

How the breakdown of old systems can lead to better lives.

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Growth of healthy beings after things burn-down.
Growth of healthy beings after things burn-down.

A little over a year ago, I was hiking my favorite trail in the mountains with our two young boys and our great family friends in one of Colorado’s national forests – it had literally burned to the ground the year before. I remember how awe-struck I was by the burnt landscape’s polarizing beauty. The bright bold colors of scattered wildflowers burst like fireworks amidst their charcoal black surroundings. Even more stunning than the scenery itself was the site of our four small children, laughing and playing amidst the charred trees – the makeup of an inaccessible space, only one year prior.

As I snapped a photo, which is now the header image to this article, I couldn’t help but notice its poetic symbolism. The word “regeneration” instantly came to my mind, as I looked down to view the visual – “hmm” I thought, “isn’t this one of life’s simple truths?”

Here we are in another U.S. fire season, both literally and figuratively, with the election. As we watch massive flames and giant plumes of smoke overtake acres and acres of trees, once again, signaling wildlife and nearby residents to transition or burn, it’s hard not to feel the frightening pain and displacement of it all.

Of course, the news of an entire mountainside or town getting torched by an unexpected natural disaster is nothing short of alarming. And, this is only coming from an onlooker’s perspective – having to actually endure a fire, or any natural disaster, must be the epitome of “life changing experiences.” Life, as you know it, literally burning to the ground.

I think it’s more than safe to say that 2020 has been a year of collective life-changing transition. The world as we once knew it, has in so many aspects, experienced a complete 180-degree change, due to Covid-19, and the world’s largest civil rights movement, to name just two major topics of the day. As I sit here and observe all of these changes, happening to all of us, my mind cannot help but go back to that one word, which popped into my head last year– regeneration.

According to Merriam-Webster, one definition of the word is “spiritual renewal or revival.” I think this definition begs the question – a “renewal or revival” from what? In order for regeneration to occur, it seems imperative to ask ourselves this question on personal, professional and institutional levels. What could regeneration mean within our homes, in our communities, in our work, our relationships, our schools, our governments, and overall, our perspectives of the world at large?

When I was in my mid-twenties, I took a drive down to Southern Colorado to visit an area called Crestone – a tiny town nestled along the Sangre de Cristo mountain range that many call “America’s spiritual center” – it has one of the most densely positioned array of worshipping centers in the world, representing a variety of different religions and spiritual practices, all in one place. It’s a very special area, which surprisingly, remains unknown to so many people.

I headed down to Crestone during a period of what I can only define in hindsight, as a stark identity crisis – or, maybe even the proverbial “quarter-life crisis.” I was in a deep state of panic and dark depression, and every aspect of my life reflected it. I felt purposeless and unhappy, as I transitioned from one job to another. My family felt like it was falling apart, as we watched our dad’s health drastically deteriorate. My intimate relationships were, to say the least, beyond tumultuous and my social relationships toxic – I felt like I couldn’t trust anybody – not even myself.

I’ve never felt more alone in my life than I did during this time. I can joke about it now as my version of Picasso’s “Blue Period,” but I can assure you, I lacked any sense of humor about it back then. So, I guess this is what compelled me to pack up my car, and head down to Crestone for a week – just me and my dog. Maybe the wide-open spaces could somehow show me something?

While I was there, I visited a Zen Center each day for early morning meditation. Looking back, it must have seemed a little awkward and random for the center’s community members to suddenly have me there – another aspect of the story that I can only laugh about now. Either way, the Zen master was extremely gracious, and he’d take the time to chat with me after each morning ritual. He must have sensed the stark pains of my quarter-life angst.

One day, as we were peering-out at the mesmerizing view of Blanca Peak, one of Colorado’s famous “14’ers,” the Zen master reminded me of how truth is reflected in nature. Noticing Blanca’s drastic upheaval of steep, rocky, and intimidating slopes towering over the San Luis Valley, the Zen master pointed-out how the landscape mirrored a fundamental, yet simple, Buddhist principle – that every point has a counterpoint.

