Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Retreat At The Monastery

If you ever feel like your life moves too slowly, simply take a couple of vacation days and you will no longer feel like that. I have been off for the last four days and it seems like the blink of an eye. When I went to bed last Thursday night I gave myself the gift of a full nights sleep and the joy of waking up naturally. On Friday my eyes opened up at 8:59 AM and I felt great. My overnight bag was already packed so all I needed to do was shower and hit the road. I did subject myself to the chaos of my local McDonald's so I could drink a latte on the road. It was mid morning and rush hour was over but the traffic in the city was still busy and intense. Soon enough, however, I was out of the city and I settled into a peaceful drive. Oddly enough, the further south I drove the more colorful the leaves seemed to be. I was listening to a new CD and the lyrics to one song went "This earthly heaven is good enough for me". I felt the same way as I took in the natural beauty around me. It was obvious, though, that this area has seen little rain. It is very dry in Kentucky.

My weekend retreat was a very large one. Nearly 70 people attended and some, including me, were not able to stay at the monastery. Since my friend, Fr Dennis, lives less than a mile away, I chose to give up my room so someone else could have it. I should mention that Dennis has two full grown Basset Hounds. If the Buddhists are correct, and there is reincarnation, I would like to come back as one of Dennis's dogs. They are definitely living the good life. Besides being companions for Dennis, they also double as alarm clocks. They decide when the day begins. Before I got settled in at Dennis's, I went to the monastery, sat for a while in the garden, went to noon prayer with the monks, and had lunch with a friend. Afterwards, I returned to Dennis's house. He was away and the dogs were running around in the backyard so I had some very nice quiet time which was very welcome after all my morning activity. While sitting in the semi darkness and wonderful silence, the wind blew through the trees and played some beautiful music on the deeply toned wind chimes hanging on the front porch. After Dennis returned, we talked for a while before I took an afternoon nap. When I woke up a couple of hours later I felt like I had slept for a hundred years.

Much of Saturday and part of Sunday was spent at the monastery. I attended some presentations, sat in the garden, and walked around the property. During one walk I listened to the siren song of the bookstore and gave in to the temptation to buy yet another book. On another walk I climbed the hill across from the monastery where I sat in a chair on top of the hill and took in the 360 degree panorama around me. It was a bright, clear, sunny day and the surrounding landscape was beautiful. I was lost in my thoughts and the moment.After I participated in a closing ceremony and a group picture, I headed home. As much as I love the monastery, and as hospitable as Fr Dennis is, there's no place like home. It was good to sit in my own chair and sleep in my own bed. Yesterday I stayed home to play catch up. I read three days of newspapers and emails, did some laundry, hauled some stuff out to the shed, and enjoyed some new Grateful Dead CD's that came in the mail. Thirty years ago this month, the Grateful Dead played three concerts at the foot of the Great Pyramids of Egypt. On the third night there was a total lunar eclipse. How cool is that? Finally, after all this time, they have released the best of those shows on CD and DVD. Life is full of beautiful days and small pleasures. Although the whole world seems to be going to hell right now, and I am afraid to look at my 401K, I still think that life is grand.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Talents And Gifts

I work for a large company. My co-workers are men and women that are young and old and that represent multiple ethic groups. All in all, it's a reasonably diverse group of people with many different personalities. Some are calm and laid back. Other are frantic and hyper. Some are easier to take than others. A few drive me crazy but then again, I am not every one's cup of tea either. Somehow all of us manage to work together in peace. It takes all types, working together, to create an environment that is productive and accomplished. Within this diverse community are many gifts and talents. All of us have a gift and some type of talent. Many have "hard skills" that help us accomplish the many tasks that we have. Other's have "soft skills" that help smooth the friction that can sometimes occur between people. Everyone brings something to the party. It important to recognize that everyone has a purpose, everyone is needed, and everyone has value. It takes many gifts and talents to keep a community or organization going. If everyone was the same, not much would get done. You can't be a leader if no one will follow. If everyone tries to lead, nothing will get done. In life, everyone needs to find their gift and talent. No gift or talent is better than another. It is when all gifts and talents are used together that we make progress. Look in your mirror. What is your gift and talent? What do you bring to the party? When you discover gifts and talents be grateful and use them for the common good. Remember, however, that others may have different gifts and talents. Differences do not devalue people. If you are a leader, be a good steward of the gifts and talents of those who follow you. If you are a follower, make your gifts and talents known. Do not hide them. Share them and make the world...or your workplace...a better place.

Occasionally someone will ask me to explain what Zen is. The following is my simple understanding of what Zen means to me. There are many books written about this subject so some will likely find my understanding simplistic. The truth is that I am a simple person. I do not like complexity. When I study or encounter something complex, I try to break it down into simpler terms. I feel, however, that my understanding gets to the heart of what Zen is.Zen is a kind of philosophy that is found within Buddhism. In simple terms, Zen is about mindfulness. Mindfulness is being where you are and doing what you are doing. It's about being present to the moment and trying not to let your mind wander and be somewhere different from where your body is. It's being one with the moment. Sometimes when I write about a "perfect moment", I am describing what I consider a Zen moment. It is a moment of total oneness and clarity. It is a moment where life suddenly makes sense if only for a brief time. I remember a winter day where I arrived home to an empty house. It was cold and there were heavy snow flurries in the air. I made a cup of Cafe Vienna coffee. Holding the warm mug in my hand, I sat by a window, in silence, and I simply got lost in the snowfall. It was a moment of complete peace and total oneness with nature. For me, this is Zen. These kinds of moments, at least for me, are also contemplation. Here's a quote that may help understand what I am saying.

Wherever there is a poetic action, a religious aspiration, a heroic thought, a union of nature within man, and the Nature without, there is Zen.
-R. H. Blyth

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Autumn Is Here!

