Thursday, October 01, 2015

Influences And Experiences

All of us are like a bowl of gumbo or perhaps an unfinished sculpture.  Whoever we are today is the result of every influence and experience, good and bad, that we’ve had up to this point.  Like a sculpture, every new influence and experience will continue to reveal the person we are becoming.  If you talk to a sculptor, most will tell you that they don’t really create an image so much as they bring to the surface the image hidden within the block of wood or stone.  I think within each one of us is our essence.  How this essence is manifested in who we become is dependent on the ingredients of our personal gumbo or how our block or wood or stone is struck.  Think about your life experience so far.  What influences or experiences have shaped you?  I am the first born child in my family of origin.  That makes a difference.  I am also a child of the sixties.  That makes a difference.  I once lived in a monastery that changed the way I look at life.  That makes a difference.  I have lived much of my life with a wife, children, and a granddaughter.  That makes a difference.  I’ve had many good teachers and mentors.  That makes a difference.  Look at who you admire.  My primary influences have been Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and the Dalai Lama.  Notice that I didn’t include any rock stars or other entertainment types.  Although I may love their art, I am rarely influenced by their personal lives.  I have read thousands of books.  That makes a difference.  I have not chased after money or worldly possessions.  That makes a difference.  I have spent many hours deep in thought and meditation.  That makes a difference.  I have tried to be a good man who is kind and compassionate.  That makes a difference.  Who or what has seasoned your gumbo?  What influences or experiences, good or bad, has helped to reveal who and what you are?  

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


I’ve done many things in life simply because I believed it was expected.  In general, I have played by most of the rules and I have done the “right things”.  Much of my life I have been reasonably content even when my circumstances didn’t seem supportive of any contentment.  I think I was able to find some contentment in most circumstances because it generally doesn’t take much too please me and most of the time I am grateful for anything good that comes my way.  In the midst of my contentment I have experienced some truly joyful moments.  What I have not experienced in abundance is an overarching sense of happiness.  Perhaps my expectations of life and people have been too great.  There have been too many situations and circumstances in my life that were little more than tolerable to me.  Part of the problem is my own worldview.  I am a dreamer and a romantic and most of life is not dreamy or romantic.  Although I do not consider myself a poet, I tend to look at life with poetic eyes.  I know I am too sensitive.  Sometimes I wonder if I am even capable of being happy.  Many people would love the life I have.  I must admit, however, that the life I have was never the life I dreamed of having.  Getting married, having children, and living in a house with a white picket fence, was never a life I thought about when I was young.  It all seemed way too ordinary for a dreamer and a romantic like me.  What happiness I have experienced is due to me finding meaning and joy in unexpected moments and places.  I am grateful for my sensitive nature and discerning eye.  I call this “finding the extraordinary within the ordinary”.  I also think this is due to being a contemplative person.  In moments of spiritual wakefulness I am able to see past life’s disappointments and I can find meaning in my life.  However, there are those that think that if you have to look for meaning in your life, there probably isn’t any.  Some believe the meaning in your life should be obvious.  I know thoughts such as these are nothing but existential angst, a malady suffered by most people from time to time.  What about you?  How do you feel?  Are you happy with the life you have?  Is your life meaningful to you or are you constantly struggling to find meaning and purpose within it?  There has to be more to life than simply existing.     

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Chapters Of Our Lives

The chapters of our life stories can often be taken from the decades in which we have lived.  I was a child of the 50’s, a time many considered idyllic.  I came of age in the 60’s, a time that was turbulent and a time in which there were many substantial changes in our culture.  In the 70’s I got a job, married a wife, bought a house, and became a parent.  Most of the 80’s and 90’s were devoted to turning a job into a career and raising two boys into men.  In the early 2000’s life changed for all of us because of 9/11.  I also became a grandfather and I discovered I had a gift for writing and sharing feelings that many people have but cannot always articulate.  I am now in my 60’s and my aging seems accelerated even though I am trying to slow my life down by downshifting as much as I can.  I feel like I am on the other side of the mountain but I am OK with that.  While climbing up the mountain I feel I accumulated some wisdom and a little enlightenment.  Life has been a tall mountain so I am not sure how long it will take me to get to the bottom of it.  I am in no hurry because I am enjoying the ride now.  It’s much easier because it is all downhill.  Life is a journey and every step is important.  How would you measure your life so far?  What are the chapters of your life?  Is the peak of your mountain in front of you or must you look over your shoulder to see it?

