Thursday, May 26, 2016

Concentration And Relaxation

Awareness stems from just the right mix of concentration and relaxation”.
I am as guilty as anyone of sometimes rushing through my day and everything around me is little more than a blur.  You can see a lot of the land from an airplane.  You can see more detail from a train or a car.  You can see even more detail by walking.  It can be challenging to concentrate on what you are doing while doing it in a relaxed way.  When you do it well there is a sense of freedom from space and time.  You get lost in the moment.  Some psychologists refer to this sensation as “flow”.  I call it being totally one with the moment.  I also call these Zen moments.  In more ways than one, speed kills.  As Gandhi once said, “There is more to life than increasing it’s speed”.  Slow down, pay attention, relax, and enjoy the eternal “Now”. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Some Challenging Realities About Life

I have often read that the problem with many young people today is that their parents…my generation… constantly told them how special they are and that they can be anything they want.  This constant praise did not always prepare them well for the often harsh realities of adult life in the modern world.  This reminds me of a De-Motivational poster I once saw.  It was a blown up picture of a large order of McDonald’s fries.  The caption on the poster read “Not Everyone Gets To Be An Astronaut”.   Yesterday I read some thoughts from Fr. Richard Rohr that also outlined some challenging realities about life.  Some of you may find them negative and difficult to accept.  Those of you who are older will probably find them realistic.  They may even summarize your life so far.
  1. Life is hard.
  2. You are not that important.
  3. Your life is not about you.
  4. You are not in control.
  5. You are going to die.
Even if you have been blessed in life, you have certainly had hardships and challenges as well.  Neither the world nor the sun revolves around any of us as individuals.  Any of us can be removed from the picture and life will keep going on.  You are also not in control of your own life, especially if you have a family.  As a long time married family man who has also had responsibilities for many other people in my working career, my personal needs were often at the bottom of my to do lists.  You cannot control anything.  There is a Buddha meme that pops up occasionally on Facebook that goes “Relax!  Nothing is in control”!  At best you have the illusion of being in control.  Finally, like it or not, some day we will all die.  As someone with more time behind him than in front of him, I think about this a lot.  However, I also feel very blessed because I have already been given more years than many other people were given.  There’s nothing like thoughts of your own mortality to give perspective to how you are spending your life now.  Think about this once in a while and make sure you are living your life best as you can.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Awareness Without Comment

Mindfulness is awareness without comment, without discrimination, without judgment.”
-Steven Harrison
I once read a book called “The Noticer”.  I cannot remember the author at this moment but the book was about how much we can learn just by paying attention and noticing things.  When I walk around the office my antennae are on full alert.  I notice all the people and all the activity.  Most of the people I don’t know personally and it is not always easy to tell if people are conversing about work or just goofing off.  I try not to judge anything I see.  One of my favorite quotes is “Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see”.  Mindfulness at its core is just paying attention and noticing things.  Some of the challenges of mindfulness are actually paying attention, actually noticing things, and doing all of this without the emotional reaction of judging things as good or bad, a.k.a. dualistic thinking, and not reacting to what you notice.  We all tend to be judgmental about most things so it is very challenging to simply observe and move on.  Almost nothing in life is as it seems.  The seemingly good is not always good and the seemingly bad is not always bad.   

Monday, May 23, 2016

Some Thoughts On Inner Peace

The greatest obstacles to inner peace are disturbing emotions such as anger, attachment, fear, and suspicion, while love and compassion and a sense of universal responsibility are the sources of peace and happiness.”
-The Dalai Lama
I’m sure all of you have looked at the people in your life, whether they are part of your family, or people you work with every day.  Some of them are happy all the time with whatever life gives them and others seem to be unhappy all the time with everything.  You can’t be happy if you walk around mad all the time.  You can’t be happy if you expect everything to always be your way.  You can’t be happy if you are never satisfied and your entire life is spent trying to acquire more material things.  A new house and a fancy car will not necessarily make you any happier.  Some of the happiest people in the world are poor.  You can’t be happy if you are always afraid.  You can’t be happy if you think everyone and everything around you is part of a conspiracy to make your life miserable.  Look closely at the people in your life who seem to be the most happy.  What are some of their characteristics?  I bet they are generally good natured.  I bet they are giving people who care about others besides themselves.  I bet they are peaceful people who are not always raising hell with everyone around them.  I bet they are compassionate people.  It doesn’t cost anything to be kind and caring.            

