Saturday, July 30, 2011

What Is Really Important?

One of the reasons I like to be on vacation is that there are few expectations of me. Whenever I am at work I must be here, do that, explain this, or meet a variety of other expectations. Some expectations seem clear and others do not. Many expectations seem realistic while a few do not. At the end of the day I understand the words of Abraham Lincoln who said, “You can please all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time”. Of course, expectations are not only part of the workplace. Everyone has expectations of us in every area of our lives. It is one of life’s great challenges to please others because it is difficult to be all things to all people. I like to believe that I am doing the best I can, whether it’s at work or at home, to meet the reasonable expectations of others. I also like to believe that everyone else is doing the same. This attitude helps be to be kind to myself and tolerant of others.

Earlier this week my wife and son had something to do together so guess who took care of my granddaughter? She had come home earlier that day from the daycare and was a little under the weather. I asked her if she would like to watch a movie so she picked “A Christmas Story”. I’m not sure I’ve ever watched that in July before. It was refreshing to see all the snow on such a hot day. This is one of my favorite Christmas movies because it reminds me very much of my childhood. I love spending time with my granddaughter. She always brings me back to reality. When I am with her I can forget my troubles and live in her world for a while. Like many parents and grandparents I look at the world we live in and wonder what the future holds for the younger generation. I wonder what kind of woman my granddaughter will grow up to be. I wonder how much of her life I will be here to see. Selfishly, I would like her to stay seven years old forever. Alas, neither of us can stop time. All we can do is enjoy the moment and try not to shoot our eye out!

As you go through your day do you ever wonder and ask yourself “What is really important”? In my experience today’s crisis is tomorrow’s bump in the road. Today’s obsession is tomorrow’s low priority. I know I sometimes obsess over things. The reality of what’s really important is sometimes clouded by my own dysfunctional behavior. As I go through my day I must evaluate what is truly important, what battles should be fought, what ideas should be pursued, and what personal obsessions should be let go. I want to focus my life and my energy on important things. Of course, important things are in the eye of the beholder. My mountain is someone else’s molehill and vice versa. So much of our conflict is because we see and evaluate life’s activities and demands differently. There is one thing, however, that my experience tells me is of supreme importance. It is love and for me this love is manifested through kindness and compassion towards all people. It is not just for family and friends. It’s for everyone I encounter. I am not na├»ve. At times this is very challenging and I don’t always accomplish it. Occasionally I encounter people who are difficult to like. However, I try to practice what I preach and to do it will everyone I encounter. Perhaps I can’t change the entire world but I can change myself. At the end of the day, and perhaps at the end of life, this is what is truly important.

Relieving Other's Suffering

The Dalai Lama teaches that all sentient beings want to be happy and not to suffer. Who can argue with this? I suffer when I see other’s suffering. Suffering can take many forms. One of the ways I strive to practice compassion is to alleviate suffering whenever I can. I don’t necessarily do this in big ways. I look for opportunities in my daily interactions with people and animals. My tools are often no more than a kind word and a smile. If I can do anything to lighten another person’s load or stress level I will try to do so. I am not a real Buddhist although I feel like one. I try to inflict no harm on any living creature. I even avoid killing insects as much as possible. Currently I am sharing my bathroom with a small spider. As long as he doesn’t attack me we will live in peace. Other tools at my disposal are a kind heart and a listening ear. Often the only thing people really need is someone to listen to them. Other times all they need is someone to cut them some slack or give them a break. These things are easy to do and don’t demand great resources of time, talent, or money. A caring heart can do wonders. I realize that to alleviate much of the suffering in life requires much more than my simple gestures but you have to start somewhere and you shouldn’t underestimate your ability to make a difference in someone’s life. Mother Teresa says, “If you can’t feed the world, feed one person”. This attitude can be applied to many of life's everyday occurances.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Contentment and Happiness

