The above quote is a line taken from a 13th century poem. What might it mean? Why would we want to be hungry? And what is this fodder set in front of us that prevents the experience of our hunger? I think it is worth considering these questions, for I believe that they hold important clues to our fulfillment in work and in life.
The function of hunger is to get us to eat. It is the signal of the organism that something is needed for its growth and sustenance. And hunger pangs will increase until we attend to them.
When you think about this, hunger has an incredible intelligence behind it. It is a driving force inherent in our nature that pushes us to do what is good for us. Now, the author of this poem is the incomparable Sufi mystic, Jelalludin Rumi. Rumi is aware of this loving intelligence, and he is telling us that the hunger of the soul is just as real and just as compelling as the hunger of the body. Like the body, the growth of the human soul toward full maturation is a natural process. When something is needed, we feel it. When it is time for a new phase, it begins to happen. In this sense, it is similar to the organic growth of all things in nature. A plant moves forward with a will toward fruition. The seed cracks open, pushes upward through the soil, and if conditions are good enough it opens into the flower it is meant to be.
The main distinction for the human being is that we are endowed with self reflective consciousness. We are aware of what is happening. Our awareness brings the element of choice so that we must make decisions that either help or hinder the natural development of our potential. Therefore, one of the main tasks in life is to understand and cooperate with the organic flow of our own maturation. This understanding is a key to wisdom. Because all human beings are the same in their essence, when we know ourselves deeply enough from the inside, we understand others as well. The wise can know the heart, the intention, the pain and promise of people better than they know themselves. As we discover the principles of human maturation within ourselves, we are able to support the growth of others. That is one main reason why a genuine inner life is essential for those of us in positions of leadership in society.
From this perspective, it is clear why we would want to have true hunger, for it signals to us what we need and insists that we attend to those needs. With discrimination we can find clear direction in our hunger. Just as a newborn puppy heads towards his mother’s milk, we too are drawn powerfully toward what we need to grow and flourish.
The problem is that we have a lot of mixed feelings, and some misconceptions, about the soul’s drive toward fruition. The signals of change can be uncomfortable and disruptive. It could be that a sense of emptiness, or lack of meaning, arises in us; or perhaps a depression comes. We may find ourselves restless and vaguely dissatisfied despite the fact that our lives are pretty good. Interests that once captivated us may no longer hold the same attraction. And, as our interests shift, we may feel distant from people around us.
Hunger, before being satisfied, creates tension. It shakes us out of complacency and pushes us toward new ground. If it were not for this inner drive, why else would an unborn chick ever bother to go through the ordeal of pecking its way out of its confining shell into the wider world of new possibilities? The push for growth has birth pains that precede new life. It is important to recognize this so that we are more likely to welcome the signs of inner hunger. Rather than thinking that there is something wrong, we will be glad that life is not yet finished with us.
So, our soul tells us what it needs. We just have to pay attention and attune to its dietary preferences. Otherwise, we will tend to give it fodder rather than real nourishment. The word fodder means all the food that we give ourselves, with the best of intentions, that ultimately does not satisfy. Typically, we feed the soul as if it were a body. Mistakenly, if it needs sweetness, we eat chocolate. If it craves peace, we give it alcohol or TV. If the soul is longing for freedom, we may have an affair or go bungee jumping. In each case, it is an attempt to provide outer solutions to inner needs. Often the soul’s growth does not so much depend on changes in outer circumstances as much as discovering new dimensions of ourselves.
I believe that there is one most pervasive form of fodder in our time. It is so common that it is considered normal, and yet ultimately it does not satisfy our true hunger. This attempted solution is ceaseless activity. What we really know how to do is stay busy. And, at the slightest hint of some inner restlessness we add more activity. For some people it is longer and longer work weeks. Others move from work to kids, or TV, or clubs and service projects. Even most vacations are merely another form of busyness. There is nothing bad or wrong with these activities. The issue is one of imbalance. For most of us there is little time or value given to simply being. And therefore there is insufficient opportunity for real and deep contact with ourselves. And that is what we are truly hungry for.
Imagine a marriage in which every night were filled - movies, meetings, friends - such that the couple never really talked. In the absence of these authentic moments of true contact, an essential element of the relationship that both people longed for would be missing. It is exactly the same with our primary relationship - the one we have with our innermost selves. As with any intimate relationship, it needs time and attention, with sincere and truthful discourse.
It sounds so simple to just be with ourselves. For a while, however, it may be hard work. It is no small feat to be present, to truly show up with ourselves. When we finally slow down and block off a little time, we are likely to see that our minds and bodies cannot be still. Or we experience such fatigue that we cannot stay awake. This is so, in part, because we live in a society with a nervous condition so widespread that there is a collective loss of the capacity to be. It is actually quite tragic. To learn to relax, for a short time, the ceaseless engines of physical and mental activity takes some patience and persistence. As the capacity develops, these moments of inner stillness and communion become delicious. We then know the priceless feeling of being truly home.
Many of us will legitimately say that we would have trouble finding being time. But could it be that we don’t have, for instance, 20 minutes a day, one evening a month, a few weekends a year for communion with ourselves? The problem is that we recognize the value of doing, while not fully appreciating the value of simply being. It’s a Catch-22, because to see what is ultimately important and meaningful in our lives we must slow down and listen quietly to our hearts speaking.
Implications for Work
Perhaps there is a part of us that would like to be continuously productive - up each morning, full throttle all day, year after year. That part of us wishes, in other words, that we become more machine-like doing engines. But the truth is that we are human, and like all of nature, we go through fallow seasons as well as productive ones, periods of stability as well as transition. This may seem inconvenient for the mechanical world of today’s organizations, but what if we could learn to treat ourselves and others more in keeping with the organic laws of growth and creation? What would it be like to trust the natural progress of our maturation? Could it be that so many of us get professionally dried up, void of real vitality and enthusiasm, because we have failed to hear an inner call for some essential nourishment that cannot be had through constant activity?
I dare say that not one business enterprise has ever come close to matching the sustainability, creativity, efficiency or sheer aliveness of the natural world, a world in perfect rhythmn of doing and not doing. Could it be that taking the time to be still and connect with our depths holds some key to the quality and effectiveness of all that we do? Like all of nature, there is something in us pushing toward optimal maturation of our potential. It is a natural process. Perhaps as individuals and organizations we only have to recognize and follow the direction of our true hunger.
Ken Macher, president of Management Advances, has 17 years experience facilitating management team retreats. He currently conducts The Inner Life Retreat Process For Professionals. For information call 415-388-6334 or e-mail KMacher@aol.com.