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Like Clouds In A Windy Sky

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky.  Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh
I have written many times about how our feelings are not who we really are.  The analogy I used was a mountain.  We are the mountain and our feelings are the weather experienced by the mountain.  Feelings can’t be planned and like the weather they cannot be forecasted 100%.  Sometimes I am down in the dumps for no apparent reason and I cannot guarantee I will always be happy and jovial on Christmas morning.  I have learned over time that my feelings are not always directly attributable to any specific event, whether it be good or bad.  Good fortune does not necessarily make me happy and bad luck doesn’t always make me sad.  Joy is something that usually surprises us.  Happiness is a gift that we can never find when we are looking for it but it finds us when we least expect it.  Sadness is something I seem to experience more when I learn of other people’s misfortune more than a feeling I have based on my own woes.  Sometimes I feel melancholy when I think about all the evil and suffering in the world.  Other times I am down in the dumps because I just don’t feel good.  A nap or a good night’s sleep is often the cure.  Feelings are like clouds.  Sometimes they seem to form into these huge things but if you just wait, they will turn into mist and slowly fade away.  Feelings, despite their unreliability, are a big part of what makes us human.  We have to accept the bad with the good.  Would you be willing to give up the feeling of happiness in exchange for never feeling fear or sadness?  Whatever your feeling of the moment, if your feelings cause you to lose your way, just stop where you are and breathe.  As long as you are breathing you are OK.  I recently saw a quote on Facebook that went “A deep breath is the beginning of every solution.” 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Some Thoughts On Self-Esteem

Persons of high self-esteem are not driven to make themselves superior to others; they do not seek to prove their value by measuring themselves against a comparative standard.  Their joy is being who they are, not in being better than someone else.”
-Nathaniel Branden
If tomorrow I walked on the Potomac river, the newspaper headline would say, “President Can’t Swim”.
-President Lyndon Johnson
Here’s a dose of reality.  No matter how good looking you are, no matter how smart you are, and no matter how creative you are, there is always someone better looking, smarter, and more talented than you.  However, it goes the other way too.  There is always someone less attractive, not quite as bright, and with fewer gifts than you.  Never compare yourself to others.  Your goal is to be the best version of who you are.  Take care of your physical self.  Educate yourself and expand your thinking in whatever way you can.  Develop whatever talent has been given to you.  Everyone is not a superstar but everyone is unique.  Instead of wasting time and effort comparing yourself to others, look in the mirror and discover your own gifts and uniqueness.  It is also a good thing to remember that not everyone will like you or praise you.  I know there are some people who think I hang the moon and walk on water.  There are also people who think the opposite.  I am not everyone’s cup of tea.  If I am not your cup of tea, try a different blend or switch to coffee.  Many of you are much younger than me and you probably value acceptance by others.  Some of you are closer to my age and probably understand that other people’s acceptance decreases in value the older you get.  High self-esteem has more to do with accepting yourself as you are rather than being concerned with what other people want or expect you to be.  True joy is being who you are and being happy about it.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Mindfulness Is Falling Awake

“Mindfulness is falling awake”.
-Jon Kabat-Zinn
Jon Kabat-Zinn is the author of a great book titled “Wherever You Go, There You Are”.  At this stage of my life I am very good at falling asleep except when it is time to actually go to bed for the night.  In the early evening, especially on work nights, I take some world class naps.  My wife doesn’t always know it because she is in another room doing the same thing in her recliner.  I am usually in full couch mode, sometimes with a blanket.  If it is dark and raining I am totally orbiting the planet.  Mindfulness is not actually waking up from physical sleep.  It is waking up from the kind of wakeful “sleep” that most of us are in throughout our day, regardless of what we actually doing.  When we are mindful, we are aware.  Unlike those days when we resemble the walking dead, when we are mindfully awake, we notice things.  Sometimes I am on auto-pilot and things zoom right past me and I never notice.  There have actually been times when I left home for work, and when I am finally walking into the office I realize that I have no memory of the actual commute.  Try sometime to remember all that you noticed in a day.  If your list is long, you had a very mindful day.  If your list is short, you were probably “asleep” most of the day even if you still got all your chores done.      

