To Lead from the Heart
In May 2007, out to a standard lunch with a client and my boss, life seemed good. I had just received a third promotion after having eclipsed $5 million in total premium from the accounts I managed; I had gained increasing respect from my peers who were twice my age; and, the lunches that I could charge on the company card just tasted better and better.
Lunch ended, and among our parting remarks, the client joked to me, “Hey, if it doesn’t work out with ICW, come work for us and you’ll make the big bucks!” I laughed politely, knowing that he was partly serious.
My boss, with his arm around my shoulder, countered, “Oh no, we have big plans for David.”
Instantly, two thoughts electrocuted my entire being: Are these my plans? Is this my life’s purpose? I felt everything melt away – the pressure of my family, boss, friends, and all of modern society. This truthful question emerged from a space so deep inside me that I could not disregard it. My head spun. I think a slew of neurological connections were re-wiring in that very moment. I made a commitment to leave the job within one year and to adopt those two questions as mantras from that moment forward.
The following essay, divided into three categories: Environment, Leadership, and Mindfulness, will explain why I am a strong candidate for Environmental Leadership Program. My intention for entering the program can be summarized by the following statement: I seek to learn how to lead truly from the heart.
From as young as I can remember, a central part of my life was exploring the outdoors. Growing up in the northeast, there was so much at my fingertips – the Berkshires of Massachusetts, the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, and the New England coastline. My family, a group of farmers, hunters, and fishermen, taught me how to live off the land, and to respect it as a living being. Each season was intimately linked to a long list of exciting activities and work that I always looked forward to – spring fly fishing, summer gardening, fall bird hunting, and winter ice-fishing.
One fall when I was a small boy, something very significant happened in one of our favorite spots in the local woods. People started polluting it with household trash. What once was a pristine woodland valley now had become a place to watch our steps. Dodging broken televisions, couches, sinks and other household items, we couldn’t hide our disappointment and sadness. My father, who walked this land for over 40 years, had never seen this level of abuse. For the first time, I realized the impact humans can have on the environment. Still, with the waste-site growing, we would not think of contributing even a gum-wrapper because we realized that it took many small actions to create this giant problem.
My first environmental project was in fourth grade at the Science Fair. I decided to do a solo project called ‘All About Trees’. I remember being captivated by the magnificence of these organisms and their role in the living Earth. In particular, I was fascinated by the sequoias and redwoods of California. It was not until I was 26 years old that I finally visited these trees. I spent an entire afternoon silent in the presence and wisdom of the largest sequoia, General Sherman. I have always found trees to be great teachers of balanced living – roots reaching deep in the Earth, trunk solid on the surface and branches stretching towards the cosmos.
As my passion for the environment grew, I left a career in the insurance industry and decided to spend a few months working on organic farms in France and Greece. These experiences completely redirected my life path. In France, I slept in a semi-open barn with several blankets and heat packs to protect me from the late-winter cold. Every morning I would awake at dawn to the beautiful sound of birds chirping above my bed and occasionally brush off the night’s snow from my blankets. I also experienced the power of solitude when I managed the farm for nine days alone. I was accompanied by eleven chickens, four cats and three dogs. In Greece, I worked on a farm with a yoga and tai chi retreat which gave me the opportunity to see how mindfulness and environmental practices are inseparable.
There is so much more I want to learn about building sustainable societies in the Environmental Leadership Program because it is so critical for the decades to come as population, and the demand for resources increases. I also want to help others to make a strong connection to the land.
Being a leader has always been natural for me. If there was ever a hesitation in any group regarding direction, I would happily volunteer myself to take the lead. Whether it was academics, student government, sports, choir, or social clubs, I spent my high school and college years as a leader. It actually took a while before I realized that some people felt uncomfortable in leadership roles. For me, it was delightful. I enjoyed the pressure of making a decision, the duty of motivating a group, and the need to take many variables into account.
After making a commitment to discovering my life’s purpose, a series of stepping stones followed including travel to 15 countries, graduate studies in Public Health, and yoga teacher training. I did not know at the time but all of my experiences with leadership were preparing me for the greatest privilege of my life thus far, serving as Executive Director of Red Lotus Society (RLS).
RLS is an educational non-profit with a mission of cultivating inner, communal, and global peace. It operated an 8,000 sq. ft. center in the heart of San Diego that offered meditation/yoga classes in the studio, lectures/community events in the tea room, and overnight/long-term stays in the residency. Each year, there were over 15,000 visitors representing diverse spiritual traditions and cultures. When I accepted the role of Executive Director, there was only one other volunteer staff member and monthly revenue of $5,000, barely meeting expenses. During a two-year period, our staff grew to 15, and monthly revenue increased over 100%. Although, I felt completely aligned with purpose in the role with RLS, I did not have balance in my life. I dedicated all of my energy to the job; and, over time, my personal practice of meditation began to suffer. For this reason, I am particularly interested in learning how to create sustainability and balance within myself as a leader.
Leadership is something I feel in me, and always have; in a way, I don’t think I have any choice but to be a leader. I understand that a true leader possesses many refined qualities. It is because of this that I want to enter the Environmental Leadership Program and connect with esteemed mentors at Naropa University.
My first experience with mindfulness occurred at a very young age; although I did not know it at the time. Sometimes when I was alone, I use to pretend that all my friends and family were gone, then my body was gone, and finally whatever I considered ‘self’ to be gone. I would experience a burning sensation in my heart and sometimes stop because I was scared. However, over time I became more familiar with this space and found that it gave me a great appreciation for life. I always felt quite present after doing this.
I practiced yoga and seated meditation starting at 25 years old. I became very interested in Eastern thought and how to incorporate yoga and meditation into everyday life. It was not until my involvement with Red Lotus Society that deepened my involvement with mindfulness. There I had the opportunity to not only practice but to develop working relationships with teachers of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, Judeo-Christian, and Native American contemplative traditions. I began to understand the common threads running through each and how they all aimed to create a framework of mindful and compassionate living. In 2010, the Founder and I created a Peace Master Certificate program that was a 52-hour curriculum including courses in meditation, non-violent communication, and world religion (program outline attached).
This past year it became evident that my next step was to choose one path to develop a deeper understanding of mindfulness practice. I determined that Tibetan Buddhism is the spiritual language I connect to the most. I felt confident in this decision after making a pilgrimage to the Garden of 1000 Buddhas in Montana this summer. The next step I am taking will be a two month retreat this winter with Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche at his center in Argentina. I am excited to incorporate these mindfulness skills into the Environmental Leadership Program.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt that I have had a very special purpose and responsibility. In the first 30 years of my life, this has proven to be true. I believe each step in life prepares one for the next, and I know there are great challenges ahead for our planet. It is more important now than ever before to create sustainable, healthy, and compassionate environments for all beings to evolve. It is for this reason that I want to continue building retreat centers and sustainable communities that are not only models for future projects but serve as places of refuge for human beings and all facets of nature.