It is now officially my favorite time of year. I love autumn and the cool weather that accompanies it. As the leaves change colors, the air cools, the days shorten, and the morning sunrises achieve a whole new level of beauty, I am energized and filled with new enthusiasm for life. This personal rebirth seems ironic when all around me nature will soon appear to be dying. We live in a world where little seems certain. Life is filled with changes we don't always see coming. As a backdrop the seasons change as they have been doing repeatedly my entire life. If you are not living in the moment and practicing mindfulness, you may not notice. I know that nature is now preparing itself for a long rest and a period of dormancy. After the bleakness and occasional beauty of winter, nature will awaken one more time in the spring and life will reappear in shades of green. The rainbow colors of flowers and blossoming tress and bushes will add to the beauty. For now though, I will lose myself in the beauty of autumn. For the next few weeks I will enjoy the cool mornings and warm days. In approximately six weeks I will be making my annual autumn trek to the mountains. In my mind I am already there.

Sometimes these daily thoughts come easily to me and I can go on and on. Other days nothing that seems worth writing about comes to mind and I wonder what I will share. Such emptiness can make us feel dull and uninspired. The irony of the spiritual life, however, is that emptiness and fullness can both be good. When we are full, we have much to give and, perhaps, much to say. When we are empty, we have great capacity to be filled. It is when we are empty that God can do his best work. On a spiritual level, when I think I am full, I am often empty and when I think I am empty, I am often full. The spiritual life is full of paradox. I like the confidence that feeling full gives me but it is when I am empty that the Spirit has room to work. By letting go of my emptiness, I, hopefully, end up with something worth saying and my words will have value for someone.

In the Christian tradition there is a "desert" spirituality that goes back to the 2nd and 3rd century. In those days men and women left the cities and headed to the desert to find God in the barren wastelands. In our modern lives this desert spirituality can manifest itself as dryness and an absence of spiritual consolation or joy. In the 14th century a famous spiritual masterpiece was written entitled "The Cloud of Unknowing". It speaks about the experience of knowing God by unknowing. In other words, it is in the unknowing, the darkness, the dryness, and the void that seems empty of God's presence, that we might be most likely to experience the true reality of God. We tend to think that all experiences of God are warm and fuzzy and peaceful. They can be but if that was the only time we experienced God, we would be limiting God to only a portion of our lives. My life is sometimes warm and fuzzy and peaceful but it is also occasionally stressful, demanding, busy, empty feeling, and unclear in it's direction and meaning. God is in it all. Don't be afraid of the desert or the void. God is closer than you think and everything has a purpose. Never judge the experience of God by how it feels.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Finding Time For What Is Important

There are certainly times when all of us feel overwhelmed with the demands of life. Whatever demands may be part of our individual lives, most of us still find time for what we really consider important. One of the small things that is important to me is getting my day off to a good start. One of the ways I do this is by getting up early enough that I am not rushed. It is important for me to have some time to simply sit before I leave home for work each day. Normally I have about twenty minutes where I sit in my chair, have my first sip of morning coffee, and reflect on a few spiritual thoughts. Today I am beginning to re-read for the second time a book that could be read many times and you would find new insights each time. The book is called "The Inner Experience/Notes on Contemplation" by Thomas Merton. Merton is my favorite Christian writer and someone who has been a major influence on my thinking. I'm sure some of this new morning reading will find its way into my daily thoughts. Later this week I will do something else that is important to me. I will be spending a long weekend at the monastery. Each year at this time I spend a long weekend there with a group of people, many of whom are like me, at least on the spiritual level. Whatever type of person you are, it is usually a good and comforting thing to know there are others like you. It may be true that people who are different from us in temperament or life experience have much to teach us, but I think it is equally true that we are attracted to people who share many of our own thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. Many years ago my mother in law, curious about my monastery visits, asked my wife what I do when I go to the monastery. The truth is that I do very little. Sometimes I sit and think. Mostly I just sit or walk. Other times I write. The monastery is in rural Kentucky and surrounded by 2000+ acres of woods, fields, and lakes. It is a beautiful place. The silence, solitude, and beauty are all attractive to me. I don't feel the need to do anything except to be still and to take it all in. Most of my life, like many of yours, is filled with noise, the demands and expectations of other people, and the challenges of urban living. If I didn't maintain some sense of inner calm and peace, much of my life would drive me crazy. If life "in the world" is like a hurricane, the monastery for me is the calm found in the "eye" of the hurricane. It is difficult to describe in words the deep peace that can be found there. One must experience it to understand it.

Here are some websites if you are curious to know more about Thomas Merton and the monastery. Also, for those who might be interested in reading some of Thomas Merton's work, the following two books are a good place to start.

Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master/The Essential Writings edited by Lawrence S. Cunningham

The Intimate Merton by Thomas Merton. This book is a collection of highlights from his complete seven volume personal journals.



Monday, September 22, 2008

Another Busy Weekend

It is a quiet Sunday night as I write these thoughts. It has been a busy weekend. Four days and three nights of last week were spent without power whenever I was at home. It was inconvenient but not really stressful. I was able to make the best of the situation. Once the power was back on I had things to do at home to get my life back to normal. My wife and I intended to go to the grocery store on Friday night to begin the process of restocking our food supply. After busy work weeks neither of us were up to the task. We got up and did the grocery store thing on Saturday morning. Shortly afterwards Chloe arrived for a weekend visit. She loves to visit my wife and me. Think back to your own childhoods. Was there anything better than visiting Grandma and Pa Paw? Chloe was all smiles and big bright eyes as she helped my wife sort through her Halloween decorations and decide which ones to use. Chloe only had one story about her parents this time around. She told my wife and I that her dog did an unspeakable on one of her Dad's shirts. When asked if Dad was mad, she responded, "Yes, he yelled at the dog and used 'big people' words. Attention all parents: When your children visit their grandparents, they spill the beans about whatever goes on in your homes! After taking Chloe back home I visited my Mom and my Dad. Mom just got her power back on Saturday night. Fortunately a neighbor shared a generator so Mom was not completely in the dark. A tree did take out part of her fence but the old homestead was undamaged. After leaving Mom's I drove over to Dad's nursing home. It was the middle of the afternoon and he was in bed and out like a light. Normally I like to visit him at meal time so I can feed him. I wasn't able to do that yesterday so I caught him in the middle of nap time. I called his name but didn't try to hard to wake him. So, this visit was me simply sitting at his bedside and thinking about him at different times in his life and mind. I remembered younger versions of him and me and where we were and where we are now. It's been a long journey.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Death Of Richard Wright

