A lot of people, especially men, explode either silently or out loud when they experience conflicts at work or in personal life with other people. Although we understand that much of our happiness comes from relationships, we are also confused or ignorant as to why we connect them to so much of the discontent we feel. For example, when we are motivated by fear, anger, or disappointment, we frequently center on whom we can point the finger at or how to make things right. We’re probably not aware of the expectations we have (the ones we want others to satisfy) that make us so unhappy. According to Ezra Bayda, Beyond Happiness, The Zen Way to True Contentment, we can find out what these hopes or beliefs are by asking the simple question, “How is he or she (are they) supposed to be?” The answers lead us deeply inside of ourselves to what is blocking our happiness. If we’re patient, the wisdom that arises from such contemplation shows us that the difficulties we have with people are the precise avenue to peace and contentment, in that they drive us more profoundly into life, to work with what causes us so much grief. Personally, I wish I’d known how to do this long ago; however, I also understand that it’s never too late to begin, is it?
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Most of us like to hear the words “thank you”, especially when we’ve done something nice for others, and we also give them out quite frequently to family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, clients, bosses, colleagues, and employees when they’ve done something for us. But we hardly ever think of expressing gratitude to others as a wellness practice—it’s more of a custom or ritual. Perhaps, many any of us are not truly aware of its real and profound value in both attitude and words. For example, while “the path of gratitude” usually reminds us of saying “thanks” for all the good things in our lives, how would we benefit from this approach if we expressed thankfulness for both the good and the bad? Would it be a high road to somewhere or nowhere?
Treading the path of gratitude involves not only the good and the bad experiences of life, but also the past, the present, and the future. As the old saying goes, “leave no stone unturned.” After all, value can come from anywhere at any time. We’re more likely, however, to start with the past because it’s where the dreadful skeletons exist in the form of painful memories or phobic sensations as well as the highlights of our lives. All the while, though, we may be overlooking the dragons and positive aspects of the present that deserve our gratitude as well. Moreover, things that will most certainly occur in the phenomenal world of our future also merit our attention—for example, death.
Of course, as we go about using gratitude to mine the depths of our past experiences, we might be pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised about what it uncovers and how it makes us work. Delighted to say “thank you” to the good memories, we could discover numerous things within them which border on the sad or otherwise upsetting. For example, receiving awards for deeds well done while we notice that others were either left out, put out, or absent from the ceremony celebrating us—however, this is our opportunity to express gratitude to them as well. Just saying “thanks” to them may cause us to empathize and experience their hardship in seeing us rewarded, to even uncover the unapparent. For example, as Aung San Suu Kyl, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, so rightly states, “It is from hardship rather than ease that we gather wisdom.” Thus, this revelation might help us to be more inclusive when we receive accolades in the future.
On the other hand, expressing gratitude to the bad memories, at first, could dredge up more than we’ve bargained on, and that’s why we should take our time going into this part of the practice, starting with the general and not so painful before taking on the specific and especially horrible experiences of the past. We’ll find there are real payoffs in facing these adversities again. Just as Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart, says, “In our hardships, we discover the courage not to succumb, not to retreat, not to strike out in fear and anger. And by resting in a non-contentious heart we become a lamp, a medicine, a strong presence; we become the healing . . .” And that’s what this work is really about. Therefore, when working with really difficult or tragic recollections, initially it’s not necessary to look at them directly but just approach the sensations associated with them with an attitude of gratitude and curiosity. This is a desensitizing process. It may be necessary to engage and disengage numerous times before it’s possible to look at what we recall straight on and say “thank you.” Wisdom and/or a reciprocal feeling of gratitude, in my experience, frequently arise as a result of right effort.
For example, just this morning, I was recalling and saying “thank you” to a really difficult person for whom I had worked in the military. At the beginning of this experience, I found all the feelings of the past were coming back (hate, anger, fear, and the desire to strike out). However, as I continued to repeat “thank you,” I also noticed the sensation of grasping for my personal being, an attempt to protect myself. Almost immediately, I realized there was no self to grasp or be protected. How liberating it was to observe such a release from suffering, see the trauma my ex-boss was undergoing in trying to protect his own being, realize that neither one of us were independent of the other, and know that none of this hardship had been necessary. It was as if the veil had been pulled back, causing an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and compassion for the other person.
Consequently, we learn that returning to the past and expressing “thank you” is essential in resolving difficult situations. Here are a few that I offer as examples:
-the slap on the child’s face that allows the adult child to see the emotional pain of his father and feel compassion for him
-the cold and wretched fear of the dark in the stomach of a three-year-old, in an old farmhouse in the middle of the night, which permits him to find peace with his shadow side as an adult
-the experience of touching the bottom of a drinking problem that allowed a person to leave the path toward alcoholism and continue to realize prolonged sobriety
-the divorce that inspired a person to improve his or her ability and willingness to function in healthy relationships
-a mother’s threats to send her child to the reform school to deal with teenage rebellion, which resulted in “showing her” he could become a law abiding citizen
Coming back to the present, perhaps we realize more than ever the value of expressing gratitude now rather than waiting for years to do something so important. It’s not only essential to do in person but can also to be practiced effectively when we’re alone in what is called vertical time; that is, we recall the person and/or the event as we’re sitting, backs straight, and focused in the present. Beginning with the good things in life, we say “thank you” knowing that such a feeling of gratitude will expand and carry over to help the people around us feel better too. Subsequently, we take the things and people that are bothering us and start “thanking them” as well. Not only will we feel better but we’ll also know, according to Carlos Casteñeda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, when to depart from the tyrants in our life. As we convert our negative feelings into gratitude for the difficulties in our current reality, we may very well restore loving relationships, keep our jobs or get better ones, eliminate fights with teenage children, and find inner peace. This kind of practice is endless in its rewards.
Finally, expressing gratitude for the future by bringing it into the present includes contemplating what will definitely come true—the loss of life, the loss of possessions, the loss of being able to achieve everything we want, and the loss of loved ones and dear friends. Initially, there may be a lot of sadness in this part of the practice—kind of like saying goodbye to experiences before you ever have them—it’s a real letting go. From a practical standpoint, it may simplify your life, help you to appreciate those close to you much more than you do now, and assist you to become more introspective. Quality time will enjoy a much higher priority. Discarding what you truly don’t need will become more commonplace. The preciousness of people, just as an old friend of mine, Jean, used to say, will become such a reality that you’ll treat them with an enhanced level of loving friendliness and kindness.
