Friday, June 24, 2011

Ramblings In My Mind Vol. XI

I am an early riser, even on weekends. My wife likes to sleep late and so does my youngest son whenever he’s home from the seminary. Last weekend I was awakened each morning by thunder and lightning. It was wonderful. I got out of my bed, performed all my morning rituals, picked up my morning paper before the rains turned it into a sponge, started the coffee pot, made some toast, and then sat looking out my window at the falling rain. I’ve had a much greater appreciation for heavy downpours and gentle thunderstorms since a time when I made a retreat in the hermitage of the famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. He wrote a wonderful essay on rain called “Rain and the Rhinoceros”. It’s in a book called “Raids on the Unspeakable”. I had the wonderful experience of reading this essay while sitting in his rocking chair in the very hermitage in which he wrote this essay. It was a true Zen moment. Rain has never been the same since that night I spent alone in the woods.

Like many people I often dream of traveling to faraway places. However, the older I get the more I just want to be home. I am a man who truly values a peaceful home. I would rather be home than anywhere. I have lived in the same house for almost 25 years. In the last year it’s received quite a makeover. Although I am married and part of a close family I am something of a hermit. I realize now this is something I got from both of my parents. When my dad was alive he loved to be in his backyard sitting under a tree with his dog. To this day my 81 year old mother can sit and rock for hours while looking out her window at the world. Our homes are our sanctuaries. It is where I am most myself. Home is where all the stuff that defines me resides. My home is my castle. Each morning when I leave there I dream of returning to it in the evening.

Sometimes people think I am a Zen Master. I am not a real Zen Master although I do play one in my office. Whenever I am asked to explain Zen I give people this simple description. Basically, I think Zen is being where you are and doing what you are doing. This seems simple but is quite challenging. Most of us spend much of our time wanting to be somewhere other than where we are. At this very moment how many of you are wishing you were sitting on the beach with sand between your toes and your eyes fixed upon the waves crashing on the shore. As I am typing these thoughts my mind is already racing ahead to all the other tasks I need to complete this day. I am not where I am and I am not totally focused on these thoughts. Earlier this week, however, for a short time I was where I was and I was doing what I was doing. I got home a little early from a doctor appointment and there was a wonderful and intense summer thunderstorm. I stood on my back porch totally lost in the moment and the wonder of it all. Such moments are Zen.

My wife’s last remaining uncle passed away this week. He was 78 years old and part of “The Greatest Generation”. As someone near the front of the baby boomer generation I was reminded of my own mortality and the preciousness of life. Death is always a wakeup call to those of us still living. So often our lives get bogged down in pettiness, complaining, and small mindedness. Sometimes we need to step back and examine our life to remind ourselves what’s really important. Ideas are more important than gossip. I’ll take the positive over the negative any day. People are more important than anything. It is challenging to live well and to be high minded but I will keep trying.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Ramblings In My Mind Vol. X

Mindfulness is something that I practice. It is not something that I have accomplished. In our multi-tasking and over stimulated culture it is difficult to focus on one thing or one moment. Sometimes I think I have Attention Deficit Disorder and I know I have what the Buddhists call “Monkey Mind”. In my mind there is a lot of chatter and jumping about. Although I may appear to be calm and centered on the outside, my mind is a whirling dervish of thoughts, daydreams and mental conversations with myself. Some of this is side trip from too many meaningless and mundane activities that I cannot seem to escape. I think about this as I continue to explore my overall sense of well-being. While I am generally peaceful and calm as I go about my life, overall well-being seems elusive. Although my financial and material well-being is generally acceptable, there is too much that upsets me, distracts me, is unfulfilled, or simply annoys me. Even my attempts at relaxation are often exhausting. I find myself bouncing around in my attempts to be present to the moment, the task, or the activity. Even in my being I am too often doing. All of this gives me much to ponder and reflect upon. How do you rate your own well-being?

Yesterday I woke up to a beautiful morning. It was cool and the humidity had taken a holiday. Despite the wonderful morning weather it was a typical Monday. The day was busy and long but did have some unforeseen and good surprises. The highlight of the day was picking my granddaughter up at her daycare. During the summer I will be doing this every Monday. When I walked into the day care I was treated like a rock star. Of course, I am “Paw Paw” so I am a rock star. My granddaughter ran up to me full of excitement just as she has for as long as she has been able to run. “Paw Paw, I made you a tie dyed picture”! She and I know one another very well. I think she is the Queen of the Universe and she knows I love Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead, and all things tie dye. At one time she was the only kid in the pre-school program who wore a Jerry Garcia shirt. I admit that I have spent much of my life feeling unloved. Then God sent me a granddaughter. She has at times overwhelmed me with her love. She will be seven years old in a few weeks and I think she‘s the most loving person I have ever known. After leaving the daycare, with Grandma in tow, we headed for the Dairy Queen where we ate cheeseburgers and chicken tenders before sitting out in the sun with our Oreo and Brownie Blizzards. OK, I know I am a diabetic and a Blizzard should not touch my lips but give me a break. I was with the Queen of the Universe. When this happens one must make some concessions. When our Blizzard cups were empty we took a walk and collected some rocks. Soon enough Dad appeared, I had to take leave of my Queen, and then Paw Paw went home for a nap. Blizzard eating and rock collecting can be grueling.

