Thursday, April 30, 2009

What Is The Best Of Each Day?

Although I didn't realize it at the time, today's Tao thought ties in a little with what I wrote yesterday.

Nothing is meant to be, There is no predestination.

Let me quote from the commentary for today's Tao thought.

Those who follow Tao endeavor to have as few restrictions placed on them as possible. By completing each action, they minimize causality. By living fully in the present, they absorb the best of what each day has to offer. By understanding there is no literal destiny, fate, or predestination, they keep the future as free and open as possible. That is truly the openness of life.

For the average person living an ordinary life, this openness of life can seem beyond their grasp. Many people, and I am one of them, often feel trapped in the demands and obligations of life as well as the expectations of others. This is a recurring theme in my life. Beyond the feeling of being trapped, the routines and sameness of most days feels anything but free and open. As I get older I feel a greater sense of urgency about the quality of my life. I am not talking about material comfort. I have enough stuff and I am content with this aspect of my life. I am less content with the emotional side of my life. To many my life may appear peaceful and calm on the surface. Inside, however, I am often in turmoil. What does "living fully in the present" have to say about that? I'm not sure I know the answer to that. The practice of mindfulness may give me a greater appreciation for the moment but it also sometimes causes me to be even more lost within myself. This wandering within myself makes me wonder, "What am I looking for? What am I chasing? What am I running away from? What is it I expect from life"? Happiness must be based on something more than the fact that nothing terrible is happening. Sometimes I hear people say things like, "Nothing good is really happening but nothing bad is happening either" or "Life is very boring but that's a good thing because it means nothing bad is happening". I don't want to feel good about life simply because nothing bad is happening. There's no joy in that. A good day has to offer more than the absence of the worst each day could bring.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

All Life Is Spiritual

When we start out on a spiritual path we often have ideals we think we're supposed to live up to.
-Pema Chodron

The idea of living a spiritual life is full of notions about what that might mean and how it is supposed to look. I am currently trying to live a spiritual life that overcomes many years of Catholic guilt as well as other people's ideas about what a spiritual life is. I wish I could talk about it without even using the term "spiritual life". For me the spiritual path is an unmarked trail into the unknown. It's debatable whether or not the path I am on is even spiritual. My experience tells me that what often feels spiritual is perhaps not spiritual at all while that which seems unspiritual may be the most spiritual of all. One of my goals is to eliminate the whole question of what's spiritual and what is not spiritual. My goal is to simply live and evolve into a more authentic person. I find that much about religion is an obstacle to attaining this goal. Religion has too many expectations, too many rules, to say nothing about being judgmental and exclusive. Although I do not live a monastic life, I like the archetype of the wandering monk. I am not talking about the kind of wandering monk criticized by St. Benedict in his Rule for Monasteries. I am thinking more about a kind of "monk" who has no roots in this world. Something that is perhaps closer to a Brahmin in the Buddhist tradition. This kind of "monk" is someone like myself who is open to where life takes him and who tries to see all the experiences of life as lessons from which to learn. In addition to an openness to what life can teach you, there is also an openness to the transcendent and the extraordinary that can be found in the ordinary events and moments of daily life. It's almost a return to the primeval experience of the "Other" before religion took over spirituality. Does this make sense to anyone but me?

Speaking of the spiritual life....check this out.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Poem From A Friend

A friend wrote the following poem. It is inspired by one of my favorite poets.

The Beckoning
after a poem by Hafiz

Every three-year old knows full well what it feels like to be alive
Not a life frozen solid into a role
Not a life twisted in knots by all the rules
Not a life that holds its breath waiting, waiting for the next shoe to drop
But the Life brimming with passion,energy and warmth
The Life that is constantly beckoning each and every one of us with this simple plea
Come dance with me. Come dance with me. Come dance.
-by Joe Zarantenello

Making A Difference

In the biography of Pete Townshend that I am currently reading he laments that he thought he would make a difference in the world because of two paths he had walked in life. His lament is that neither path has made much of a difference. The first path was rock and roll which he though would change the world. I think all of us who grew up in the sixties thought rock and roll would change the world. Every generation has their music but I am not sure there has ever been such a strong connection between music and a generation as there was in the late sixties. It seemed like a spiritual connection and a concert was often like a religious experience. Maybe it was just the drugs. The other path Pete walked was spirituality. He thought that by following the teachings of a spiritual master he would be transformed into a better person. He concludes that rock and roll hasn't changed the world and that trying to be spiritual hasn't really transformed him into a better person. Despite all his efforts he still battles with the same demons. He ends by saying that anything of significance to be accomplished by him hasn't happened yet. Who among us doesn't feel like this much of our lives? I have often asked myself, "What difference have I made in this world? Have I accomplished anything worthwhile"? In a world of overachievers, the average person can feel like they have made no difference at all. It is easy to feel insignificant. I would be greatly challenged to list what I consider my accomplishments in life. Apart from achievement and relevance, it is also difficult to gauge any real spiritual transformation. When I was 21 years old I was a novice in a Trappist monastery. Now I am 58 years old and I feel spiritually lost. I thought that by now there would be some significant spiritual growth but its been incremental at best. This time of my life is certainly a time where I feel I am wandering in the desert. I ask myself, "What transformation, if any, has occurred within me since I was that young boy in the monastery"? Perhaps I am a poor judge of myself but it would seem that all the years of study, reflection, and meditation have not changed much about me. At this time I feel as though I have more "issues" than ever before. Of course, my current spiritual and psychological disarray might be growth. The internal chaos I currently feel may birth a new me like the "big bang" created a new universe. I haven't changed the world and I'm not sure I have changed myself. Still, I hope that somehow my life does make a difference and that something of significance has been accomplished. Even better, I hope the best is yet to come.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The INFP Experience