I would surmise that by now, especially if you’ve already started practicing, the path of gratitude will have become a high road to a better place in life. Finding out that saying “thanks” to people and events of the past, present, and future does begin to uncover the stones; however, the truth is they’re almost endless. Discovering the wisdom and joy in this exercise, we also develop the valor not to give up, not to flee, and not to lash out in alarm and rage, for we know gratitude is forthcoming. Thank you!
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Almost anyone looking at what is reported in the news, I believe, would find much of it to be negative. After the barrage of political campaigns in the United States, the crises and wars going on in the Middle East, the tens of thousands of children starving and dying in Africa, the widespread economical recessions, drug and human trafficking, and much more, I think many of our world’s citizens wonder if we’ll ever regain our sanity let alone a sense of peace. The universal principle of “what you focus on tends to expand” appears to be forced toward the negative by the world’s political, religious, and business leaders, most of whom are male. Retaining or returning to our senses while affected by world matters, begs the question, “What do we focus on: the positive, the negative, or the reality?
Of course, concentrating on the positive aspects of life in daily living is skillful and beneficial. If we’re working on something difficult, keeping an upbeat result in mind gives us the extra energy we need to keep going. If we’re contemplating on creating a peaceful solution that involves people, optimism lets us see more deeply into the situation, opens the door of compassion, and draws others to us. Moreover, it awakens the basic goodness in us and inspires the cooperation of the people we work for, our colleagues and employees, as well as our friends and family. Awakening with a positive frame of mind in the morning, our day has the potential to be joyful. If we find that we need an extra push to get going, then just as Norman Cousins has said, “Laughter is a powerful way to tap positive emotions”. Just smiling at the dance in daily living changes one's emotions to the affirmative almost immediately. If one practices awakening with a smile, it may just change their life and their world that day. And one final note on the positive is that it presents the possibility of a clear state of mind that avoids ignoring what is harmful.
On the other hand, it’s no secret that directing our energy from a negative viewpoint in daily affairs is unskillful and destructive. Negativity unerringly picks a fight with whom or whatever is near, it destroys morale, and it polarizes working groups. Just look at the congress of the United States. Whatever rapport has been established in a team can easily be obliterated by cynical and pessimistic attitudes, breaking its will to be the best it can be. If there was a flow of initiative, it soon diminishes. For example, I once worked for a military commander who sucked the exceptional ability and will to work out of his subordinates. Everyone wanted to leave his employ but couldn’t. It was truly difficult to work there. The commander exemplified the statement by Lewis F. Korns, Thoughts, “One always looking for flaws leaves too little time for construction.” Truly, a negative state of mind not only harms others, it ignores the positive to the detriment of our inner being.
Other than focusing on the positive or the negative, we can choose to observe the reality in our everyday lives which is not only skillful and valuable but also all inclusive. Making such a choice involves looking at our thoughts and emotions as well as what’s going on around us in the here and now. According to Siddhartha Gautama, we can best use our minds not only for knowledge and remembrance but also to monitor what’s going on in the present without grasping to anything; thus, we don’t lose ourselves in the positive, the negative or the neutral, we stay alert and equanimous, two very powerful states of mind and exactly what we need to tend to daily affairs at all levels of society.
Moreover, being based in the reality of the here and now while cognizant of the past and future has a number of positive outcomes. Its quality of equanimity strengthens with practice. We find ourselves more capable of forging the depths of our inner resources, seeing deeply into complicated issues while showing wisdom and good common sense in our decision-making. More often than not we begin to take leadership roles, maintain our balance while looking at the negative, and employ people with both positive and negative views as a valuable resource in following our objectives to a positive outcome. And we find our ability to be patient with ourselves and others continuing to increase.
Examining the question of our focus not only permits a strong look at ourselves but also gives us a way to objectively scrutinize our world and its leaders. When we know the pros and cons of the ways of concentrating, making a decision on how we focus our energy lets us see the intended results from the basis of non-harming. Through this kind of work, we often see the inner behavioral patterns that sway us toward what we tend to focus on most in life—noticing that we frequently pick these directions unconsciously and reactively, and end up feeling as though our control has been ripped out of our hands. We feel groundless and often confused. According to Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart, if we practice mindfulness, we will learn generosity, compassion, and liberation from what hinders us in life. In conclusion, which way of focusing our minds do we and our leaders choose to guide our actions and decisions toward interior and exterior peace: the positive, the negative, or the reality? The answer is obvious, is it not?
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
A few days ago as my wife and I were coming home in a taxi, we saw a small boy dressed in his school uniform and having a marvelous time while walking to school. He was not far from our home in the countryside near the little town of Santa Cruz Tlaxcala here in Mexico. Seeing him alone, happy and having such a good time interacting with nature’s beautiful environment, not only reminded us of our own childhood but also of the current danger young humans face in this so-called modern and progressive world. We truly felt concerned for the safety of the little boy, who was alone and on his way to class.
Moreover, just as other people who see, hear, and read the details of human trafficking in the news and documentaries, we often feel the heartbreaking pain of such tragedy--the capture, sale, purchase, slavery, brutalization and murder of innocent victims. Our inner beings cry out. We feel helpless as to what we can do. And we shudder at the idea of imagining what we would experience if we entered the minds of those being trafficked, doing the trafficking, or committing the brutalization. Such a thing seems beyond our reality; yet, what if we did imagine ourselves stepping into the shoes of these people?
Although this experience could be difficult and even frightening, we might find instruction and comfort in the words of the famous second secretary-general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, spoken over 50 years ago, about developing peace and compassion: “he must push his awareness to the utmost limit without losing his inner quiet, he must be able to see with the eyes of others from within their personality without losing his own.” Such wisdom reminds us of the need to develop insight (real understanding) into the issue of human trafficking before choosing what we, as individuals, can do in supporting the cause to halt this horrendous crime against humanity.
