Friday, September 28, 2012

Helping Strangers

Earlier this week, as I was leaving a restaurant, a stranger approached me asking for some financial assistance. He was not a homeless person. He said he was from out of town and had to use all of his money for an unexpected car repair. I don’t know if that was the truth or not. I don’t know if he was truly in need or just a very good actor. Generally, I don’t even care. My attitude towards most homeless people or others who approach me is that I will help them in good faith if I am able to do so. If they are taking advantage of me, then they have to live with it. If I have cash on me I usually respond favorably to such requests. Like many people, however, I use my debit card almost exclusively. As a result I rarely have any cash. I felt badly but I explained to the man that I didn’t have any cash. He looked forlorn and I was sorry I couldn’t help him, especially since I had just filled my belly at a nice restaurant. Later in the evening, when I finally got home, I realized that I actually had a rare five dollar bill in my wallet that I had completely forgotten about. If I had been aware of it earlier in the day I would have given it to the stranger who asked my help. I’ve taken ministry workshops and social work type of classes that warn against giving money to the homeless and panhandlers. I understand that many of them are alcoholics and some even have mental illnesses. Most that I have encountered were nice and not as aggressive as some are reported to be. I am a blessed man so I tend to be a soft touch to those in need. I hope the man I was not able to help found what he needed to get home. I should probably take that five dollar bill that I have an hide it in my wallet so that I will have it the next time someone needs some assistance. Otherwise I will just spend it on a latte that I don’t really need.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Slow Down And Wake Up

Have you ever awakened in the middle of the night and felt a little anger because you were pulled from a really great dream? It’s happened to me a number of times. You try your best to fall back asleep quickly, hoping you can resume the dream where it left off. However, that rarely happens. It is virtually impossible to resume a dream or re-create a wonderful experience. Great dreams and wonderful experiences are gifts of the moment. The best ones you never see coming. I am reminded of a special morning I once had. My wife and I were the guests of some friends who have a home on Cumberland Lake. Everyone but me was sleeping in. Since I am an early riser I got out of bed as soon as there was some daylight. I got dressed, made some coffee, and headed outdoors. It was a cool, autumn morning. The surrounding landscape was beautiful with leaves at their peak fall colors. I sat in a chair on the side of a hill overlooking the lake. Mist covered the water. The only sound was occasional birdsong and the distance roar of an early morning boater. I sat there in silence and stillness with my coffee mug warming my hands. The sun slowly rose over the hill on the other side of the lake. The light shone through the trees as it slowly burned the mist off the lake. I was totally lost on the moment and felt one with God and the universe. The moment was as perfect as a moment could be. Here’s where it gets tricky. I could never have planned such a moment. Such moments appear without warning and you simply have to be awake and aware enough to be present to them. If I had attempted to replicate this moment the following morning, it would not have been the same. So, slow down and wake up. Life is full of such moments but most of us miss them most of the time. We are too busy being in a hurry to do others things. We often miss the best moments of our lives.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Personal Vision

What is your personal vision in life? What drives and motivates you to think and do what you do? In my 60+ years of life many influences and experiences have formed me into who I am. In addition to these outside forces that have formed me, I have also tried to form myself into a certain kind of person. My personal vision for the kind of person I want to be and for the way I try to act is rooted in spirituality. I have found teachings in both western and eastern spirituality that I believe in and which I strive to incorporate into my daily life. These are basically love, kindness, and compassion. It is not always easy to practice and live these virtues. One way in which I try to re-calibrate myself each day is meditation. I generally do this in the mornings when I am more awake and alert. These meditations are not complicated. It does not involve a mental checklist of all my successes and failures. My morning meditations involve silence, stillness, focus on my breathing, and a little reading. The purpose of this time goes beyond just having a few minutes of peacefulness before I begin my day. Meditation and other spiritual practices are like physical exercise. You don’t necessarily enjoy the experience. However, the daily experience, over time, gets you into shape for the demands of daily living. The basic intent of my daily meditation is to keep me awake. When I am awake, I am aware. When I am aware, I am alert. When I am alert, I can intentionally practice love, kindness, and compassion. When I am not awake, aware, or alert, I will not always do these things. Meditation keeps my personal vision alive and on the job.