I love mornings. Admittedly I don’t like being forced out of bed. However, whether getting out of bed is of my choosing or forced, morning is still my favorite time of the day. On these summer mornings I love the songs of the birds, the coolness of the air, the quiet of my neighborhood, and the peacefulness I generally feel. I am also a great lover of the coffee bean and the first taste of my morning java is always delectable. On workdays, once I am out of bed, dressed, and the caffeine is entering my blood stream, I always allow myself 15-20 minutes to just sit, be quiet, read something positive and uplifting, and get myself centered. I don’t like to be running late, feeling rushed, or already in a frenzy before I even step outside the threshold of my home. Sometimes during the demands of the day I can feel as though I’m pulled out of my center. When that happens I go take a walk outside so I can regain my centeredness. You cannot survive the tug of war that daily life often is unless you are centered and balanced.

I’ve been reading a booked titled “A Monk in the Inner City”. It is written by a Benedictine nun who is living among the poor and disenfranchised people of her city. She has also been a social activist in her ministry. In one chapter she mourns the “lost loves” of her life. She is not talking about significant others. She is referring to the decline of the “passions” that drove her in her youth and motivated her to want to change the world. Now she is older, tired, frustrated, and sometimes overwhelmed with the challenges of social activism. I am not a social activist and most of us aren’t. However, I bet that most of us, especially those who are older, can identify with her feelings of burnout. I know there are many days I am “over it”. Still, I am a passionate person and I have fire in my belly. The older I get the feistier I become. On some levels the older you get the less afraid you are. By the time you are 50 years old you have survived so much. There’s truth in the adage that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. I have passion for joyful things like music and books but I also have passion for doing what is right as well as being kind and compassionate. How about you?

Yesterday my day began with some unhappy people. I like people but I must admit that I sometimes find them exhausting. I know some of this is because I am an extreme introvert. After I doused the flames of discontent as best I could I realized I was very hungry so I went downstairs to our Lobby Shop for some breakfast. Needing an additional boost I also got a cup of the strongest Starbucks coffee they had brewed. I stood in the line to pay for everything. When I got up to the cashier she informed that the gentleman across from me in the other line had paid for my breakfast. I looked at him and said, “Wow! Thank you! What a guy”! Once again my faith in mankind was renewed. This is actually the second time in less than a year that a stranger has bought me a meal. Back in December my youngest son and I were eating in a Waffle House. When I asked the waitress for my check she informed me that the gentleman walking out the door had bought our meal. He looked like I should have bought his meal. In spite of all the complaining that we human beings do there are still examples of random kindness in our world. As you go through your day look for opportunities to be kind. While you’re at it throw in some acts of senseless beauty. You will make someone’s day.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Ramblings In My Mind Vol. IX

I often write about the idea of being “awakened”. Here’s a great quote that I found recently by one of my favorite writers.

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, and only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life.
-Henry David Thoreau in “Walden”

In Buddhism, to be an “awakened one” is to be a Buddha. I don’t claim to be a Buddha yet but it is a personal goal to be an awakened one. I am not fully awake yet but I am not asleep either. After many years of attempting to be awake through spiritual awareness I think I am at a stage where I could be described as sitting up on the side of my bed, with my feet on the ground, rubbing my eyes. Sixty years into my life I am starting to wake up. I guess the next step for me is splashing cold water in my face. Of course this means I need to get from my bed to the bathroom sink and that’s a long journey. What does it mean to be awake? I think it means to see life as it really is without filters and without illusions. It’s a spiritual clarity about life and the world around you. What it is not is not a state of blissful ignorance where one sits around in the lotus position. When one is awake, one is also engaged with life.

I don’t know what it all means yet but I like the idea that our company is starting to focus on well-being. Thinking about this I was reminded of a time in my younger days. In my early 20’s I spent a year of my life living in a Trappist monastery. Trappist monasteries are like a Catholic version of Buddhist monasteries. I still remember a community discussion based on the question “What are the practical demands for the experience of God”? Even for a person living a monastic life the experience of God can be elusive. I now find myself wondering what are the practical demands for achieving a sense of well-being in the workplace. There is an obvious attempt to encourage us to improve our physical health but what can we do on a practical level to achieve an overall sense of well-being in other areas of our work lives?