Holding a vivid image in our mind of a small boy or girl, who has been sexually or otherwise victimized, we might begin to sense what he or she has experienced mentally and physically. For example, we would imagine seeing and feeling the event of the child’s capture, the shock of his or her freedom being ripped away, the crying out for his or her family, the fear he or she has of the captors, the painful beatings, and the explosion of tears running down his or her cheeks—the trauma is overwhelming. Continuing to contemplate the child, we see and feel the experiences of ensuing events, such as the transportation, sale, and pain of being violated in different places, from the very rich and luxurious homes to the putrid, disease-ridden, and infested environments of prostitution. We might even see the child being harvested for his or her organs before the cadaver is ground up and mixed with other materials to make hog feed. Of course, all the while it’s possible that we feel the sensations of the cries of loss within the child’s family, especially that of the mother.
Monday, October 1, 2012
Even though we are flooded with movies, television drama and news programs, and video games that overwhelmingly show us death, we still favor keeping thoughts of our own process of dying at arm’s length. Some of us say, “please don’t let it hurt” or “I don’t want to know about it when it happens.” Also, many of us don’t particularly like being at the bedside of a dying person who is in our family or circle of close friends. Probably, that’s because it’s scary or reminds us of what our own death could be like, that it might cause us to feel hopeless, helpless, and hapless—not peaceful at all. However, if we took more time to consider dying, it might be that we would approach death with a different mentality, even one of feeling somewhat more prepared to experience it for ourselves when it’s our turn.
In general, death in our western culture used to be treated quite differently than it is now. At the beginning of the 20th century most people died before 50 years of age from things we didn't know how to treat. Like my sister has told me, "They just got sick and died." But they died in their own homes, with familiar caregivers and loved ones around them. (For instance, my Great-Great-Great Grandmother Cousins died at her home in 1902.) Also, after death they were bathed, watched over, and buried with the help of friends and community. Now people live much longer due to modern technology and drugs. They can be hooked up to a respirator in a vegetative or non-vegetative state for years. Second, following a good diet and taking diabetes pills and insulin injections let us live well up into our 80s or even more. Others live on with various treatments but sometimes with immense pain from which they would welcome death as a relief.
However, such radically different approaches in modern medicine have led to different ideas about what makes a good and peaceful death. For instance, there is the notion in the West, called scientific materialism, which believes it is good to die while unconscious to the fact that death is coming. It’s the idea that when loss of life is the linear end of material existence, why not soften the blow? If you die in your sleep, people frequently say, “Thank God, such a blessing” or “Well, at least she never knew what hit her.” Conversely, when the Judea-Christian influence dominated Western culture, not being aware of oncoming death was considered a disaster. Having time to prepare properly was believed critical to assuring a beneficent outcome. In my own family, mhy beloved Uncle Ernie died almost instantly in front of the hosptial admissions desk, whereas his first wife had died in her sleep next to him, only to be discovered stone-cold dead the next morning. Was the way they died a blessing or not? I have not way of knowing, so I'm just not sure. On the other hand, my niece's husband recently passed away, choosing to do so with his family's approval, with pneumonia that had resulted as a complication from another fatal illness. In this case, Dar's death seemed to be a blessing because he was prepared.
When we examine the Eastern approach to dying, we also see a tradition where preparing properly for death is believed critical to assuring a beneficent outcome, but different in several aspects. Philip Kapleau Roshi, a noted American Zen teacher, said, “Your mind at the time you draw your last breath is crucial, for upon this hinges the subsequent direction and embodiment of the life force.” Of course, this is based upon the idea that life continues after death—something also believed in Christianity—thus, it behooves one to be in the best possible mental state at the time of death. Jeffrey Hopkins, a noted author and Tibetan Buddhist scholar, says, “from the tantric perspective, the point of actual death is tied not to inhalation and exhalation but to the appearance of the mind of clear light.” This concept is different from the Western notion that life ends with the last exhalation and heartbeat, but not entirely different from the instruction given to dying people cared for by the hospice movement; that is, to go to the light. Dzogchen Ponlop, another Tibetan teacher and author of the esteemed book Mind Beyond Death, also relates that preparing the mind is keenly essential for a good journey through and clear of death.
Yet, if we examine the deaths of the majority of Westerners, we’ll find a noticeable absence of any kind of preparation of the mind for dying, but at least some have “gotten their external affairs in order.” According to a well-known Tibetan Buddhist author, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, “It is such a terrible rejection, a fundamental rejection of love, that nobody is willing to help a dying person’s state of mind.” Perhaps, this is not true in the relative sense in all cases, i.e., ministers and priests may have spent hours in counseling and praying with dying people. However, their situations beg the question of skills in addition to faith and belief in a higher power; that is, concentration, attention, loving kindness, compassion—talents that would help the person to enter and flow through the dying process in peace.
Developing such a practice for our last undertaking of living in this existence should be the most important act we accomplish, not only for ourselves but for the people who will witness our dying. I, for one, want to be ready. I want to have the talent I need to leave my body in a state of compassion and unconditional love; to not remain attached to people, things, or goals left unaccomplished or lost in fears, thoughts, and visions, but to willfully open to the clear light while concentrated, mindful, smiling from a mind of loving kindness for self and others, and with complete faith in the divine presence of the absolute.
Truly, if we take the time to investigate death, especially how we can approach dying with more than a conventional mentality, we’ll find and develop the techniques that will prepare us for our final moment on this planet. We won’t want to sleep or be unconscious during the death process, but to take control of it, with a positive frame of mind, and see it clearly as the penultimate act of loving kindness for ourselves and others. Any mental suffering that arises from the fear of dying will be completely or largely absent, and in its place will be a level of confidence and peace of mind. The more we practice preparing for death as a daily affair, the more confident we become, accompanied by the realization of a stronger faith in a higher power, using the wisdom that so many others have followed.
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
When it comes to managing the five major resources we have available to us in this modern world, we’d probably like to think that we do okay, wouldn’t we? However, that might not always be the case. For example, the means we call time is usually something for which we feel a scarcity and would like to use better. So, if we changed what we do with the important moments we have, what would result?
For example, instead of using the first minute of the day to jump out of bed when the alarm rings and rush about, we could do something different. We could employ it to attain stability by noticing and focusing on the breath coming in and out of our nostrils. Second, to combine this concentration with our attention to scan our bodies inside and out from the top of our head to the tip of our toes. Then, to observe our entire being while smiling and saying “thank you” repeatedly as if we’ve met an old friend (the act of smiling changes the emotions in our inner self—try it). Last, we get out of bed in a better frame of mind, well focused, feeling refreshed, and more capable of meeting and engaging our day.