Lost in the news of Hurricane Ike and the windstorm that hit Louisville was the quiet death of Richard Wright. Who is Richard Wright? He was a founding member and keyboard player for the great rock band Pink Floyd. He passed away a few days ago from cancer at the age of 65. Pink Floyd is one of my very favorite rock bands. Their songs have been part of the sound track of my life. I was able to see them on five different occasions. The first time was with my friend, Tom, way back in 1971 at a small venue in Cincinnati called the Taft Theater. Tom and I were 20 years old and the tickets cost $4.00. This concert is now considered legendary and I consider it one of the great musical experiences of my life. A few years later when I left the monastery, one of the first things my friend Tom did was take me to a Pink Floyd concert. That was quite a culture shock after living in a monastery. Richard Wright was never the star of Pink Floyd and he was rarely in the spotlight. However, he had much to do with the "Pink Floyd Sound", especially in their early years. Even someone in a supporting role can make a significant contribution. I'm sure some of you are Pink Floyd fans but others may not be familiar with them. Pink Floyd is one of the few rock bands that could rival the Rolling Stones in terms of filling up stadiums and generating ticket sales and CD purchases. To give you an idea of their worldwide popularity, their "Dark Side of the Moon" album was in the top 100 albums for 14 years! Here are what I consider their three most popular albums with most people. My personal favorites, however, are titled "Meddle", and especially the song called "Echoes", along with "Atom Heart Mother".

The Dark Side of the Moon
Wish You Were Here
The Wall

After I got home on Wednesday night and discovered I had power I wore myself out. I did all the laundry, ran the dishwasher, finished cleaning out the refrigerator, washed out the condiment containers so I could add them to my recycle bin, read three days worth of newspapers and about 75 emails. I was almost hyper in my attempts to catch up four days and three nights of "lost" time. After all this time with no power, I felt like a King with the electricity flowing. I like the simple life but I must admit I also like my creature comforts. Doing without them makes me appreciate them all the more.

Now that my power is back on, it will be a Chloe weekend. She is already getting excited about the approach of Halloween. I'm sure she and the Queen will have me hopping this weekend digging out our Halloween decorations. As you drive around town now there are increasing numbers of pumpkins at the local fruit and vegetable stands. At this moment Halloween still seems a long way off but this time of year seems to be on an accelerated schedule. As the holidays approach, the speed of life seems to increase and before you know it, January and a new year have arrived.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Into The Light And Some Thoughts On Work

About five minutes before I pulled in my driveway last night my power came back on. How do I know that? Well, when I walked into the house all the lights were on and the Grateful Dead were jamming over in my music room just like they were on Sunday afternoon when the power went out. The CD was on the 2nd song so they hadn't been playing for long. Needless to say, I was happy to have my power back. A house without power is like a body without a heartbeat. The heartbeat has been restored and now the house is alive again. I felt like staying home today just to enjoy my electricity! I am most grateful for all the men and women who have been working diligently to restore power to all the affected neighborhoods. I hope those of you still without power will soon see the light.

Almost everyone I speak with about work tends to have one thing in common. Most agree that work can be mentally exhausting. The combination of demands, needs, pace, people, deadlines, and everything else that is part of a typical day tend to drain the brain and leave one lifeless by the end of the day. I used to think it was just me and that it might be related to getting older. However, age doesn't seem to have anything to do with it. The young feel the same way. It's probably a good thing to be tired at the end of an honest day's work whether it's in the factory or the office. Being tired, however, and being exhausted are two different things. When you leave work with barely enough energy to drive home and maintain minimum life support systems at the same time, that's a little more than being tired. What's the solution? I don't think it's more sleep. I think it's more about perspective. In the world of modern work, who serves who? Does work serve the needs of people or are people serving the needs of work? At its best, work should be energizing and creative. In reality, the virtual work that most people do today is boring, repetitive to the point of monotonous, and there is little opportunity for creativity. The challenge of work needs to be something other than simply getting through it. I sometimes struggle with finding meaning in much of what I do. What I find most meaningful in my workday is my interactions with people. These encounters are not always directly related to work. For the most part, though, they are life giving and I find great satisfaction in them. I think most people want to find their work interesting, challenging, energizing, and satisfying. They want to bring something of themselves into what they do. How do we do that? I don't have all the answers but I think the key is the engagement of people with other people in positive and cooperative ways. I do the same kind of work as many other people but what might set me apart is the way I do it. I make no attempt to hide who I am and what I am. I think my personality colors everything I do. I want to be who I am and I want others to do the same. In the spiritual life one talks about the true self and the false self. I want to be my true self at work. Unfortunately, in many work environments, what is seen most often are people's false selves. People young and old falsely believe it's all a game or a play in which they are actors. It's get back to the age old problems of ego, desire for power, unhealthy competition, and looking for someone to blame when things go wrong. How revolutionary it would be to replace these negative traits with cooperation, mutual support, shared responsibility, acceptance of different points of view and approaches, tolerance, compassion, and gratitude. When this happens, it won't matter if the work is boring. People will be excited to work and interact with others. Happily for me, in my personal work environment, the people around me more often than not display the positive qualities I have listed above. Admittedly I dream of a day when I don't have to work, but since I do need to work now, I feel very lucky to work in such a pleasant environment.

The Darkness Continues....