My wife had a doctor's appointment this morning so we both got to sleep a little later than normal for a workday. I was lost in my dreams when a very joyous bird began singing it's hymn to the dawn. The sound was so sweet, clear, and vivid that I wouldn't have been surprised to find the bird perched on my night stand. I wasn't quite ready to wake up but the singing was very beautiful so I simply laid in bed and listened. Such singing is one of the sure signs of spring. Spring? It felt more like summer this past weekend with temperatures in the high 80's. Despite the heat it was a beautiful weekend. I must admit, however, that I spent most of the weekend in my house. I had nothing to do, nowhere to go, and two days to get there.

Yesterday I more or less wrote that most of the joy in my life doesn't involve people. What does this mean? I know I am an introvert but am I also a failure in relationships? I really have no one that I consider a best friend. There is really no one that knows everything about me. It's not that I have anything to hide. There are no skeletons in my closet. I just mean that there is no one with whom I am close enough or trusting enough to be completely honest about everything I think or feel. When I have a bad day there is no one I call. On a good day I am a withdrawn and solitary person. On a bad day I just withdraw even more. I have the true INFP experience as described in most Myers-Briggs documentation. What is the INFP experience? Here's one brief description.

Life as an INFP (Introvert, Intuitive, Feeler, Perceiver) People of this type tend to be: quiet, reserved, and kind; deeply passionate, sensitive, and easily hurt; loving and dedicated to those close to them; creative, original, and imaginative; curious and flexible in small matters; nonconforming. The most important thing to INFPs is their deeply held beliefs and living in harmony with their values.

I think I do feel different than most people. I rarely meet someone who is temperamentally like me. I often feel that no one really understands me and I don't really know what to do about it. My love of solitude is really more of an escape. When I am alone I can avoid my issues and not have to deal with anyone. Last night it occurred to me that I need to find something outside of myself in which to spend what limited energy I have. I am too self absorbed and this usually causes me to feel sad or depressed. The question is "What can I do or what should I do"? One thing is for sure. I need a vacation from myself.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

What Gives Me Joy

Without a doubt the number one source of joy for me is my granddaughter. I just saw her a little while ago. She and her parents stopped by my house on their way to the zoo. She is the most loving and affectionate person I know. I get excited every time I see her. I love her very much, even when she misbehaves. I hope I live long enough to watch her grow into a woman. Admittedly there are moments I wish she would also stay the little child she is now. However, I look forward to our continuing and developing relationship. Being her grandfather is the most satisfying role in my life.

Another huge source of joy in my life is music. Nothing, including people, has given me as many hours and moments of pure joy as music. It doesn't matter if I am alone, with a few close friends, or with thousands of strangers. Music has always been my best friend. I can't even imagine the joy it would bring me if I was also a musician.

The monastery is another source of joy for me although its joyfulness has diminished over the years because of my increased dealings with people within the context of the monastery. For many years it was my place of refuge and now, more often than not, I am there to participate in some type of group activity. Too often now it is work and no longer rest. Still, I am a lover of the place and it is one of the anchors of my life.

Solitude is also a source of joy for me. I am never unhappy when I am alone. Although I am generally kind and friendly with others, there are very few people who's company I truly enjoy. If I am honest, and I always try to be, I find that other people are best enjoyed in limited and small doses. It is the rare person who doesn't wear me out eventually. It sometimes bothers me that I find other people difficult to be around. I wish I was more outgoing and extroverted but I am not. I am who I am.

Books have also been a major source of joy for me. As the musician Robert Fripp once said, "Me and a book is a party. Me and a book and a cup of coffee is an orgy." I have been a bookworm since my childhood. I have owned and read hundreds, maybe thousands, of books in my life. I get totally lost in them and will take a book over television anyday.

Writing is also a source of joy for me, especially when others like what I write. However, I don't depend on other's approval, support, or feedback because I get very little of any of this. I primarily write for myself. It supports my own mental health although I am not sure it heals me of anything. It is a partial release of my thoughts and feelings. Complete honesty is simply not possible. Those thoughts and feelings are known only to me.