Of course, this short, but valuable little process, can be applied in other situations as well. If it involves education, it can be used by students in the minute before starting exams. If it concerns parenting, it can be employed before disciplining children. If it has to do with work, it can be utilized before making important decisions or meeting with difficult clients. If it pertains to recreational activities, for example, golf, it can be used just before putting, teeing off, or making a short or long drive.
The benefits are gratifying to say the least. Focusing helps improve clarity and the strength of concentration while invoking a moment to hear and silence harmful internal dialogue; moreover, it provides a base for the next two steps. Combining such intensity with our attention lets us see and balance the feelings, emotions, and thoughts we might be experiencing so that we might develop some insight and wisdom regarding a situation and respond instead of react. Smiling on the effects of the previous two steps, along with saying “thanks” repeatedly, creates a feeling of kindness and gratitude in our body that has an immediate and beneficial outcome upon any action in which we are involved. For example, offering a hand of security to someone who has felt isolated, lessening our fears upon waking or going to sleep, or creating confidence in the minds of others. Time, in some instances, might even be saved as a result of not having accidents or making horrible mistakes.
Changing what we normally do for something thoughtful and out of the ordinary could just be the modification we’d like to keep. It’s a short little process, but given the opportunity of practice, it affects some really memorable and valuable results. Also, the benefits I’ve mentioned here are but a few of the many that actually exist. So why not take advantage of the important moments you have to live more peacefully and wisely and happier!
Friday, September 21, 2012
Have you ever had the feeling that you’ve just BEEN BLINDSIDED? Well, that’s what living life on automatic usually does for you, doesn’t it? You know, “doing everything on the run.” Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Millions of others do the same! But have you really thought about what stops you from finding a better way?
For starters, it could be that ignorance is the case; however, it certainly isn’t blissful when it costs you what matters the most. Many of us have seen others get promotions, especially people who have continued their education and taken the time to find out what else they need to boost their careers. Second, ignoring your health instead of staying fit makes for good conversations in the hospital or recuperating at home, doesn’t it? Not paying attention to your family while keeping your eye on the ball at work six and seven days a week might also be the reason for the empty home you live in now, right?
Of course, it might also be that YOU JUST DON’T HAVE THE TIME. Yeah, we’ve all heard that one…until work gives you the opportunity to travel or do something else equally exciting, and then you have all the time in the world, don’t you? That’s just a small indicator of your real power because the truth is you choose how you use your time. So it’s no secret that you tend to pursue what you prize the most, even when some of those priorities may be destructively set by your subconscious mind, remaining largely unknown to you.
Last, it could be that the solution you’re offered to a better life sounds JUST TOO FAR OUT OF THE NORM for you to consider, right? I mean, after all, what would other people, especially your family and friends, think of you if you tried it? Of course, it might even be surprising that some of the most successful people you know or admire do it, something you don’t find out until after they die! Such a practice might even have been the reason why they were so well liked and successful.
Looking at some of the major causes for why you fail to find a better way to avoid the problems you experience in daily living is a little hard to accept, isn’t it? But don’t worry, it’s easy to go on pleading ignorance, saying you don’t have the time, or the resolution is just too far out in fairy land for you to try. Or, maybe not, especially if you’ve had all you can take. The key, although challenging, might be interesting and delightfully different than what you expect; even practical and rewarding from the get go!
Finding a way out of the mess into which you’ve gotten yourself means taking a look at what the successful people do that you’ve observed. And I’m not talking about the ones who just do it at work, but those who really have a balanced life between their occupation, family, and personal endeavors. Characteristically, people seem to be drawn to them, they’re not difficult to be with, they listen, they seem to inspire the best in others, they have time for family and friends, and their decisions always seem to make good sense. They’re the kind of people you want to be with during an emergency. They don’t have to be negative or use force to get what is necessary carried out. Perhaps, you’d even like to take a closer look at what helps them to be someone you’d like to emulate.
First, they don’t seem to jump into a decision. Even in emergencies, if you could observe them carefully, you’d see that they still take a moment to go inside themselves. And that’s the point. They’re intimately familiar with what’s in there. Becoming aware of their emotions, thoughts, and feelings before they choose an appropriate action is something they seem to do almost automatically. For example, I saw this quality in Edwin Wockenfuss, one of the best leaders for whom I’ve had the opportunity to work. The decisions he had to make went from the very mundane to those of life and death. People would follow him anywhere.
So what would he or others like him do once they had taken a moment to check themselves? They would attempt to maintain or reestablish a level of equanimity appropriate to the situation they were facing. Balance was essential to themselves and others around them. To the naked eye, they were firmly in control of the element of life they were facing, whether it was routine or otherwise.
Moreover, especially when a problem was difficult or serious, taking time to contemplate the situation and the appropriate action would be commonplace among these people. They would often withdraw to their offices, take a walk, or sleep on it. When they came back with a decision, it was clear and very capably carried out by the decision maker and his or her people.
Certainly, the examples I’ve given are of exemplary leaders reflecting on their feelings, emotions, and thoughts, assuring a functional level of equanimity, contemplating to see their way to an appropriate action, and carrying it out with the help of their people. But this could also be observed in what they did with their families and personal lives. Applying their actions to yourself in the parts of life most important to you would be quite suitable. And that’s the sticky point, isn’t it? While some people seem to be naturals, others have to learn and mold themselves to these behaviors over time.
Thus, it becomes a question of finding the training you need to acquire these talents. So where do you go, where do you begin to look? Do you find these abilities taught at our universities? No, not usually. The answer is that you customarily have to look for such instruction outside of traditional institutions of learning. Expecting their professors to teach you how to gain any competency in the skill of mindfulness for daily life may be well beyond what they instruct.
Instead, you should look for this training in non-traditional places. For example, internet is a good place to start. This source gives you the locations of numerous groups that generally meet in local cities and towns. Just go to google and type in “Inquiring Mind,” and you’ll find all kinds of groups and contacts. (And don’t be afraid of the word meditation, for mindfulness is one of its techniques.) These people will be quite helpful in getting you in contact with teachers, materials, and other people practicing mindfulness.