Monday, May 16, 2016

Calm Is A Beautiful Thing

Mindfulness is recognizing that we are becoming angry because we are running late, and then recognizing that we can choose instead to be calm and running late.”
A situation occurred recently that generated an immediate angry and hostile emotional response within myself.  Fortunately I immediately recognized it for what it was.  Mindfulness kicked in and I thought to myself, “I will not allow myself to feel this way”.  Mindfulness took the emotional out of the equation and I was able to deal with the situation in a calm way.  Unfortunately for me I don’t respond like this 100% of the time.  We cannot control how other people act or what happens to us.  What we can control is how we react.  One of the goals of spirituality, mindfulness, and self-awareness is to become impartial observers of our own behavior and reactions.  I try very hard to have a Buddhist approach to life’s challenges by responding to them rather than reacting to them.  This is easier said than done, especially if you are a gut type personality like me who has anger issues.  One thing I have learned the hard way is that my overreactions to people and things around me just makes me more upset.  For me calm is a beautiful thing.  On the surface I usually appear calm to most people but inside I am a whirling dervish of mixed emotions.  Recognizing this about myself, and slowly learning to catch myself before I act out, greatly improves my well-being and happiness.    

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Layers Of Cloud

The mind in its natural state can be compared to the sky, covered by layers of cloud which hide its true nature.”
-Kalu Rinpoche
I believe this quote reveals a truth, not only about our minds, but about our entire being.  The simple reality is that what most of us see in others, and what we reveal about ourselves, is not true reality.  The essence of who each of us really is may not be obvious to ourselves and is rarely obvious to others.  I have come to the realization that all people are complex whether they appear to be bright, dull, boring, or interesting.  A lot has gone into forming each of us into the image we see in the mirror or that person others see walking around.  Once I shared with a previous manager how I try to lead and how simple I thought it was to do what I do.  He replied, “That’s what makes you Michael Brown”.  Like all of you I am a product of everything I have experienced in my life so far.  This includes my childhood, my education, and every good or bad thing that has ever happened to me.  It would also include every person who has ever been a part of my life and who influenced me in any way, either as an inspiration or a warning.  However, our deepest and truest selves are often hidden from ourselves and others.  Our beings are like an onion that has many layers.  Each of these layers are like a cloud that hides our true nature.  Most of what we think about ourselves and most of what others see is an illusion.  The great quest of our lives is to break through the clouds and the illusion and see our true selves and our original face. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Appreciation Is A Great Motivator

A person who feels appreciated will always do more than expected”.
-A Facebook meme
I thought I would take a break from the mindfulness quotes and use a meme I saw on Facebook.  It refers to a very simple gesture that is not always followed by people.  Appreciating people and what they do, whether it be at home or in the office, is a very basic form of kindness.  It is not that difficult to be nice, kind, grateful, and appreciative.  It is also not beyond the ability of any human being to do these things.  Any success I’ve had in life is due to me trying to do these things wherever I am.  When I feel appreciated it puts wind in my sails.  When I am not appreciated or I am taken for granted, all I am motivated to do is the minimum requirement.  I am getting old.  I’m tired and a little cranky sometimes.  My tolerance for mind games, office politics, exaggerated egos, people being jerks, and all other forms of BS is pretty much zero.  This is anywhere I go and not just in the workplace.  All of these things make life difficult and unpleasant.  Do you want to increase well-being and productivity in your workplace?  Treat you people very well and show them appreciation.  Occasionally you may need to point an individual in a new direction but if you are kind, compassionate, and appreciative, people will works their butts off for you and be happy to do it.  Sincere appreciation may be the highest form of motivation.    

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

More Thoughts About Thoughts

When we can actually choose the direction of our thoughts instead of just letting them run along the grooves of conditioned thinking, we become the masters of our own lives”.
-Eknath Easwaran
Much to many people’s chagrin, you really can’t control your thoughts.  Sometimes I have thoughts I would never think intentionally.  The best thing, and really the only thing, we can do with our thoughts is learn how to ignore them and let them go.  One of the images often used in meditation sessions is the idea of a person sitting on a riverbank.  As you serenely sit there you gaze upon all the boats going up and down the river.  You cannot control the boats.  You can only watch them go by.  Our thoughts are much the same.  We cannot control them but we can just let them go and watch them go by.  I am speaking more of troubling or unwanted thoughts.  Some thoughts are good and need further rumination.  One thought may contain a great idea that needs to be developed.  Another thought, however, may be unwanted, unkind, or troublesome.  Hanging on to such thoughts rarely has a good outcome.  Wayne Dyer, who has written books on the Chinese philosophy called the Tao, sums it up by saying, “Change your thinking and change your life.”
Here is some further advice from Buddha’s The Noble Eightfold Path.
All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind and suffering follows as the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.
All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind and happiness follows like a never departing shadow.   

