Thursday, March 24, 2011

Random Thoughts Volume XXIV

Spring is here. The daffodils are in full bloom along the interstate highway. The yellow flowers of the forsythia bushes are all over town. Trees and bushes are full of green buds and the dogwoods are blooming. However, at this moment the temperature is in the 30's and my furnace is working to warm my house. Welcome to spring in Kentucky.

Did you see the super moon last Saturday night? My granddaughter and I went outside and stood in the middle of the street gazing up into the sky. The moon looked huge in it's fullness and it was very bright. The entire neighborhood was bathed in it's glow.

I rode up the elevator earlier this week with three women who were all trashing men. I guess they didn't notice me standing in the elevator. It confirms my suspicions. I really am invisible.

My wife informs me that Chloe tried to pee standing up while she was at our house last weekend. It didn't work out very well. You may remember that I recently told her that girls can do anything that boys can do. Her response was that "We can't pee standing up".

"Never waste time doing anything when you could be sleeping".

Last Sunday the commentator Ben Stein used this quote on a discourse about American's chronic lack of sleep. Some of you may remember Ben Stein as the teacher in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" which is one of my favorite movies. Like most people I am sleep deprived. On workdays I stay up too late and I am forced to get up too early. Most nights I take a nap even though I don't really want to do so. I would rather be awake so I can enjoy my evening. When I do awaken from my nap I am usually in the Twilight Zone for an hour or so. Sometimes at work I am afraid to blink because I am fearful my eyes will not re-open. The only way I can usually stay awake is to keep moving. Mr Stein says the root cause of most of our problems is a lack of sleep. I believe him. When I am tired my mind is dull, my body is barely functioning, my mood can be grouchy, and I am not a productive human being. The solution seems simple. Just go to bed earlier. However, we live in a 24 hour, non stop culture. I remember in my childhood that the television stations actually went off the air every night. There was a time when no stores were open on Sundays. Most people lived their lives based on the rising and the setting of the sun. Those days are gone and we are poorer for it.

It's been a while since I talked about Zen, contemplation, and wonder. My simple definition of Zen is being where you are and doing what you are doing. This is very challenging when you are somewhere you don't want to be, doing something you don't want to do and it can be a challenging when you are somewhere you want to be, doing something you love. Most of us have "monkey minds" where our thoughts bounce around all over the place and we are rarely in the moment. Contemplation is an experience of oneness and clarity. You may feel one with God, or the universe, and for just a moment everything makes sense and you have some clarity about life. I had an experience of wonder last night. I was grilling some dinner on my back porch. While the food was cooking I sat in a chair, looked at my Buddha statue, and listened to my wind chimes. I love them because they have deep tones that sound like temple bells. While I was sitting in my chair, motionless, one of the squirrels that lives in my backyard walked right up to my chair. I could have leaned down and petted him. I looked at him and he looked a me. I wondered if he recognized that I am the person that puts food out for him and all the birds? I've never had a squirrel come that close to me. The moment was really a combination of Zen presence, contemplative union, and childlike wonder. Then the squirrel ran away and I took dinner into the house.

One of my favorite rock bands is a group called "Yes". They have a CD and a song called "Open Your Eyes". This title could be a mantra for life. Yesterday my writing came up in a conversation with some co-workers. I admitted that I sometimes struggle wondering what to write about. I often repeat myself with topics but when I do I try to think of new and fresh ways to say things. There is nothing new under the sun whether it be fashion, music, or ideas. I doubt if anything I have ever written was truly an original thought. However, as I go through my life I try to open my eyes so that I see things in new ways. In many ways life doesn't change all that much while in other ways it changes a great deal. What usually changes and what should change is our perspective. On Saturday I will be 60 years young. I can assure you that I see life with a different perspective now than I did when I was 20 years old. I can also assure you that within every older person is a young person wondering what the hell happened. I'm in a little disbelief that I will be 60. In my mind I am still 25. Of course, if I said this to my wife she would look at me and say "Open Your Eyes" and look in the mirror. My granddaughter once asked me how old she would be on her next birthday. After I told her she asked me how old I would be on my next birthday. When I told her "60" she looked at me like she couldn't quite comprehend that number. Then she said, "Does that mean you will get a walker like the "Old Paw Paw"? I admit that I am moving a little slower these days but I'm not quite at the walker stage of life.