Finally, a beautiful day like today fills me with joy. My moods are affected by weather. A long string of overcast, cold, rainy days can make me feel depressed. A day like today with its blue skies, clouds, and sunshine can fill me with joy and enthusiasm for life.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Becoming Light

Today was the first morning in many months that I was able to leave home wearing a short sleeved shirt with no sweater or jacket. The temperature today reached the mid 80's. It was a beautiful day. Unfortunately the entire afternoon was spent being held captive in a corporate meeting. I was buoyed, however, by the fact that today is Friday and I have a weekend with no obligations or commitments. Weekends are the oasis in the desert of life. Now that the cold and darkness of winter seems to finally be behind us, I am energized by the sun and the rebirth of nature. The annual renewal of life in nature also seems to renew me. I feel certain that many other people feel the same way.

In tomorrow's reading from the Tao we are told "Sun shines in the middle of the sky. All things turn their faces towards the light".

In our solar system the sun is the center of our universe. The earth and other planets orbit around it. However, for beings or planets in another galaxy our sun is nothing more than a distant star. Our sun is not the center of their universe. I often talk about "living in the center" or being "pulled away from your center". What is the "center"? It depends on where you are. My center is someone else's distant star. For me, my center is that place within me where I am most in touch with my reality. My center is the ground of my being. It is my essence, my true self, and the person I am behind the masks and self defenses. None of us are who we appear to be. Just like the planets, sometimes we are in the light and sometimes we are in darkness. It all depends on where we are in relation to our sun and our center. Each day when we begin to see the sunrise and to feel its warmth, we turn our faces towards the light. Just like when the light of the sun reveals everything around us, being in our center reveals everything that we are. When we are who we really are, living in the center and revealing our true self, we become light.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Is Sleep Time Travel?

Some days are just ordinary and, occasionally, boring. We can feel as though we are just going through the motions. Some days that really is all we are doing. On days like this I am reminded of the character played by Bill Murray in the movie "Groundhog Day". I feel like this a lot. Some days I feel like my entire day consists of getting out of bed over and over and the same song is always playing on the radio. The sameness of these ordinary days causes them to run together in a blurry kind of dreamscape. It's challenging to differentiate one day from another. Recently my youngest son posted a status update on his Facebook page that simply said, "Is sleep time travel"? Ordinary days can seem to flow like a river and it's difficult to sense where one day begins and another ends. A flowing river is often used as a metaphor for the passage of time. When we are not spiritually awake we can find ourselves sleeping through our lives even when we are busy. Maybe my son is on to something. When we sleep through our lives we miss much of our life's experience. When we finally wake up, spiritually speaking, we can find ourselves further down the river of life and, in a sense, our sleep has been time travel. In moments of wakefulness we sometimes find ourselves in different places with no memory of how we got from one place to another. One day I was 25 years old and the next "day" I was 58 years old. What happened to the 33 years in between? Who is this old man I see in the mirror every morning? Where did he come from and how did he get in my house?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Withdrawing Into The Tao

Yesterday was a very long day at work. This is the time of the year that we do performance evaluations. To say nothing of the fact that I dislike this part of my job, the process we use is overly complicated, convoluted, and often illogical. It's a yearly rite of passage that we must all tolerate to prove our worth.

I don't have much on my mind today so lets turn to the Tao for some inspiration.

Activity is essential but exhausting, it's importance is only on the surface. Withdraw into Tao at the end of the day. Returning is renewal.

My favorite times of the day are early morning and the early evening. I actually like late night, too, but I am often too tired to enjoy it plus late night is quickly followed by early morning. That's not too bad on a weekend but it's tough on a workday. Although I have proclaimed many times that I hate getting out of bed, I very much enjoy the 20 minutes or so that I sit in silence with my morning coffee before leaving my home for work. I am awake and present to the moment. It is the most peaceful time of my day. Once I leave home I am quickly pulled into the speed of the morning commute and the busyness of the workday. On a typical workday I have many tasks as well as the demands of managing a group of people. Even on the most pleasant days I am weary by the end of the day when I begin the process of "withdrawing into Tao". After picking up my wife at her office and surviving the evening commute, I yearn for solitude and the comfort of my chair. Each night I feel I have gone around the full circle of my day. Although I am weary, returning to where my day began is the beginning of renewal. As the evening progresses and my body and mind unwind, I can almost feel the inner healing. Tranquility returns and I am at peace. Of course, even though the middle part of my day is usually busy and demanding, if not frantic, I try to carry the Tao with me always. In the midst of activity I strive to maintain some sense of being in the eye of a hurricane.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Being Who We Are

Nothing gives me less enthusiasm for the beginning of a new work week than a Monday morning commute in the pouring rain. Can anything be more depressing? I was very happy that Saturday was a beautiful day since I had to drive to the monastery and thousands of other people would be gathering downtown for the air show and Thunder over Louisville fireworks display. Sunday, however, was the complete opposite of Saturday. It poured down rain all day. I don't mind the pouring rain when I am in the solitude of my home with a good book and a brand new roof. Overall, with the sunshine and the rain, a visit to the monastery, a visit from my granddaughter, and a Sunday afternoon of solitude and napping, it was a great weekend. Like most weekends, however, it was mostly non stop activity lived at warp speed. I know everyday is 24 hours but Einstein's theory of relativity is played out well when you compare a weekend day to a work week day.