Sitting down with the leader of a small group is certainly a preferable way to start. That’s what I did with David Schulze, an economics professor who taught at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1975. After Dave guided me through a basic session, I knew that I’d found the beginning of something that would help me through the ups and downs of life, and more than 35 years later, I can certainly say that it has. Thus, if you find that a small guided session with a qualified teacher offers the slightest notion that mindfulness training would be helpful, then it’s certainly worthwhile to continue with the local group. Later on, if you’re experiencing more benefits, then participating in a retreat would be a viable option.
And I can’t begin to emphasize strongly enough, how important it is for you to learn to take mindfulness training into daily life, letting it become the tool that is used to check your internal self, attain or maintain equanimity, contemplate an issue momentarily or at length, make a decision, and take appropriate action at work, with the family, or in personal pursuits.
What I’ve described in the above paragraphs is not a walk in the park. It’s a journey. As such, it contains all the ups and downs you find in life until your very last breath. You’ll appreciate the equanimity that carries you through difficulties and the clarity that contemplation offers in seeing your way to effective decisions. Getting to know the dysfunctional thoughts, feelings and emotions you experience as opportunities for learning and growth, you non-reactively observe them as your ever-growing level of concentration directs your laser-like attention into transforming them from liabilities into assets. And, finally, you’ll begin to describe ideas for conventional life that you and others like family, friends, and colleagues can clearly see and use for living successfully every day. There’s nothing like making a difference, is there?
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
There are a lot of scary things in life, aren’t there? And they usually start with a sensation of fear. Although we sense the fright in such a feeling, it can really be terrifying when it turns into thinking about something unknown. This kind of “thought”, the one we don’t like to hear as older adults, is usually, “I don’t have much time left to…” Such a notion comes to me, for example, while I’m enjoying the young trees my wife and I have planted in our yard and entryway, and I imagine seeing them almost fully grown, but my presence isn’t there. I wonder what might happen if I or others attempted to investigate such thoughts instead of reacting to them by retreating from their shadowy presence.
Perhaps, contemplating the statement, “I don’t have much time left to…,” that is, concentrating and holding it under a laser-like gaze of mindfulness might be quite surprising and helpful. Just being patient, it would lead us into the sensation of fear from which we usually flee. Once there, this is the part where we would really need the ability of equanimity to stay put, steadfastly observing the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise and pass away. If we’re fortunate, our patience might pay off, for as fear dissolves, we could find ourselves opening to and becoming one with a natural spaciousness, experiencing a clarity that is crystal clear. As we linger, we could abide in awareness, one that may offer insights, such as learning that immense joy is possible within each moment in nature, like being one with those trees and plants that humans love so much. Insights might come as though they’re specifically designed for us. We would realize we can make this journey of contemplation as often as we like, that our fear of not having enough time left to enjoy the things we love in nature or with other parts of our lives dissolves, and that what we have is sufficient, even if it’s a small while. It may even be that some call the final stage in aging, appreciation, becomes a living reality.
Investigating fearful thoughts, such as “I don’t have much time left to…”, by contemplating and following them to their core is transformative. It’s amazingly helpful as it resolves many of the difficulties we perceive and face in daily living. Finding that we can study such feelings while we’re in nature or wherever we are, not just on a cushion, we experience gratitude for what we have in each moment and let it go. And in doing so, we may find that letting go of our final moment in this life is one filled with satisfaction and unconditional love. Why not?
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Isn’t it time to look deeply into our hearts to find the true light and spirit of peace to reunify the citizens of our beautiful country?
Isn’t it true that if we fail to experience the authentic peace of our heart minds, we won’t be able to sense the true depth of sorrow and fear underneath the anger and frustration of fellow Americans? And to bring the honesty of true, heartfelt peace to them, our words and actions must exemplify that same level of sincerity from within us, must they not?
We can pray and ask for genuine peace all we want, but unless we dissolve the internal thoughts, beliefs and emotions obstructing us from going there and experiencing it for ourselves, the tranquility we attempt to bring to our fellow citizens will be shallow and meaningless to them; thus, failing to reunify the people of America.
Real leadership is a standing, walking vision of peace speaking from the heart directly to the hearts of others. People would recognize and respond in kind to the authenticity of such a demonstration if it were offered to them and sincerely carried out from a united front of democrat, republican, independent and religious leaders and elders, would they not?
Isn’t this what the people of our country deserve?
Carroll Edward Young, A Fellow Citizen
Saturday, August 25, 2012
As we observe the current presidential campaigns in the United States right now, I’m sure that many of us are wondering what has happened to the compassion in the ever growing movement toward the ultra right side of conservatism. If compassion truly allows us to bear witness to the suffering of ourselves and others, then where has it gone? According to Sharon Salzberg, the author of the book, Loving Kindness, the way to develop compassion is to learn to live with sympathy for all living beings, without exception. Furthermore, to do that, she so rightly states, we have to be able to recognize, open to, acknowledge that pain and sorrow exist, and then establish an appropriate relationship with them. What, then, stops so many Americans and their leaders, especially on the conservative side of the body politic from doing so?
Perhaps, the answer is in what Sharon says next, “Compassion means taking the time to look at the conditions, or the building blocks, of any situation. We must be able to look at things as they actually are in each moment. We must have the openness and spaciousness to see both the conditions and the content.” Although a lot of people would plead ignorance to knowing how to do this, looking inside ourselves we experience the fears that prevent us from viewing pain and sorrow directly. Besides that, maybe the fear of knowing that once we see these things we won’t be able to avoid taking appropriate action is also there. How about observing some of the poor children with blackened teeth due to the lack of access to training and proper dental care? How about the workers like our sons and daughters, after having lost their jobs and insurance, have also lost all of their teeth simply because they had to wait until they could be treated in a hospital emergency room? How about others who have died of cancer, like my nephew, because they couldn’t afford to get the appropriate analyses to make an adequate diagnosis until the people in charge of workers compensation had finally given their approval? These examples are only the tip of the iceberg.