I was really caught off guard in my office today. I came to work and found my cubicle decorated with birthday stuff. This alone was a surprise. Later in the morning I attended what turned out to be a fake meeting with my boss. While he distracted me, my office staff, as well as all my work at home staff, gathered in a conference room to prepare a birthday lunch that was quite extraordinary. As an introvert I really don't like to be the center of attention. After being the center of attention all morning and during lunch, I thought it was all over and I could relax the rest of the day. Then I really got caught off guard. I attended what I thought was a department meeting. That, too, turned out to be for me. I was presented with a large sheet cake and then a couple of hundred people sang "Happy Birthday" to me. One of my friends on another floor could hear them. On top of all the attention and food I also received some very nice cards and gifts. I was truly humbled, grateful, and embarrassed. It all made my day and raised my blood sugar.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Random Thoughts Volume XXIII

Last Friday I spent the day with my youngest son. Adult children rarely want to spend time with a parent unless there is a free meal involved. OK, I admit that last Friday did include a free meal for my son since we went out for breakfast and I picked up the check. However it also included driving through some Kentucky back roads, a visit to the monastery and it's bookstore, a stop at the parish where he will be living this summer while working at a downtown hospital, and a final stop at the downtown Border's Books where most of their stock is rapidly depleting as they prepare to close the store permanently. I have two sons. My youngest son is the one most like me. When I talk with him or watch him it is like I am listening to and watching myself. During our conversations, as he shared his thoughts about his spiritual journey, I couldn't help but think that he's inherited more than my looks and personality. Spirituality must also be in the DNA. Of course, being relatively young he probably thinks he is nothing like me. I always thought that too about my Dad until I looked in the mirror one day and realized my Dad was looking back at me. These days, more than ever, I realize how much I am like my Dad, not only in looks, but in his personality, his likes, his dislikes, and probably many other subtle ways.

The Dalai Lama, who refers to himself as "simply a human being", is well educated and deeply knowledgeable about Buddhist philosophy. However, most of his teachings are quite simple and to the point. Here's one of my favorites. People just want to be happy and avoid suffering. Who can argue with this? How can something that seems so simple be so difficult? Everyday I want to be happy yet many days I am not. Everyday I want to avoid suffering yet everyday I have some kind of ache or pain, many days I am frustrated, and sometimes my feelings are hurt. What can one do to improve their odds for happiness and minimize their chances for suffering? I think one of the most basic ways to be happy and to avoid personal suffering is to spend less time...or no time...thinking about how unhappy you are or how many things in your life cause you suffering. The more you think about yourself the more magnified your own negative perceptions will seem. The more you focus on others instead of yourself the happier you will be and the less you will even notice your own suffering. However, this is not easy for most of us. It's very difficult to not be preoccupied with your own happiness and well being. To live for others requires a kind of death to self and most of us don't want to do this willingly.

Yesterday was St. Patrick's Day. I am Irish on my mother's side of the family. One of my cousins traced my maternal grandfather's family back to Cork, Ireland. I have never been to Ireland but I was moved when I flew over it on my way to France a few years ago. I found myself thinking "my roots began down there". My youngest brother is currently tracking the genealogy of my father's family. He's uncovered a few skeleton's and they weren't all in the graveyard. I've always had a fascination with my roots and all the forces that have shaped me into the person I am today. How have I become the Michael Brown that you know? Why do I think and act the way I do? Why am I good at some things and so terrible at other things? Most of us have relatively simple lives but all of us are complex people. There have been a lot of ingredients and a lot of mixing of the dough to become the people we are today. Everyone one of us is a story. On a lighter note, I have my granddaughter believing that the leprechaun on the Lucky Charms cereal box lives in my house. "Why can't we see him or catch him, Paw Paw"? "Well, Chloe, he's very small and very, very fast. He doesn't want us to see him or catch him. Chloe, quit eating all the marshmallows in my cereal"!

