Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ego And Self Esteem

Yesterday I received two emails from readers of my thoughts. One asked me what the difference is between "ego" and "self esteem". The other thanked me for my thoughts about fear. He found them helpful in his struggles with anxiety. I would like to share a few thoughts in response to both of these emails.

Ego often gets a bad rap. Some spiritual practices seem designed to kill the ego. Ego is what motivates us. Whether it motivates us in the right direction is another question. Ego can be the fuel that propels the engine of our being. I'm not sure we can survive without our egos. Of course some teach that the ego represents our false self and that our true self is who we are without ego. In a sense, the pure man or woman is someone without ego. The ego that really deserves a bad rap in my opinion is the ego that is out of control. People with big egos generally do not suffer from low self esteem. They are full of themselves. Self esteem is how we feel about ourselves. I'm sure you know someone, or maybe you are someone, who is either full of themselves or they are always down on themselves. Some people think they are God's gift to all of us. Others feel they have no value. A psychologically healthy person has enough ego and self esteem to meet the challenges of daily life while also maintaining a humble and realistic view of themselves. They don't pump themselves up but they aren't in denial of their value and gifts either. The true spiritual life, among other things, strives to maintain a healthy balance of the ego, self esteem, and humility.

Yesterday I wrote about fear. A close cousin of fear is anxiety. I think it is poignant that in the Catholic mass there is a prayer that says "Free us, O Lord, from all anxiety". In general, I am not a person who lives in fear or suffers from anxiety. There are situations, however, that sometimes give me minor panic attacks. Even when I know intellectually that there's probably nothing to fear, I might experience some physical symptoms of panic, i.e., hot flashes, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, etc. Ongoing anxiety can develop as the result of a really bad experience that frightened you, perhaps from a childhood trauma that has been repressed, or we can even inherit anxiety and other phobias from our families. Anxiety in a broad sense can also be the tendency to worry, worry, worry about everything. In my mind, fear is different than anxiety. Although I have concerns about life in general, and my life in particular, I seldom worry. My poor wife, however, worries herself to death. I don't think she is capable of not worrying. We can't worry so much about life that we fail to live. I hesitate to say it's a gender trait but it does seem to me that women worry more than men. Being anxious or nervous all the time is no way to live. If you do feel this way I would consult with your physician. It may also be prudent to seek therapy and explore why you feel this way. We are meant to be happy. We will always have challenges as part of life but the day to day demands of living should not overwhelm us on a regular basis. Yesterday I was able to have lunch with a friend who is a chaplain at the local VA hospital. I had never been there before. We sat outside and ate our lunch until the rain forced us in. While there I also met a Franciscan priest who was also the friend of another friend. The three of us engaged in some wonderful conversation that could have gone on for hours. However, it was a workday and I needed to get back to the office. The lunch was planned but the conversation was an unexpected delight. Sometimes the serendipity of life surprises us with joy. I am missing my granddaughter so I'm going to pick her up at the day care today and take her out to dinner. Any day I get to see Chloe is a good day.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Living Without Fear

It is always possible for life to go south or turn sour. Occasionally, it actually does. In spite of this potential we cannot live lives paralyzed by fear. Sadly, we live in a culture that is often overwhelmed with fear. The news media and our leaders are often major proponents of this fear. Certainly there are times in life when fear is justified and real. The truth, however, is that most of our fears are in our heads and never actually happen to us. Most of us will go through life without being robbed, mugged, or murdered. Our homes won't burn down. We won't die in an airplane crash or be kidnapped. Even though a meteor may have destroyed the dinosaurs, the chances are pretty slim that another one will hit the earth in our lifetime. Most of us will live quiet lives that will be a blend of happiness and joy, sadness and pain. There have been many occasions of happiness and joy in my life. I have shared many of them with you in these thoughts. As I sit here I am trying to recall any terrible things that have happened to me. I'm struggling to come up with much of major significance that has been life altering. When I was young a few girls broke my heart. I got fired from one job. In my thirties I had a health crisis that resulted in some major surgery. In my forties I was nearly killed in a car wreck. In my fifties I was diagnosed with some new health issues that might kill me someday. Looking back, I guess there hasn't been too many bad things that have happened to me. Overwhelmingly, my life has been free of calamity and other terrible happenings. Many of life's challenges are nothing more than life's inconveniences and annoyances. One of my life goals is to not live in fear. When I wake up in the morning I don't worry about all the misfortune that could happen to me. Way back in 1978, when Pope John Paul II became pope, the first words he said to the world were "Do not be afraid"! Today I say these words to you. Do not be afraid and do not let your lives be filled with fear. Yes, there is evil and pain in the world but life and people are essentially good. Live lives of hope and optimism. Believe in the power of faith and love. Living without fear does not mean we are always courageous. Being courageous simply means facing your fear and not letting it dominate you. Courageous people have fears but they ignore them. President Franklin Roosevelt, in his first inaugural address said to the American people, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself". He was a wise man and his words are true. Do you want freedom in your life? If so, cast off your fear and live. If you are a person who creates or puts fear into other people's lives, stop it! Find something better to do with your time. Fear is a poor motivator whether it be in the workplace or the home.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Compassion Fatigue

I am truly humbled by the trust that people have in me. It is not unusual for individuals to email me or even come see me about issues in their personal or professional lives. They often ask for my opinion. It is always with a little fear and lots of faith that I respond to them. I am not a professional anything. I can only hope that whatever words I write or speak to them are the words of comfort or encouragement they need or, at the very least, an objective view of the situation as it's presented to me. I am not sure why people trust me so much or why my words are valued by them. It is always with some trepidation that I write or speak at all. Of course, it's not important that I see in myself what others see in me. At the same time I am not unaware of people's attitude about me. I believe all of us has some kind of gift. Words, whether they are spoken or written, seem to be my gift. Everyone knows I love musicians. My next door neighbor is a musician. Once after talking about music he said, "Wow! You must be a frustrated musician"! I know what he meant. Often when people love something, they are frustrated they can't do it themselves. That's how I am with music. Some musicians become skilled through lots and lots of practice. Others are simply born with it. Yes, they still practice but they start from a great launching pad. I think I can say the same thing about words and me. I don't really practice writing although I sometimes labor over the choice of words like a musician searching for the perfect chord. Somehow I seem to have a gift for writing and speaking and it's just there. I can't explain how or why I have the gift. Like all gifts it is more for others than for myself. If anything I write or speak benefits or comforts another, I am happy and it is a good day for me. A gift comes with responsibility. The responsibility of my gift is my words must be honest and worthy of other's trust. I take that responsibility very seriously.

In spite of my gift and other's trust in me.......