Self knowledge is a double edged sword. I have a friend at work that I rarely see. We IM and email one another and occasionally we talk on the phone. Before we actually met she received my old email version of daily thoughts and she liked them very much. She would sometimes write back and tell me that she had many of the same thoughts as me. It seemed that we were very much alike even though she is a woman and I am a man, to say nothing of the fact that I am quite a bit older. A few months ago someone suggested I join Facebook. It's a little addictive but it also has some fun elements to it. I'm not sure where they originate but Facebook offers many fun and interesting personality tests. As someone who is nearly obsessed with acquiring self knowledge and understanding, I take several of these tests every week and always find them enlightening. The amazing thing about these seemingly silly little tests is how accurate they often are in their assessment of me and others. The friend I mention above has also taken some of these tests. In her last note to me she said, "I thought we were very much alike but these tests seem to suggest otherwise". Unaided by science, I don't know if anyone is a clone of anyone else. Each person has so many subtleties and nuances. However, I think many people, including my friend, often share many similarities and that is why they feel a connection with other people. With this particular friend I sensed a connection just after a few business related conversations on the telephone. My own Facebook test results are not 100% accurate but they are very true, not necessarily of the actual life I live, but very often of the life that maybe I should be living. I think it is not uncommon to sometimes feel you are in the wrong life and that you are often forced to live a life that requires you to compromise who you really are. I didn't begin to find myself or understand my self on a deep level until I was in my 40's. By that time much of my life seemed planted in concrete. My new found self knowledge in many ways became a source of frustration rather than freedom. It seemed to explain some of my unhappiness but was also sometimes difficult to apply to the life I actually had. So what do you do? Some people suggest that you should follow your heart and live the life you were meant to live no matter what. Their belief is that our individual lives are more important than the lives of others. However, I think it is reckless and a little selfish to live like this. I may not be in the most optimal situation to be completely and fully who I am but it's where life has planted me at this moment. I cannot abandon or disregard the commitments and relationships that I have made and formed. I think there is some truth to the saying "Bloom where you are planted". Life is a mystery. Just because I am here now and the soil doesn't always feel right doesn't mean I will be here always. Someday life may transplant me to a new place where the soil, sunlight, and rainfall are exactly perfect for me. Then again, maybe it won't. That's part of the mystery of life.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Rainy Sunday Afternoon

Outside my window it is pouring down rain. It has been doing so since early morning. I took my granddaughter home a little while ago. It was a little bit of a relief. I think her parents gave her chocolate candy bars and double espressos before bringing her over here yesterday. She was wired for sound and we had more than a few disagreements and battles of will. Yesterday after I returned home from the serenity of the monastery my wife and I took her to the park to feed the ducks. I detected some of her father's genetic makeup in her. Like her Dad she is a risk taker and has little fear. She kept wanting to climb down the rocky embankment and get in the water with the ducks. Being an overly cautious Pa Paw I kept envisioning the rest of the day being spent in the ER while one of us received stitches from the gash received after falling on the rocks. Eventually we got our of there alive. The next battle was a trip to Target where she quickly picked a $40 toy. With a little effort I convinced her to trade the $40 toy for two $6 toys. I was happy with the $28 savings I had made. She and my wife headed to the checkout. When I met them at the front of the store the two $6 toys had morphed into one $30 toy. So, with a convincing and strong willed granddaughter, kindness equates to this mathematical formula: Kindness = $40. Superior Intelligence = $40 replaced by $12 = $28 Savings. Superior Intelligence outwitted by Convincing Smile and Strong Will = $12 + $18 = $30 which is the amount charged to my Debit Card. The smile on my granddaughter's face? Priceless! For everything else there is MasterCard!

I'm going to enjoy the rest of this rainy afternon in my chair with a good book and a short nap...maybe at the same time.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Does Anyone Need A Hug?

One of my friends told me I need to practice hugging people. The world is divided into those who hug and those that don't. My best friend from high school is not a hugger, at least with me, but my friend Father Dennis is. I consider both of them to be very close friends and they are important people in my life. I have two other close friends who are women. One I have never hugged and the other hugs me every time she sees me and occasionally she throws in a kiss. I like that she does that. I guess I am a discriminating hugger. Sometimes it feels very comfortable and other times I cringe. You can always tell a genuine hug. The best hugs are warm and a true human connection is felt. On a global, hands across the water, we are the world kind of way, I want to love everyone. The reality is that I am not yet capable of loving everyone. There are people I love, people I like, and many I simply tolerate. I easily and quickly feel a connection with certain types of people. It doesn't matter if they are a man or a woman, or if they are gay, straight, black, white, yellow, or red. There are a few people in my life that I have only met a few times yet I feel very connected with them. I am very comfortable hugging anyone when whom I feel a connection. Basically, I am an affectionate person and I need affection from others. Somewhere I read that a person needs a certain numbers of hugs everyday to be psychologically happy. I love to hug my granddaughter and others that I care about and I like when they hug me back. Affection is not only a good thing. It is a necessary thing for human fulfillment.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Weekend Is Here!