The last time my granddaughter spent the weekend at my house we were talking about something and I told her that girls can do anything boys can do. My goal was to teach her that she has no limitations. She looked at me and said, "We can't pee standing up". I love talking with my granddaughter because the conversations are so insightful and Zen like. With Chloe there is no BS and she cuts through all illusions and pretense to get right to the point. Children have wonderful clarity about life. They may not always understand things the way an adult does but they see reality as it truly is. This type of vision, this way of seeing things, is part of our original nature. Sadly, we lose it as adults and at some point we realize this and then we spend the rest of our lives trying to regain it. This is our spiritual journey. Often in our old age we seem to have gone full circle in our lives because we have regained the insight and clarity of our childhoods. Many elderly people are childlike and I mean that in a very positive way. By the time you are old you've got no time for BS, you can see through most illusions, and you obtain a clarity about life that some call wisdom.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Random Thoughts Volume XXII

I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.
-Mark Twain

Mark Twain hits the nail on the head with this famous quote. Let's be honest. Most of us live with a variety of fears and many of them are irrational. Most of what we worry about doesn't happen. We live in a society in which we are constantly on edge because the world is full of prophets of doom and the media strives to keep us in a constant state of fear. Earlier this week I found a notice on my front porch telling me there have been robberies in my neighborhood. I read the newspaper everyday and I never see any official notices about crime in my neighborhood. I have never been robbed in my life. Should I live in fear now? The odds would say no but my life experience tells me to be cautious and pay attention to what's around me. Fear is debilitating, whether it's fear of being robbed or mugged or fear of losing your job. I am a cautious person and I try not to be stupid. I also know that most of my fears will never come true. Still, I try to be alert and vigilant so that I am prepared for whatever life throws at me.

A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.
-John Barrymore

This quote is for women too. Most people have at least a few regrets. It's a rare person who doesn't look back on their life and thinks there was a time or two when they turned left and maybe they should have turned right. Sometimes, too, the challenges of the present cloud out the dreams of the future. Our dreams, however, should always outnumber our regrets. I don't feel like a have a lot of regrets although I know I have made some mistakes in my life. As far as dreams go I don't know that I have a definite dream that I hope comes true. In general I am happy with my life even though everything in my life doesn't make me happy. I have always thought of myself as a positive and optimistic person. I always believe life will get better even when it doesn't appear to do so. We will never have lives where everything is perfect. My dream is that the best is yet to come, whatever it is, even if it isn't perfect.

While I was in my office break room a few days ago eating my Kroger brand chicken noodle soup and my sugar free Jello pudding I noticed on the lid of my pudding the words "Happy is still legal in 50 states". Well, it may be legal but that doesn't make it easy. Being rich is legal too but I'm not quite there. I must admit that being happy does not come easily for me and I have many reasons to be happy. I have to work at it. Apparently this is true for a lot of people. In fact, I recently read a book called "The Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin. She is a successful lawyer and writer who thought she had a great marriage, career, family and life but who seldom felt happy. She decided that she would study what makes people happy and how she could find greater happiness in her own life. It's a fascinating book and I recommend it to anyone who may find themselves struggling with a lack of happiness even when they think they have a good life. Of course, what is a good life to one is not necessarily a good life to someone else. Think about this today, "What really makes you happy"?

Here's a thought from the Tao that I really like...

The mind that turns ever outward will have no end to craving. Only the mind turned inward will find a still point of peace.

Most, if not all, that drives us, whether is ambition, greed, desire for food or other comforts, materialism, or whatever, is nothing more than a desire and need to fill some type of emptiness within ourselves. We all suffer from this to some extent. Most of us are not alcoholics or drug addicts but we still have addictions. I think I have an addiction to buying CD's. I have approximately 2,500 CD's and you would think that would last me for the rest of my life. However, at this moment I am waiting for a few more to be delivered to my mailbox. Enjoying music is a legitimate pleasure but I know I am also obsessed with collecting CD's and it is a veiled attempt to fill some type of emptiness in my life. I have also read that our different personalities are also created by a deep need that aches to be fulfilled. It may be the need to be perfect, the need to be successful, or the need to be seen as "special". The Tao is telling us that everything we need is within us. Minds that are always turned outward, away from our center, will be on a ceaseless journey that will not satisfy our cravings or needs and we will never find the inner peace that most of us want. The famous psychologist, Carl Jung, said "He who looks outside, dreams. He who looks inside, awakens". Until you look inside and awaken to the greatness of who you are, you will never find an end to craving and you will never have inner peace.

Here's a few things that some of my co-workers say makes them happy....

What makes me happy is knowing that somebody loves me!

Laughing, beautiful fall days, snuggling with my six year old, a good cup of coffee.

Seeing my children laughing and playing together. The sun shining on a hot steamy day. Plenty of money to spend after all obligations have been met. A quiet walk in my neighborhood on a autumn day.