I occasionally experience what I call compassion fatigue. This is a condition caused by the desire to care about everyone and everything but often being overwhelmed by the magnitude of such caring. There is so much pain and suffering in the world. There are so many people with real and serious problems as well as the many people in our lives who believe their issues are major even when they are not. Whether problems and pain are real or imagined, people need and want compassion. How does one genuinely care about everyone and everything? Even Jesus was overwhelmed at times. Buddha says that all of life is suffering. I read last night that in the Lotus Sutra, Buddha says, "To shine up one corner, not the whole world. Just make it clear where you are". I think it was Mohammad who said, "Just deal with whatever is in front of you". I think what all these great teachers are telling us is that you can't fix everything. Deep in our hearts, beyond what we can physically do, I think it is possible to have a global and universal sense of true compassion. On a practical level, our compassion must express itself in ways that are sometimes small but no less authentic. We are all the center of our own circles and all of our circles overlap. I believe what we are called to do is reach out within the circles we inhabit, and further if we can, to touch those in our lives who need healing, compassion, and a word of encouragement. For most of us our circles include our families, our workplaces, our churches, and our neighborhoods. Sometimes we are blessed, as I am, to be able to reach beyond our circles with such things as the written word. The words of my daily thoughts extend far beyond my grasp. This makes me think of another's words whose name I cannot recall. This wise person said, "If every person swept his own doorstep, the entire world would be clean". The same would be true if each person practiced love, compassion, and kindness within the circle of their lives. Love, compassion, and kindness would ripple through our world the way a single stone can cause ripples to cross a lake or a pond. It really is that simple although it is also difficult. Unfortunately we have too many people in the world who spread hate, fear and greed. Good people, wherever they are, must overwhelm evil and suffering one act at a time with goodness and compassion.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Long Weekend...But Still Busy.

It was nice to have a three day weekend. It was busy as usual but the busyness was spread out a little. I woke up about 5:30 AM on Friday with a sense of dread. I thought to myself, "My alarm clock will go off in 45 minutes"! I quickly had a wonderful realization when I remembered that I didn't have to go to work! I was taking a vacation day! With a sense of gratitude, I rolled over and slept a few more hours. Later in the morning I went to visit my Dad and to have lunch with him. In some ways visiting the nursing home is like visiting the monastery. When you enter both places you are walking into worlds where life is much slower. I found Dad in bed just before the attendants were going to get him up for lunch. Once in his wheelchair I took him to the dining room and fed him lunch. Almost everyone in the room needed assistance. Feeding Dad gave me flashbacks to my days as a young parent feeding my own children and to my older days as a grandparent feeding Chloe. Now Chloe sometimes feeds me. It's good practice for down the road. I may need her to visit and feed me someday. Dad ate everything on his plate. When I asked him if I was going too fast, he said "No, you're doing it just right". It felt like a sacred moment and I was happy that I was able to share this moment with him. Once he was back in bed I kissed him on the top of head and said goodbye. It had been a good visit.

After a brief stop at home it was off to the eye doctor. This also went well. I was happy when the doctor said there appeared to be no detectable negative effects from my diabetes. Of course the rest of the day I felt like I was underwater whenever I took my glasses off. My pupils were extremely dilated from various drops put in my eye during the exam. Later my wife, son, and I went to buy new glasses. Purchasing glasses is almost as complicated as purchasing a new car. By the time you get out of there you have no idea what you have ordered. Anyone else's glasses would be ready the next day. Not mine, of course! Since I wanted to keep my old frames, mine involved some kind of "special order" and will take approximately two weeks to get them. As a result I must temporarily wear some old frames I got sometime in the past.

Finally my activities ended with the seminarian picnic. It was held on the farm of a local priest's parents. It was very nice and many other people were there including our new Archbishop. It was my first time meeting him. He is a very nice and extremely friendly man. Right now everyone loves him. As with most things in life, however, he is still in his honeymoon period. Sooner or later he will be faced with difficult decisions that will make some people unhappy. I am impressed with him because he actually takes the time to visit my son in Indianapolis and to email him on a regular basis. The seminarians in this Archdiocese seem to get lots of support from the Archbishop and local priests.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Catching Up With My Life

Do you ever feel like you need to play catch up with your own life? I am feeling that way right now so I am taking tomorrow as a vacation day. After many years of marriage and raising a family I naively thought this would be a slow time in my life. It seems to be busier than ever. As an older person I don't have as much energy as I used to have. At the end of a work day, and it doesn't matter if I worked hard or if I pretended to work hard, I am exhausted. Each day I sit in my parked car and wait for my wife to come out of her office. The whole time my head is bobbing and I'm trying not to go face down on the steering wheel. I've got the air conditioning on high and the rock and roll cranking. Nothing helps. During the day I am fine as long as I keep moving. Once I sit down at the end of the day, it's all over. So, on a normal work night I don't have a lot of activity or demands beyond trying to stay awake long enough to go to bed. Weekends always seem busy instead of being a time to rest and chill out. Sometimes I take care of my granddaughter, sometimes my wife and I take my mother in law out to dinner, and I also try to visit my father in the nursing home. Once a month I have a commitment to go to the monastery. This Saturday I will be attending a picnic with the Archbishop of Louisville and all the local seminarians and their parents. I'm not sure if the Archbishop will actually be the one flipping the burgers and grilling the brats but, hey, it's a meal and I'm sure there will be some great conversation. The best part of me doesn't mind doing all these things. However, there are moments where I am tired of having obligations to fulfill and of meeting other people's expectations. Occasionally I have the thought, "Hey! What about my needs"? So, in a somewhat selfish mode, but without guilt, I am going to take a vacation day tomorrow so I can visit my father, go to the eye doctor, buy some new glasses, run a few personal errands, and perhaps calm my "monkey mind". If I do this tomorrow, I think I can have at least one day free of obligations over the weekend. Maybe then I will go see the new Batman movie or do nothing but stare out the window.

In early September I will be participating in an Alzheimer's Memory Walk and Fundraiser. If I have done this correctly, the following link should take you to my personal web page for donations. As most of you know my father has Alzheimer's and is currently in a nursing home. If you are able, please consider making a donation for Alzheimer's research. It would be greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Monkey Mind

Our minds are often like a tree full of monkeys. If you think of this image, all the chatter, noise, and leaping about represents the myriad of thoughts that go through our heads everyday. I wonder how many random thoughts the average person has everyday beyond the self generated thinking required for our daily tasks? In Buddhism you sometimes hear the term "no mind". What is this "no mind"? "No mind" is the space between thoughts. Without some effort on your part, you will never be aware of this space. Some types of meditation will train you to let go of thoughts and increase the space between thoughts. I know I have an overactive mind. My own incessant need to be thinking all the time sometimes makes me crazy. Even writing these daily thoughts makes me crazy at times because I am always thinking about things I can write about. I write daily thoughts five days a week and now have around 400+ of them posted on my web page. A lot of thinking went in to all that writing. It doesn't help that I can be a perfectionist and sometimes obsess over choosing the right words. A thought will come and I can spend hours developing it in my head while hoping the finished product might be worthy of being committed to paper. I sometimes have a difficult time focusing. I am easily distracted because my thoughts are all over the place. I head down one road and often end up on a side street. Right now I am reading three different books because while reading one I get distracted by another. Recently, I was reading an in depth biography of the Beatles. Then I got into the Chinese philosophy of the Tao Te Ching and the 60's history by Tom Brokaw. I got back into the Tao Te Ching and then I bought "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle. Between the reading and the writing and the demands of daily work and living, I sometimes have a case of the "monkey mind". The ironic part of this is I'm pretty sure some of you think I have it all together all the time. The truth is that I'm as wired and frazzled as most of you, at least some of the time. My mind sometimes wears me out. The good news is that I do know the antidote. I need to quiet my mind and the way to do that is to spend more time in the space between thoughts. I need to spend less time expanding my mind and more time quieting it. I need to be still more often and stop filling my life and head with noise and information. Being still and being quiet and allowing most of my thoughts to float away will increase the space between my thoughts and allow me to be in a state of "no mind". I think the Christian monk, Thomas Merton, would call this space between thoughts the "ground of your being". It is where we meet God and ourselves. Outside of this space we usually only meet ourselves coming and going.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Life Expectancy And Wildflowers