Today was a beautiful spring day. The morning was cool but the sun was shining bright during my morning commute. There is a flurry of activity in the downtown area. Just a block away hundreds of construction workers toil away and work their magic as they build a new basketball arena. With a greater sense of urgency other people prepare for the annual Derby event called "Thunder over Louisville" that will take place tomorrow. Depending on the weather, nearly a million people on both sides of the Ohio River will attend. This is a massive air show and fireworks display to kick off the two week celebration called "The Derby Festival". Each year the biggest day in Louisville is the first Saturday in May. It's a little horse race we call the Kentucky Derby.

It promises to be a great weekend. Tomorrow I will rise early from my bed and meet my good friend, Father Dennis, for breakfast, I haven't seen him for about six weeks so we have lots to catch up on. After breakfast I will continue my travels to the monastery for a gathering of friends. I am part of two discussion groups that give me excuses...not that I need go to the monastery twice a month. After what I know will be a pleasant morning I will make the return trip home where I will be greeted at the front door by my granddaughter who is the new Queen of Trampolines. My mood is noticeably lighter and I feel good today. This is further proof to me that moods are like the weather. Some days are bright, sunny, and pleasant while other days storm clouds gather. You may then experience a few days of overcast skies and chilly winds. All you can do is dress appropriately or seek shelter as needed. If you are patient, and even if you are not, the storm will pass and a new day will dawn. You can't really avoid the storms of life but you can be prepared for them and when they arrive just hunker down until they move on.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Joy In Action

In the past I have mentioned a friend named Katie. Katie was my girlfriend in the summer of 1970. We had lots of fun together. Eventually our lives drifted apart and we lost touch with one another for many years. A few years ago a mutual friend saw Katie, mentioned me, and we contacted one another through email. This past year Katie was in town and we met one another for breakfast. It was a wonderful and very pleasant reunion. We are the same age. Her laughter and enthusiasm during our meal, however, reminded me of the young girl that I knew so many years ago. I'm not sure you can be around Katie or be in contact with Katie and remain in a bad mood for very long. Katie is one of my biggest fans when it comes to my writing. Regular readers know that lately my mood has not always been positive or upbeat. I should have expected an email from Katie calling me out about it. Well, the email arrived yesterday. It was pure Katie. She basically told me to get over it, snap out of it, read my own writings, and think about all the love in my life. Reading her note I could easily visualize her saying it to my face. Her note made my day. While thinking about it today I received the picture of my granddaughter, Chloe, shown above. Any picture of Chloe brings a smile to my face. This particular picture could be titled "Joy in Action". Chloe is definitely in the moment. It makes me think I should go out and buy a trampoline, not just for Chloe visits, but for Pa Paw to use whenever he's in a funk. It would certainly bounce the funk right out of you. So, thank you, Katie! I know you are out there and that is a comfort to me. Chloe, I know you are not reading my blog yet but perhaps someday you will read it and you will see this note and your picture. You are an inspiration to your Pa Paw.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Sometimes you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right!
-lyrics from "Scarlet Begonias" by the Grateful Dead

Everyone knows I love music, especially rock and roll. Over the years I have read many books, usually biographies, about my favorite musicians. Last night, while reading the biography of Pete Townshend, it occurred to me how many of these music biographies are another form of spiritual reading. I say this because many of them seem to have the same pattern. Many of these rock stars had difficult or poor childhoods. They felt a calling within them to pursue their musical muse. More often than not they achieved great wealth and fame. Sooner or later it comes crashing down in a multitude of ways, i.e., drug addiction or alcoholism, financial problems, the breakdown of relationships, etc. The wonderful life they had achieved becomes a dark night of the soul. The lucky ones survive this and find redemption. They clean up their act with the help of rehab and therapy. They stabilize and rethink their financial lives. They mend broken relationships. They rediscover old beliefs or find something new to believe in that is bigger than themselves. They find a new direction in their lives that often transforms their artistic expression. Most of us go through similar patterns even if our lives are not so public or dramatic and we are not artists. The whole process is the transformation that we all must go through in order to move beyond the false self. Even rock stars, whether they realize it or not, are eventually forced to look in the mirror and see the truth of their own illusions. Some people are put through the transformation of their lives without desiring it and often without their cooperation. Other's pursue such a transformation and may be unhappy with their progress. One way or another the rough stones of our lives will be made smooth by the flowing waters of life. It is a slow process and on a day to day basis we may not notice the transformation. Like the effects of flowing water over rough stones for a long period of time, life will transform us and hopefully a spiritual awakening will be the result.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

