Thursday, March 26, 2015

Life Is Our True Education

My youngest son was ordained to the priesthood almost two years ago.  It was a long journey that involved four years of college, four years of graduate school, summer internships, and lots of other training.  However, ordinations, graduations, getting a license to practice, etc., are just the end of the beginning.  The real work and the real education begins when you finally get out into the world and you deal with the reality of daily life.  It has always been my opinion that education gives you knowledge but life gives you wisdom.  No matter how smart you think you are or how prepared you feel, life will transform you in good and bad ways.  Life is tough and none of us get through it without some scrapes and bruises.  It is not my intension to be negative about life.  Life is a wonderful thing.  It is also a teacher and we do not always like what it teaches.  However, if we open minds and hearts it will teach us love, tolerance, patience, compassion, and humility.  It will also make us wise, understanding, accepting, and realistic.  Life has been my greatest teacher.  When I was thirty years old I could never have imaged the person I am now.  I don’t think God and life are done with me yet.  My transformation into who I am meant to be is not yet complete.  My son and others are in the beginning of their lives and they want to change the world.  I have more years behind me than I do in front of me.  In spite of this, I still want to change the world and many of my contemporaries want to do the same.  If you are young, listen to those of us who are further down the road of life than you.  If you are old, remind yourself that you don’t know everything.  The old need to also listen to the young.  Together we can all change the world and make it a better place.    

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Compassion, Silence, Tolerance

In May of 2013 I saw the Dalai Lama for the second time along with other spiritual leaders of all the major faith traditions.  In addition to the Dalai Lama’s message of compassion, there were two other themes found in the different presentations.  One was silence and the other was tolerance.  You cannot have a serious spiritual life without an element of silence in your life.  The world and our own minds are noisy places.  Silence is not just the absence of sound.  In our world of over-stimulation, noise also takes the form of images, whether they be from television, billboards, or our smart phones.  All together the average person is bombarded with noise in the form of sound, images, and data.  It is disorienting, at times stressful, and almost always dissipating.  I once read that scientists are having a very difficult time finding any place on the face of the earth that is free of human “noise”.  It is important to find some physical quiet in our lives but even more important to quiet our minds.  As far as tolerance, the Dalai Lama made a strong point in his talk about everyone following their own faith and beliefs while being tolerant of other’s beliefs.  Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and other traditions should and can learn from one another.  I see religions in the image of a wheel.  The outer edges of the wheel represent all our different beliefs.  It is where we are often the furthest apart from one another and where the most disagreements occur.  The hub of the week is the deeper, contemplative center that is found in all major religions.  It is where we are closest to one another.  Most serious spiritual people strive to live in the center.  It is where I try to live and it’s where I experience union with other spiritual seekers.  I have my own beliefs but I also learn from all traditions and points of view.  Practice compassion, seek silence, quiet your mind, and be tolerant of all.   

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Habits Of Highly Mindful People