The current life expectancy for a man is approximately 75 years or 27,375 days. Based on this estimate, I have already used up approximately 20,925 days. Hmmmmm! I'm down to about 6,450 days! I admit there are many days when my morning alarm goes off that I wonder "How many more days will my life be driven by the clock"? Usually after a shower, and when I am fully awake, I am just happy to be alive. Of course, I know myself well enough to realize that I will always need wake up calls in my life whether they be alarm clocks or temple bells. I long for freedom but need structure. I am not in a panic about the estimate of 6,450 days left to live. For now I live one day at a time and I strive to live it well and fully. Of course, living well and fully does not necessarily mean living an extreme or adventurous life. It means being present to the life I have and living in the moment. It means celebrating the ordinary and being open to the extraordinary. Every life is an adventure and one never fully knows where your life will take you. It may be a journey of the body that takes you all over the world or you may never leave your home town. Regardless, it is always a journey of the spirit. My rather ordinary life has taken me places I never dreamed of being. I like the mystery of life and how it unveils itself in ways we never see coming. I may not really have 6,450 days left. Maybe I only have a few hundred or maybe 32,850. Whatever the number they will reveal themselves one sunrise at a time. It is a good thing, when one opens their eyes first thing in the morning, to greet the dawn with a prayer of thanks for another day with its endless possibilities for meaning and joy. Sometime during the day one should pause and notice your own breath. Hear it? Feel it? If so, it means you are alive so don't die before you live. My young son makes fun of me for saying this but "Seize the day"! Of course, in the evenings, when he catches me napping in my chair, he will sometimes wake me and ask, "Dad, are you seizing the day"? Well, in those situations I am seizing my dreams.

Once in my daily thoughts I mentioned that I thought of my friends as wildflowers in my life. They are all over the place, they come in a variety of shapes and colors, and all of them together add beauty to my life. There are some friends I have known most of my life but I am also still making new friends. Occasionally an old friend reappears and it's like they never left. One of my current friends is someone I met many years ago. She worked in my office and we were peers. We knew one another but really weren't close friends. At some point she disappeared and I didn't know where she went. Many years passed. About five years ago, I was walking through a crowd at a concert and I heard someone call my name. I turned around and there she was with another old friend. Our friendship was renewed and now she is one of my music loving, road warrior, friends. In fact, she's the only girl in a group of guys but our group could not function without this woman. Bridget is our event planner, caterer, loan officer, ticket purchaser, and my partner in crime as we find musical events for our group of friends to attend. I could give you a very long list of famous musicians that we have seen together. When it comes to music, she is the female version of me. She knows more about music than any woman I know. Another friend who reappeared in my life a few years ago is Fr. Dennis. When I was very young and in the seminary, he was one of my teachers. Over the years we occasionally kept in touch but eventually lost touch. A few years ago he retired to Kentucky and he tracked me down. Now I consider him one of my best friends and I can't imagine not having him in my life as my surrogate big brother and spiritual advisor. He is also one of the funniest people I have ever known. We have wonderful conversations, full of laughter, whenever we are together. The last wildflower I will talk about is my regular lunch partner. She works in my office and I believe was once seated next to me to secretly improve my attitude. I think someone thought I needed an attitude adjustment and Wendy would be the person to make it happen. The plan kind of backfired when we immediately clicked and hit it off. It turned out that we were two peas from the same pod and actually very much alike. I like to believe we've both been a good influence on one another's attitude. We have been close friends for a long time now. I like her because she is easy to be with and we can talk about anything. She's funny, she makes me laugh, and she's not afraid to say anything. These are just three examples of friends who make a difference in my life. I have probably embarrassed all of them by writing about them and mentioning their names so I hope they forgive me. There are more of you out there so I feel very blessed with an abundance of friends who are wildflowers in my life.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Ups And Downs Of Life

Well, here we are on another Monday. Where does the time go so quickly? I am moving a little slow this morning. I am sunburned and I am sore from acting like a four year old with Chloe plus I feel like I didn't even sleep last night. Once again I had a busy weekend. Much of Saturday was spent lounging around the pool of a friend. I don't have many opportunities to do this and Saturday was the kind of hot day that makes a pool very inviting. Pitchers of frozen margaritas increased the enjoyment. If it wasn't for the medications I must take everyday and the fact that I am usually the driver for other people, I could easily live in Margaritaville and be a neighbor to Jimmy Buffet. The time around the pool and being with friends was very relaxing. As you might gather there was plenty to eat, from poolside snacks to an awesome meal with pork tenderloin, boiled shrimp, potato salad, corn on the cob, and salad. After hours of lounging about I slept like a baby on Saturday night. I woke up very refreshed although I was moving very slow. I knew round two would be happening in a few hours when Chloe arrived. I was volunteered to take care of Chloe while my wife and Chloe's parents went to the Homearama. They were going to see homes that I couldn't afford if everyone who reads these thoughts gave me all their money. Chloe kept me hopping. At one point Chloe found my blood testing paraphernalia and said "I need to test your blood sugar, Pa Paw". I had no choice but to go along with it. She knew exactly what to do. She pretended to prick my finger, squeeze it so a drop of blood appears, and then hold a test strip in the tester up to my finger. It blew my mind that she knew how to do it. The only downside to this was that she wanted to do it 500 more times throughout the afternoon. Later in the afternoon she helped me make brownies and my homemade Stouffer's Frozen Lasagna. When everyone got home I fed them and sent them on their way. The rest of the evening was spent recovering from the weekend. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to go visit my father so I'll try to get that done tonight. There's so much to do, so little time.

Routine is a double edged sword for me. It can be boring but I also need it in my life. I have learned over the years that I need some structure in my life. I long for the freedom to do whatever I want when I want but when I have too much freedom, and sit around too much, I start to turn into a vegetable. Of course, being human means that you often want the opposite of whatever you have at the moment. Busy, working people, who may also have the demands of a family, long for a break. Many times when I have been sitting on a bench at the mall talking to an elderly, retired person, they speak of their longing for work and having something to do everyday. I think the answer is to realize that life is a journey. There are periods of time where you are busy and many demands are made on you. There are periods of rest where one can simply breathe. There are times where we are energetic and full of creativity. There are other times where we feel dull and uninspired. There are times where life gives you a challenge that seems overwhelming at the time. There are other days where life surprises you with an unexpected joy. When life seems like a roller coaster ride, hang on! There will also be days where life is a gentle ride down a lazy river when the sun is shining and the air is cool and the flowers are growing. Take life one day at a time. The great days will remain with you forever in your memories. The bad days will eventually seem like a bump in the road.

Friday, July 18, 2008


When you walk into a Waffle House restaurant there is usually s sign that says "You had a choice and you choose us". It goes on to say how much they appreciate your business. It sometimes reminds me that life is full of choices and occasionally consequences. Sometimes when I choose Waffle House I get a wonderful waffle. A few times I have chosen Waffle House and gotten runny eggs. I like my yolk to be soft but I hate it when the egg whites are runny! Let me now segue from waffles and omelets to friendship. I think a lot about friendship because I am blessed with many good friends. Certainly a big part of the reason I have chosen certain people to be my friends is because there is an obvious connection. Life just seems to send certain people into our lives with whom we feel an immediate and sometimes intimate connection. Sometimes the reason for the connection is obvious and other times there may be a bit of a mystery as to why we feel this connection. I must assume that people who choose me to be their friend feel this way about me. Beyond this inner circle of special people with whom we feel connected, there may be many more with whom we have an enjoyable comfort level. Beyond that there may be a few people with whom we simply do not click and no amount of effort will make it happen. I am glad that some people have accepted the invitation to be my friend and that they have also allowed me to be part of their life. A good friend is a gift to be treasured. People will drift in and out of your life, but if you are blessed, a few will be part of your life forever.