Recently a friend asked me what I thought the difference was between happiness and contentment. Since our conversation I have been thinking about this a lot. I'm sure that Daniel Webster has definitions for these words but I would like to share a few thoughts about what they mean to me. I think contentment is when you have everything you need. For example, at this time of my life I have all the material things I need and want. I live in a nice house and I drive a nice car. I eat good food at home and I can go out to restaurants a lot. I have good books to read, great music to listen to, and a variety of wonderful coffees to drink. I wear nice clothes and I am fortunate to have been employed by the same company for a very long time. Within reason I have everything I need and want. It would be very selfish for me to complain about the material comfort and contentment that I experience in life at this time. Things, however, do not usually make you happy over the long term. I think happiness becomes part of your contentment when you also have emotional and spiritual fulfillment. Good health is also a plus. Although I have all the things I need and want, my emotional and spiritual fulfillment are often lacking. There are still too many unresolved issues, too much spiritual longing, frequent feelings of emptiness, and lack of clear purpose in my life for me to feel any deep sense of happiness. I also deal with some chronic health conditions on a daily basis that sometimes depress and annoy me. This is not to say I am a miserable person. I am not. In spite of an uneasy alliance between great contentment and elusive happiness, I sometimes feel, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “surprised by joy”. Usually without warning, and never planned, I have moments of pure joy when life makes sense, I feel a sense of oneness with the universe, and I have a flashes of clarity about life when everything seems exactly as it should be. I call these Zen moments. They don’t last and they cannot be manufactured or arranged. They just happen, I enjoy them while they last, and I try to live my life with a sense of Buddhist wakefulness and contemplative awareness so I recognize and notice them in the noisy and busy world in which I live. Overall I feel blessed and I strive to always have a greatful heart for all things whether they seem good or they test me.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Back to Earth

I have been on vacation for the last nine days. Tomorrow I must return to the reality of alarm clocks, early risings, and daily work. That's not all bad but being on vacation is better.

A week ago I left in pre-dawn darkness with my wife to meet one of my sons and my granddaughter at a resort in Gatlinburg, Tennessee where we co-own a time share. I enjoy driving down the highway as the day begins and the sun comes over the horizon. Half way there we stopped for breakfast and another dose of caffeine. We arrived at our destination without any any problems. The resort guide led us to our temporary home. It seemed to be in the clouds as he drove up and up and we had to shift into low gear to keep up. The place was great and we had a lovely view of the surrounding mountains. It's a myth to think that it is always cool in the mountains. The one negative of the trip was the brutal heat that dogged us the entire time we were there. Of course this same heat is baking most of the United States.

The week was filled with great meals, browsing in the local shops, trips to the water park for everyone but me, and naps for Paw Paw. Despite the heat and the challenge of too much togetherness for an introvert like me, there were no major family meltdowns although I flared up a couple of times. I am just not a person who can be with other people, even family, 24/7. Overall we had a great time and unfortunately it was over way too soon. Everyone was ready for home so we left in the early morning of our last day so we could avoid the intense heat of the afternoon. We all arrived home safely with new memories and family stories.

My first morning back home I slept long enough to feel rested before once again heading down the highway to spend the day with my friend Fr. Dennis. I always enjoy spending a day with him. We visited the monastery where I was talked into the purchase of a book on mysticism titled "The Big Book of Christian Mysticism" by Carl McColman. It is subtitled "The Essential Guide To Contemplative Spirituality". It was highly recommended by Dennis so I purchased it despite my effort to stop buying books all the time. With thoughts of mysticism in my head we went to lunch where, as always, we discussed the spiritual life and what was going on with one another. We also talked of my other son, the future priest, as well as the fact that we are becoming old men. After lunch we went back to Dennis's home and watched a deeply moving film called "For Colored Girls". It gave me a whole new appreciation for the experience of many African American women. After the movie I headed back home. It was a hot drive with a 98 degree temperature and heat index in the 100's.

When I arrived home, and after a short nap, I went to dinner with my wife and we stopped at Border's Book's. Sadly, all the Border's Book stores are going out of business. I have often joked with friends that everything I want and need can be found at Border's, i.e., books, music, movies, and coffee. While there I picked up a copy of a book that I've wanted to read for a long time. It's called "Across The Great Divide". It's a biography of the famous rock group "The Band". As I type these notes I have "The Basement Tapes" by Bob Dylan and The Band playing in the background. The Band is one of my favorite groups.

Yesterday was the last of my obligations for the week. I went with my youngest son to the seminarians picnic with the Archbishop, the seminarians, and a few local priests. Despite all the problems with the Church there are many good priests doing many good things and I am proud that my son wants to be one of them.

Now the heat has subsided a little as rain falls outside my window. Tomorrow I return to work and to a more structured life vastly different from the freedom of the last nine days. Whenever I am not working, and I have no obligations to carry me along, I reflect on the idea of retirement. Like most working people I often feel like I cannot retire fast enough from the politics, drama, and demands of the workplace. However, I also wonder what I will do with my life when everyday is Saturday and I am on vacation all the time. I long for leisure, and a life without work obligations, but I also need a reason to get out of bed in the mornings. I am now sixty years old. How much time do I have left? Twenty years if I am lucky, maybe less. What should I do with it when it is all mine? Most of it now belongs to others.

