you don’t ever dream as big as you should

Last week I listened to an interview with Kaki King on Debbie Millman’s Design Matters podcast.

Early in Kaki’s career she had the opportunity to audition with the Blue Man Group. Debbie asked her how she got the job. Kaki had low expectations, and having the first audition of the day, thought, “This is going to be bad.”

 I remember walking out of my audition saying, “From now on, I’m always going to be able to tell people that I auditioned for Blue Man Group.”

You just don’t ever dream as big as you should. I got the job, which was amazing.

“You just don’t ever dream as big as you should.” She said it almost in passing, but it hit home for me. Growing up, I was scared to dream big. It was because I feared receiving more than I could handle. Even from a young age I noticed how success (e.g.—winning the lottery, early fame) ruined people. It didn’t seem healthy. And those who had a healthy relationship with fame and money seemed hard to come by.

I think part of my perspective came from a proverb I took to heart when I was young:

Give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the LORD?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.

—Proverbs 30:8,9 (ESV)

I think there is a lot of wisdom in this proverb. I also think I used it as blanket permission to avoid the hard work of learning to have a healthy relationship with money. For me, it was too hot to handle. It seemed best to use it on an as-needed basis, to avoid getting burned.

The more I’ve studied the science behind how our thoughts affect our experiences, I’ve seen a common thread through my life. I’ve only every wanted just enough, and as a result, that’s what I’ve had.

In many ways, I think it was healthy to view money with a degree of skepticism. Happiness and contentment seemed a more worthy goal. Again and again, in real life and fiction (movies and books), people showed their cards when they came into money. As it took them over, they became increasingly lonely, obsessive, neurotic, anxious and unhappy. No thank you.

At the same time, I still couldn’t help wonder (like so many), “What would it be like to have an abundance of money? What would it feel like to say, ‘I want to build my own recording studio,’ then do it? Without any limitations to my imagination?”

The tension I felt came from a fundamental misunderstanding of the proverb. Rather than saying, “Don’t make me rich or poor,” it’s saying something much deeper. There’s a healthy middle ground in all this. If not poverty or riches, though, what?

I think it’s presence. When there is so much we don’t know what to do with it, we start worrying we’ll lose it (among so many other things). When there’s not enough, we worry about how to get more. (I suppose I’m extrapolating the proverb a bit, since the original “concern” was denying the Lord, or profaning God’s name.)

When there is enough, though, we can simply be. There’s no more striving. We can create out of contentment rather than anxiety.

But what is enough? It depends on our perspective. But how do you gain a healthy perspective on what is enough? The reality is, you or I could have ten million dollars and still feel discontent. At the same time, there are people who have nothing, and are happy. How can that be? What’s the secret?

I think Byron Katie summed it well in this quote, from her book, A Thousand Names for Joy.

There’s no mistake, and there’s nothing lacking. We’re always going to get what we need, not what we think we need. Then we come to see that what we need is not only what we have, it’s what we want. Then we come to want only what is. That way we always succeed, whatever happens.

I experienced this last week after our car was totaled. (Thankfully all involved are okay.) I had just finished transferring most of the money in our small savings account to our checking, just to cover basic expenses. I thought “Nothing can go wrong. It can’t. There’s not enough for any type of emergency.” An instant later Rachel called telling me about the accident. My heart sank. Hers did, too. I could tell she was more shaken up by the thought of how much it would cost to repair or replace the van, then she was by the accident.

Later that day, on the verge of tears, I sat down to meditate. (Of course it wasn’t easy.) Everything in me wanted to give in to despair. Instead, I heard myself saying, “Thank you. Thank you for this. Thank you everyone was okay. Thank you there was enough coolant left in the leaking radiator to get the van home safely. Thank you that it was just around the corner rather than 100 miles from home. Thank you for our friends who rounded the corner on a walk, just as we arrived home, and offered their car for us to use. Thank you.”

As I gave thanks, my heart rested. It wasn’t a mistake. There is nothing lacking. We are receiving what we need. What is, is what I want.

There have been more miracles since then. A family member lending us a larger van while we sort things out. A bonus from work. Having one of my tunes get playlisted. Things I didn’t have to strive for. Of course I’ll never know the direct correlation between my expression of gratitude, and these signs of provision. What I do know, though, is that gratitude is a gateway to contentment. As “good” and “bad” things happen, gratitude puts them in perspective.

Gratitude allows us to do two seemingly opposite things at once. It lets us dream big, while letting go of those dreams at the same time. Gratitude lets our dreams come at the right time. It allows us to be here, now, while holding out our vision for the future with open hands and open hearts.

Photo by Anton Murygin on Unsplash

small miracles

She called just as I finished balancing our budget. Just as I wondered how much longer we could last before hitting zero. Before going red. FaceTime—the screen, shaking. “Is she driving?” I wondered. Her face, gaunt, as she looked forward, over the steering wheel. Scared. “I hit a car… I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do,” she kept repeated.

The night before, my dad texted. “Grandma might not last much longer. Can’t get out of bed. Isn’t eating and drinking.” Video call—her face, pale. Almost unrecognizable. I can’t tell if she’s looking at the screen, though her face glimmers with recognition. “I love you, Grandma.” “That’s all I need to hear right now,” she whispers. “I wish I could come and play for you.” I want to play her off. I want it to be the last thing she hears before leaving her body. She doesn’t remember I play the piano, and I smile and cry at the same time.

That same morning, “slow waltz” came out. A joyful and warm reception. Encouraging words. Amazed something I created can be listened to all around the world. That even with all the unrest social media helps propagate in our hearts and world, it connects me with real people. People I now call friends, even if we’ve never met in person. Who if we did meet, I know we’d connect deeply.

We visited a Buddhist Sangha on a recent cold, snowy evening. They didn’t expect anyone to show. Then there we were were. All six of us, making up two-thirds of the people in the room. A twenty minute, silent meditation. With each slow breath in, the words let go kept repeating in my head. Letting go of specific things and circumstances. With each slow breath out, everything is as it should be.

Afterwards, someone shared this ancient Taoist story:

Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

Since then I’ve been meditating ten or so minutes each day. I figured if I can get through twenty minutes, why not ten? Why not let myself be still for just ten minutes before I hustle? Breathing slowly. In. Out. In. Out. Just being present. Observing my thoughts and judgments. Letting them go.

The album (to be released April 22, 2022) is titled “let go”. Maybe I’ve subconsciously been wanting to put into practice the soul of the album.

Things have been happening since then. The accident. (Everyone was okay, thankfully.) Grandma dying. An exciting job opportunity that came (and maybe went). Gratitude and encouragement surrounding the new tune. Sudden career direction. More patience with the kids. And through it all, a deep sense of peace and steadiness. A recognition of blessings. Friends turning the corner on a walk, just as we drove our smashed van home. Momentarily still drivable while the engine coolant slowly leaked. (The accident was thankfully just around the corner.) Hugs and an offer to use their car in the meantime. A gift.

Life is full of such miracles.