You're Perfect The Way You Are

I am a little pressed for time this morning so I am pulling something from my archives. I wrote this in the past and received a lot of favorable response. Some of you may be reading this for the first time.

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 or expectations. I, too, have heard these messages my entire life. A friend recommended a book to me that I am only now reading. I would have read it sooner but, of course, I am imperfect and lazy 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 all of us received in our early childhoods. I was amazed how many I had heard, how many I said to my own children, and how many I have said to my granddaughter who I love more than anything in the world. According to psychologists most of these messages become part of our psyche and 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 wakeup 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. Quit thinking you’re not smart enough or beautiful enough. You're perfect the way you are.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Fall Days

I am not a big fan of getting out of bed in the dark, especially when my wife has taken the day off and she stays in bed. You would think she would get out of bed and cook me some bacon and eggs while I am getting ready. (smile) I am loving these fall days. As one of the local weathermen said, “It’s like someone flipped a switch and turned off summer”. We seem to have gone right into spring with little transition. This is my favorite time of year. My wife and I got up early on Saturday and picked up my granddaughter. We went out for breakfast and then we came back to my house to get the Halloween decorations out of my shed. It was a perfect day to do so. She gets so excited when this time of year arrives and we begin the process of decorating for the holidays. We usually start early because my wife is over the top when it comes to the holidays. Plus, the weekends seem to fill up quickly with things to do, places to go, and various family activities. Before you know what has happened all the leaves are off the trees and the cold winds of winter have arrived. After a day of decorating on Saturday, Chloe sat still long enough to watch a Disney movie called “Chimpanzee” before we finally went to bed. Believe it or not, going to bed was her idea. However, she got no argument from Paw Paw and Meemo.

Friday, September 21, 2012

More Thoughts On Simplicity

A friend sent me the following quote.

It's also helpful to realize that this body that we have, this very body that's sitting here right now in this room, this very body that perhaps aches, and this mind that we have at this very moment, are exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, and fully alive."
-Pema Chodron

I also recently read the this quote.

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksand’s and the thousand and one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, Simplify!”
-Henry David Thoreau from Walden

It is a great challenge to keep life simple in such complicated times. It is easier if you are a single person who doesn’t need to get the approval of others in terms of how you live your life. It is more challenging if you are married with a family or living with others, especially if they do not have the same values or desire for simplicity. Each person must decide for themselves what is essential for living and what takes their time. With my particular personality and needs, I have determined that what is essential is also minimal. I could live in one room as long as it was filled with books, music, a comfortable chair and bed, a coffee pot, a small stove to cook, and basic plumbing. As a married man with children and a granddaughter, my two story, four bedroom home doesn’t seem enough at times. I have a lot of stuff that someone will have to deal with someday. I have simplified my life in other ways. I have minimized my activities. I am not over-extended in any way. Instead of wanting more I think in terms of needing less. I say no more than I say yes. I strive to do less and be more. I spend more time looking within and less time wandering outside myself. In my mind, if not in my body, I live on Walden Pond with the attitude of Thoreau. My mantra is “less is more” and I have come to realize that “this very body that perhaps aches, and this mind that I have at this very moment, are exactly what I need to be fully human, fully awake, and fully alive."

Under The Weather

I have been out of the office for the last two days. I did something I rarely do and that is call in sick. Last weekend I had a sore throat that turned into an upper respiratory infection. This caused me to do something else I rarely do which is break down and go to the doctor. I woke up Tuesday morning feeling totally down and out. My wife got up and went to work. I stayed in bed and slept till 11:00 AM. That is another very rare occurrence. When I got up I ate a bowl of cereal and then took a nap until about 3:30 PM. Yesterday I was no better so I went to the doctor. Once I got some proper medication I began to feel better. The worst part of all of this was the coughing. No one likes to be sick. I would rather come to work than be home sick. However, I think sickness has a purpose. Sometimes a minor illness is what we need to be forced to take a break. Admittedly, I don’t usually need to be forced to take a break. Sickness reminds us that life can go on without us and the world will continue to spin. It’s a delicate balance to feel needed and to also realize that we are not needed. Although it is difficult to imagine a life without me in it, I know from many experiences that many things continue to exist and move forward without my participation. Sickness also reminds us to be grateful for good health. I have learned to live with some chronic health conditions but I am rarely sick. As I near the end of this bout of illness I have a new appreciation for feeling good.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Voluntary Simplicity