A week off from your regular work routine is nothing more than a tease. It is not a vacation.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Seeds in the Wind

Some people think I am a deep thinker. I am really just a very ordinary guy with no impressive credentials. Most of the time I feel like my brain is barely able to maintain basic life support systems for my body. Rather than think of myself as a deep thinker I like to think of myself as a wide thinker. My mind is like a landscape that has no fences. I like to daydream and let my mind wander wherever it wants to go. Sometimes I am able to capture the journey in writing. When the wandering of my mind connects with time to actually write it down I am energized, passionate, and in a state some psychologists refer to as "flow". When it all comes together my typing can’t keep up with my thinking. Many other times, however, I stare at a blank screen, my mind is empty, and I don't know what to say. Eventually I will get something down but it will be a struggle. Much to my surprise and amazement what comes out of the emptiness is considered by some people as my best stuff. I will get emails from people asking me if I am reading their minds or telling me that what I wrote seems to be written specifically for them. Of course, none of this is true. I believe that many who write in the same vein as me simply have tapped into a larger consciousness and somehow put into words what many other people also think. Other times, when I think I have written something good, it will get no reaction at all. I guess anyone who writes must first write for themselves with no expectation of reward or even notice. Still, I hope for something good to happen as a result of my attempts to put into words the experience of my very ordinary life. I attempt to write something everyday as a discipline, I put it out into the universe and I hope the seeds I throw into the wind find fertile ground somewhere and maybe, just maybe, I have written words that someone needs to hear or words that give someone comfort. Whenever you express yourself, whatever the medium, you take a risk. Some may praise you and compliment you, others will ignore you, one or two may challenge you, and a few may tell you that you are full of BS. It’s worth the risk. Whatever is inside you will find its way out one way or another. Any expression of who you are is part of the creative process of life.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What is Heaven?

A few nights ago I watched Clint Eastwood’s film called “Hereafter”. It was long and a little slow but overall a good film that explored the meaning of life and death. I often what if there really is a Heaven and what it is really like. We all have images of what we think it might be like but if it is real, what is the reality? It’s got to be more than billions and billions of people sitting around in the Lotus position staring at a light. What goes on in Heaven? What do people do all day even if a “day” is eternity? Will I be re-united with everyone I ever loved or cared about? Will I somehow get to relive over and over every wonderful experience I ever had when I was alive on earth? Will I have a job in Heaven? Will God have expectations of me or can I do whatever I want? Is there a rock and roll section of Heaven where all the musicians I have loved in life are having a never ending jam session? Is Heaven a place or a state of mind? Are we already experiencing a taste of Heaven now? These are just a few thoughts on my mind. Do you ever wonder about these kinds of things or do I have too much time on my hands?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Work Grind

Sometimes when I ask my wife about her workday she replies, “I’m tired and I’m tired of it”. What is it that she is tired of? She’s tired of what some people call the work grind. The work grind is all those things that make you crazy when you are at work. It’s a combination of all the different personalities and agendas and the drama associated with human interaction. It's the lack of connection many people feel with the work they do and the subsequent lack of meaning they experience in the work they do. It also includes misunderstandings based on poor communication and the rumor mills that invariably spring up. Work goals themselves are often unclear and the measure of success is often a mystery. I sometimes hear people say “how much is enough” when asked to do more and more. Assuming we are all human, most of us feel this way at least some of the time. What is the answer? Business guru, Lance Secretan, suggests that "telling the truth could be the single greatest profit generator in corporate history". He estimates that 20% of our workforces are engaged in activities to check up on the other 80% of the workforce. He suggests that everyone should just tell the truth and everyone should believe everyone else. Many of the problems in the work enviroment are the result of mistrust. Leaders don't trust their followers and followers don't trust their leaders. Both groups are full of people who go to church, quote scripture, and believe they are good people. Yet, for many, the workplace is the most stressful experience in their lives. All of us need to be truthful and honest and whether we are a leader or a follower, we need to have a servant leader mentality. What if we all told the truth, were completely honest, and dedicated our days to making everyone else's life as smooth as possible? What if we all let go of personal agendas and egos and working cooperatively for the good of all? If we must be competitive why can't we compete to see who can show the most kindness and compassion to our co-workers?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Comfort Zones