You Are What You Think

Do not think that what your thoughts dwell upon is of no matter.  Your thoughts are making you.”
-Bishop Steere
You are what you think.  What do you think about all day?  It really depends on where I am.  Walking through the woods I am likely to have different thoughts than what I typically have in the workplace.  On a good day I most likely have good and positive thoughts.  On a difficult day my thoughts may be hostile and obsessive.  When I am daydreaming I may be thinking of a beautiful place, some great music or a good book I am enjoying.  When I am with my granddaughter I am thinking about how much she is growing up and what a unique person she is becoming.  When I am meditating I am trying to not think at all.  In a typical day we all think about many things.  Some thoughts are positive or creative and they expand our minds.  Some thoughts are negative, depressing, or hurtful and they shrink our minds.  All of our minds go in many directions and each of us have wonderful and not so wonderful thoughts.  Take some time and think about what kind of thoughts take up most of your day.  What do your thoughts say about who you are? 

Monday, May 09, 2016

Sometimes You Have To Simply Trust

Simply trust.  Do not the petals flutter down, just like that?”
I love the study of psychology, especially the different personality types.  I have taught Myers-Briggs to many groups of people and I am a serious study of the Enneagram which is a much deeper approach to what makes all of us who we are.  The Enneagram identifies nine types of people.  They are sub-divided into three groups.  They are called the “Gut Types”, the “Heart Types”, and the “Head Types.  I am a gut type.  Gut types are reactive and often have anger issues.  Until I really started thinking about it I never realized how much repressed anger I carry around with me.  Heart types are relational and are always wondering how they are perceived by others.  Image is important to Heart types.  Head types live in their heads and are fear driven.  The largest percentage of our population fall into this category.  Fear types hate ambiguity.  They want absolute certitude about everything.  They often find it very difficult to make a decision because they are afraid it will be the wrong one.  The reality is that sooner or later you must learn to simply trust and go for it.  The truth is that most fear originates in our heads and is not based on any true reality.  Most of the things we fear never happen to us.       

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Meditation Speaks

Meditation speaks.  It speaks in silence.  It reveals.  It reveals to the aspirant that matter and spirit are one, quantity and quality are one, the immanent and the transcendent are one.  It reveals that life can never be the mere existence of seventy or eighty years between birth and death, but is, rather, Eternity itself.”
-Sri Chinmoy   
Let me start with some obscure musical information.  Back in the early 1970’s rock music and jazz music created a hybrid called jazz fusion.  The band Santana combined Latin rhythms and percussion with jazz influences.  A band called the Mahavishnu Orchestra created sounds like no one had heard before.  The leaders of these bands, Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin, besides being extremely talented guitar players, were both followers of the guru, Sri Chinmoy. Together they recorded an album called “Love, Devotion, Surrender”.  It is probably no surprise to anyone that knows me well that I own all of this music on CD’s and I jam to it on a regular basis.  All music considered jazz fusion generally has a spiritual overtone. 
The quote by Sri Chinmoy basically tells us that all of life is sacred.  Doing the laundry or washing the dishes can be as spiritual as going to church or reading your prayer book.  There is no separation between the secular and the sacred.  I have shared before that I once lived in a Trappist monastery.  We did spend more time in church than the average person but I also spend a great deal of time wandering in the woods and fields, working on the farm, cooking in the kitchen, and making fruitcakes in the bakery.  I also fed the cows and worked on lots of construction projects.  Sometimes the experience of God was more likely in the woods than in the church.  Most of the time they complimented one another.  The point is that whether you are a monk, or just a mother or father living in the world, all of life is sacred and spiritual at its core.  

Non Value Added Activity

“Simplifying our lives does not mean sinking into idleness, but on the contrary, (it means) getting rid of the most subtle aspect of laziness, the one that makes us take on thousands of less important activities.”
-Matthieu Ricard
There is lots of corporate jargon and most of it makes me crazy.  Why do we come up with all this superfluous language when speaking plainly would be more to the point and much easier to understand?  There has been one corporate bit of lingo that I did like and it was the term “Non Value Added Activity”.  Abraham Maslow, the noted psychologist credited with the creator of the “Hierarchy of Needs”, once said that 80% of all work is BS.  This 80% is basically non value added activity.  How many of you perform meaningless or redundant tasks in your daily work?  I am sure it is more than a few.  We should always be looking for ways to eliminate such wastes of time so that we can be truly productive by performing value added activities.  Of course, this doesn’t apply just to the work place.  We should be doing this in all parts of our lives.  My wife and I have argued our entire marriage about the proper way to load a dishwasher.  She just throws stuff in there with no sense of order.  I think there is an order to the universe and a proper way to load a dishwasher.  Many times I have completely re-loaded the dishwasher after my wife has done it her way.  It really makes little difference.  The dishes will get clean either way.  My perfectionistic personality, mixed with a little anal retention, creates the non-value added activity of sometimes loading the dishwasher twice when once will do fine.  In the workplace we will take information from one report and move it to another report.  Why?  What’s wrong with the original report?  Our lives can get frittered away by doing all kinds of “Non Value Added Activity”.  Every time we do something we should ask, “Is this really necessary?  Does it really matter or have a purpose?  If I died, would someone else keep it going or even notice that it stopped?”      