Yesterday the Mayor of Louisville gave a press conference and shared the following information. There are approximately 300 telephone poles and 6000 wires down in the greater Louisville area. Many of the people who would be working on fixing this are actually in the Gulf helping it to recover from the worst of Hurricane Ike. Power for some people in my area could be out 10 to 14 more days. My wife and I went to the grocery store on Monday night. It was one of the few that has power. When you eliminate food that requires cooking and refrigeration, what you basically have are peanut butter, Pop Tarts, and fruit. Amazingly, it wasn't a war zone and was not very crowded. It's probably because very little of the available food can actually be prepared and eaten. Those who can, cook on gas grills. I had to throw away all the food in my refrigerator. At the local convenient store the hot commodities were gasoline ($4.19 a gallon) and coffee ($1.29 for a small cup). People were lined up at both. Starbucks stock is probably going up while my 401K goes down the drain. There are a few fast food restaurants open for business. Some will only allow drive through business. As you can imagine, there is usually a long line. I find all of this tolerable but also a bit scary. When you take away the basics of life, society can quickly fall into anarchy. If you don't believe me, watch the evening news. The good news is that most people are still being patient at this time and there was still peace and cooperation at Thornton's coffee machine this morning. Now if I can just get some laundry done.

There is no doubt in my mind that I have a 57 year old body. I have the scars and aches and pains to prove it. I am bald, my hair is gray, I'm half blind, I've blown some of my hearing out from too many loud rock concerts, my knees hurt when I walk down the stairs, and when I sleep late on the weekends I wake up feeling like a 90 year old man. My first ten or fifteen steps each day are like watching the evolution of man from a creature walking on all fours to the moment in history when he could stand straight up on two feet. I take prescription drugs twice a day and my intestinal tract is like a very delicate eco system that must be carefully balanced or it is upset. At the same time, even though I am sometimes forgetful and have "senior moments", I think my mind is probably as good as it's ever going to be. I feel intelligent but that might just be a personal opinion. In spite of all of this, in many ways this is the best time of my life. I am generally relaxed about life and it's challenges. There is not much that really upsets me. I still get annoyed and frustrated, and sometimes I flail, but such feelings pass quickly and are forgotten even faster. As the famous baseball player, Satchel Paige, once said, "Age is mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter". When I do things like attend a rock concert I am not trying to recapture my lost youth. It may, however, be an attempt to not get old. Using the "if you don't use it, you'll lose it" attitude, if I don't rock and roll, rocking on the front porch may be all I can do. Even though my mind sometimes "clocks" like a computer trying to pull data, I nevertheless always try to keep it open and ready for a new idea or another way of looking at life. I hope my mind and body can be active until my last breath. I hope my eyes are remain good enough that I can always read books. I hope my ears can always hear music and the sound of laughter. I hope I never loose my sense of humor so others can hear me laughing. I hope I can always type so I can continue to write. I hope my heart always works so it can pump blood through my body and that I can always feel love for life and people. I hope I am always passionate about life and beauty. At some point I will surely wear out this body so I hope when that day comes I can relax knowing I got all I could out of it. I also hope that the spirit of Michael will continue to live on in whatever form it may take.

Living In The Dark

There were still 200,000 people without power in the Louisville area on Tuesday morning and I was one of them. I can still think of three reasons to be happy.

We have a full moon that provides some light in the darkness.

The weather is cool and air conditioning is not missed.

I still have hot water so I can take showers.

It may be a another long night spent in semi darkness. Although I am very inconvenienced by the lack of electrical power, I am also very grateful that no one I know was hurt by the storm and my home was not damaged. I know some of you probably have sustained some damage. I hope it was not too traumatic. I think it is good to be inconvenienced from time to time. It certainly gets life down to basics as well as give one a whole new appreciation for such things as light, refrigeration, electric ranges, television, the Internet, and a myriad of other things that most of us take for granted. It also gives me some solidarity with the millions who live on the Gulf Coast and who's inconvenience is much greater than mine. My power may be out but my house is still standing and my employer is still operating. I actually enjoyed some of yesterday's experience. I spent much of Sunday afternoon sitting on my front porch taking in the awesome power of nature as the winds blew through my neighborhood. I enjoyed the cool air that came with the wind and as evening came I sat in my chair and enjoyed the silence and sounds of the night. Last night was the first night in quite a while that I have slept with the windows open. I wrote up periodically through out the night and the silence was deep and the darkness was great. I was actually kind of happy as I breathed in the cool night air and realized I was sleeping in my own bed. If this goes on all week it may seem less wonderful but still, I cannot complain too much. Fortunately, the weather has cooled substantially so the lack of air conditioning is not a hardship. So many people in so many places in the world suffer through much more than me. How can I complain?

Out of curiosity I once looked up contemplation in the dictionary. Three of the definitions were 1) The act or state of contemplation, 2) Thoughtful observation of study, 3) Meditation on spiritual matters. I think contemplation can be learned but some personality types seem to be naturally contemplative. In all the major religions there are contemplative traditions but I also think you can be a contemplative person without necessarily being a person who practices a particular religion. In my mind a contemplative person is one who takes the time to stand back or step away from the fast pace of life and simply breathe. The contemplative is someone who likes life in the slow lane. A contemplative gets caught up in the "flow" of life. It's about being awake enough and present enough to not only notice the flowers but also be willing to stop and smell them. It's being present to life in all it's details, also know as mindfulness. Perhaps you are aware of the story of the prophet Elijah from the Book of Kings in the Hebrew scriptures. He had challenged the prophets of the false god Baal to a duel. To make a long story short, Elijah won so they ran him out of town. He hid in a cave on a mountain. There was thunder and lightening and earthquakes and all that kind of stuff but God was not present in them. Finally, there was a small whispering sound like a gentle breeze. Elijah hid his face for in this God was present. The contemplative person is one who has achieved an interior quiet that allows him to notice the small whispering sounds in life where God is often present. If you are constantly running through life with your hair on fire, busy all the time, stressed out, and meeting yourself coming and going, you will miss such opportunities.