Every time I leave my house I am out of my comfort zone. Why do I feel like this? I am an introvert in an extroverted world. I am an intuitive person in a “show me the data” business environment. I make most of my decisions based on what I believe to be the right thing to do and I determine “the right thing to do ” through my personal standards of morality and what I believe to be right and wrong. This sometimes goes against other people’s rules. Finally, I strive to respond rather than overreact or have knee jerk responses in a world where everything starts as “urgent” because of our incessant need for instant gratification and responses. In order to survive in the world I have learned to be outgoing and friendly when I would rather be alone. I have trained myself to be logical and analytical when it comes to data and information and I will follow most rules unless I think they cause more harm than good. When something is truly urgent I can kick it up a notch or two and respond in an appropriate manner. I’m sure all of you feel some tension in the way you interact with the world even if it doesn’t manifest itself in the same way as it does for me. The challenge is finding a balance between who you are and who you need to be to meet the demands of your life. When I am home in my castle I can be more true to myself and who I am but even there I must make adjustments and compromises to live in peace and harmony with my family. What I believe is very important, however, is that you don’t totally suppress or deny who you are just to make other people happy. At the same time I don’t support some people people’s mentality that “I am who I am, now deal with me”. The goal should be to not only recognize who we are and what we have to offer but to also see the uniqueness and gifts of others.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Stumbling along the Spiritual Path

Last night I was around some children that I did not really know. It quickly became apparent to me that they needed some attention. My granddaughter introduced me as her Paw Paw so they started calling me that too. Near the end of the night, after all the neighborhood fireworks, one of the little boys asked me if he could sit in my lap. When I sat down to accommodate his request he grabbed a pillow and his blanket and hopped in my lap. Before yesterday I was a complete stranger to him. What I thought about, however, is how we all just want to be loved and if we can be held too, all the better. It also made me think how important men are to children. This particular child did not really have a strong male presence in his life. Mothers are great, and we all know they carry most of the responsibility for child rearing, but you cannot underestimate the importance of a father as well. I have not always been the world’s greatest father but I was always there for my children. I am still there even though they are adults now. You don’t have to be perfect but you do have to be there.

Happy Birthday to my granddaughter, Chloe, age 7, and also to the Dalai Lama who is 76 years old today. They are both living Buddha’s in my mind. Chloe wanted Pee Wee Herman for his birthday. Even Paw Paw couldn’t produce the real Pee Wee so my wife and I did the best we could. I am attaching a picture to show the results.

Recently I received an email from a friend of mine who is a retired priest living as a hermit near the Abbey of Gethsemani. His email simply read, “I think it is time for another spiritual encounter”. Periodically I drive out to his house and we spend the day together. I’m the oldest sibling in my family so I never had a big brother. This friend has become my surrogate big brother. I called him and we agreed on a date to get together. On that day I will get up early and drive the country roads to his house. I love these solitary drives. After I get to his house we will go out for breakfast at some small restaurant that can only be found in a rural area. Later in the day we will probably visit the monastery and try not to buy more books from their bookstore. I probably should completely avoid the bookstore since I recently gave away many of my books. Throughout the day we will talk of God, life, my family, our spiritual lives, and the joy of long friendships. We first met 40 years ago when we were both much younger. Sometimes when we are together I think of the Simon and Garfunkel song “Old Friends”.

Old friends, old friends sat on their park bench like bookends
A newspaper blowing through the grass
Falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends
Old friends, winter companions, the old men
Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun
The sounds of the city sifting through trees
Settles like dust on the shoulders of the old friends
Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy
Old friends, memory brushes the same years, silently sharing the same fears.

My friend is in his early seventies now and I’ll be there soon enough.

I have always found the study of psychology and personality types to be fascinating. I was in my early thirties when I found out my Myers-Briggs type. At the time I was taking an intense nine month course on spiritual direction. When I was in my early forties I discovered another well of self-knowledge called the Enneagram. These two schools of thought, along with Strength Finders, have provided me with much enlightenment about myself. All of them together paint a very accurate portrait of who I am. I believe that when we are young we think it is very important to fit in with everyone else. Most people are living in their false self when they are young because it is more important to fit in and be accepted. When you start approaching middle age you realize you can’t play all those games anymore and you start discovering who you really are. When you discover your true self, and embrace it, it is a major milestone in your life. At this point in my life I know who I am. I know my gifts and I know my weaknesses and I am OK with both. The discovery and acceptance of who you really are is the beginning of the journey from the false self to your true self. This journey is what the spiritual life is all about. You transform into your true self and are the best version of who you are. Do you know who you are? Have you begun the journey of transformation? Are you one with your true self?