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Be Alive And Awake

Here’s something I once read from a book called Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh.
We try to be in touch with life and look deeply as we drink our tea, walk, sit down, or arrange flowers.  The secret of the success is that you are really yourself, and when you are really yourself, you can encounter life in the present moment.
Today I want all of you to really be who you are.  Along with being who you are I want you to be where you are and I want you to do what you are doing.  This might all sound simple but it is not.  Most people are not who they really are.  Most of us are trying to be who we think we need to be to impress or appease others.  Most of us are not where we are.  Our minds and bodies are rarely in the same place.  Whatever most of us are doing, we are probably thinking about what we need to do next.  Many of our lives demand multi-tasking and that really complicates things.  In today’s world it is very challenging to only do one thing at a time.  Wherever you are today, and whatever you are doing each moment, be there and do it.  If you’re drinking your coffee, tea, or soda, really drink it.  Know that you are drinking it.  When you have a snack or eat your lunch, know that you are doing it.  Taste your food, enjoy it’s flavor, and mindfully chew it.  If you are outside, and there is a breeze, feel the wind.  Today is going to be a nice day so it will be a simple task to feel the sun.  Simply put, live your life today and enjoy every minute of the day.  Be alive and awake.     

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Six Essentials For A Happy Life

Why are some people happy and others not?  First of all, it is a choice.  Some people choose to be happy despite what goes on around them and to them.  Others think they can't be happy until everything is perfect in their lives.  Many more tend to see the glass as half empty rather than half full or over flowing.  It's all a matter of choice and perspective.  I do think it helps to have a balanced life.  Here are some things that I think are important.  Every individual must work out how to have and balance these things in their life.  For me, they represent the essentials of a happy, balanced, and fulfilling life. 
Six Essentials of a Balanced and Happy Life by Michael Brown
Mind.  Develop your intellect.  Read a book.  Learn a new skill.  Be open to new things.  If you don't use it, you lose it.  Rediscover the enthusiasm and curiosity you had as child to learn and discover new things.
Body.  Practice wellness.  Begin to live a healthy life now.  Take care of your body.  It is your vehicle through life.  Some people take better care of their cars than their own bodies.  Don't wait till the damage is done.
Spirit.   Be in touch with something bigger than yourself.  Have a belief system of spiritual and philosophical teachings as well as a personal code of ethics based on your moral consciousness.  Being part of a faith community works for some but not for others.  You can still explore the teachings of the great spiritual and philosophical masters.  If nothing else, the golden rule works for everyone.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.   Practice the religion of kindness, compassion and tolerance.    
Work.  Give work what it needs and requires.  However, being a workaholic and working hard are not the same thing.  Look for work that is satisfying, not only to your bank account, but to your spirit.  Work is one of the ways we can share in the creative process of life.  Elevate it, in whatever way you can, to something more than just a mundane routine.
Family.  Being part of a family who loves you is one of life's greatest gifts.  Appreciate it.  Strive to make those in your families feel appreciated and loved.  Celebrate your family bonds!  Remember, too, that family can extend beyond bloodlines.  Develop friendships that are sustainable and long lasting. 
Self.  Take time for yourself.  Balance time with others by also spending some time in solitude.  Be alone with your own thoughts occasionally.  Be your own best friend.  Enjoy your own company.  When you look in the mirror know who you are seeing.
Give all of these things time in your life.  Too much or too little of any of them creates an imbalance which can be a source of stress for many people.  When our life is in balance and when we are at ease with ourselves and life, we will often realize that happiness is right in front of us.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