Years later, as I look to the photograph of a burnt forest and the gazes of innocent children, surrounded by the growth of wildflowers, I cannot help but see the truth in nature, once again. This time, I’m reminded that destruction often leads to regeneration. According to Lorin Hancock of the World Wildlife Federation –

even before human involvement, natural, low-intensity wildfires occurred every few years to burn-up fuel, plant debris, and dead trees, making way for young, healthy trees and vegetation to thrive.

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve felt destruction’s burn in 2020. We’ve shut down our schools and kept our children home to learn, watched people die, seen businesses close their doors, and conducted our own business in new ways – either with masks, or attending yet another Zoom meeting. We’ve shown our collective capability to rearrange the way we do everything.

We’ve changed the way we connect with our friends and family, and either noticed or experienced vast inequalities in how people get to experience the pandemic. Some have the luxury of staying home and worrying, while others have no choice but to get back out there and go to work, and in some cases, even risk their lives so that we can “feel safe,” and have groceries stocked in our refrigerators.

The vast polarity in how this destruction is absorbed, by each and every person on this planet, has led to one of the greatest political divides I’ve ever witnessed within my lifetime. Friends are disowning friends, and neighbors are drifting apart. And, I think it’s caused many of us to forget some of nature’s truths. Namely, that every point has its counterpoint. Embracing this concept seems so important; especially right now, as we collectively try to move through destruction, and forward into a regeneration.

No doubt, the collective changes in our world, are causing personal transitions for many. A change in the paradigm of our own life experiences will naturally cause us to question our own perspectives and actions. Doing so, is a part of what leads anyone, or anything, to healthy regeneration – where new ideas grow, new systems are built, and our beliefs and life experiences allow for the “young and healthy to thrive.”

In my own humble experience, I’ve found that growth is rarely comfortable. It typically comes from a breakdown of some sort – or a forced detachment from something we’ve held onto as dear – whether it’s a person we love, a job, a career, a drastic change of life experience, or a major shift in our environment.

All of these things cause us to question our previous judgement and expectations – and if we can experience this process with an open mind, then we may see through the destruction, and we may also, make way for a more innovative and productive state of being. Making room for new experiences that likely would have never happened without old habits breaking down.

Back to what the Zen master said, if “every point has its counterpoint,” then what’s on the other side of this vast, worldwide transition for you? In other words, how will you regenerate? What new growth might you allow into your life? And, how can you begin to create space for these new things to grow? What counterpoints are you willing to explore that might shift your current paradigm into groundbreaking territory?

A great corporate client of mine recently said, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” When I asked him what he meant by this, he said, “because it’s usually only during a crisis when you’re forced to reconcile with the old systems, processes and people that are no longer working for you.” And, yes, this often leads us to making tough decisions that maybe we were too complacent to make before. Yet, these are often the decisions that will steer us back on-track. In other words, our desire for comfort, rarely moves us towards exploring the very ideas, and changes, that will lead us to a better future.

So many of us try to resist the realities of nature, in an effort to stay comfortable within our old ways. We resist opportunities brought to us within a period of crisis, and instead of allowing the doors of new possibilities to open, we forcefully hang onto our old paradigms, despite the fact that the world is changing, right before our very eyes.

We turn to the same news channels we’ve always turned to, in order to validate our habitual thinking. We refuse to read, view, or hear perspectives from our opponents, because we are so attached to keeping our proverbial forests in-tact, despite the fact that they are burning down. We refuse to invite counterpoints into our lives because they may prove us wrong – which, I guess, is too much of a blow to our egos, and clamoring need to be right.

Yet, once again, if there’s regeneration on the other side of 2020, what’s it going to look like? Are we to rebuild our lives exactly as we left it back in 2019, or might we take the lessons learned, and grow them into something new? And, if we have the urge to make the most of our painful experiences, and convert them into lessons, what might the counterpoints teach us? There’s gold in these counterpoints.

The gains for vast personal growth and expansive wisdom are unlimited, when we are willing to listen to the perspectives of our fellow friends, neighbors, colleagues, and human beings. After all, each one of us call this Earth our home, and resolution starts with an attempt to understand the world beyond our limited selves.

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