Speaking of friends.....

I had a voicemail yesterday from an old friend who thought of me while listening to some music that I introduced to him. It was a classic album/CD called "Ginger Baker's Air Force Live at the Royal Albert Hall". It's an awesome piece of music full of African percussion, jazzy horns, and a rock and roll beat. You can't sit still when you listen to this music. So, when I got home last night I put it on and jammed while doing the laundry. This CD is a little hard to find but I highly recommend it for those that might like rock and roll with a big band sound. This was "World Beat" music before it had a name.

Sometimes you hear people says things like, "He didn't react quick enough to the situation" or "She totally overreacted to what happened". These types of reactions come from our gut. I know because my personality type is a "gut type". Sometimes I react to situations quickly and from the gut without thinking first. It's not all bad. I can get really excited about a sunrise or a sunset and have an immediate and emotional response to the beauty. I can also quickly overreact to something that doesn't please me or I don't like. Later, after settling down a bit and processing it through my head, I can be more accepting. Like most things in life, passion has its pros and cons. What I try to do in my life is have the more Zen Buddhist approach to situations. For me this means a thoughtful and considered response rather than a reaction to events or situations. When something happens I try to breathe first and then respond. This does not come naturally to me and it is a discipline I am still trying to master. In so much of my life, whether it is my personal life or my working life, I am either responding emotionally and reactively or I am surrounded by others doing it. Often it seems we are all so upset about everything. We live in an unhealthy tension created by overly emotional reactions to life. I am not sure at what point everything in life became urgent and critical. Is it really or does it just seem that way because of the way we deal with it? What ever happened to just dealing with things instead of freaking out all the time? The stress and the tension we create for ourselves because of unhealthy ways of reacting to life saps us of the energy that could be directed towards creative solutions to life's challenges. In 57 years of living s I have experienced very little that was truly urgent or critical. Most of my life experiences that have been less than enjoyable were, at best, inconvenient or annoying. I have yet to witness the world stop spinning or the sun not rising. Life will go on at his own momentum in spite of our reactions to it. I am not in denial that sometimes life has it's critical moments that require action and immediacy. However, not every moment of every day meets this criteria. Let's all relax and strive to bring some calmness to the chaos that most of us often feel in our lives. I challenge all of us, when we are tempted to have a knee jerk response to anything, to breathe for a minute and respond in a thoughtful and considered manner. Try it. I hope it's contagious.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Drumming With Chloe

At the opposite end of the spectrum from visiting my father in his nursing home is picking up my granddaughter, Chloe, from her daycare. I've been picking her up on fairly regular basis for a couple of years now. It has not lost its thrill for me or her. Some people say that life is not fair. It may not be fair but I do believe it has a natural balance. In my case the sadness of having an aging and sick parent is balanced with the joy of a happy, well adjusted, and loving granddaughter. As soon as I walked in the daycare, and she saw me, her eyes lit up. I picked her up and she hugged me tightly. After a five star dinner at McDonalds we headed to my house. Boy, this little girl can wear me out on a work night! She loves to climb all over me and she laughs hysterically as I gently tickle her. We went into my music room and she beat on my conga drum while I shook some maracas. She was really into it and we had a drum circle thing going for a while. Eventually her Dad showed up, and when it was time to go home I took her out to his car, strapped her in her car seat, got a kiss and a hug, waved goodbye, and then went back into the house and collapsed! A 57 year old man is no match for a four year old drummer!

The local newspaper once had an article entitled "Being happy can be elusive". It basically said that today's people, despite all their wealth and comforts, are no happier than people in the past who had less money and fewer comforts. It stated that there are three types of happiness. There's the "good day" when you do not have to spend too much time in tasks of drudgery and you can indulge in some things that bring pleasure. Most of my worst days are "good days". There is "euphoria", which is an intense and fleeting state that involves some risk. An example of this for me is putting up with all the hassle of going to a concert and then being rewarded with some great musical performances. Finally, there's your basic "happy life" which requires hard work, striving, nurturing, maintaining, mourning, and birthing. This is the ongoing and lasting happiness that requires some effort on our part. The article goes on to describe some "happiness habits" that we need to form in order to do the work of being happy. Here are some examples.

Figure out what's important to you. Do you value a certain kind of job, material things, a relationship, time alone, time with others, time to relax, time to be creative, time to read, time to listen to music, or time to have fun?

To be happy you have to make happiness a priority. Decide to make more time in your life to do more of what's important to you and makes you feel happier. Start with little things and work up. Little things might be reading for 15 minutes, taking a walk, calling a friend, or buying a great smelling soap, shampoo, candle, tea, or coffee that you will enjoy every time you use it.

Focus on what is positive. In a journal write down as many positive things as you can about yourself, others, and life in general.

Appreciate what is working in your life. In the major areas of your life...your health, job, love life, friends, family, money and living situation...what is going well?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Power Of Now

Sometime in the recent past a stranger emailed me and recommended that I read some of the books of Eckhart Tolle. This past weekend I was at Target and I saw one of his books on sale. It's called "The Power of Now". The title alone explains to me why this stranger recommended the book to me. Many times in my thoughts I have written about mindfulness and living in the Now. I have only read a few pages but I think I will enjoy this book. Early in the book the author speaks of enlightenment. He quotes the Buddha as saying "Enlightenment is the absence of suffering". A great deal of Buddhist practice is designed to eliminate suffering in our lives. I am speaking of the suffering we bring on ourselves through the way we think and react to what happens to us. Some suffering I believe is beyond our control and in some situations we truly are victims. Much suffering, however, is created within our own minds. After reading this chapter I tried to imagine a life without suffering. If we eliminated suffering from our lives, what would be left? Last week at the concert I attended, Tom Petty was speaking to the audience and he said, "Wouldn't it be great if everything was alright just for a moment"? I think he was talking about a moment without suffering. What would people talk about if they didn't have suffering in their lives? It's hard to imagine riding the elevators at work and finding them full of people talking about how great their lives were! Another curious statement of the Buddha is "All of life is suffering". If true, the absence or elimination of suffering would give us great capacity for joy. In the Christian tradition, certainly in the Catholic Christian tradition, this "suffering" that we experience in life is believed to be the effect of the "original sin" committed when mankind, as represented by Adam and Eve, ate the fruit from the one tree forbidden by God. Christians believe that act was the beginning of all human suffering. I have rarely truly suffered. I have experienced intense physical pain. My heart has been broken a few times. On a rare occasion I am down in the dumps. I guess to some extent the demands and challenges of daily living are a form of suffering. I do sometimes feel like I am suffering in the mornings when the alarm clock goes off. So, if I could eliminate physical pain and emotional heartache along with work, would I end up with the enlightenment to be found in the absence of suffering? The closest I believe I have ever come to "Enlightenment" in my life are rare moments of pure joy that I have experienced without any warning. I did not see them coming but I was in the right space when they arrived. It's difficult to describe such moments. They were full of peacefulness. Everything, if only for a moment, seemed to make sense. My vision was no longer blurred and I felt a sense of clarity. In addition, and pardon the cliche, I felt one with the universe. I've had these experiences within a religious context, during moments of enjoyment such as listening to music, in the midst of life's big events, in the silence of my own back yard or in the solitude of my room. I guess for a moment I was relieved of suffering and joy filled the vacuum. In life as we know it, such moments seem to be a gift. Perhaps the final Enlightenment, what some call Heaven, will be a kind of living in the eternal Now of such moments.

