Working to Awaken the Genius Within
“Although obstacles and difficulties frighten ordinary people,” wrote Theodore Gericault, “they are the necessary food of genius. They cause it to mature, and raise it up…. All that obstructs the path of genius inspires a state of feverish agitation, upsetting and overturning those obstacles, and producing masterpieces.” I’d like to make this idea one of your guiding principles. You’ll have to believe that there is a sense in which you do have some genius in you. […] Whatever your unique brilliance consists of, the challenges just ahead will be highly useful in making it grow.
Rob Brezsny, Free Will Astrology
I was born April 2, 1980. My Sun is exalted in the sign of Aries, and my Moon and ascendant fall in the sign of Scorpio. I was weeks overdue, then started crowning right on the Williamsburg Bridge while my parents were on the way from their home in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, to Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan. I was raised by Jehovah’s Witnesses, by 2 amazing parents born on the island of Puerto Rico. Each came separately to New York City at the age of nine.
I used to feel I was a quiet child. Then, recently, I looked at some of my old report cards from Kindergarten. My Kindergarten teacher said I was a great student – but I talked too much! I am still working on it. Miss Milch did skip me to the second grade, but I ended up in first grade anyway the next year when I changed schools.
Elementary school was fun. In fifth grade, a sixth grader and I won the New York City spelling bee. We went to Washington, D.C. to represent our city at the National Spelling Bee. It was a great experience. I am sorry I did not bring home the golden bee for my hometown; such is life.
At 12 years old, I began attending Hunter College High School, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. There, I received a world-class free public education through to the completion of high school. I took classes in the history of Western music, literature, theater, and economics, and completed Advanced Placement coursework in logic and composition, statistics and art history. All coursework at Hunter was honors-level, and I learned among some of New York City’s brightest young minds. There, I had a professor who had a profoundly beautiful effect on my life.
Debra Johnson only taught at Hunter for 4 or 5 years, but in 9th grade I was blessed with her tutelage. Ms. Johnson often wore her leather biker’s jacket into class. She had a little gold ring in her nose, and smelled like leather and cigarettes. When we read “Catcher in the Rye”, she instructed us to get a notebook and begin writing our “bad” thoughts down. We could share some in class, if anyone wished to.
Ms. Johnson, I suspect, has changed many a life for the better. That 3-week exercise shot me out of a cannon on a whole new trajectory. I threw myself into the assignment, and raised my grade from a 75 at the quarter to a 95 at semester’s end. Rediscovering writing as an outlet and recreation blew my mind. Long after we finished reading Catcher in the Rye, I still walked around with a marble composition notebook.
I wrote my thoughts. I wrote affirmations. I started scratching out angsty rhymes and short stories teasing cute girls I liked. As a senior, I began writing raps I wanted to perform (or “spit”) for others. Through years of work, I developed my ability to express myself using the written word. In the process, I developed myself.
I ended up with a cumulative average in the high 80s, and it would have been better were it not for some F’s sprinkled throughout. I was an eager and capable student who did not like “paperwork”. Failure to do assigned homework often affected my grade.
I ran for and won a post in our student government as Recording Secretary: among other duties, I delivered daily announcements over the PA system. My principal told me on more than one occasion that I should pursue voiceover work. I guess my dulcet tones really imbued the announcements with authority and dignity.
As my class approached the college process, I never felt any impetus to press the matter too much. I went on college visits to Kenyon College and the University of Vermont-Montpelier. Both were beautiful campuses, but the last thing I wanted to do was jump right back into more schooling after high school. I got a full-time job working with DCC Securities, a small securities firm in midtown Manhattan.
DCC Securities facilitated transfers for illiquid assets – long-term investments in real estate investment trusts or packaged fast food outlets, as examples – called limited partnerships. Upon maturity, all assets are sold off, and many investors acquire shares awaiting this final distribution. I worked with the various corporate administrative offices and investment houses which managed the transfers of these investments. I completed their paperwork, submitted the appropriate supporting documentation, and sent it off in the mail. I helped clients with questions, maintained our files of buyer and seller records, archived customer records and sometimes retrieved the paperwork for archived transactions.
Beyond that, I enjoyed tremendous experiences and grew a lot living on my own in Flatbush at 18. During my time at the 3rd floor walk-up I shared with a roommate, I was introduced to 2 amazing books: Ram Dass’ Be Here Now and Robert Bly’s Iron John. These books reaffirmed my faith in God and deepened my desire to go into myself to discover more about who I am, and what “genius” I have to offer. Understandably, the value of getting a college degree, if only for the sake of continuing to seek knowledge, began to dawn on me – especially as I toiled in the daily grind. I felt a renewed fondness for learning and the joys of the empowerment borne of knowledge.