One's Emptiness Is Another's Fullness

I haven't been in the most positive mood lately and I've been concerned that my writing has become negative. I was even tempted to stop writing until I was in a better frame of mine. Today, however, I received an email from a long time reader telling me that yesterday's blog, "Empty Glass" was one of the best things I have ever written. This reminds me that I cannot judge the value of anything I write. It also reminds me that one of the things people seem to like about my writing is its honesty. I am nothing special. I am a mere mortal who has good days and bad days. I have a sensitive nature which is both a gift and a curse. It is a gift when I am able to appreciate the beauty in my life and in my world. It is a gift when I am able to recognize and appreciate those perfect Zen moments that sometimes sneak up and surprise me. However, my sensitive nature is also a curse when I am overly sensitive to life's little slights, hurts and misunderstandings. I have sometimes referred to myself as a romantic. This doesn't mean I am every woman's dream. What it means to me is that my life is often a pendulum between agony and ecstasy. Sometimes I can feel a total oneness with the universe and get lost in a sunset. Other times I feel completely lost and in the darkness. This is how I feel right now. One of the negative aspects of my personality is a tendency towards cynicism. It is not unusual for me to sometimes think, "What difference does anything make? Does anything really matter"? Other times I wonder if other people even think about me without me thinking of them first. I jokingly told a friend yesterday that one of God's jokes on me was to make me an optimistic cynic. I always believe life will get better even when it doesn't. I always believe I make a difference even when I don't. I always believe I am loved even when I don't feel loved. This optimism may be the fuel that keeps me going from day to day. If you know me and are concerned about me, you can relax. Deep peace and oneness with the universe, stumbling along the spiritual path, being lost in darkness, seeing the light, agony and ecstasy, are all part of the ebb and flow of my life. You can't have the joy without the pain. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Empty Glass

One of the many books I am reading is "Who Are You? The Life of Pete Townshend". Anyone who knows anything about rock and roll knows that Pete Townshend is the guitarist and primary creative force behind the famous rock band "The Who". One of their most famous works is the rock opera "Tommy". Pete Townshend exemplified and participated in many of the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle. In spite of this tortured artist persona that he had, he was also very driven by spiritual things. He professed to being a follower of a spiritual teacher named Meher Baba. I don't know a lot about Meher Baba beyond what I have read in Townshend's biography but he seems to have taught some fundamental and basic spiritual truths. Townshend's first true solo album was called "Empty Glass". This title was inspired by a teaching of Meher Baba's. On the album cover Townshend wrote the following words.

Desire for nothing except desirelessness, hope for nothing except to rise above all hopes, want nothing and you will have everything.

Anyone who follows any kind of spiritual path or teaching is looking for something. In many cases people are searching for something/anything that will fill their emptiness. Many people, at least in my country and culture, are overwhelmed with possessions, worries, and cares. In spite of their material abundance, they also feel a great emptiness. Filled with abundance, they often crave more. Some, seemingly satisfied, wonder "Is this all there is"? There is an emptiness accompanied by a deep desire to have their emptiness filled. This emptiness often manifests itself as boredom, loneliness, or a restless anxiety. We secretly pray and hope that the feeling of emptiness will just go away. It won't on its own. In the Townshend biography he goes on to explain that he finally learned that his empty glass could not be filled with God because it was so full of himself. In order to be filled with God, he had to empty the glass of his own worries, cares, addictions and self. Of course, any student of the spiritual life understands the challenge and difficulty of this self emptying. It is very difficult to get out of your own way. I was talking with my sister on Easter Sunday. We both shared how much we enjoy our solitude. I shared that although I enjoy my own company, I also get on my own nerves and that sometimes I really needed a vacation from myself. Sometimes I lose my way on the spiritual path and become obsessed with my own feelings of emptiness. I get lost in my own void. This preoccupation prevents any real self emptying which in turn prevents any real openness to being filled by God. Part of my darkness at the moment is finding myself grappling with such basic questions as "Who or what is God"? The simple faith and answers of my youth seem empty at the moment. Of course, this "breakdown" of my faith may in fact be a "breakthrough". Perhaps I also want too much and that is the reason I often feel like I have nothing.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Monastic Reunion

This must be the year of reunions for me. Earlier in the week I received notice of my 40th high school reunion. Yesterday I received a letter from one of the monks at the monastery informing me of a reunion of former monks. I am happy to be included in this monastic reunion. In retrospect, my time in the monastery was relatively short and it happened over 35 years ago. In spite of its brevity it has had a profound effect on my life. The mere fact that I once lived in a monastery does not make me a holy person. I am a long way from holy. It did, however, radically change the way I think and the way I relate to life and the world around me. I think my time in the monastery brought to the surface a gift that is part of who I am. What is this gift? I think the gift is my contemplative attitude and awareness. My time in the monastery was not like attending a college. It was not about acquiring knowledge. What I acquired while going about my monastic day was a new sense of being. The prayer life, the work life, the community life, and the many hours of simply being alone in the beauty of the surrounding countryside, gave me new eyes and a new vision. I was blessed to be in the monastery at a time when many of the monks who came to Gethsemani as a result of Thomas Merton's influence or the disillusionment generated by World War II were in their prime. These senior monks were some of the most authentic people I have ever known. When I walk through the monastic cemetery today I remember and knew many of the monks who now sleep in eternity. If actually living in the monastery was not blessing enough, I am also blessed to live only an hour's drive away. In a sense I have never left the monastery because it has remained part of my life through all the years since I was a young novice. I am usually able to visit the monastery once or twice a month and I am still treated like a member of their extended family. It is my spiritual home in this world and when I am lucky I still occasionally sleep there in the peace and silence that generations of prayerful men have created.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Tempus Fugit