I went to visit my father last night. Every time I visit him I cry on the way home. It's not just my Dad. It's the whole nursing home scene. My Dad is not suffering in the sense that he's in a great deal of pain. He seems to be relatively free of physical pain. His suffering is more mental because of the deterioration of his mind and the reality of being physically helpless. He was asleep when I got there but a visit from a caretender awakened him. We talked a little but he kept apologizing for having nothing to tell me. "Everyday is the same here. I don't think I am ever going to get out of here", he quietly said with a hint of resignation. He did ask about my family so I gave him an update on all of them. On the way home I thought about my father in law. He passed away a little over four years ago. We didn't know it then but at the time of his death, Chloe was in the womb. The last week of his life I helped nurse him with other family members. During a quiet moment between the two of us, I gently told that it was alright to let go. I assured him that my mother in law would be taken care of and that he didn't need to worry about anything. I wonder if I should have such a conversation with my father. Should I tell him it is alright to let go? He is dealing with this time of his life as best he can but I know he is tired in every sense of the word. As I was leaving the nursing home some of the patients looked at me like the sick must have looked at Jesus. One woman wanted me to touch her so I did. Another gave me a handful of bread crusts and asked me to feed her dog. I told her I would take care of it. It's all very sad to me and when I leave there I am emotionally drained. I am very grateful for the overworked and underpaid caretenders who look after my father and all the other elderly patients.

I've come to realize that just about everything is none of my business.
-Brother Cassian of Gethsemani

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hidden Treasures

I am not sure why but life always works out for me. Is it because I am a generally positive and optimistic person? Is it because I always try to put out positive vibrations? Is it because I have a playful and light hearted approach to life? All of this could be true. However, I believe a big part of my good fortune is that I really strive to live with a grateful heart. I am not just talking about being grateful for life's big windfalls. I am speaking of a gratitude that appreciates all of life and its simple pleasures and joys. In the world, and more specifically a culture like ours, there will always be more than we can ever have. As the comedienne Steven Wright says, "You can't have everything. Where would you put it"? Even if we can't have everything, we all have so much. The least in our society has more than most in the world. Of course, I am not just talking about material things. I am talking about family and friends and laughter and love and joy and happiness. On my worst day I can find things to be grateful about. On a material level I am just an average middle class guy. On the level of true riches, I am quite wealthy. Happiness and joy and love and the enjoyment of life doesn't mean you will have a life with no problems or pain. I have had my share, though perhaps not as many or as much as some. Happiness is not something you find after a long search. It is something you discover within the life you have now. Happiness is not having what you love. Happiness is loving what you have. I have much of what is really important in life and I believe all of you do as well. If you think not, you haven't found it yet. Look more deeply into your life and find the hidden treasures. They may be right before you eyes.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Thomas Merton's Hermitage

Although there were moments of leisure, it was another busy and mostly full weekend. I woke up early on Saturday morning and after having some coffee and reading the morning paper, I immediately started cooking. I made some broccoli casserole for Chloe's birthday party and my famous mystery pasta salad for a picnic at the monastery on Sunday. Although Chloe's official birthday was last weekend, we didn't celebrate it until this weekend. The party was a cookout at my son's home with family members from both sides of his family. Everything was nice. The food was great and Chloe had lots of presents. My son and daughter in law are good parents and Chloe is not lacking in love. There is one new challenge to visiting my son's home. Chloe and her parents now have two dogs. One is a cute, well mannered, calm dog that is small. The other is a puppy that is already twice the size of the smaller dog and will probably double in size again before its all over. When the larger dog is brought out of the basement, it runs around like it is on crack cocaine or PCP. Remember the scene in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation where Cousin Eddie's dog is chasing the squirrel through the house? It is kind of like that. Someday this dog will make Chloe very sad when it eats her Pa Paw (me).

Yesterday I also made a trip to the monastery for a picnic. I didn't have to be there as early as usual so I was able to sleep a little later. Once I got on the road, however, it began to pour down rain. As I drove through the rain it occurred to me that people in Southern California would consider such a day as beautiful. They would love to see it pour down rain. I really didn't mind either even though part of my reason for going to the monastery was to have a picnic with some of the monks and other friends. Often when I first get to the monastery I am restless and feeling a little anxious. Arriving at the monastery can sometimes feel like slamming on your inner brakes. When you leave a life and a world where everything is rush, rush, rush, and you often have many tasks, the silence, solitude and slower pace requires a mental adjustment. I have realized over the years that when all else fails, it is best to slip into the dark and quiet Abbey church and simply sit in silence. The best way to achieve an inner quiet is to be still and silent. I sat this way for about 20 minutes until the Abbey bells pulled me from my inner still point and I realized others were sitting around me. After mass we headed up a rocky road that took us to Thomas Merton's Hermitage. It's not too far from the monastery but hidden enough have a solitary feel. For readers of Merton's many books and students of his life, this small house is a sacred space. Some of my favorite Merton books were written while Merton lived here. I have been blessed to spend two long and wonderful weekends there totally alone. Each time I am there the memories of those weekends come back to me. Yesterday was a hot and humid day. During my stays in the hermitage is was autumn and cool enough for blazing fires in the fireplace. I was as happy as anyone could be. I did some reading and meditating while I was there but much of the time I simply sat in wonder with a big smile on my face as I looked out the window at the beautiful scenery around me. I watched as the fireplace consumed many logs and I listened to the pouring rain as it fell through the trees surrounding the hermitage. If such Zen moments are not full of God, I don't know what is.

Last week someone asked me how to control unwanted thoughts. Here's a few suggestions.

It is impossible to prevent thoughts. I, too, have thoughts I don't want. They aren't invited and often they do not want to leave. Meditation doesn't prevent thoughts but it helps you to let them go. Meditation is like sitting on a riverbank and watching boats go up and down the river. The boats represent our thoughts. We can't stop the thoughts but we can let them go. In most meditation one uses a mantra. It helps us keep our focus. Continuing with the analogy of the river, the river is our mind. The surface is busy and there's lots of activity. A mantra is like an anchor. It pulls us down to the bottom of our "river" where there is stillness and calmness. Eventually we find ourselves in thought and being pulled back to the surface of the river which represents the busyness of our minds. When we become aware of thinking, we go back to the mantra so we can return to our still point. Most people recommend doing this for about 20 minutes, twice a day, usually in the morning before work and again at the end of your day, preferably before eating.

I shut my eyes in order to see.
-Paul Gauguin

Friday, July 11, 2008

Some Thoughts On Work

Yesterday I received the following email.