I once discovered something called the “Elements of the Mindfulness Attitude”.  I think they could also be called “The Habits of Highly Mindful People”.
The first element, or habit, is Non-Judging.
Taking the role of an impartial observer to whatever your current experience is.  This means not making a positive or negative evaluation of what is happening, just simply observing it.
It is so hard to not judge.  I once heard someone say “Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see”.  In other words, almost nothing is what it seems.  Most of our opinions are based on perceptions and perceptions are often seen as truth in the eye of the perceiver.  How does one be truly objective and non-partial?  How can we remove the filters from our own eyes?  I haven’t achieved this yet.  Certainly the times I have become aware of my own misjudgments have been learning experiences.  I would also say the times I have been misjudged have also been learning experiences.  In my own journey of self-awareness I have become a little better at stepping outside of myself and observing my own behavior.  Of course, even when I do this it is still difficult to not judge myself.  I am a feeling type person with strong emotions.  It is difficult for me to remove my feelings from most situations.  Sometimes it helps to say to myself, “You’re having an emotional response.  What is really happening now”?  My experience is that it is not easy to be impartial and it is very challenging to simply observe what is going on around me.  I guess the only real progress I have made is by being more aware of my own emotions and how they can misrepresent reality.    
The second element or habit of the mindful person is Patience.  Patience is “cultivating the understanding that things must develop in their own time”.  Patience is a trait that usually comes easy for me.  Of course, what I call patience is sometimes seem by others as me being non-assertive.  Admittedly, one of my coping strategies in life is simply waiting things out.  Despite how I am sometimes seen by others, and acknowledging that I do sometimes act in dysfunctional ways, patience is a gift that I believe I has been given to me as part of my personality.  We live in an impatient world where everyone seems to be in a hurry and many people want everything yesterday.  I remember a joke from my days in project management.  It was said that it takes one woman nine months to give birth to a baby.  You cannot give birth to a baby in one month by using nine women.  In other words, “things must develop in their own time”.  Certainly there are situations in life that require a sense of urgency.  Things sometimes happen that require us to kick it up a notch.  However, not everything in life can be done quickly nor should they be.  You can open a can of soup and pop it in the micro wave for a quick and usually unsatisfying lunch.  You can also slow cook a variety of ingredients in your crock pot and have a culinary delight for dinner.  You can pressure cook your life or let it unfold naturally.  As I have said before, in a world of pressure cookers, I am a crock pot.  In the end, patience gains all things.  Move quickly when life demands it but if you are running and pushing all the time, it will catch up to you and you will regret it.     
The third element, or habit, of the mindfulness attitude is Beginner’s Mind.  What is beginner’s mind?  It is “having the willingness to observe the world as if it were your first time doing so.  This creates an openness that is essential to being mindful”.
Most adults have a difficult time having a Beginner’s Mind.  As we get older our minds become so filled, mostly with junk, that being open enough to have the curiosity of a child is very challenging.  When it comes to Beginner’s Mind, my greatest teacher is my ten year old granddaughter.  I spend time with her most weekends and during this time she teachers me to see life like a ten year old.  People with “Beginner’s Mind” tend to see life, not only with curiosity, but with simplicity.  When one sees life directly, and with the simplicity of a curious child, one is usually very present to the reality of the moment.  Life is not usually seen as complicated to a child.  It just is.  I remember once asking my granddaughter if she was happy.  At first she seemed confused by the question.  She looked at me as though she was wondering why I would ask such a silly question.  Her eyes said, “Paw Paw, isn’t being happy the normal way of being”?  Only someone with a “Beginner’s Mind” would think being happy is the normal way to be.  My granddaughter’s mind is open and fresh and her vision is pure.  She is full of curiosity and can be present to the moment in a way I can only hope to be.  Unfortunately she will likely grow up to be like the rest of us and she will lose this now effortless ability to be present.  At some point she will have to work to regain it just like her Paw Paw is doing now.   
The 4th element, or habit, of mindfulness is Trust.  In this scenario trust is defined as “having trust in yourself, your intuition, and your abilities”.  So far we have talked about non-judging, being patience, and having a beginner’s mind.  When we are in the moment and present to our reality, not only do we have to be non-judging, patient, and childlike in our curiosity and openness, we also have to trust that the moment is as perfect as it can be.  Keep in mind that trusting that the moment is as perfect as it can be does not mean that the moment is perfect.  Rarely in our life is the moment perfect.  Many of our moments are imperfect and during those times we often must rely on ourselves, our intuition, and our abilities to deal with life’s challenges.  By having trust we believe in ourselves and our capacity to meet life’s challenges.  This is also a reminder that mindfulness is not living in oblivion and mindless bliss.  Mindfulness is being present to reality.  Certainly there are those blissful moments when all is well and life is beautiful.  However, there are also those moments where life is painful and challenging.  While we all want to experience the joy filled moments, we must be present to our more painful realities as well.  As someone told me the other day, if you want to experience life’s rainbows, you must also be willing to experience a few storms.      
The fifth element, or habit, of mindfulness is Non-Striving.  Non-Striving is described as “the state of not doing anything, just simply accepting the things that are happening in the moment just as they are supposed to”.  This is a very tough challenge for many people in our American culture.  We pride ourselves on being busy, productive, driven, and goal oriented people.  In addition to this many of us are also control freaks who want to alter the outcomes of as much as possible to suit our own agendas and needs.  The idea of non-striving and allowing life to unfold as it sees fit is almost abhorrent to us.  We spend a great deal of energy holding on when the best move might be to simply let go.  Many of us are wound a little tight because of the tension within ourselves that is caused by our driven, competitive, and controlling natures.  Keep in mind, however, that Non-Striving is not the same as being lazy or not caring.  I think Non-Striving is like white water rafting.  You don’t necessarily allow yourself to be tossed to and fro by the rapids of life.  You learn to be one with the running water.  Some of the time you just flow with it.  Other times you use your paddle to make the occasional course change to avoid crashing into a rock.  If you fight the river or attempt to change the course of the river you will eventually crash and sink your boat.  Those with skill learn to flow with the river and tap into its energy.       
The final element, or habit, of mindfulness is Acceptance.  In this scenario, acceptance is defined as  “completely accepting the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and beliefs that you have and understanding that they are simply those things only”. 
When it’s all said and done, a lot of mindfulness is accepting reality as it is without judging, with patience, with a child-like “Beginner’s Mind”, with trust in our personal abilities to deal with the moment, allowing life to unfold as it will by non-striving, and finally, what is often the most difficult part, acceptance.  Whatever our individual moments add up to be, for most of us they are not the moments we probably dreamed of in our youth.  I’ve always felt like most of my life was an accident.  The life I have is not really the life I wanted.  It is, however, the life I have.  Just because the life I have is not the realization of my early dreams does not mean it’s all bad.  I strive to not see anything as good or bad .  My life is what it is and many twists and turns brought me to this point.  I can bemoan the fact that it’s not everything I hoped for or I can accept it and strive to better understand why I am where I am and what I am supposed to do with what I have been given.  Such acceptance does not come easy and I am not totally there.  However, even my feelings must be accepted as “they are what they are”.     