Why not open to them? We could go and spend a few minutes with the people who are suffering this pain with its accompanying sorrow, and we could also go on line to see their photos and videos. (Although, there is nothing like seeing it first hand, is there?) After experiencing the reality facing our fellow citizens, we should have developed some feelings of sympathy and compassion (the desire to take away the suffering) for them. That is exactly the time to simply become quiet and focused for about five minutes, bring them and their suffering into our thoughts, attend to it single pointedly, and affirm to them again and again, “May you be free of your pain and sorrow. May you find peace.” These aspirations are also called the prayer of loving kindness, one that is specifically designed to nurture compassion. And with the use of such a tool we begin to see its benefits.
Saying these words and contemplating what we observe as we go through this process repeatedly, our heart mind begins to open as we sympathize and empathize by seeing the conditions and content of agony. Perhaps, we even begin to witness and experience our own fear of suffering, learning that we, too, are not separate but are in unity with the misery of others. (We might see the truth in what physicists say: “Nothing is separate.”) Just by being in the here and now in vertical time, paying unwavering attention to the pain we feel, we may find ourselves learning to let it go and pass away. On finishing each session of loving kindness designed for compassion, we may evolve into taking action with all our skill. Even something as simple as being present with another who is in pain is often enough. That person will, indeed, feel our compassion.
Asking ourselves what stops fellow Americans and our leaders from acknowledging the pain and sorrow that truly exists in our society, we soon find ourselves having a solid session of interbeing, the talented communication between our inner and outer selves. So doing, we would have to be as unfeeling as a rock not to be opened by the experience of suffering in front of and within us. Throughout the process, which may become a daily practice, we probably learn more than we knew existed as it pertains to misery, and we see that we, too, can benefit through compassionate action within ourselves and with others. In conclusion, why should we or the people on the political right of our society hesitate?
Going through the stages of aging is a challenge for all of us and one that we’re willing to make, but we’d probably like to do it a bit better than we are. If we’re fully engaged in this process, then finding some tools or techniques to help us is a priority. We’ll locate others willing to share useful information and teach us the skills associated with it when we really investigate our options. For example, as the tools of concentration and mindfulness help us to focus on and hold arising and passing fearful thoughts, emotions, and feelings under a laser-like gaze, they are combined with the valuable technique of loving kindness.
Resulting from this process are some benefits that make it particularly important for those of us who wish to age wisely. First, the approach of loving kindness balances and softens the outcomes of concentration and mindfulness. This can be quite helpful since they often uproot some difficult, unresolved emotions or feelings, which may take time to process. Next, being kind to ourselves can overcome the feeling of isolation. Such a benefit, for example, offers a hand of security to people who are alone after having lost a spouse or someone else dear to them. One sleeps better and awakens more easily with fewer fears if he or she feels the comfort of not having been abandoned. Third, when we become committed to the force of loving kindness, then people know they can trust us. Obviously, this makes it easier to have more friends and loving relatives who come to visit. Next, as we sincerely progress in the use of this technique, we begin to notice a facial radiance, peace of mind, smiles and good humor that weren’t there before. Life gradually starts to show us new possibilities, and we find ourselves adapting to the stages of aging, having become a bit wiser for our efforts. Finally, we begin to embrace life in ways that were not possible before, even seeing the goodness in others and finding that in return. Compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity have, for example, now made it into our lives. How wonderful!
Combining loving kindness with its accompanying techniques puts a beneficial, balancing, and softening cap on a useful practice for people in the stages of aging. The emotions, feelings, and thoughts that once seemed to hold one’s life captive have now become manageable. And we begin to see how some of the properties of loving kindness, such as compassion, may be extended in additional practices. In conclusion, we may realize that the employment of concentration, mindfulness, and loving kindness is not only quite useful but also beneficial as a complete program for wellness in growing older and wiser. How satisfying that would be!
Friday, August 24, 2012
While there are many benefits that result from routinely practicing concentration, another technique is needed to permit us to grow in using the wisdom to which we open as we age. Such a means is essential for living a happier, more joyful life as a senior even as we’re serving others. It helps us to witness the truth in our experiences, and it leads us to a certainty in aging and changing that meditative practice aids in seeing through our problems and difficulties to find new ways to solve them. Therefore, as we go through the stages of the aging process, from recognition to coming to terms to adaptation and appreciation, it’s possible to benefit from partnering concentration with mindfulness practice every step of the way.
For example, this valuable method lets us pay attention to whatever we direct our mind to focus on, i.e., the body, the feelings, and the mind. As we start to undergo the first phase of aging, it has often hit us as if with lightning. This is where we begin to experience the real benefit of mindfulness practice, for it takes the initial shock, fear and worry and starts to transform them into peace and tranquility, whereby we observe without being lost in various mind states. By the time we’ve passed into the adaptation stage, we may have seen mindfulness turn physical and mental pain into something tolerable. We now know how to use this technique like a medicinal therapy to resolve other obstacles related to growing older. It’s helped us to realize insights that are not only useful to us but also to those around us, showing how to let go of our attachment to impermanence (things, people, ideas, etc.), while staying in the here and now. Finally, by the time we’ve moved into the final phase of growing older and wiser, we’re feeling a great deal of satisfaction for the journey we’ve had through life, we’re knowledgeable of how to rest in awareness and let go of the tentativeness of this identify as we make the final transition into death. Oftentimes, many of us would not want to go back to our younger days, even if we could, due to the support of mindfulness in getting to where we are now. We feel a vast amount of appreciation in life for the wisdom we’ve experienced and what we’ve accomplished in the service of others.
On the other hand, many of us have seen and been part of the journeys experienced by seniors 50 and over failing to complete the stages of aging wisely. This was, in large part, because of not knowing how to practice mindfulness but also choosing to deny its validity. Instead, they went through a lot of unnecessary suffering. For example, when they began to notice they were aging, they started complaining. As they continued to age, their worries and fears persisted in accumulating, and many of them became quite depressed. When they passed away, they often did so in desperate situations, crying out in loneliness and hopelessness, sometimes quite angry and horrible to family and others taking care of them. It was not only tragic to those suffering but also to others who observed and wished for a better way to leave this life, fearing they might also have to endure what they were seeing.