The Remnants of Hurricane Ike

The remnants of Hurricane Ike came through Louisville on Sunday afternoon with wind gusts up to 75 miles an hour. Between 200 and 300 thousand people lost their power. I am one of them. My power at home has been out since 1:00 PM on Sunday so I'v had no access to my home computer until tonight. The good news is that my family and I are OK and the only damage sustained were a few downed tree limbs.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sometimes Boys And Men Cry Too

All of my daily thoughts are also posted on this blog. Sometimes I get responses from people in other parts of the world. Publishing my thoughts on the Internet has greatly expanded the number of potential readers. I am reminded how powerful my words and the words of others can be. I have no idea how many people see and read my daily thoughts. People seem curious about this. More than once I have been asked, "So how many people actually read your thoughts"? I can estimate how many are on my email distribution. However, I have no idea how many of you forward them to others who forward them to others, etc, or how many read them on the Internet. In my mind, my daily thoughts are like seeds that are scattered to the wind. Where they go and where they land is anyone's guess. Many days I hear from someone telling me I wrote what they needed to hear. Other days my readers are silent. Most days I wonder if I even said anything of value. I am a life long spiritual seeker and when I think I have found something of value along my path, I usually share it, hoping it is of value to others. Sometimes I think people believe I am always at peace, always centered, and never flustered. One or two think I glow in the dark because of the Zen flame that burns within me. (smile) The truth is that I am pretty average and I often struggle with my life and the challenges it presents. I am a naturally introspective person. My daily thoughts simply represent a transformation from a private journal keeper to a more public thinker. I am not always right and sometimes I probably have no idea what I am talking about. I simply think out loud and others often agree with me or are prompted to do their own reflections. I've proven that an ordinary guy can think deeply about life and God and granddaughters and music and many other things. My daily thoughts are simply my life as well as many of the conversations going on inside my mind and heart.

Once I was playing with my granddaughter, Chloe. At one point, and I can't remember why, I pretended to cry. Chloe lifted her hand and said, "Stop! Boys don't cry"! Where did she pick up that message? Why does a young child...a girl...think boys don't cry? I assured her that boys...and Pa Paw's...sometimes cry. There's a myth in our culture that men do not cry, feel few emotions, and have no deep feelings. I know that I am not a typical man. However, I believe that even so called "tough" men have feelings. What we have not traditionally had is permission to express them. To be healthy, all men and women need a balance of masculine and feminine traits. As a man I am expected to be tough with my feelings tightly wound and held within. As a man, I certainly can be tough when the situation requires it. But anyone who has read my daily thoughts for any length of time knows the kind of emotion I am capable of expressing. Women do not have a monopoly on kindness, affection, and sensitivity. I am proud to be a sensitive man who is not afraid or embarrassed to express his feelings. I urge all of you who have influence in the lives of boys and young men to help them be in touch with their feelings. Sensitive and caring men are not usually full of the stereotypical male bravado but they often possess a quiet strength that will outlast the false courage of so called tough men.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Why Do We Dislike Change?

Here are a few Chloe moments....

Once my wife was getting after Chloe for doing something. Chloe looked at me and said, "Pa Paw, make her mouth stop"! I looked at Chloe and said, "Honey, if I could do that I would have done it 30 years ago"!

Whenever Chloe spends the night at my house she sleeps with my wife and me. This past weekend after we got in bed and turned off the lights she looked at my wife and said, "Meemo, don't tell us we can't talk"!

Yesterday morning when I pulled into the parking garage at work I was jamming to "Shock the Monkey" by Peter Gabriel. Later, when I got back into the car at lunch time, the song picked up exactly where it had left off four hours earlier. It did not miss a beat. Friendship can be like that. Around mid morning I received some thoughts on friendship from someone I consider a close friend. Later, I was at lunch with a relatively new friend who has been a pastor, chaplain, and counselor. As I get to know him better, I like him more and more. We seem to connect with one another easily and we are able to have deep and intimate conversations about our lives. All of these things made me reflect on friendship and how the right people seem to enter our lives. These thoughts filled my head as I drove along the Ohio River on an absolutely gorgeous day. I have more friends than I can count. They are all over the place. I feel very blessed that there are so many people who's company I enjoy or who I can communicate with in a meaningful way. Admittedly, not all of them are intimate friendships. My inner circle is small. My outer circle, however, contains many people. I relate to all of them on some level. It's probably safe to say that most of them fill some need within me. Some people I see everyday, some occasionally, and a few rarely. With true friends, years can go by and when you are blessed to be with one another, it's like my experience with the Peter Gabriel song. The gap of time closes and you find that the friendship hasn't missed a beat. If you are blessed to have friends, whether they be intimate friends, or casual friends and acquaintances, do not take that for granted. It is a great gift to be blessed with friends. They warm the heart and light your path in a world that is sometimes cold and dark.

Change is something that none of us can escape and many do not like. The Buddha says that "All things are impermanent". I have often wondered why we are so reluctant to change. I think it is only human to like what feels familiar and what feels comfortable. I know that I personally like the familiar. I am also a creature of habit who likes some routine in their day. Routine can be a skeleton on which everything else can hang. I have sometimes been resistant to change using the argument that I just prefer stability. However, I think the reality is that my primary resistance to some change is that it's never an improvement. It's just change. I don't think people in general like to change unless the change makes life better. Show people an improvement and most will readily embrace the new and better way. Why is their so much change in modern life? Is it because life and the world move so fast that the motion itself is constantly rearranging all of life's molecules? I have lived in the same city most of my life. Sometimes when I am driving around I wonder about the landmarks that have disappeared and that have been replaced by new landmarks. Sometimes it seems to have happened overnight while other change is so slow that you never notice it until the transformation has completed itself. I look in the mirror and wonder what happened to the young man I once was. I didn't wake up one day and suddenly be the bald, grey bearded, middle aged man I now am. The transformation from a young man to an older man occurred one day at a time in moments where I tried to be present and mindful but I still did not always notice the change. Change never stops. Even though I know I have a psychological predisposition to fight life and sometimes resist it, as I get older I try to let that go and simply flow with the changes of life. When life changes for the better...and it sometimes does....I enjoy it. When I do not like the change, I simply make the best of it, wait it out or adapt as needed. I know my situation will change again as surely as the sun will rise and set.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who Is It We Meet On The Street?