I left work to attend college at SUNY-Geneseo. I hardly went to class, and came home with a report card full of “Incomplete” s and the announcement that I was going to be a rapper, an MC. I went back to DCC for a short while and moved back in with my parents. I left DCC a few months after returning, wanting to do something new. I was in a state of transition.
At the recommendation of my old roommate in Flatbush, I attended a retreat called a “spirit camp” on scholarship. The Berkshire Men’s Council holds several weekend spirit camps a year. These meetings are places, circles, where deeply transformative experiences occur on an individual and collective level as a norm. These men hold space for men to sort through themselves, wherever they may be on their personal path, and prepare, gird, and sustain themselves for the challenges and adventures ahead of them. I met an 89 year old man on my first retreat at age 19, and have attended 3 or 4, held in the majestic beauty of the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. I participated in some of the ancient practices of indigenous peoples, like the sweat lodge and spirit dance. I smelled sage burning for the first time, and was smudged by an elder. I sat in a circle of men, and was accepted as an equal, a brother. I was also blessed as a young man beginning his way in the world.
It was a great honor to sit in such circles as a young man. I learned a great deal about living a heart-centered life in what, even at my relatively young age, could seem a very callous world. I learned to be attentive to my nature’s development, my soul’s growth, and my spirit’s health. I remember hearing the poetry of the German poet, Goethe, and being introduced to the use of runes. Researching runes online after my first spirit camp led me to chance upon astrology and the wisdom of the I Ching.
I began to research astrology. Looking at the heavens helped me make sense of myself. The study of astrology helped me visualize and become aware of different forces which interact to create the totality of who I am. My studies served as an exercise in reflection on my person and self, as well as a means of understanding humanity – and the individual – as a spectrum of personality, not a “type” of person imprisoned in a zodiacal cage. I have done charts for myself and friends, and given readings based on my studies and experience in reading the natal charts of others. I have read synastries and composite horoscopes, and check my natal chart, overlain with the transits of certain planets and asteroids, to get a feel for which energies might be at play in my life and the world at large.
There is a connection between what goes on down here, and what goes on up there, which I find mystifying, reassuring, and humbling. People are sometimes surprised when I ask if I can see their newspaper’s horoscope. I explain to most how, to me, it doesn’t matter if the horoscope is right or wrong. I am not interested in whether today is a good day to ask my boss for a raise. Every now and then, there are wisdoms which strike a chord, which restore inner harmony and peace of mind. It is always a good time to connect to one’s center, in my opinion. My study of the I Ching has served me in a very similar fashion.
The I Ching is, as I think about it, whatever you want it to be. It can be an oracle, a daily “horoscope”, or, like runes, a synchronistic “snapshot” of the moment. It is a science of life detailing 64 basic “situations”, born from the interaction of 8 basic elements of nature: water, fire, heaven, earth, mountain, thunder, lake and wind. Known in English as the Book of Changes, this way not only simplifies and describes immediate circumstances to the questioner, but how these circumstances have proven to change and transform in time. It is one of the holy texts of Taoism.
To me, The Book of Changes is an intensely reflective study of elemental relationships and nature. Having already worked with runes, I found a link to an online I Ching oracle and read about how a questioner generates a reading from the oracle. I learned the modern method of divination, which involves using 3 coins like dice.
Possibly the very next day, I was headed to see Gladiator with friends. It would become one of the biggest movies of 2000. We made plans to catch the film at the Ziegfeld. As I waited in the plaza, I noticed 2 women with long, dark, curly hair in white linen dresses on their knees in the plaza. As I drew closer, I noticed they had outstanding tans, looked like twins, and were gorgeous. I also noticed they were jingling coins in their hands and throwing them on the concrete. They were throwing the I Ching.
After I picked my jaw up, we talked a little. They were either from Canada or California, sisters, and knew all the hexagrams and lines of commentary by heart. I began studying after receiving this powerful affirmation.
For almost ten years now, I have benefited from the study of this classic work. The Taoist perspective has helped me embrace change and begin to appreciate both my nature and the fact that I am a part of nature. It has taught me flexibility, centeredness and humility. My daily practice of consulting the I Ching has helped me cultivate inner stillness. I am more patient and at peace, as I have come to both appreciate and enjoy the material world’s phenomena in flux.