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
— Aristotle

"Our life is what our thoughts make of it."
— Marcus Aurelius

I think these two quotes are related. We are what we think. What thoughts occupy your mind throughout the day? Obviously some of our thoughts are focused on the tasks we must accomplish each day. However, in between these tasks in our leisurely moments what fills our minds? I have read that our brains are hard wired to think negatively unless we intentionally think positive thoughts. I believe this is true. Therefore I strive to always think positive thoughts. I do not always accomplish this. When I am not applying my mind to a task I am usually thinking about people I care about, ideas that intrigue me, my love of music, some philosophical discussion I am having with myself, how to be more present to the moment, or what I can do to improve myself or change the world that day. I think when your mind is mostly engaged with ideas and less with brooding over some slight or injustice that you perceive as happening to you, you are at least striving to live a life of excellence. If you do this every day, excellence and living well become a habit

Friday, July 01, 2011

Stumbling along the Spiritual Path

Over the years I have been given a number of work related books at company functions. Most of them were filled with charts and graphs and the usual business rhetoric. They did not move me and are currently gathering dust on my shelf. One, however, did spark my interest and I finally began to read it recently. It’s called “ONE…The Art and Practice of Conscious Leadership” by Lance Secretan. He spoke at a corporate event and I was totally one with his message. I spoke with him after his talk and basically told him that his presentation summarized almost every belief I have, not only about work but about life. His book references many of the great thinkers and philosophers of history and his writing speaks to my heart. The book promotes what the author calls the CASTLE principles which are courage, authenticity, service, truthfulness, love, and effectiveness. I highly recommend this book. I have to intentional put it down sometimes because I find it so intriguing and inspiring that I want to read it straight through. I believe it is a book that needs to be read slowly and reflectively.

Yesterday I had a new mattress delivered to my home. It is long overdue, much needed, and the last major piece of a year and a half project to remodel, renovate, and update my home. It’s been a long journey and much of the way I was kicking and screaming. With all due respect to my longtime spouse, there’s an obscure passage in the Bible that says, “God made man and rested. God made woman and no one has rested since”. Despite the blood, sweat, and tears that accompany the transformation of a home, it is still easier than transforming yourself. I have spent 60 years trying to understand what makes me tick and why I act the way I do. I have identified many opportunities for personal improvement. I have struggled to improve myself, re-invent myself, and overcome my weaknesses while preserving and utilizing my strengths. It’s been tough sometimes. Still, I believe in the words of Nelson Mandela who said something to the effect that “we are not afraid of our inadequacies, we are afraid of our greatness”. Like a re-modeled home, when we tear down an old wall within ourselves, who knows what beautiful thing we will find behind it?

When I got home last night I had an email sent to me from a man born in India but who now lives in Canada. His note was a very heartfelt sharing of his spiritual journey. He told me that he had been reading my blog and that he felt like he was reading about himself. In the last few years I received a number of similar notes. They all make me realize how much alike we all are. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, if you are a man or a woman, if you are black or white or any other color, if you are gay or straight, or whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. When the Dalai Lama introduces himself he calls himself a “simple human being just like everyone else”. We are all just human beings on a journey. These journeys lead us down different paths but the journeys are universal in nature. The path is never straight and never without challenges along the way. This realization is why I call my blog “Stumbling Along The Spiritual Path”. When you feel alone, or you feel like no one else understands what you are going through, remember that everyone else feels lost or confused some of the time. When you feel lost, sit on the side of the road and take a break until a fellow traveller catches up with you. Then you can walk together for a while until your journeys take you down separate roads.

I think I finally know what I should be when I grow up. I’ve come to the realization and acceptance that my gift is writing. I know it’s a gift because I’ve done nothing to develop it. It just happens. Most of the time when I start typing I don’t even know what I am going to say. Most of my adult life I have kept journals. Originally they were handwritten. In the early 2000’s I began sending emails with daily thoughts to a small group of co-workers. I had to stop that when my distribution list reached approximately 600 people. The next thing I did was create a blog. I’ve had over 18,000 hits on my website from all over the world. Earlier this week I was contacted by the editor of a large website that’s had nearly 30,000,000 hits. They want to publish my blog under their “Spirituality” column. I have accepted their offer and have already published one piece. I’m not making any money from this yet but I don’t care. I am passionate about writing and it gives me a lot of joy. Joy is priceless. Don’t be discouraged if you haven’t found your gift yet. It will reveal itself to you at the appropriate time. When I was twenty five I couldn’t have written the kind of stuff I write now as a sixty year old grandfather. There is a Zen saying that goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. I would say “When the gift is ready to be opened, it will appear in front of you”. However, it may reveal itself slowly so be patient!

This weekend my family will celebrate my granddaughter’s 7th birthday. She wants Pee Wee Herman as a gift. I am not talking about an action figure or a doll. She wants the real Pee Wee Herman. She’s given us the option of either taking her to Hollywood to visit Pee Wee’s Playhouse or having the real Pee Wee Herman shipped to our house. She did tell me that if we have him shipped to our home we must be sure to poke holes in the box so he can breathe.