In the early afternoon yesterday I finally got a chance to go outside. I didn't expect the very cool and blustery weather. It felt wonderful and it reminded me of all the beautiful days ahead as we enter into the autumn of this year. The cool air totally revived me. I could have spent the rest of the afternoon just walking around downtown.

Once, on a day like the one I described above, I was walking down Main Street yesterday on my way to a lunch date with friends. A homeless lady, sitting on a bench, called to me as I walked by, "Hey, Grandpa, do you have some money that you can spare"? First of all, she looked older than me so I'm not sure why she called me Grandpa. It would have been more appropriate to call me "Sonny". I felt badly because I had no cash and only a few coins in my pocket. I gave her what I had and she was grateful. It bothered me that she might be hungry while I was on my way to a nice lunch with friends. I've always been told that you shouldn't give money to homeless people because they usually just looking for that next drink. This lady didn't appear to be an alcoholic and street people, even the scary ones, always touch my heart and I usually share whatever money I have. My life is so blessed. I always have food, a warm bed, a roof over my head, and lots of friends. Plus, Jesus says, "Whatever you do for the least of my brethren, you do for me". When I encounter homeless people I actually wonder if I am truly encountering God. Is this person who is sometimes smelly and dirty really God crossing my path? God is not always appealing in appearance. He's not always dressed in pure white robes and glowing with divine light. God is present in any person who needs kindness, regardless of the package in which they are wrapped.

The theme of the 24th verse of the Tao Te Ching is "Living Without Excess". Let me quote part of the verse....

Showing off does not reveal enlightenment.Boasting will not produce accomplishment.He who is self righteous is not respected.He who brags will not endure.When walking the path of the Tao,this is the very stuff that must be uprooted, thrown out, and left behind.

A poem by the Persian poet Hafiz expresses this theme very well.

Even after all this time, the sun never says to the earth, "You owe me."
Look what happens with a love like that,It lights the whole sky.

Here are some highlights from Dr. Wayne Dyer's commentary on Verse 24.

The path of the Tao needs to be cleared of any weeds of excessive personal importance.

Everything you see, touch, or own is a gift so you should suspend your ego and seek an attitude gratitude and generosity.

Walk the path of the Tao by being a giver rather than a taker, providing for others and asking nothing in return.

View your desire to brag and seek approval as weeds appearing on your journey.

Seeing yourself as important and special is walking the path of ego.

Change your life by consciously choosing to be in a state of gratitude.

Let the words, "thank you" be always on your lips. Give thanks for everything. It doesn't matter who you thank, i.e. God, Spirit, Allah, the Tao, Krishna, or Buddha, because all those names represent the great wisdom traditions.

Change your life by examining your urge to boast and be self-righteous.

By returning to radical humility and seeing the greatness within everyone, you have cleared your life of excessive self importance.

Today.....express your kindness to someone who will be totally surprised by your actions.

Here's quote sent to me yesterday after my thoughts about politics, religion, and music.

The best thing to come out of religion is the music.
-George Carlin

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Music As A Unifying Force

I stayed at home yesterday because I didn't feel very well. A trip to the doctor informed me that after 57+ years of living in the Ohio Valley I now officially suffer from allergies. I began to feel badly on Friday and things got progressively worse over the weekend. I thought my symptoms were those of a cold so that's how I treated them. Frankly, I can't tell much difference between a cold and allergies. The cold medicine, however, seemed to do little. Yesterday, after the doctor visit, the allergy medicine worked much better. Today I am pretty much back to normal which means I can breathe. However, I still retain all my normal, everyday aches and pains.

Even though I woke up on Saturday morning with a NyQuil hangover, I crawled out of bed about 7:00 AM so I could do the Alzheimer's Memory Walk. I ate a bowl of Rice Krispies and made some coffee before heading over to my son's house to pick him up along with Chloe. The three of us headed downtown to meet up with other members of my family. Although I don't have exact figures, I am happy to announce that readers of my daily thoughts contributed approximately $300 to Alzheimer's research and my family at large raised approximately $4000. My sincere appreciation and gratitude to every that was able to contribute as well as those that wanted to but couldn't at this time. After the walk my entire family met at Dad's nursing home to surprise him with a visit. Needless to say, the visit made his day and I could see the emotion and happiness in his face. Pictures were taken and as soon as I receive my copies, I will share with all of you.

I dislike politics and I also have some reservations about religion. The main reason is because I believe both divide people more than unite them. Most unity found in politics or religion is simply the false unity of people being united with other people who think and look the same. In my experience, the most unifying force in the world is music. Music can unite people in a way that politics and religion can only hope to do. I was reminded of this while at home yesterday. I was sitting in my chair watching a DVD called "Santana/Hymns for Peace". It was a special concert to promote peace and understanding among people. Carlos Santana was the band leader of a band that included Hispanics, African Americans, and Caucasians. It was a stellar band that included not only Carlos Santana, one of the world's premier guitar players, but other luminaries such as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ravi Coltrane, Steve Winwood, as well as some lesser known male and female singers. Together they played the music of John Coltrane, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and Miles Davis, finishing the concert with Beethoven's "Ode to Joy". All of these musicians and all of the songs were very soulful. Soulful music touches the heart and the soul at a deeply spiritual level. Some music is just fun but some music is also very spiritual and such a concert as this is "church" in a very real way. If you like multi cultural/multi ethnic music with soul, played by soulful and highly skilled musicians, I recommend this DVD. It was all recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 2004.

Friday, September 05, 2008

There Are No Accidents

The last couple of evenings I have taken some serious naps. These naps transcended time and when I woke up I didn't know what year it was and my beard had grown four feet long. I thought I was just tired. Yesterday afternoon I started sneezing and now I am in the midst of a head cold or sinus attack. I can never tell the difference. I realize now the deep naps were a warning that something was coming.