Therefore, as we’ve seen above, partnering concentration with mindfulness practice benefits our progress through the aging process. It allows us to focus like a laser beam on what’s important, observe without getting lost in the presenting issue, and realize some peace and happiness while seeing the truth in the experience; on the other hand, seniors who don’t take advantage of using mindfulness sometimes fail to complete the stages of aging and die horribly. As for those who have prepared themselves for getting older, they usually anticipate it with a frame of mind decidedly more positive than those who have not involved themselves with such meditative practice, one that is easily taken from the cushion or chair into daily living. In conclusion, if one needs additional information to more seriously consider what is being said here, I suggest that he or she go to places where older people are suffering and contemplate the truth in their external circumstances and aging process.
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Sometimes it takes a lot to take us out of our youthful, automatic approach to living and wake us up to what is consciously going on in our lives. We may or may not be shocked by what we see as the onset of getting older, but it could motivate us to look for some assistance to cope with its unrelenting changes. While the art of focusing our attention on an object, such as the breath, does help in the four stages of aging, perhaps it’s most beneficial in the first.
After all, the earliest recognition that we are aging has probably occurred because of some physical or mental alteration in our lives, which certainly can be gradual but is oftentimes like a bolt of lightning. It follows, then, that the initial benefit of a concentration practice, if we have it in hand, is to help us regain our stability after such a shock. For example, if we’re experiencing high blood pressure, focusing on something as simple as our breathing, will assist in restoring it to something closer to normal. If we’re going through pain, concentration will serve as the foundation for other practices that will make it more tolerable. Through all of this we begin to realize a sense of space in which we might enjoy some rest and temporary peace. Moreover, we’ll have gained a greater awareness over what’s going on with our physicality. Secondly, we’ll be giving ourselves a window of opportunity to regain and increase our mental clarity. We will begin to see ourselves in a different light with less and less confusion and ignorance. We’ll realize the value of the foundation concentration offers to the next meditative step, mindfulness, which permits us to explore the different levels of awareness within us. We might even experience the value of silence in reducing harmful speech. Our ability to “interbe”, the level of communication we have between our inner and outer being, may also become enhanced, thus, creating a balance not previously experienced. And all the while, we might discover we can be of service to others who are also experiencing the initial stages of aging.
Obviously, using the enhanced version of what we used to think of as “counting to 10” or “taking three deep breaths,” before responding to a stressful situation, has become a lifeline right from the initial shock of what caused us to recognize that we’re aging. Much like me, who woke up in the middle of the night a few months ago feeling uncommon stress in my chest, we’ve experienced one or two of the benefits of practicing concentration within the first few minutes. Moreover, taking a walk in nature becomes a joy due to our increasing ability to focus and sincerely take gratitude in its beauty. In conclusion, most people, who have truly experienced the initial stage of aging and begun a concentration practice, will continue, without a doubt, to enjoy and expand its infinite value in daily living. And you?
As adults in our middle and senior years, we sometimes find ourselves facing stressful obstacles in our personal and professional lives. Our jobs are threatened by the world economy, our relationships are pushed to the limits by outside influences, and our time is increasingly saturated by an artificial environment instead of the nourishing surroundings of nature. Physical exhaustion, mental confusion, and emotional trauma frequently result. We need a personal and practical method to help us manage the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of aging wisely in a tranquil and beneficial manner.
Such a means is found by many in the major techniques of meditation practice, which are easily taken from the cushion or chair into everyday life. The first step is learning to concentrate or focus. Using this valuable skill in our lives can produce some really beneficial outcomes. For example, being recognized as a stable leader, winning ballgames like the Los Angeles Lakers, and being cool headed around the ups and downs of parenting. The second step is developing a practice called mindfulness. Being able to combine our attention with a solid focus allows wisdom to become part of making intelligent decisions at home and at work. For example, how many people knew that Steve Jobs was a practitioner of Zen meditation? His mindfulness certainly made Apple a huge success! The last part of the practice is applying a step called loving kindness. While the ability to concentrate and pay attention without judging opens us to wisdom, kindness allows us to balance and soften some of the affects that arise as we’ve been applying concentration and mindfulness. This action results in being more considerate and empathetic with ourselves and others. For instance, instead of ignoring our employees, spouses, or adult children, we take the time to listen and help them solve some really important issues that are mutually productive. The practice of loving kindness promotes compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity in our lives.
Thus, after careful consideration of the foregoing information, we may know that we need a support system for daily living to grow older and wiser, one that is both personal and professional. This means, normally called meditation, allows us to skillfully focus, pay attention, and be kind in the often stressful activities of everyday life. Being able to remain calm in the face of stress, think clearly, and feel good about one’s actions afterwards is more than a great relief. As a person in this category, I can’t count the number of times I’ve whispered the word “thanks” to the wonderful teachers who have taught me these skills. May you, indeed, take advantage of this opportunity to pass through the stages of aging with wisdom.
Saturday, August 4, 2012
Certainly, we’ve all heard the expression “Old dogs can’t learn new tricks”. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to this adage, I do say, “An old dog can look at past experiences and recuperate the lessons that weren’t purposely being taught by the teachers of the moment.” Of course, this implies using a talent that isn’t normally taught by ordinary instructors, especially those who teach children and teenagers. This is just one of the valuable lessons I’ve learned as a result of developing a one-day workshop, called “Aging Wisely,” that I’ll soon be giving in Spanish here in Mexico.
The research for this project prompted me to look at the commonalities among people of different religions as well as those who aren’t part of any specific faith. We’re normally taught moral principles to live by, what we need to do to earn a living, and to whom or where we go for help when all else fails. The ones teaching us begin with the parents and other relatives plus the teachers in schools and religious institutions; subsequently, they are exchanged for trainers, supervisors, coworkers, and community and organizational leaders. The general methods used to guide us are lecturing, modeling, discussing, testing and experiencing for ourselves. Learning begins at birth and continues until death—usually.
All too often, we learn to parrot instead of realize the deeper meaning behind a particular belief or principle, even when it’s not understood by the one giving the lesson. For example, although basic moral standards are commonly found between Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism and generally make practical sense, many teenagers rebel to how they are reinforced. And, of course, such an uprising generally leads to mistakes on the part of those who are revolting as well as the ones attempting to teach and enforce, through no fault of their own, what they perceive as correct. Finally, the consequences of how we are taught are seen in acts of reactive non thinking which culminate in problems at the highest levels of world societies, not to mention the widespread violence within and between the cultures they lead.