Oh Great Spiritual Advisor of Humana, let me ask you a question. What do you do to jump start yourself when your professional life feels like it is in a rut? Every job I'm interested in I can't get an interview for, and yesterday was one of those days when I felt like the opportunity to move beyond what I'm already doing had passed me by. I feel like I no longer fit in here. Just wondering if you ever felt that way. (Humana is the company that I work for)

OK, I included the opening line of the email I received because if I had a dream job at my company, being a "Spiritual Advisor" might be it. The other dream job outside my company would be an actor in Corona Beer commercials.

I doubt if there is a person who has not felt at some point like the friend who sent me this email. Work is not always wonderful and exciting. That's why they call it WORK. The activity that many people want to engage in at work is called PLAY. Occasionally WORK and PLAY can be done simultaneously. More often than not, however, they are separated. At this time I don't have specific answers or advice for my friend. I do have some general thoughts about work and its place in our lives. People in general seem to complain about work more than any other area in their lives. I hear it everyday when I ride up and down the elevators. There are always going to be tasks that we must perform that will annoy, bore, or frustrate us. In every workplace, depending on where you stand, there will always be workers or leaders who appear to be idiots. In some cases they really are. I'm sure someone at some time has thought this about me. I got my first job when I was sixteen years old. Therefore, I have been working for 40+ years. I've seen it all. It is my opinion that many people are dissatisfied with work because they give it way too much importance. You should work to live, not live to work. We all want our work to be financially rewarding and emotionally satisfying but you can't depend on work alone to give all the satisfaction you need in life. Work is just one slice of the pie. It doesn't matter if you collect trash for a living or if you are a highly trained and educated professional person. There is more to life than work. It is equally important to play, to develop satisfying relationships, and to spend time in reflective thought. In general, work is usually about doing something. Maybe it's tipping the trash can or performing open heart surgery. To be honest, there are very few tasks that I perform at work that reflect who I am. What reflects who I am is how I perform these tasks. Writing these daily thoughts is probably the best example of me being me at work. How are you being you? In a recent employee survey, one of the questions was "At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best everyday"? I think this goes deeper than whether or not you have an opportunity to exercise a skill or talent. I think it also means "Do you have an opportunity in the workplace to be who you really are"? If you can be who you really are, and put yourself into the tasks you perform, the chances for job satisfaction increase greatly. Of course, if you hate what you do, you think the boss is a jerk, and nothing the company does meets your approval, maybe it is time to move on. It's also a reality that some places are just terrible places to work. If you're overworked, underpaid, never appreciated, expected to do the impossible with none of the tools required, get out as soon as you can. Yes, work is work but it shouldn't be a horrible experience everyday. It's one part of the rhythm and flow of life and ideally it should blend in with the other aspects of your life to create a sense of wholeness. Work should not take over your life or break your spirit.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Steve Winwood And Tom Petty Concert

Blazing hot sun + 90 degree temperatures + high humidity + rain + sauna like conditions = my night on the lawn at Riverbend Music Center in Cincinnati on Tuesday night. Add the sum of this to being with some of my best friends and hearing great music and it all equals a wonderful time. Being part of a rock and roll partnership that qualifies me as a professional fan and concert attendee, I was sitting in my favorite spot in plenty of time before the music started. It's all in the planning people. You can't show up at the last minute for a sold out concert. Riverbend Music Center is literally on a bend of the Ohio River. From the lawn you can see the shores of Kentucky. This is my favorite outdoor venue. Normally it is a very laid back and stress free experience. Rarely is there a hassle. Tuesday night was a little different. I have never seen so many people there in all of my previous visits. A observation of the crowd indicated that most of the people on the lawn were young people. They were there to see a bunch of musicians hovering around the 60 year old age mark. The music got off to a great start. The legendary Steve Winwood casually walked on stage and, with no introduction, eased into a mellow groove with African rhythms and jazzy flute percolating with a rock and roll beat. He would have to play all night for fans to hear all of his best work. In the time he played we were given a nice overview of a very long career. Not long afterwards Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers hit the stage and the energy level went through the roof. Like Steve Winwood, Tom Petty has a long resume and many well known hits. Most people in the audience seemed to know all the words to every song. He flat out rocked and was cookin' all night long. My friends and I had a discussion on the way home about how exhausting a concert can be. Of course, none of us are as young as we used to be. As strange as it may sound, concerts can be very emotional. First of all you are hearing many songs that are often part of the soundtrack of your life. Secondly, when you are in a large crowd, whether it is a sporting event or a concert, and the people are really into what is happening, there is a tremendous amount of energy. You cannot help but be carried along and even consumed by it. When it's over and you walk to your car...assuming you remember where you feel like you just put in a hard day at work. This is why I always take a day off afterwards. Yesterday I spent a few hours on my couch. All of this reminded me to appreciate and celebrate life and friendship. Family is great but close friends are special and they provide much warmth in a world that is often cold.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

On The Road Again Enjoying Music With My Friends

Later today I will once again be heading up the rock and roll highway to Cincinnati to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers along with Steve Winwood. Most people are familiar with Tom Petty. Back in January Tom Petty was the half time show at the Super Bowl. He's been around since the 70's and has many classic and well known songs. My favorite is called "Running Down a Dream". He was also part of a group called the Traveling Wilburys that included Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra, and Roy Orbison. The opening act may be less known now but he has a very impressive musical resume. It was Steve Winwood, as a 15 year old prodigy, who sang "Gimme Some Lovin" with the Spencer Davis Group. This was a huge hit in its day and can still be heard on a regular basis on any classic rock radio station. He eventually formed his own band called Traffic. Traffic is well know and respected by all music afficianos. They blended rock, jazz, and folk music into a unique sound. Their biggest hits were "Dear Mr Fantasy" and "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys". In between different versions of Traffic, Steve Winwood was also part of a legendary band with Eric Clapton called Blind Faith. The debut performance of Blind Faith was played in front of 100,000 people in London's Hyde Park. He also has a number of solo albums/CD's, most of which are very good. I am really looking forward to these shows because it is the first time I have seen either act. Once again I am sitting on the lawn and once again thunderstorms are predicted. Let's hope some of the magic I experienced last week in Indianapolis happens again and I experience beautiful weather. If not, I will be "Running Down a Dream" in the rain with my friends. That's OK, too, because I will have my lawn chair and L. L. Bean rain parka! This was today's rock and roll history lesson.

It's a little difficult to segue from rock and roll history to Chinese philosophy but we will do it anyway......

Verse 20 of the Tao Te Ching is rather long so let me quote just a bit of it. I personally identify with much of what Lao Tzu says.

Most people have too much; I alone seem to be missing something. Mine is the mind of an ignoramus in its unadulterated simplicity. I am but a guest in this world. While others rush about to get things done, I accept what is offered. I alone seem foolish, earning little, spending less. Other people strive for fame; I avoid the limelight, preferring to be left alone. Indeed, I seem like an idiot: no mind, no worries.

I often live my life with the attitude of a visitor or guest in a strange and wonderful place. Sometimes life seems mundane but I often walk around lost in wonder. I am reminded of a trip I made to France a few years ago. It was my first and only trip to Europe so far. Most of the time I was there I was wide eyed and smiling. I kept pinching myself thinking, "Wow, I'm in France". Perhaps some of you have traveled extensively. I have not so it was a very big deal for me. The whole time I was there I kept thinking, "I am a guest here and I may never come this way again. Enjoy every moment". I try to have this same attitude in my everyday life. As the Tao Te Ching says, "While others rush about to get things done, I accept what is offered". In other words, don't let your life be consumed by busyness. Life will give you much without you chasing after it. Other times in my life I have been criticized for what appears as a lack of ambition. In the ways of the world, the only values seem to be the accumulation of power, prestige, and possessions. I have avoided these things intentionally. I prefer to influence rather than control. I enjoy a good reputation but do not like to be the center of attention. I like things but would rather need less than want more. Again, as the Tao Te Ching says, "Other people strive for fame; I avoid the limelight, preferring to be left alone. Indeed, I seem like an idiot: No mind, no worries.