Today I no longer consult the I Ching on a daily basis. There is an implicit disquietude in consulting the I Ching which I no longer felt comfortable reinforcing. I wanted to deal with life as it came, free of as many preconceptions as possible. I had no need to know the future. It was time to walk by faith. Its method of viewing daily experience as the interplay of natural forces in dynamic tension with one another has been of invaluable use and comfort to me in life, and I consider its timeless wisdom to have great application and utility to a modern life.
Shortly after beginning to delve into the I Ching, I received an invitation to attend a Leadership Training Program being offered by an NGO now called the Men’s Leadership Alliance. That summer, I spent a week in the mountains around Boulder, Colorado. There were frank discussions about work, family, faith, and the future. We learned techniques for dissecting and resolving problems and questions in life. Especially helpful to me personally has been the Four Shields technique, pioneered by Tom Daly, Ph. D. It incorporates some of the work begun by Jung into the exploration of consciousness as the expression of archetypal energies which interrelate uniquely to create our human psyches, and uses the symbols of the compass and the four cardinal directions to propose a system for analyzing situations in a holistic manner in order to arrive at mutually beneficial solutions to ourselves and others. I was able to enjoy spending extended time in nature. I slept in a tent the entire week, and learned a great deal about the natural beauty so difficult to commune with in my hometown. I came to appreciate, paraphrasing now the certificate I received upon completion of the program, my nature as a gift to the world. I began to see myself as a force for change and good.
This was an incredibly healing positive experience for me. My writing continued to develop. In a few months, I landed a dream job: working in a library. I was the point person for the Office Services Department of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), the 5th largest public library system in the country. At 20 years old, I helped meet the needs of a department encompassing the entire system’s mailroom; stockroom; branch interchange department, involving drivers and vehicles; and BPL’s print shop.
Assisting the Director of Office Services, who later also assumed responsibilities as Director of Purchasing, I quickly went from learning the ropes to helping reconcile budget discrepancies between these multiple departments while handling my duties troubleshooting for and providing service to colleagues from across the stockroom to across the borough, vendors, delivery people or even patrons as I walked around our stacks. I worked there a little over a year before I felt I needed to have more life experience under my belt, and have some adventures as the young man I was.
I decided I would begin by expanding my horizons on a cross-country trip. A group of collaborators and partners with a production company called Everyday Wonders had been booked to perform at Earlham University in Indiana. They asked me to come along, and we flew out to Richmond. After spending the weekend in town, when the rest of my partners flew back, I got on a Greyhound bus headed west. I saw Columbus, Ohio, visited the great city of Chicago, and ended up back in Boulder. I walked onto the lawn of a bunch of college students having a barbecue on the day I arrived, and ended staying with them nearly a week. I learned more about Naropa University, a small Buddhist university with a writing school which was founded by Jack Kerouac and others, and which bears his name. I would later apply and be accepted there, though I never registered for classes with them.
When I finally got back to New York, I got in touch with a band mate and we began performing our raps on the trains and streets of New York City. It was a phenomenal experience, but costly.
We got a lot of tickets. One of the written out to us was for dancing. The very first day we “rocked” the trains, we were detained by the police and held in a little cell at the Broadway Junction train station in Brooklyn. Now that day, we made well over $100. Comically, we made much of it in change, and the officer collecting our information was forced to count out every cent in front of us. We were also spared having to count it ourselves – especially after such a long day. We were given the first few of what amounted to a half dozen tickets for each of us in our time on the trains. I did it for a few months before I began looking for more stable work.
Once summer came, I was rapping on the trains and working hard on music with five different groups at once. I worked with Everyday Wonders, and was a member of Nuclear Family, The Ol’ Souls, The Wondafulls and The Elevationists. These were incredibly creatively productive times. Doing performances, writing and recording were my main work. I believe I overextended myself with all of my musical commitments to awaken myself to the fact that I had my own truth to speak.
As summer advanced, I began to feel more pressure to be everywhere for everybody. I was having trouble making decisions and managing my time. I wanted to step back and clear my mind and heart, and regain my direction. A vision quest program in California at The School of Lost Borders had been recommended to me. Its unconventional methods, as well as its awareness of the importance of nature to reflection and healing, appealed to me greatly. I waited until relatively late to make arrangements, so I was not aware of how far Reno, Nevada was from Big Pine, California. Nor did I know there was no bus service to this small desert town on Interstate 395.