I'll throw in a few of my own in no particular order....

Being with my granddaughter, a really good outdoor concert on a cool summer night, a weekend at the monastery, lunch with my best friends, any unexpected "Zen Moments", falling snow, a great book, solitude...sorry, I'm a hermit type, and family celebrations.

My son will be home tonight from the seminary and he wants me to take him to the monastery tomorrow. Anytime one of your children wants to spent the day with you, you should jump on it. Tomorrow I am seizing the day so my son can hang out with the "old man".

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Random Thoughts Volume XXI

I was awakened at 7:15 AM last Saturday by a little girl who was standing next to my bed. Her Dad had to work so guess who was dropped off at Paw Paw's house? Last Saturday was also my youngest son's 29th birthday so we went out for a family dinner. It was Sunday afternoon before my son, Mike, picked up Chloe and my other son, Nick, went back to the seminary. When the house was empty and quiet, it was nap time for Paw Paw. When I finally got to bed on Sunday night claps of thunder woke me several times during the night and a drenching rain was falling when I got out of bed the next morning. Needless to say, Paw Paw was dragging all day at work on Monday.

Whether we realize it or not, most of us have been told our entire lives that we aren't good enough. Our life has been filled with messages telling us that we are inadequate and imperfect. Most of the messages were unintentional but real never the less. They have been from our parents, our teachers, our spouses or significant others, our children, our relatives, our friends, and our employers. We don't measure up, we disappoint, or we don't meet someone else's standards. I, too, have heard these messages my entire life. Sadly, I have sometimes spoken them to others. A friend recommended a book to me that I am only now reading. I would have read it sooner but, of course, I am lazy and a procrastinator so I am just now getting to it. As you can now see we often give ourselves these negative messages too. They don't always come from others. Our biggest critic is often ourselves. Anyway.....the name of the book is "Regardless of What You Were Taught to Believe.....There is Nothing Wrong With You" by Cheri Huber. It is sub-titled "Going Beyond Self-Hate, A Compassionate Process for Learning to Accept Yourself Exactly as You Are". The book begins with a list of all the messages we all heard in our early childhoods. I was amazed how many I had heard, how many I had spoken to my own children, and how many I have even said to my granddaughter who I love more than anything in the world. According to psychologists the effects of these messages are set in concrete before we reach age seven. I know this may all sound terribly negative but it is not meant to be. Consider it an eye opener and a wake up call stop listening to the voices around you. Today is the day to start loving yourself. Quit trying to improve yourself. Quit thinking you're inadequate. Quit thinking you're imperfect. You're perfect the way you are.

Whenever I am stressed, bored, tired, overwhelmed, feeling the blues, or all of the above at the same time, one of the best cures for me is a solitary walk outside, especially on a cool day. I was very focused on completing a task earlier this week and by early afternoon that day I needed a break. We've had a lot of rain recently and I knew the river was flooding it's banks so I decided to take a walk in the park along the river and see how it looked. The Great Lawn was partially flooded and along the shore it was driftwood heaven for those looking for potential firewood but it would be dangerous to attempt collecting it. The real point is that whether you have a solitary nature like mine or not, it is still a good thing to spend some time with yourself and your own thoughts. I've talked a little about the importance of loving yourself. Part of loving yourself in a healthy way is to be comfortable with your own company. Everyone should be their own best friend. The more you like yourself the more others will like you. As far as being alone with yourself, if you've never made a retreat where you get away from your normal life I highly recommend it. It is very refreshing and restful. Making an occasional retreat is mandatory for my mental health. It's one of the reasons I go to the monastery and I am long overdue for a weekend visit there.

Life is hard. I am reminded of this every time my alarm clock goes off in the morning, everyday I have to work, all the times I have to do stuff I don't want to do, every time I don't feel good, every time I am disappointed, and on many other occasions in my life. It's a challenge to go through life and not be discouraged. Life often feels burdensome and overwhelming. This why it is so important to do whatever it takes to have some perspective on it all. You cannot allow yourself to be overwhelmed with the demands of life. You must find ways to deal with the demands of life by filling in all the empty spaces with people, things, and activities that give you some peace, joy, happiness, and contentment. Basically you have to take care of your own needs. Most of us spend a great deal of our lives taking care of the needs of others. It is not selfish to take care of yourself, too. I am taking care of myself by taking a much needed Mental Health Day on Friday.