Today’s chapter in Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat Zinn was about voluntary simplicity. Most people think that voluntary simplicity is simply about having less stuff. That is certainly part of it. It is also choosing a less complicated life and learning to say no. A simple life also has a Zen element to it because one is able to be more present to their life because there is less life in which to be present. When one attempts to live a simple life one strives to avoid distractions. When you eat a bowl of cereal, you simple eat the bowl of cereal. A distracted life is when you eat a bowl of cereal and read the cereal box to see what ingredients are in the cereal, an activity you’ve probably already done more than once. The challenge of a simple life is to discern what is truly essential and what is not. Think about all the things to do each day. Many of these things are done in a mindless, not mindful way. What is truly essential in life often gets out of whack because much of what we do is not really essential. Much of what we do is the byproduct of our personal agendas which may or may not have any real meaning for us and, most certainly, others. Today I challenge you to think about how you can simplify your life. Pay attention to what you are choosing to do. Is it really essential? Does it have a meaningful purpose? Now, I understand that many of us have to do things that are created by other people’s agendas and we often to not have a choice about it. Sometimes we just have to accept this. However, as much as you can, minimize your own life by choosing to live simply, without clutter, and without unnecessary complication.

Friday, September 14, 2012

We're All In This Together

Yesterday I was involved in several conversations that reminded me that all of us have burdens, challenges, and “crosses to bear”. Today I am feeling a little out of sorts myself. I always try cut every person I meet a little slack because I never know what that person may be going through that day or in their life. You can never go wrong by being kind. This morning I was reading a chapter from “Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat Zinn on the idea of giving. Most of us have heard about stewardship and the idea of giving your time, talent, or treasure. Some days, however, we may feel that we have none of these to give. There are other ways to give to those around us. We can give a kind word, a smile, or a hug. Sometimes that all we have and sometimes that’s all another really needs. Life is difficult for all of us and some days are harder than others. The challenges and burdens of youth are eventually exchanged for the challenges and burdens of old age. Often by the end of a day we feel overwhelmed. I once read, however, that the problems of the evening seem much less challenging in the morning. I was reminded of this today as I drove to work and I was lost in the beauty of the morning sky. I don’t know what problems or challenges await me in coming weeks and months but I do look forward to the beauty of winter sunrises. Think about how you feel today and remember that most others feel the same or even worse. Be kind, give everyone a smile, and if a family member, friend, or co-worker needs a hug, give it to them. We are all together in this thing called life.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My Fall Schedule

Why do I run off to Trappist monasteries for retreats and spend Wednesday nights meditating at a Buddhist temple? Here’s a schedule of my upcoming family events that was just sent to me by my wife.

  • Weekend of 9/15: Chloe spends the night and we visit Caufields Novelty Shop to see if their Halloween decorations are out yet.
  • Weekend of 9/22: Chloe spends the night and we get all of our Halloween decorations out of the shed. This is the shed originally built for a lawn mower and other yard tools.
  • Weekend of 9/29: Meemo and Paw Paw get a break.
  • Weekend of 10/6: Chloe spends the night and we go see the movie “Hotel Transylvania”.
  • Weekend of 10/13: Annual family trip to Huber’s Orchard to pick pumpkins and pay exorbitant prices for everything they sell except the air we breathe. The air is free.
  • Weekend of 10/20: My wife and I visit our son, Deacon Nick, at St. Meinrad School of Theology.
  • Weekend of 10/27: Chloe spends the night and we go see the movie “Frankenweenie”.
  • Weekend of 11/3: Meemo and Paw Paw get a break.
  • Weekend of 11/10: Chloe spends the night and we get all of our Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations out of the shed. Yes, the same shed that was designed for a lawn mower and other yard tools that I had to eventually give away because I had nowhere to store them.
  • Monday, 11/12: I call in sick from a psychiatric facility that also specializes in back issues.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Becoming Who We Are