Much of my life has not gone as I wanted. On the other hand much of it has gone like I needed. Along the way I have had a lot of fun, a few real adventures, some major and minor challenges, and many opportunities to do good. I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up but I believe I know how I should be. That’s fine with me because I think there is too much doing in the world and not enough being. Most of the attitudes that I encourage, like being reflective and contemplative, with a sense of wonder, are not really activities as much as they are ways of being. All of our lives are a mystery. Even though I have not completely solved the mystery of my own life, I think I have somehow landed where I am supposed to be. How about you?

In our culture youth is often glorified. Not surprisingly, young people often are amazed that most older people have no desire to be young again. My 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s were the most difficult and challenging of my life. I got married, raised two sons, and started a long career with my employer. Turning sixty this year did get my attention but it was also in many ways a relief. My life is still busy but also more relaxed now. My two sons are now men. One is the father of a granddaughter that I adore. The other will be ordained a priest in two more years. Most of the time they take care of Mom and Dad as needed. It helps that Mom sometimes slips them money. I have also found grandparenthood the highlight of my life. I think my granddaughter is a Zen Master and she is currently my best teacher about how to live in the moment.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Ramblings In My Mind Volume VIII

Even the most positive and optimistic people can sometimes feel down about life. Daily life, especially as the days turn into years, is challenging. Some days it feels overwhelming and stressful. It can seem like something is always going wrong. With all of this how does one maintain a zest for living? I really think the solution is to maintain an attitude of mindfulness where you are awake and present to the moment. While you live in the moment be open to the wonder of it. We all want to have fun and be free to do what we want when we want but the reality of adulthood is that we will have responsibilities and obligations that make demands on us. Work is a reality for all of us. Taking care of our families is another reality. Both can seem like drudgery at times. However, for those who are awake there is a mystery and a beauty within the ordinary and mundane. There is always more to life than meets the eye. There are deeper realities that are only perceived in moments of contemplation and wonder. Sometimes you have to just stop and be still for a while. Once in a while you have to breathe, connect with the bigger universe, and ask yourself the words of the Chinese philosopher, Lin Chi, “What, at this moment, is lacking”? Sometimes life seems empty but most moments are not.

I have a rug in my “man cave” that moves about one foot a week. I put it where it’s supposed to be and by the end of the week it’s not there anymore. I can’t actually see it move but I know it does. Recently my wife bought me some kind of pad to put under the run that is supposed to keep it in place. It has certainly slowed it down but it still creeps along. Time is like this rug. On a day to day basis it doesn’t seem to move and sometimes it appears to stand completely still. However, the seconds turn into minutes, the minutes into hours, the hours into days, the days into years, and the years into a lifetime. One day you are 30 years old and the next day you are 60 years old. You don’t always notice the progress and movement but seemingly all of a sudden the rug of your life has moved. You can do things that make you feel you are slowing it down but it is still moving. Too often people focus on destinations but as the Buddhists say, “The journey is the destination”. Notice the movement, feel the motion, and enjoy the journey of life. Don’t just think about where you want to be. Think about where you are and be there.

Let’s be honest. Most days are ordinary and even a little boring. They may be very busy but not necessarily exciting. This is why I always try to have something to look forward to doing. At this moment I have already planned some additional days off and yesterday I confirmed a weekend reservation at the monastery for late August. I also have a concert in Cincinnati that I hope to attend. Of course, summer also gives us some long weekends and after we get through the dog days of summer we launch into the end of the year holiday season. I will also probably go to Gatlinburg again soon because my granddaughter is asking my wife and I when we’re going to “The Burg”. What the princess wants, the princess gets. It doesn’t take much to get me excited. Today I am thrilled because I am leaving work at 3:00 PM. It’s only an hour earlier than normal but in my mind I am already gone.

Yesterday I took a work related on-line course on wellness. The idea to promote wellness rather than focus on sickness is a good one. I have long believed in a holistic approach to life. Such an approach is all about finding balance. We are complex beings. We have our bodies as vehicles through this life. Like a car or any other mode of transportation they must be maintained to run efficiently. However, we are more than our bodies. There is also an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual aspect to our total lives. All of these things, along with our bodies, must be in harmony with one another. When one of these elements is out of whack, our total harmony is disrupted, and we are out of balance. True wellness is found in harmony and balance. Of course all of these elements are affected by many things. We need love and a sense of belonging. We need to feel safe and reasonably secure. We need our lives to have a sense of purpose and meaning. All of this is why I have long encouraged people to be awake to life and to not simply go through the motions. Wellness does not simply fall out of the sky. It must be an attitude developed through intentional and authentic living.