Way back in February someone ran into my car and did $5000 damage. It was my fault and I almost deserved it for being so stupid. Thank God no one was hurt. In the world of car insurance such an event is called an "accident". That's a fairly descriptive term since I didn't do it on purpose. It would be a very scary way to get a new door and bumper. In much of life, however, I do not think there are such things as accidents. There is serendipity and happenstance. Some people think that coincidence is God 's way of acting in our lives. I feel certain that most things happen for a reason. A month or so ago I was asked to be part of a focus group here at work. I'm not sure why I was even asked. While attending the meeting I spoke whenever I thought it was appropriate. I think there were a few moments when I was a little passionate about what I was saying. I noticed from the corner of my eye that a person I did not know was occasionally smiling and nodding his head whenever I spoke. Later, after the meeting, he introduced himself and complimented me on what I said and how well I said it. We hit it off immediately and have stayed in contact. Yesterday we had a very enjoyable lunch together and I believe we are kindred spirits. The point of this story is that I believe the right people come into our lives at the right time and in the right place. I am not sure yet what purpose this new friend has for me or me for him. I do know, however, that my life has been filled with the right people at the right time in the right places. None of these encounters was an accident and most have had a purpose that I eventually realized. Hopefully, I have been the right person at the right time in the right place for others. All of us are like stones thrown into a placid lake or pond. Some of us make a big splash in others lives and then we are gone. Others create a ripple effect that will continue beyond our vision. The things we say and do can also be like seeds that are scattered to the wind. Many of them will take root even if we never see the growth. Most of us will never sit in the shade of trees we have planted. Regardless, we should not underestimate the effect that life's "accidents" have on us. For everything there is a reason and a purpose. My daily thoughts began as an accident and now they sometimes feel like the most important thing I do everyday.

Once I attended a Zen mindfulness day with some friends. It was an early spring day and we were on a farm. The day consisted of meditation, writing, and Zen walks. When it was time to walk, the Zen Master would ring a bell and we would follow him in single file through the fields. From time to time, he would ring the bell and we would stop walking. During one of these pauses, I became aware of what a beautiful day it was. The sky was deep blue, the sun was shining bright, and there was a chill in the air. I was totally in the moment. In the midst of this moment, I looked down and realized I was standing in a pile of cow dung. The bell rang again and we starting walking back to the farm house where we meditated and wrote in our journals. The Zen Master asked if we had any thoughts about our walk. I described my experience of being in the moment and then realizing I was standing in cow dung. He has me what realization I had in that moment. My response was "Life can be wonderful and beautiful even when you are standing in a pile of cow dung"!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

More On The Ego

I am continuing to read "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle. Here are a few of his thoughts about the ego mixed with a few of my own thoughts. All of us want to feel a sense of wholeness. Our ego can drive us into a compulsive pursuit of ego gratification to fill the hole within us. We strive after possessions, money, success, power, recognition, or a special relationship, basically so we can feel better about ourselves and to feel complete. However, even when we attain all these things, we find that the hole is still there and that it is bottomless. As long as your ego is running your life, you cannot truly be at ease. You cannot be at peace or feel fulfilled except for the brief intervals where your ego is being satisfied. The ego represents a sense of the self. It identifies with external things and needs to be constantly fed. The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance, special abilities, relationships, personal and family history, belief systems, and often our political, nationalistic, racial, religious, and collective identifications. None of these is you. Do you find this frightening or is it a relief? Much of the spiritual life and, ultimately, death, is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to "die before you die" and discover there is no death. When everything is stripped away, all that is left is our true essence. This essence is who we are in God. This state is what the Buddhists call "discovering the face you had before you were born". Christians would call this discovering your true self. All that is not you is your false self. We are born perfect and then we spend most of our lives becoming less perfect. At some point, hopefully, we begin to awaken and to throw off the accumulation of the ego including all the masks we wear. In some ways life is little more than a masquerade party. None of us are who we appear to be. Who we are is hidden beneath our ego's and masks. Oddly enough, we are often afraid to let the world see who we really are. The irony is that who we really are, not who we pretend to be, is really our most beautiful self.

Once a friend came to me after attending a funeral for the 18 year old sibling of one of her best friends. She expressed to me how difficult the funeral was for her and how helpless she felt to console her friend. She asked me what could be said in such a situation. It is difficult for anyone to find the right words in such a situation. I have been through similar experiences. When I was 29 years old, my younger brother in law was killed by a drunk driver. A few years later a child in my neighborhood died in a house fire across the street from where I lived. Another time the only son of a good friend died of cancer at age 20. When my youngest son, Nick, was 17 years old, his best friend died unexpectedly the day after spending the night at our house. Each time I felt helpless as I struggled to find words for a sister in law, a neighbor, a friend, and my son. It is always difficult to deal with the death of a young person. None of us understand why such things happen. If God has anything to do with it, I don't understand what He's thinking. What's his purpose? What's the point? Why is such sorrow brought upon spouses, parents, friends, and relatives? Sometimes I shudder when, in such circumstances, I hear people say, "It's God's will". I don't like to let God off the hook so easily. There is probably a very thin line between what God wills and what God allows. I will accept the fact that many things in life are a mystery and one can have lengthy theological discussions about God and evil and why bad things happen to good people. I don't understand everything that happens in life and I certainly couldn't give my friend or others easy explanations for why 18 year olds die and other's live to be 100 years old. Do the good die young? Yes, sometimes. Do bad people live long lives? Yes, sometimes. Do some of us live long lives because we need a lot of time for a deep spiritual transformation to take place within us? This is very likely. Life really is a mystery. It is not likely we will solve it's mystery this side of the grave. Through faith we believe and trust that our lives and the lives of others, no matter how short, have a purpose and life is not just a series of random, meaningless experiences. I must believe that life and pain have meaning and someday I hope to understand it. Part of the mystery of life is that we never know when it will end. This should motivate us to live each day well and to the fullest.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Last Of The Quiet Places

