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From Hierarchy to Leveling

How Coffee Saved My Soul

Have you ever felt better-than or less-than someone else? Of course you have, you are human! Has that attitude gone deeper than just being more or less skilled at something or a comparison of intelligence levels?

If you follow it deep enough, it probably extends to the depths of having more or less intrinsic value as a human being. Maybe even as far as having more or less of a right to exist on the planet than someone else. In the Satir Model (more on the Satir Model in a future post), this is called a hierarchical mindset, and we all have it.

It’s not healthy to deny the part of us that thinks hierarchically. But it is easier when we can acknowledge this part of ourselves, understand how it influences us, and include the knowledge of this internal process in our decision-making.

In so doing, we are better able to level with the people in our lives and see us and them as having equal value, regardless of our behaviors or roles. When we do this, we can better form meaningful relationships, and find more meaning in our lives.

This is a story about how I took a good leveling to my unhealthy hierarchy habit. As with all my tellings of self-discovery, I share this to facilitate my own integration and possibly to inspire the discovery of others.

What does coffee have to do with this anyway? It just so happens that drinking coffee was my muse for this revelation. But not until my second cup, at the age of 41. My first cup of coffee was at age 23 - my final year in college.

For that first cup, I decided that 10 PM was a good time to see what effect drinking coffee would have on me. I didn't have homework or a paper due the next day- I never was the last-minute type.

After a moonlight caffeinated beach walk and some late-night movie watching, I finally fell asleep around 3 or 4 AM. I was exhausted the next day and decided then that I was not a coffee drinker.

As I entered the workforce, I looked down on people who needed to drink coffee to be productive. But this moral high ground I occupied extended well beyond coffee drinkers. It included people who didn't recycle, people who weren't "spiritual", blue-collar workers- just about anyone who wasn't as good as me, in whatever way I could make them not as good as me.

And of course, you don’t get to go high unless you also go low. I gave myself a really hard time when I didn’t measure up in the ways I thought I should. I could really make myself feel like a piece of shit.

Most poignantly to how coffee saved my soul, my “holier-than-thou” inclinations included people who didn't live around "cool, progressive" cities. I had been living around Boulder for almost 20 years. I thought it was one of the coolest most progressive places to live. It is filled with great people, is bordered by amazing mountains to support an active lifestyle, has relatively clean air and water, low crime, etc... and has a shadow side, which I think I emulated.

Us Boulderites are physically fit, and look down on those who are not. We eat good organic food, and look down on those who don't. We are progressively minded, and we feel sorry for those who are not. We are "spiritual", and feel superior to those who aren’t. Some people may think I'm exaggerating. Most of us, including myself, are not fully aware of when we do this.

In fact, we preach that we are very inclusive, that we don't discriminate, and we celebrate differences. And this is true. Our modes of conduct are inclusive. It's our inner attitude where the shadow shows.

It's as if there is a book inside of us with a record of the distinct characteristics of all paths available and why they are all the same. However, highlighted in fluorescent yellow is what makes our individual path better than the rest. It's how we subtly hide from ourselves that we are indeed taking the moral high ground, that we are heightening our value by lessening the value of others.

In 2012, I quit my job as a VP in a technology start-up in Boulder. The start-up tech community in Boulder is doing great things and paying people well to do them. Back then, I felt sorry for those that were not a part of it.

I was working on a new company idea and looking for gig work to support my family. I was doing this mostly alone and finding it difficult to concentrate and stay awake. I started drinking coffee. This time I at least had the good sense to drink it in the morning.

And thus my spiritual dilemma began. I was now occupying the moral high ground with myself! I was drinking coffee, and I no longer had a well-paying job in the Boulder tech scene. Coffee became my albatross. There it was, my hands gripping its steaming neck, I mean cup. A symbol of my despair.

The internal contradiction became heavy. I started coming to terms with the idea that I could no longer be morally superior to people who drank coffee. This forced me to look at all the other ways I perceived the world with a hierarchical model.

Six months later, everything changed with a cup of coffee in Thermopolis, Wyoming.

I was driving with my wife and stepson through Wyoming to visit my in-laws for Christmas. We had stopped at a diner for breakfast. Thermopolis is a lovely place just above the inspiring Wind River Canyon. They have nice hot springs, and boy do I love hot springs.

At the time, I would’ve referred to it as a "low-class hick town". I imagined that if I were to type “middle of nowhere” into Google maps, the pin would land there. This was certainly the kind of place where I would feel superior to the townsfolk.

We walked into the cafe and were politely shown to a booth at the far end of the room. The walls were a rose-hued brown, with wainscoting in the typical 70's dark wood. Chandeliers hung to match.

It was Sunday morning, and the diners dressed in their church best triggered my internal barometer, as organized religion was a low-pressure front to my moral high ground. The pleasant waitress took our order. We ordered some food and you guessed it, coffee.

My wife and son enjoyed some small talk on one side of the booth. I settled in on the other side and looked out at the patrons, hot coffee in hand. An elderly couple dressed in western finery captured my attention. The man in a plaid sportscoat. The woman in a lovely full-length dress with scarlet flare, and an accompanying jacket. Arcing above her ears were curved feathers, the scarlet of which complimented her dress exquisitely. They sipped their coffee as they chatted.

I found an internal seed of admiration as I regarded this, dare I say, elegant couple. The admiration grew as my field of vision expanded and I considered all the other customers enjoying their Sunday breakfast. The more I looked, the more I felt love and acceptance.

With coffee in hand and admiration in full bloom within, I gazed out and realized that the world exists so that everyone in that room may pursue their dreams and find happiness, whatever that looks like for them. And isn’t that just exactly what I’m doing? Wouldn’t you know it, I am no different from them at all.

This was not my usual "we are all the same", with fluorescent yellow highlights of why I'm better. The highlights disappeared - all that remained were the distinct characteristics of all paths and how they are the same. There was nothing to draw my attention away from that sameness. I was unified with the driving force inside of all people, with nothing added, and nothing taken away.

After what seemed like a long time, but was only a couple of minutes in standard measure, I chuckled at the experience with gratitude. At that moment, I was freed from the need to occupy the moral high ground to make myself feel worthy. I was free from making others less, so I could feel more.

Coffee saved my soul.


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