I have completed Tom Brokaw's book about the Sixties entitled "Boom! Voices of the Sixties". I highly recommend it to the following people.

People who grew up in the Sixties and wonder, "What happened"?

Children of people who grew up in the Sixties who wonder, "What's up with Mom and Dad? Why are they so weird?"

Parents of children who grew up in the Sixties wondering, "Where did I go wrong"?

Anyone interested in history who has an open mind. Brokaw's book presents the reflections and stories of many people, i.e., male and female, African Americans, Hispanics, Caucasians, liberals and conservatives, hippies and non hippies, Democrats and Republicans, as they reflect on what was right and wrong about everything that happened in that decade.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Do You Make A Difference In The World?

I had a mostly quiet and very appreciated long weekend. That extra day off seems to make all the difference in the world. Most weekends seem rushed and busy as I feel forced to cram in all my personal chores and obligations. Yes, my own children are grown up and require little from me but now I have a granddaughter that I want to spend time with plus three elderly parents, two of whom are in retirement/nursing homes. Its not that I mind having obligations. I want to do the right things and to be what I should be for those in my life. Its just that sometimes I feel squashed by time restraints. I'm sure some of you, especially if you are my age and have similar obligations, know what I mean.

It was a good and balanced weekend. I spent time with myself, my immediate family, some of my extended family, and my father. My father is in a new nursing home and I went there for the first time yesterday. It seemed like a very acceptable place as far as nursing homes go. It isn't as big or as fancy as the last one but when you are in my father's condition most of that is a illusion that doesn't really mask the fact that these places are full of people in their last days and most of them would love to fast forward the end. As I sat in the dining room while my youngest brother fed my father, one of the other elderly people kept yelling out. Another elderly person kept telling them to "shut up"! Later, as I stood outside my father's room with my brother as the nurses attended to him, the man across the hall wheeled out of his room. My brother and I said "Good afternoon"! He looked at both of us and responded "Whatever"! At the other end of life, my weekend was also filled with the joy, wonder, energy, and occasional tantrums of my four year old granddaughter. She tried my patience a couple of times but I quickly forget that when she sits on the kitchen counter scooping coffee into the coffee filter to "make coffee for you, Pa Paw" or when she puts her little hand on my shoulder shaking me awake early in the morning and greeting me with a smile that melts my heart. I live somewhere in the middle of these bookends of my life. Both bring tears to my eyes. I have the joy of a beautiful granddaughter on one side and the sadness of my father on the other side.

Over the weekend a local activist, that I have always considered the Martin Luther King, Jr. of Louisville, died unexpectedly. He name was Rev. Louis Coleman. I never met him although I had seen him in public. I admired him from a distance. He was a person loved by many but who agitated and annoyed many more. Of course, this is what prophets do. He didn't completely change the world, or even my city, but he did make a difference. After hearing the news of his death I found myself asking the question, "Do I make any difference in this world"? We should all be asking ourselves this question. Admittedly, we are not all called to be political activists or prophets but I do think all of us are called to make a difference in the world. Some people make the world a worse place for others but, hopefully, most of us make the world a better place. Perhaps we won't change the world or end up in a history book but we can make a difference in the lives of the people we touch. I am just an average person living a mostly quiet and uneventful life. In spite of that I sometimes wonder how many lives I have touched in 57 years of living. In how many of these lives have I made a difference? In some lives I may have made a difference and not even been aware of it. Sometimes you make a difference and you know it. A close friend once said to me, "You have so enriched my life". I'm not completely sure how I have done that but it makes me happy that I have. We are all catalysts for goodness and for making a difference. There are many little things you can do. A kind word and a smile are excellent places to start. As I have written before, I believe an exchange of energy occurs when two people encounter one another. You either give positive energy to another or you may suck the life right out of them. A good way to make a difference is to be positive and optimistic and hopeful and life giving to those you meet and not just to the people you care about. Some of us may be called to be prophets like Rev. Coleman but it's not fun being a prophet. Most of them get killed because people don't want to hear what they have to say. There are times, however, when even the meekest of us are called to speak out and give voice to the truth even if it does make others uncomfortable. I can't remember who said it but somewhere I read "It's better to be a lion for a day than a sheep for your whole life". If you're not making a difference in the world, today's a good day to start.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Long Holiday Weekend...Freedom!

Tomorrow begins a long holiday weekend. If it doesn't rain too much, I, like millions of other people, will be at a family cookout. The biggest event of the weekend, however, is not the cookout. The biggest event is on Sunday. Sunday is Chloe's birthday. She will be four years old. I cannot remember time before Chloe entered the world. She is growing up so fast. Chloe has changed my life. Her birth was one of my life's significant events. Chloe was the inspiration for me to begin writing my daily thoughts. The first thoughts that I ever sent out were about her. In my eyes, Chloe is perfect and the center of the universe but I am speaking as her Pa Paw. Of course, she is also a real child and occasionally acts like one. I don't care. I will love her no matter how she acts. She and I have a mutual admiration society. She adores me and I adore her. Being her Pa Paw is the highlight of my life. With all due respect to my own children, it's a lot more fun being a grandfather. Chloe is the sweetest and most loving person I know. She thinks I'm a very funny guy and maybe a little crazy. If I am in the room, everyone else gets ignored. I love her child's sense of wonder and I try to encourage it whenever I can. I am more patient with her than I may have been with my own children. Plus, she's special because I never had a daughter. I assume that sometime over the weekend she will want to climb on me and stand on my head. By the time she goes home I will be exhausted. She will wear me out!

Tomorrow is the 4th of July. On this day Americans celebrate their independence. This year it will be 232 years since we won our independence from the British in 1776. Today they are our best friends. Unlike many people in the world all I have ever known is freedom. I try not to take it for granted. Every night when I watch the daily news and I see all the war and famine and tyranny in the world, I am grateful for my freedom. I am grateful for the freedom to live where I want, work where I want, worship where I want, associate with whom I want, and think as I please. Freedom, however, is not free. Many have paid the price for the freedom we enjoy. It is easy to understand why so many people want to be part of our country. Although it is still more difficult for some than others, I believe anyone can be whatever they want in this country. It pleases me to see people of every race, gender, ethic background, and religion, able to succeed and pursue happiness. Life is still not always fair but the freedom we enjoy is the best game in town. Think about this tomorrow as your grill you hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs and chicken, and drink your ice cold beer with your family and friends.

I share the following story again. It seems a little more meaningful now with the references to gas and concert ticket prices from the past. I wish I still had this car!