A old friend called and said, "Michael, do you remember that it was 20 years ago today that we saw the Grateful Dead at Freedom Hall"? To be honest, I didn't remember and his call was a jolt to me. I couldn't believe it had been that long. Now I realize that it has also been 41 years since the first time I saw the Grateful Dead as a young 17 year old hippie. If this realization wasn't enough of a wake up call, when I got home last night I had an email from a high school classmate informing me that we are having our 40 year high school reunion in September. This was another jolt to the brain. Where have the years gone? These reminders gave me a queasy feeling that my life is slipping away from me and that I really am getting old.

Why do short work weeks seem eight days long? Every morning this week, when the alarm goes off, I look at my clock and think, "Are you kidding me? Is it really time to get up AGAIN"?

Yesterday at work I attended a workshop on a book and process we use at work called StrengthFinders. Prior to the workshop we had to read the book and take a test that identifies our strengths as a person. The test reveals your top five strengths. The idea is that we will be come a strength based organization. In previous years we often focused on a person's weaknesses as "opportunities for growth". That might be true but your strengths come naturally and will always be your strengths. Your weaknesses will always be your weaknesses and they will never be your strengths. The opportunity for real growth is to fine tune your strengths. A strength is a combination of talent, knowledge, and skill. Here are my top five strengths in order and what they mean. These are not a surprise to me.

Empathy I can sense the feelings of others. I walk in their shoes but I am not always sympathetic. I have emotional radar and may be emotionally expressive.

Intellection I am intellectually active and introspective. I need time and space to think.

Connectedness I have faith in the links between all things. I believe there are few coincidences. Everything has a reason behind it. I have a global and holistic view of life. I focus on the sum rather than the parts.

Developer I recognize and cultivate the potential in others.

Communication I find it easy to put thoughts into words. I am a good conversationalist and presenter.

It is difficult for me to be passionate about most work stuff but I can be passionate about StrengthFinders. Much of my life has been a quest for self knowledge as well as an understanding of others. StrengthFinder's builds on previous knowledge I have gained from such things as the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram. It all connects for me. StrengthFinders even has a spiritual element because it reveals your "true self" which is a goal of the spiritual life because your "true self" is who you really are in God. If everyone is faithful to their best and true self, the CASTLE principles, i.e., courage, authenticity, service, truthfulness, love, and effectiveness should come easily. Together they can be a really powerful combination that can truly transform an organization. This transformation cannot happen when the face that people bring to work is the face of the "false self" or the ego.

Today, while I was sitting in my parked car waiting for my wife, a bird egg dropped out of the sky and splattered all over the hood of my car. There was not a tree in sight. Did a mother bird simply drop it accidentally from her claws or was this one unexpected birth and the mother didn't get to a nest in time?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Thoughts For A Cold And Dreary Day

Today one of my friends made the following comment to me.

You seem meek, but you are more stubborn than a mule.

My friend is correct. I can seem meek to some because I am easy going. I have a reputation for being laid back. The reality, however, is that I can be very stubborn. I think this might be a Myers-Briggs INFP trait. I read once that INFP's are rather compliant until you push them in a direction they really do not want to go. This usually has to do with values. I am also an Enneagram type Nine. One of the traits of this type is to take the path of least resistance. I think there is a lot of psychological tension in my life because of stuff like this. I am stubborn and easy at the same time. I am rebellious and righteous at the same time. I am the white knight and the dark knight rolled into one. I am basically good but want to be bad. There are areas of my life where I am not very happy. There are areas where I am frustrated. As a certified cave dweller, one who prefers solitude, my standard office procedure when I am not happy is to withdraw into my solitude and basically tell the world to leave me alone. One of my primary coping mechanisms is to simply wait things out. Sometimes this is me being stubborn. Other times this is me being passive aggressive. I'm not proud of it.

I had another conversation with a co-worker and peer about our annual performance evaluations which are currently taking place. I generally don't rate myself high. Yes, I do think there are things I do well and overall I am a very good employee. However, I am not a role model for what I do. I have my strengths but I also have many weaknesses. In general, I think I am overrated as a person. I am not being humble. I am opinionated and judgmental. There is little that generates enthusiasm in me. Much of the time I am simply going through the motions in my work and many of my relationships. At the moment I am feeling spiritually empty and uninspiring. I do not like to be a downer but I also strive to be honest about how I am feeling. I am no one's role model. If people are impressed with me I think it is because I genuinely try to be kind and I strive to speak and write with honesty. Other than that I am not all that inspiring. Most of my life is a struggle for me. My biggest fears are that I really am overrated, that I am a fraud on multiple levels, and that I am valued no more than a piece of furniture in most people's lives.

After all these negative feelings, my day ended with a smile when I unexpectedly had to pick up my granddaughter at her daycare. She is sunshine on a cloudy day.