But when the people who raise and guide others take the time to help them internally realize the ideas and principles they’re being taught, the result is unmistakably peaceful, practical and infinitely valuable. According to a world renowned teacher, don’t believe anything, try it for yourself and if it’s true for you, accept it; otherwise, let it go and only return to it if it becomes true for you later on. As I was researching the material for the workshop, I realized how much I’d missed learning as a child and teenager. If only, I reflected, I’d been taught to speak a principle to myself in which I was being instructed, pause, pay attention to the thoughts, images, and feelings arising from inside my being in response to the tenet, and then repeat this pattern a few more times, culminating in reflecting upon what I’d learned from my natural resources. Subsequently, if I’d been given the opportunity to inform the teacher of what I’d learned from my inner self and received his or her constructive criticism, that would have improved my learning without suffering any harm, and it’s possible I wouldn’t have become the rebellious youth I was, prone to making mistakes, and parroting things with or without any real truth in them.
However, this old dog that has seen through the eyes of aging wisely, can now return to those teachings of the past and, perhaps, learn the truth and/or non truths behind them.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
When we’re new to something, we hear the principles we’re being exposed to but usually do not understand or have any realization of them; perhaps, not until much later in life. Experiences sometimes do come early, yet we may walk away not comprehending the depth of what happened although visibly, mentally, and physically shaken forever by the event. It may even remain shrouded in a mental veil of mystery for many years. Numerous long term meditators can most likely recall similar experiences. It happened to me over 36 years ago, and only in the last year since I started writing this blog have I really begun to realize the value of that singular experience.
Some months before this encounter, I’d been invited by David Shultze, an economics professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, to join a small meditation group that was following the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa, a noted Tibetan Buddhist teacher in the Karma Kagyu tradition. I went, practiced the simple, meditative techniques David taught, found them to be beneficial, and continued to practice meditation with the group as well as at home. During that period of time, I also read Trungpa’s book called “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism”; however, while it was eye opening, I must admit that I didn’t understand much of it.
A few months later, David mentioned to me that he was taking a week off from work to do an individual meditation retreat in his home. Since I was intrigued by his plan, he invited me to join him, so I did. The schedule was simple. We started at eight in the morning, sitting 45 minute sessions coupled with 15 minutes of walking meditation, a one hour lunch break at twelve o’clock, and continuing on until five in the afternoon, at which time I went home.
Since I’d never done a retreat like this before, pain and restlessness began in the second hour. For hours on end, this torture continued, and I even contemplated leaving but I kept on nevertheless. On about the third day, something happened that changed my effort and motivation completely.
It was in the morning about 10 minutes after we’d started the second or third session and I was fidgeting and changing my position all over the place when, suddenly, a deep, male, baritone voice boomed inside my head saying, “BE HERE NOW!” I didn’t need to look anywhere to see where this order had come from. Almost immediately, I went into a very deep and tranquil state of meditation, still very much aware and not completely absorbed, staying that way until David sounded the bell about 30 minutes later. At lunch, I told him about my experience but he could offer me no satisfying explanation. I did, at first, suspect it was a glimpse of schizophrenia, but now 36 years later, the voice has never returned nor have any others come along.
Through all this time, I’ve turned those words and the sound of them over and over in my mind, wondering where they’d come from and who the voice was, but nothing has ever come out of this effort. Certainly, this was the one experience that motivated me to continue meditating, to keep on practicing mindfulness.
Of course, while the words, “Be Here Now” were quite straightforward, the force of the instruction’s voice sent me into an altered state of consciousness, one that gave me a taste of the pristine clearness and tranquility to which we can open via meditation. In the moment of the experience, I totally surrendered because I had no time to think of doing otherwise. It just happened.
Now, all these years later, I’m beginning to comprehend a bit more what “Be Here Now” really means. Even though I’d previously read the words and instructions of respected teachers regarding awareness, resting in the moment, surrender, meditating on no object, being mindful of the present, seeing things as they actually are, I’d not really come to any lucidity on what I’d heard.
However, when I began writing for my own clarity and peace of mind last year and then started the blog called “Leaving Fear, Arriving At Peace”, that simple instruction I’d received back in ‘76 began to become clearer to me. In fact, it really dawned on me when I began to prepare a one-day workshop on aging using some of the information in Lewis Richmond’s book, “Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser”. In it, he gives a short story about Ikkyu, a Buddhist teacher who, when asked by an important visitor to write down a word that truly represented his spiritual values, had written “Attention”. The guest was so astounded by Ikkyu’s response to his question, that he asked him twice more, but each time this wise teacher wrote down “Attention” before his onlooker finally comprehended that he was being taught a very important spiritual lesson.
Reading this account brought me back to my own empirical lesson “Be Here Now” from so many years before. Just as Ikkyu’s visitor learned, I now understand that no matter what our particular faith or practice, we all must pay “Attention” or “Be Here Now” to open to a real state of peace and awareness, to experience the very subtle mind whereby we go from concept into knowing. And, of course, that means surrendering to the moment, resting in true nature, just awareness, or as said in the Christian tradition, divine presence. However, I do think Mother Teresa said it quite well when she answered the reporter’s question as to how she prayed, “I just listen.”
Taking so much time to begin to understand the “Wakeup Call” I experienced so long ago, however, has been of immense value to me. It’s allowed me to gain the practice I needed to comprehend the words I experienced from that big, booming voice and come to grips with what I need to do to die peacefully when it’s my time. Also, it’s allowed me to sample various meditation techniques, read various writings on meditation, hear the words of knowledgeable teachers, and find satisfaction and tranquility in my own meditative practice. It has even caused me to return with a new understanding to the words of my own Christian upbringing, “Know Thyself” and “Father, Into Your Hands, I Commend My Spirit”. Thus, “Be Here Now” has become a valuable, empirical lesson, pondered for decades, which has caused me to age wisely, no matter all the trials and tribulations of this lifetime. In conclusion, as a fellow traveler on the journey of aging, I encourage you to take each empirical lesson on “Attention” and let it simmer just as you would let a very fine wine age into pristine excellence. Its taste, you’ll never regret.