Be A Light To Others

Look at this window.  It is nothing but a hole in the wall but because of it the whole room is full of light.  So when the faculties are empty, the heart is full of light.”
-Chuang Tzu
On weekends, and any other day we do not have to work, my wife shuts all the doors to all the rooms in the upstairs of my home and if she could she would duct tape all the blinds against the windows.  Why does she do this?  Her goal is to minimize any morning sunlight that might enter our bedroom.  Why do I put up with this insanity?  I do it because I have been married to this woman for almost 42 years and it is easier and safer to just let her be.  When I finally get out of the bed I open all the doors and blinds so light fills the house.  Another reason I open all the blinds is that I like to see the outdoors and feel some sense of connection to it.  I hate when I am in a work related meeting in a room that has no windows.  In a metaphorical sense we are all windows to one another.  The only part of the work day I truly enjoy is my interactions with those people who bring light into my life.  They may do it through their pleasant personalities, their laughter, their smiles, their morning greetings when I arrive at work, or their willingness to listen to me when I am throwing a hissy fit about something.  Be a light to those around you.  There is plenty of darkness in the world and there are plenty of people who drive other people crazy.  Don’t be someone who brings darkness to another person’s life or who drives other people crazy.  One way or another all of us will be gone from here sooner or later.  I hope when I retire next year I am remembered as a person of light and for all my best human qualities and not just because I was great with numbers.  

Monday, May 02, 2016

Pay Attention To Your Life

“Mindfulness is hearing the music in the sound of heavy traffic.”
Life is noisy and much of life has the feel of being stuck in traffic.  Most of us have ordinary lives and our days are full of daily, often mundane tasks and, if we are lucky, simple joys.  One of the many challenges of life is to notice the extraordinary within the ordinary.  Mindfulness can help us do this because mindfulness is a way of paying attention.  When we are not paying attention we miss a lot.  A day turns into a week, a week turns into a month, a month turns into a year, and suddenly we find ourselves ten years down the road of our life’s journey.  If we have not paid attention along the way, we can find that we have missed our own life.  Pay attention to your own life and do this in the moment because your moments turn into days, days turn into weeks, weeks turn into years, and the years soon become a lifetime.  Don’t miss the hidden and often extraordinary moments within the seemingly ordinary and mundane ones.    

Sunday, May 01, 2016

What Has Formed Me? Part Two

Ironically, it was while living in a Trappist monastery that I first became aware of Zen, Mindfulness, Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lama.  These things and these teachers continue to be influences and have had a great impact on the kind of person that I am today.  Another influence from that time of my life is Henry David Thoreau and especially his book "Walden Pond".  Christian monasticism, especially the Benedictine and Cistercian expression, Zen Buddhism, and the writings of Thoreau planted within me a desire for a simple life.  Although I am no longer living in a monastery, and I cannot totally live like a monk, I have tried to be as simple of a person as I can while living life as a married, family man.  This bring me to the next major influences in my life.  For the last 40+ years I have lived as a married man, father, and grandfather, while working for the last 30+ years in corporate America.  None of this has been easy for me.  In many ways it has gone against the grain of who I am at my deepest level.  On the one hand marriage and family life has provided a stability in my life that I might not have otherwise had.  It has also demanded a selflessness that I did not always want to have but which I also believe help form me into the person I am today.  My children are now adults, my granddaughter is nearly a teenager, and my working career is coming to an end.  Most of my working life I have been in leadership positions.  I believe I am a natural leader but I am a reluctant one.  Being a leader has also demanded a certain selflessness as well as a demand to put myself "out there" when I would rather stay in my cave.  Optimistically, I may have twenty years of life left to me.  I am not in denial concerning my mortality.  I do not know what the remaining years of my life hold for me or how they will continue to form me.  I am eager to begin the next phase of my journey and to see what life holds for me.  I believe the people and influences that have formed me up till now have done a good job.  I am happy with who I am and I am optimistic about who I will still be as I continue to age and reach my ultimate conclusion.