There And Back Again

At some point within the last few days I blinked my eyes and found myself back home. That's how fast my trip to the mountains seemed to go. I got up before dawn on Friday and drove to Tennessee. The trip is approximately 285 miles and it was cold and rainy the entire way. It was not a beautiful day but I was free and doing what I wanted. In spite of the rain and the general bleakness of the day, I was impressed with the beauty of hundreds of purple flowered red bud trees along the interstate. About half way there my wife and I stopped for a nice breakfast. Afterwards, with stiff muscles stretched a bit and my tummy full, the last hundred or so miles passed quickly. When we arrived at our destination we checked into our hotel. Feeling weary after the long drive we decided to take a nap. It was early afternoon and the hotel was mostly empty and very quiet so I slept like a baby for about three hours. It felt wonderful. After waking up we hit the streets and looked for a suitable place to have dinner. We ended up at a place called the Mountain's Edge Grill. It was simple. The food was tasty but not spectacular. Our best meal would be the next night but that meal also cost three times as much. Since Friday was cold and a bit dreary, we returned to out hotel early and called it a night. Saturday and Sunday were picture perfect. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and the temperature was in the 70's. Saturday was spent shopping and walking and generally just relaxing. I got some great CD deals at a music store plus some vintage rock and roll posters to hang in my music room. The drive home on Sunday was very mellow. Traffic was light. the day was beautiful, and when conditions are like that I love a nice drive. After a trip I always allow an extra day at home to rest up. Yesterday's weather was a recreation of Friday. It was cold and dreary all day. The day turned out busier than expected with some errands that needed to be done. All in all, though, the break was nice and I had a pleasant time.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Trip To The Mountains

This will be my last entry for a few days. In the morning I will be driving to Gatlinburg, Tennessee for a few days of rest and relaxation. My wife and I were going to make this trip last November but then her mother died so we cancelled it. I am looking forward to the time away from my normal routine and the anticipated beauty of spring in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Today was a beautiful day in my part of the world. I went out for lunch with my friend, Wendy, and it was warm and sunny and the sky was blue. After finishing our meal we sat outside the restaurant and simply enjoyed the warmth of the sun, the cool of the breeze, and the calming effect of the flowing Ohio River. I think we could have sat there all day but the call of work responsibilities awakened us from our daze and we returned to our office. Sometime tomorrow I will be back in another daze as I sit on a bench hundreds of miles away while my wife shops in a nearby store. When the right store appears before me I will also be separated from some of my money. We will both be doing our best to stimulate the local economy of Gatlinburg.

The last five months have been difficult. I spent a week in the hospital and my wife and I lost two parents. Along with these major events there's the daily struggle just to live an authentic life. There is rarely a moment when I do not struggle with some personal issue and many around me, whether they be family, friends, or co-workers, struggle with their own issues and sometimes these issues demand my involvement. Since I am nothing more than a mere mortal, there are days I simply want to scream. Typically, I don't actually scream but eventually I feel the need to get away for a few days whether it is a trip to the mountains or a weekend at the monastery. The luxury of an extended sabbatical alone in a peaceful place is unlikely so I must content myself with whatever opportunities are available. The opportunity of the moment is a long weekend a few hundred miles south of home.

Why is it that so many of us, including me, when we walk out of work to begin a period of time off feel like we have just been paroled from prison or just been granted shore leave after an extended time of duty on a battle cruiser? There's a tremendous sense of freedom when the shackles are loosened for a few days and one can slip away.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Oneness In The Corporate World

Yesterday I spent my entire day attending a Corporate Conference. Normally I dislike these types of events. They are often loud, crowded, and filled with activities that make introverts like me want to hide under the table. Yesterday I spent much of my day trying to be invisible. For the most part I succeeded and, thankfully, no one forced me to do anything embarrassing. Admittedly, much of the day was the same old stuff, i.e., how we're doing as a company, how much progress we have made, etc. It's not that I don't care about these things. I am just a person who doesn't like being bombarded by charts and graphs and data. However, it's part of the business world so I accept it. The highlight of the day for me was the keynote address by a man named Lance Secretan. His address was basically an overview of a book he has written called "One...The Art and Practice of Conscious Leadership". He had my attention right from the beginning when he began with a film of a jam session with Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones. I was immediately seduced by the music and I found myself yearning to see the complete performance. His talk progressed and included references to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Descartes, Walt Whitman, and St Francis of Assisi. How could I not be impressed with someone who weaved music, philosophy, and spirituality into a presentation for a Corporate gathering of leaders within a Fortune 200 company? Later in the day we were all given a copy of his book and I am eager to read it although I am not in need of anything else to read! I am already overwhelmed with reading. If the book is as good as I think it will be, I will probably be sharing parts of it in future writing. In a nutshell, the book is about what he refers to as the CASTLE Principles. CASTLE being an acronym for courage, authenticity, service, truthfulness, love, and effectiveness. It should come as no surprise that most of these are not frequently discussed or even encouraged in the workplace. Maybe a new day is dawning. With the daily news about what is happening in some of our largest and most prominent institutions and corporations, a new day is long overdue.