I got to the airport in Reno and realized my situation. I spent a restless night in the baggage claim of the airport. I prayed for guidance and tried to sleep. I wondered if I should go into the casino and bet all my money on black. If it doubled – twice – I’d be able to afford a taxi for the 220-mile journey.
The next morning, I calmly got up, took a bus to Carson City, walked to the highway, and wrote “Bishop” on a piece of cardboard I found in front of a gas station. Bishop was the nearest town anyone would recognize, so I was told – Bishop had a Walmart. I started walking down the side of US 395 with my thumb up.
I got 4 rides that day. A rock climber took me past Lake Tahoe to Lee Vining, CA. There I met a young lady named Betsy who took me swimming and put me back on the road with a huge slice of watermelon for me to eat. Next, a sponsored skateboarder or snowboarder gave me a short lift. From there, I met a couple young ladies from Bishop who were nice enough to take me past their town all the way to Big Pine. It was a very blessed journey. Sage grows wild on the side of the road in California, and is the state flower of Nevada. I don’t know if you have ever had the opportunity to stand in a field of sage on a sunny day, but the smell is unforgettable, and enough to make you fall in love with life here on Earth.
The experience of sitting down by oneself in nature with only water, a tarp, a sleeping bag, and an air mattress for 3 or 4 days is priceless. You prepare for it in discussions with guides who help you craft a statement of intent to focus your time in the threshold space. This process of severance from our “normal” life helps us see our circumstances with far clearer perspective. The threshold period is spent in solitude, fasting in the high desert of the Inyo Mountains of California.
After this time is complete, participants’ stories are heard, reflected, and validated by a council of elders as a way of beginning the incorporation process, where wisdoms and insights gained from the vision fast experience are made part of our walk in the world. This is, of course, a process which takes time, repetition and reinforcement, but having one’s story given back to us with the sense it makes to another person can be a great help. After I told my story, one elder said, “Sometimes, in hearing a faster’s story, an elder is moved to give the individual a medicine name. I have here a list of 12.”
Needless to say, I felt superlatively blessed to have gone through this profound growth experience. I returned to New York with a renewed sense of purpose and quickly got my affairs under control. Part of what my first fast taught me was to take ownership for my beliefs. In nature, there is no one to tell you it smells when you pass gas, as a silly example. If it smells, that is your belief. Fear-based, negative thinking must be confronted and transformed into hope-filled and visionary ideation. Building on my earlier soul-centered work, I was able to make real progress in my ability to live in the present moment, and reaffirmed to the universe at large my commitment to be a man of character in what often appears an ethically challenged world.
This was a real turning point in my life. The next year, I released my first solo album as a hip hop artist, entitled Consider This a Heart Attack. I created four more albums over the next few years, and continue my work until today. I talked of signing a distribution deal with various entities over the years, with the work of performing and creating music as my main career.
A few years ago, I began painting. I create abstract art, and call my pieces “inner landscapes”. My painting process is highly intuitive, and brings me great joy. I hope to begin exhibiting my work soon.
I am now a public servant by day at NYC’s Taxi & Limousine Commission. Filling this position has afforded me many opportunities, including the chance to pursue my education at the singular and incredible School of New Resources. To have the opportunity to serve my hometown provides me a great deal of fulfillment. Daily, I interact with the hardworking cabbies and livery car drivers of our great city and the upstanding, tireless inspectors and leadership of the regulatory body which ensures the safety and satisfaction of the riding public. I have learned to appreciate all of life’s challenges and work as opportunities to grow in love, acceptance, understanding and forgiveness.
I have learned to be warm. I have learned to be gentle. I have learned to be flexible. I have learned to serve. I have learned to listen. I have learned to let go. I have learned to love.
I have learned this, frankly, by being cold, violent, rigid, selfish, egotistical, petty, and full of fear. This fact is not lost on me. By the grace of God, I have been sensitive enough to the pangs of conscience and the plagues of guilt to ultimately endeavor to make better decisions. I would go as far as to say I am now training myself to let love make the decisions in my life: to be still enough, and patient enough, to live in the moment without acting impulsively, rashly and thoughtlessly. I consider it the best work one can have.
I want to add something to the world. I want this place to be a little better off for having had me. I want to see justice and equality, peace and togetherness in this world I am a part of. But life is not a blaxploitation flick. We don’t need any superheroes. We need grown adult individuals, residing in their power, committed to serving others and to discovering the gifts they have to offer the world. I pray I will meet more people of like mind and courage, and day by day transform ourselves and the world around us into a place where our children can thrive together in peace.