Monday, March 23, 2015

Anticipating Moments

I am the kind of person that likes to always have something to anticipate.  It can be as simple as scheduling a day off in the middle of the work week.  Most of our lives are ordinary days so if you cannot find joy on a Tuesday, you probably won’t find it on a Saturday night either.  I am fine with the ordinary and I almost thrive in boredom.  Still, I find it nice to always have something to look forward to on my calendar.  Anticipation is a great feeling.  Occasionally it is better than the experience of what you were anticipating.  The feeling of anticipation, the sudden arrival of the anticipated, and the realization that all events pass quickly, remind me to also be in the moment.  Don’t rush life.  Savor it and enjoy it.  Don’t get caught up rushing from one experience to another.  Look forward to your life but don’t forget to enjoy it as it unfolds.  Life is like the experience of taking something out of a package.  Once it is out of the bag, it is almost impossible to put back into the bag in its original condition.  We don’t get many opportunities to do life over.  Be in the moment, enjoy the moment, but it is fine to also look forward to the next moment.     

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Life Responding To Life

Life is not happening to you.  Life is responding to you.
Some people call this idea karma and others refer to it as the Law of Attraction.  People believe many things and I don’t really know which beliefs are true and which ones are false.  I generally follow the advice of the Buddha when he says “Believe what you experience”.  For example, it is difficult to believe in love if all you have experienced is hate.  At the same time, people whose lives are full of love struggle to understanding hate and loneliness.  I believe in karma and the idea that what you put out there eventually comes back to you.  I have tried to be a good man and to be kind and compassionate to everyone I meet.  Although my life is not perfect, and bad things have happened to me, I still believe that life has been good to me and that life has mostly responded to me in positive ways.  Looking back, I even believe the difficult and bad experiences have been good for me in the long run.  Since life hasn’t been handed to me on a golden platter, I have learned to be grateful for all the blessings in my life and also for all the terrible things I have not experienced.  More often than not, life has given me everything I need and most of what I want.  If life is not going your way, you might want to look in the mirror and check your attitude.  If you are always negative, always whining, and always complaining, don’t expect a lot of blessings to come your way.  On the other hand, if you are positive, grateful, kind, and compassionate, I believe life will respond to you in positive ways.  The more self-aware and enlightened you become the more you will see this.      

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Elimination Of Non-Essentials

Beside the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone.  The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.
Most of us spend much of our lives performing all kinds of tasks that we believe must be done.  I’ve come to the conclusion that much of what we do is either the result of our own personal agendas or the agendas of others.  Think of all the things you do.  If you died today would someone else assume your tasks?  If you stopped doing some of the things you do, would anyone notice?  Abraham Maslow, the famous psychologist and author of the “Hierarchy of Needs” made a statement once that “80% of all work is BS”.  How many of you reading this think that many of your work related tasks have no real value?  The above quote, however, is not just about the non-value added tasks that too many of us perform.  I think it is also about discerning, not only what is essential or non-essential, but what needs our involvement and what does not.  We human beings want to control and manipulate everything to suit our needs.  The damage we have inflicted on our planet is proof of this.  There are way too many control freaks and micro-managers in life and not enough people of wisdom whose desire is to influence and not to manipulate.  Life is not a competitive sport.  We don’t have to control or beat everything.  Certainly there are essential tasks of daily life that must be completed.  However, much of our activity is just self-created busy work or the demands of someone’s else’s agenda.  The universe knows what is essential and what is not and I’m pretty sure the universe can manage itself without our ego-centric agendas.  Some things we need to do, some things we need to influence, some things we need to let be, and some things we need to simply ignore.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Who And What Should Be Taken Seriously?

Taking crazy things seriously is a serious waste of time.
-Haruki Murakami
The older I get the more discriminate I am about what I take seriously.  There is a lot of stupidity and foolishness running rampant in the world so I am slow to buy into most things.  I know I am cynical by nature but my life experience has shown me that many things in life are like brightly wrapped presents that end up being empty boxes once you take the wrapping off.  When I discover someone or something that is real and true and honest I am usually amazed.  Since I started writing these daily thoughts I have acquired a fair amount of fans and followers.  Some of them elevate me to a status I don’t deserve.  Some people who receive these thoughts probably delete them without reading them.  Others might read them and think, “Who does this guy think he is?  He is so full of himself.  Who made him the fountain of all wisdom”?  Whatever group you fall into, I respect that.  I can honestly say, however, that in a world where I am cynical about much, I strive to be real and true and honest.  I’m sure that I fail at all of these things sometimes.  I try to share wisdom that will help some people and experiences that other people can relate to in their own lives.  I am not the fountain of all wisdom but I share my joys and struggles with the hope it may help some people find their joy as well as let other people know they are not alone in their struggles.  I read once that we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.  With limited success I am trying to be fully human and fully alive so I know what is real and true and honest.  When I find people and things that are also real and true and honest, I take them seriously.  I try not to waste time with foolish people, foolish ideas, and brightly colored packages that are empty of contents.