It's OK To Feel Your Feelings

The difference between grief and joy is what we do with them.  Grief we push away.  Joy we try to hold on to.  When we refuse our grief, it stays.  When we try to control our joy, it leaves.  That’s the way these processes are.
-Ann Wilson Schaef
I have not experienced a lot of grief in my life.  Yes, people have died in my life but for most of them it was their time and I was able to accept it.  A big exception to this was the death of a dear friend a couple of years ago that was both sudden and unexpected.  I am still grieving that loss.  Of course, grief is about more than accepting and dealing with the deaths of people.  There are many kinds of losses in our lives.  It could be the end of a relationship or a job.  In some ways I have lost my children because they are now adults with lives of their own.  They are no longer the little boys who used to fight with me and beat me up in the middle of my living room floor.  I have also lost my youth and must accept that I am not the man I was at age thirty.  On a positive note I think I am a better man although one with considerably less physical abilities.  I have been blessed to experience more joy in my life than sorrow.  The temptation of joy is the desire to re-create the situation that gave us joy.  I am thinking of a past solitary moment, early on a cool autumn morning, when I sat on the side of a hill, while the sun rose over a lake and the light was shining through the trees and burning the mist from the lake’s surface.  It was one of my contemplative, Zen moments and I experienced what some psychologists call “flow.”  This is the experience of being so in the moment that you transcend time and space and are truly in the now.  On a different day I could plan such a moment and feel nothing.  The joy of the initial experience was a gift, not a reward.  I did nothing to earn it.  It just happened.  Does this make sense?  As people we are deeply emotional beings whether we realize it or not.  Some of us embrace our feelings while others of us repress them.  I tend to do a little of both.  It’s easy to embrace joy or love but I tend to repress feelings like anger.  Sooner or later repressed feelings will make themselves known.  Often they show up as physical ailments like headaches or depression.  I guess my advice would be to feel your feelings.  It’s wonderful to jump for joy but it’s also OK to feel angry once in a while.  It’s all about balance.  I’m not sure it’s possible to be happy, joyful, and upbeat every minute of the day.  To be honest, people like that wear me out.  However, if you are angry and negative all the time, you might want to work on that.  It’s not normal or healthy and it is exhausting to people around you.  All the different types of feelings we experience are part of being human.  A more difficult concept to understand is that we are not our feelings.  I have always read that we are not our personalities.  I must admit that I often wonder who I am if I am not my personality or my feelings.      

Monday, September 21, 2015

When To Speak, When To Shut Up

“The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right time and place, but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment”.
-Lady Dorothy Neville
I usually don’t get in too much trouble but when I do it is often because of something I said.  There are other times when the events around me challenge me to speak up and I remain silent.  More than once my wife has advised me to shut up.  I can’t actually quote her word for word but most of you can imagine how she said it.  Other times I have been chastised by people who said things like “Michael, I expected you to have more to say”.  In my defense I think I have gotten a little wiser as I have gotten older.  The end of my tongue is now square from all the times I’ve bitten it off to keep myself from speaking.  Knowing when to speak and when to shut up is a delicate skill.  There are times that we should speak.  We may need to give solace to another person with a kind and consoling word.  We may need to speak up against an injustice or to provide counsel to someone.  On the other hand, words can be hurtful or inappropriate.  Listening is almost always better than speaking and the whole world doesn’t need to hear our opinions about everything.  You know what they say about opinions.  One of the older monks at the monastery where I lived as a young man once said, “I’m come to the realization that almost nothing is any of my business”.  Another danger of speaking is falling into the dangerous quagmire of gossip.  Few of us have not fallen into that trap at least once.  I wish I had the discipline to only speak when my words made the world a better place or they gave another person encouragement or comfort.  I wish my mouth will automatically shut when my words spread gossip, hurt another person, or did not improve on silence.  The next time you speak ask yourself if you words are building up the world around you or if they are tearing it down.