This past weekend I started reading the biography of Steve Jobs and last night I watched a great documentary on the life of Bob Marley. These are two very different men. Both were flawed but also great in their individual ways. Reading Steve Jobs biography I realized we have much in common if you don’t count Steve Jobs brilliance and success. One thing I have in common with Bob Marley is that we both see life as a spiritual experience and we both love music. What I find interesting about biographies and documentaries is how people are formed into the person they become. We are all a product of our families, especially our parents, and every experience, influence, and human encounter we’ve ever had. People, experiences, and influences, for better or worse, form us into who we are. I have always been interested, if not obsessed, with understanding what makes me tick. Who and what has formed me into the person I am? Why do I think, feel, and act as I do? I have read many biographies in my life. Several things about them are universal. People are complicated and we all have the potential for greatest, whether we achieve it or not. People are also very flawed. We all have wounds and we have all been hurt. People also have a great capacity for healing and most have the ability to overcome whatever pain life has given them. There is really no such thing as a simple person. People may live and act in simple ways but inside of them is a very complicated circuit board that makes them who they are.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Alzheimer's Walk

I thought about my Dad a lot over the weekend since I did the Alzheimer’s Memory Walk this past weekend.  Chloe spent the night on Friday. We got up early on Saturday morning to a cloudy and rainy day. It was not a good morning for an outdoor activity. We finally got ourselves together and we found our way to the McDonald’s Drive Thru. We got out breakfast and drove downtown. Either I didn’t get the message or there was a last minute change in the time of the walk because of the rain. We got there an hour too early. It was cold and wet. Chloe and I walked around Waterfront Park looking at the sculptures. As I’ve mentioned before, Chloe’s favorite subject in school is Art. Soon other members of my family began to arrive. I am lucky to have a great extended family. I was even lucky enough to marry into a great family. We all get along and generally have a great time when we are together. Since my father passed away a few years ago I am now the Patriarch. The only person older than me is my 82 year old mother. The walk finally began and Chloe and I marched around Waterfront Park along the river. It was very windy and a few times I thought we would blow away. When it was all over I drove Chloe home and then I returned to my own home where I quickly became one with my couch.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Being A Grandfather

Sometime this evening my granddaughter is coming to my house to spend the night. She is coming over so the two of us can participate in the Alzheimer’s Memory Walk at Waterfront Park tomorrow morning. My father died several years ago and he lived the last five years of his life with Alzheimer’s. Participation in this annual Memory Walk has become a family ritual for my siblings and me, along with many other members of our extended family. I love when Chloe and I do things together. We have a special bond that has existed since she was born. I am her favorite person and she is mine. As a father and as a grandfather, I have been a man who was actively involved in the rearing of my sons and who is currently active in the life of my granddaughter. I can still remember Chloe being only a few weeks old. On one sleepless night I remember rocking her in my chair at 5:30 AM while we both watched CNN news. Now she is eight years old and growing up faster than I want her to do. Like with most people it seems like she has always been who and what she is right now. I love to answer her questions and have conversations with her. She’s probably the only kid in her class who knows who Jerry Garcia, the Dalai Lama, and the Buddha are. If you ask her my favorite color she will reply “tie dye”. She usually sleeps in one of my tie dyed tee shirts. Whenever we are driving around in my car we jam to Michael Jackson. She’s creative and artistic but hates math. Tomorrow we’ll get up early, probably grab some coffee, orange juice, a few sausage McMuffins, and maybe a hash brown or two. We’ll meet up with the rest of the family at the park and do the walk. On the way there and back, we’ll be grooving to “Beat It”, “Billie Jean”, “Thriller”, “Bad”, “Black and White”, and “Smooth Criminal”. After I give her back to her Dad, Paw Paw will be taking a nap!