It is difficult for me to think of the 4th of July without remembering the largest concert event of my life. On a 4th of July weekend in 1970, my friends and I piled into my non air-conditioned 1962 Volkswagen Beetle and headed for a city called Bryon, Georgia, deep in the South, during an extreme heat wave. Approximately 500,000 other young people from all over the place did the same thing. We were free if only for a weekend. For a few days we escaped the tyranny of parents, schools, employers, and the draft. We were surrounded by our peers, people who probably had more hair than sense, but for a few days anything went and the best music of the day played endlessly. I think gasoline was approximately twenty cents a gallon. I could fill my car up for about $2.50 and got thirty or forty miles a gallon. This festival, with some of the biggest acts of the day like Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers Band, Procol Harum, The Chambers Brothers, Mountain, and others, cost $18 for all three days! At this time of my life I had no idea what was ahead of me and what the coming years would bring. Today I have a lot less hair, a little more sense, but still a deep love of music and life. At age 57 I now have certain minimal comfort expectations and requirements. There's no more sleeping in a field or the back seat of a Volkswagen. Today I would require a fully equipped Winnebago even if I couldn't afford to drive it! Since that time, life and freedom have been good to me. Some of the people who were with me on that hot July weekend are still part of my life and I am grateful for their friendship. We thought we were born to be wild. Now we just hope to keep our cholesterol in check. Dude, don't bogart the Lipitor!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Falling Asleep And Being Awake

Falling asleep and being awake are not only bodily activities but spiritual ones as well. If you are not spiritually enlightened, you are going through life asleep even though your body may be awake and going through the motions and activities of daily life. An awakened one is someone who is spiritually awake and aware. They are alive and present to the moment with all of it potential and grace. They not only see the obvious, they see what is hidden to those who are asleep. The goal of the spiritual life, whatever way you live it, is to become an awakened one. This is also the contemplative life. I thought about all of this in a very real and practical way last night as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep. My body was tired and needed rest. Unfortunately, my mind decided to be enlightened and awake. As I have shared before, many work nights I fight a battle to stay awake and not fall asleep. Those hours right after dinner are a constant battle between the sandman and me. Some nights I remain awake and other nights I lose the battle. What is it that makes me victorious one night and defeated another night? It seems to boil down to something called engagement. This word is currently a buzzword in my office. What keeps me awake in the early evening and in the hours before bed time is engagement. I must keep my mind or my hands engaged. During the work day I am usually busy getting up and down, interacting with people, reading or writing emails, studying reports, and doing whatever the work day demands. I am awake and present to the moment as my mind and body are engaged in whatever I am doing. In the evenings, my body will quickly fall into a deep slumber if I am not engaged in intellectual activity or mundane tasks like cleaning up the kitchen or doing the laundry. It would seem that engagement is the key to be awake. Can enlightenment be far behind? If engagement with life creates a state of being an "awakened one", is it not fair to say that our very lives are the key that can unlock the door to a deeper spiritual awareness?

Sometimes there are rumors about me. The ones I hear are not bad, just untrue. Here's a few that have come my way over the years. No, I did not attend the original Woodstock although I do consider myself an aging hippie. In the summer of 1969 I was preoccupied with getting into a college and avoiding the draft. I was 18 years old, working a full time summer job for the local power company, and madly in love with an Italian girl named Marina. Another rumor is that I am a wild guy because of my rock and roll adventures. Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from wild, I am almost boring. Some people think I am an ex-priest. This is not true either. I am not a minister of any kind, at least not in any official way. I did, however, attend the seminary in my youth and I did spend a year of my life as a novice monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Basically, a novice is a monk in training. I was not kicked out of the monastery. I left on my own and at the time the door was open to return if I chose to do so. The door was closed, however, when I acquired a wife. I am not a real Zen master nor a Buddhist even though one of my nieces once asked my wife if I was. I have no impressive degrees. In fact, I have no degree at all. Some people think I am very intelligent, deep, and wise. I will continue to let people think that until the truth is known. My 15 minutes of fame were used up a few years ago when a local author, Dianne Aprile, wrote a few pages about me in her book about the monastery entitled "Making a Heart for God". I do not know how I know what I know. I am a student of life. I like to read everything I can. I love knowledge and understanding and I have not let a lack of formal education keep me from being an informed person. I love psychology, philosophy, spirituality, art, books, music and life in general. I like to live well, not by having many things, but by appreciating all that life gives me. I am a simple person who prefers an uncomplicated life. In other words, I am nothing special. I am just a regular guy who wakes up everyday happy to be alive believing in serendipity and magic as each day unwraps itself. Sometimes people look at me and say "I really like the way you think". Well, it doesn't take a Master's Degree. Just wake up and live. Enjoy everything. Choose to be happy.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Are The Churches Doing Their Job?

Earthquakes. Floods. Wildfires. War. Famine. Gas Prices. Global Warming. Terrorism. Some days it seems like the whole world is going down the drain. In the midst of all of this I recently read an article in the newspaper revealing the results of a survey on religion in America. If I read and understood the article correctly, it would appear that fewer people go to church but more people consider themselves spiritual. With everything going on in the world you would think the churches would be packed. I have all kinds of mixed feelings about church and religion. I grew up as a strict Catholic. At the time it was all I knew and I generally liked it although looking back I see I was often more motivated by fear and obligation than desire. Most of my adult life I've had a shaky relationship with organized religion. So many of them seem filled with controversy, acrimony, or scandal. It's difficult to pinpoint where religion and I began to be uncomfortable with one another. Some people go to church but feel like they get very little out of it. Others go to church and simply go through the motions of faith. A core group of faithful attend week after week and genuinely find it spiritually uplifting and supportive to their lives. Many feel no need to attend any church and feel no sense of loss. My relationship with my church has sometimes been a little like a tempestuous love affair. We're together for a while, then we get tired of one another. We make up and get back together. The passion returns and then it disappears. I feel the need to separate again. It's a pattern that's has repeated itself many times over the years. At the same time I am one of those people who still sees himself as a spiritual person. At different times in my life I have had experiences that I believe were transcendent. They were moments of clarity, awakening, oneness with the moment, Zen, contemplation, etc. There are many names for this experience. Those who've had them know what I am talking about. They almost never happened in church. They happened in the context of living my daily life. That's when I started wondering if religious experience had anything to do with going to church. Throughout my life it has also seemed like no one in any of the churches I ever attended talked about experiencing God in any meaningful way. The lack of experience was sometimes explained as God's will or the "mystery" of God. The experience of church was usually all about doing things and knowing things but rarely about experiencing the transcendent. I am reminded of a favorite story of mine. Two people had no knowledge of oranges. One went to the library and checked out every book about oranges. The other went to the fruit stand, bought an orange, and ate it. Which of them understands oranges the best? I think this is why many people do not go to church but are still spiritual. They are not being fed oranges at church. They were hearing and reading about God but not truly experiencing God. Church and organized religion can seem like spiritual libraries for many people when what they are looking for are the spiritual fruit stands of life where the taste and the juice of oranges can be experienced in a very real and direct way. They want to "know" oranges, not know about them.

It is not my intention to offend anyone who consider church and religion important or those who attend church on a regular basis and are content and satisfied with that experience. Many churches do many good things and they can and should be important but I believe most of them are not reaching most of the people who are spiritually hungry and seeking the experience of God. God is a great mystery as is much of life. Many people, however, want authentic and meaningful spiritual experiences, not pep rallies. Too many churches are "Spirituality Lite". I am not just speaking of my own church. Everything I read says all the mainline churches are losing membership and attendance. I could be way off base with these thoughts and many might disagree with me. These thoughts are just the feelings of one man who is stumbling down the spiritual path and occasionally wandering in the desert. .