The last quiet place in my office is gone. I went into the men's room yesterday morning and there was music being piped in. I know on some dairy farms they play classical music for the cows because it is believed that it makes them produce more milk. I'm not sure what music in the men's room is supposed to produce. This mentality of filling every space outside the work areas with noise began a while back when they put televisions in the break rooms. What was once a reasonably quiet sanctuary became filled with the sounds of game shows, Judge Judy, and soap operas. A few months ago someone started pumping rock and roll into the previously quiet stairwells. I almost fell down the stairs one day after an involuntary dance move was caused by the blaring of Prince's 1999 anthem. I thought to myself as I tripped, "I'm gonna fall like it's 1999"! The men's room was my last refuge. Now there is no where to go for quiet. My actual workspace is reasonably quiet if you don't count ringing telephones and the general activity and conversations of the people around you. In the past someone had the vision to replace a building behind my office with a park. Green space in the downtown area is always a welcome sight. Now is the time for someone to have a new vision that provides some quiet space within the building. The average person is bombarded on a daily basis with thousands of images and all kinds of audio noise. What we need are some places where we can go and simply bathe in the silence. Everyone who knows me, or reads these thoughts, knows I love rock and roll music, but not everywhere, all the time. As one of the monks says, "Even Beethoven is noise if played all day". All of this reminds me of a comedy skit I saw once. A man goes to a crowded beach where everyone is listening to music from their boom boxes. The man quietly unfolds his beach towel , sits down, gets out his head phones and puts on a nature tape of ocean waves.

Why do other people sometimes drive you crazy? Why do you do the same to them? Why do people often seem to be at odds? One tool that helps deal with this is the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator. This is a personality type test that I'm sure many of you are familiar with. Every time I take the test I come out the same. I am an Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiver or INFP. After the last time I took this test I had something of an epiphany. It wasn't a completely new insight. I think it was something I already knew about myself but it really hit home this time. I think I finally realize why I find so much of life, and especially work, exhausting. My personality is in conflict with most of the ways of the world. I am an Introvert in an extroverted, ego driven world. I am an Intuitive in a "show me the data" work environment. I make judgements based on my personal values rather than someone else's rules. I prefer my life open ended and not bound by other people's schedules or deadlines. I am not suggesting that the whole world change to meet my personal needs, although that would be very nice. Of course, that will never happen. It's just that I realize more than ever that I spend a lot of energy living outside my personal comfort zone. I will still have to do this on a regular basis and I am OK with that. I guess the epiphany for me is the realization of how much energy this demands of me. Some of you will feel this in different ways. Those of you with a personality type opposite of mine thrive on what drives me crazy. Perhaps you can't live without human interaction. Maybe you aren't able to make decisions without data. You wouldn't dream of breaking the rules. A life without dates, times, and deadlines is unimaginable to you. We are all different in how we deal with life and it's demands. If you are unfamiliar with the Myers-Briggs and wonder about your type, I have included a link to an on-line test that you can take and score yourself. It may answer a lot of questions you have about your own behavior and preferences.


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Last Long Weekend Of Summer

This last long weekend of the summer was a quiet, uneventful, and leisurely time for me. I had no commitments so my wife and I stayed close to home. I only ventured out twice and one of those times was to visit my father in the nursing home. It was a good visit and he is doing as well as can be expected. One thought I had during this visit is how much old age and illness makes everyone equal. My father never finished high school. He shares a room with a man who I'm told was a Harvard professor. Dad has adapted to the routine of nursing home living and, if not happy with his circumstances, he at least seems content. During the times I am with him he never complains about the hand that life has dealt him. The rest of the weekend I got plenty of rest without sleeping my leisure time away. When I am able to sleep eight hours at night, there is rarely need for nap. Yesterday I simply relaxed while keeping an eye on the news coverage of Hurricane Gustav and another eye on the pot of chili I had simmering in the kitchen. I am glad the chili turned out to be good because I will be eating it again for lunch today.

As far as I am concerned, summer ended this weekend. We are entering into my favorite time of the year. The next long weekend will be Thanksgiving weekend.

When I have very busy days I try to find some quiet and peaceful moments somewhere. Once, while sitting alone in a break room at work, I was lost in my thoughts and eating Scooby Doo Graham Crackers that were shaped liked dog biscuits. I took them from the cabinet at home where we keep treats for my granddaughter, Chloe. These thoughts, however, are not about Scooby Doo or Graham Crackers. They are about making time in your day, no matter how busy it is, for some silence and solitude. Most of our lives are filled with busyness and many activities and demands. Our lives can make us feel like spinning tops. Sometimes this makes us feel like our lives are out of control. Sometimes we spin so fast and for so long that we feel we cannot stop. This is not good for human beings and sooner or later you will come to a stop because you will have crashed. It is important to take some time throughout your day, if only for a few minutes, to simply stop and breathe. That's what I was doing while eating my Scoopy Doo Graham Crackers. While eating them I quietly said, "O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me". This short prayer is the opening to all the prayers said by the monks at the monastery. The have selected prayers for every part of the day. These prayers are called the Liturgy of the Hours. Many people know these types of prayers as "Monastic Chant". The monks begin their day in the middle of the night with Vigils at 3:15 AM and end their day with Compline, also know as night prayer, at 7:30 PM. Their entire day is broken up by these pauses for prayer. Most people living in the world cannot formally stop six or seven times a day and spend 15 - 30 minutes in prayers. I do wish business offices had non denominational meditation rooms where employees could have personal quiet time on their breaks and lunches. What I do throughout my day, when the Spirit moves me, is attempt to have a quiet moment within myself. No one knows when I do this and it doesn't draw any attention to me. I need to do this for my own spiritual benefit and to maintain some sense of centeredness in my day. I encourage all of you to periodically pause in your day and retreat within the solitary place that's deep within you. It is the pause that refreshes.