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Being Still

Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?
-Lao Tzu in the Tao-te-Ching

Have you ever sat still for one hour in a totally silent room where the only sound is the sound of your own heartbeat? I tried it again last night when I went for another meditation session at the Drepung Gomang Institute. Let me tell you this. It was challenging. My eyes were closed most of the time and my mind was focused on my breath. I was occasionally restless and it was a mistake to do it after a meal. Meditation is best on an empty stomach. Occasionally I opened my eyes and looked around the room. Even the Buddhist monk leading the meditation sometimes had to adjust his position. It was encouraging that even this gentle monk was a little restless and uncomfortable. It is a good thing to be still. You learn patience and you become more aware. In our hyper culture and lifestyles, it is a good thing to sometimes do nothing, be still, and breathe.

I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.
One world is aware, and by far the largest to me, and that is myself,
And whether I come to my own today or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness, I can wait.
-Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

My Inner Life

It’s amazing to me how someone like myself, who has a simple and sometimes boring life, can also have an inner life that seems complex and which contains a wide spectrum of feelings and emotions. These thoughts and feelings provide the foundation for much of my writing. I must admit that I am not always completely honest in my writing. That doesn’t mean I am dishonest. It just means that I try to never write anything that has a negative or whining tone. Even when I am writing from my own pain, I try to use it in a way that encourages other people in their own struggles. I basically like it that I am a sensitive and introspective person. As Socrates’s once said, “The un-examined life is not worth living”. I would tend to agree with Socrates but much of the time I find all this self-examination and inner dialogue exhausting. Sometimes I look with envy at other people who seem to simply live and who don’t over-think life. Sometimes I wear myself out being me. Part of the reason I am into things like Zen and mindfulness is because of my own need to quiet my mind. I sometimes think that 90% of my spent energy occurs in my mind. My mind is my friend but it is also my enemy. I like it that my mind can take the feelings of my heart and turn them into words, especially words that bring hope and comfort to others. I hate it when my mind obsesses over thoughts and feelings and the endless self-editing of words that I may have written or spoken differently. I am a person of great feeling but sometimes I wish I could feel less. I assume, and hope, there are others who understand what I am saying. Of course, as my boss once said to me, “That’s what makes you Michael Brown”. Even the simplest of us are complex in our humanity and being. The good, the bad, and the ugly, is who we are. If I wasn’t the kind of person I am, with all my personal messiness, I could never write these daily thoughts.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Time Is A Gift And A Challenge

As much as I love my weekends, they are not always good for me. I am a creature of habit and routine. During the work week these habits and routines keep me moving and they provide a rhythm to my day. There are also times that I am carried through my day by an inner auto-pilot that instinctively knows what I should be doing. Although weekends are a needed and highly desirable part of my life, I often fall apart on weekends. When I have nothing to do, and nowhere to be, I often feel lost. On the weekends I sleep a little later than on workdays. I still get up early, because I love mornings, but not as early as I do on workdays. For reasons I don’t completely understand, it takes me forever to get going on a Saturday or Sunday. My body moves slowly and my mind awakens at the same pace. By the end of a long weekend or a vacation at home, I find myself bored and restless. The exception to all of this is when I have a planned activity that gives me a jumpstart and I am energized. This past Saturday I got up early, drove to where my son works, and I picked up my granddaughter. I had promised her that we would go see “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”. Getting out into the early morning air, coffee mug in hand, and looking forward to a day with Chloe, I felt alive. Without this activity I would have gotten up, feeling like an really old man, and I would have been moving at a snail’s pace. I would have consumed multiple cups of coffee, read my newspaper, and then I would have likely taken a mid-morning nap. I think about this scenario whenever I have serious thoughts about my eventual retirement. When I have been given the gift of time as a reward for all the years of labor, what will I do with it? For the young, and the old who are still working, weekends are a gift. For those lucky enough to be able to retire someday, time will be a challenge.