Thursday, April 30, 2015

Practicing Mindfulness

Once I received an email with the following question.
So what exactly does it mean to you to live in the present”? 
The simplest answer I could give was that I try to have my mind and my body in the same place at the same time.  This is very hard.  I can sit here and do my work but my mind is often miles away and days ahead.  When I received the question on a Wednesday, also known as “hump day”, I wondered, “Who isn’t already thinking of the weekend”?  Another part of being in the moment is to not spend time regretting the past or dreaming of the future.  Try to be open to the possibilities of the present and to notice the extraordinary within the ordinary as it unfolds each day.  It is difficult to live in the moment and to practice mindfulness.  Our culture inundates us with images, commercials, temptations, and data.  Our lives pull us in many different directions that are often in conflict with one another.  It can sometimes feel like we are trying to stay balanced in the middle of a tornado or hurricane.  It takes a lot of practice, discipline, and fortitude.  I think this is why it is called practicing mindfulness.  It’s like anything else.  You get better at it the more you do it.  The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.  Take a step today.  None of this is simple and it does take a conscious effort.   

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Simply Live Your Life

Once I wrote a piece about finding purpose and meaning in our lives.  One of my readers sent me a message along the lines of “I no longer look for purpose or meaning in my life because I found it stressful.  I simply live my life.  It is much more enjoyable to simply live each day without trying to make it seem significant by assigning purpose or meaning to every activity”.  As a person who is sometimes obsessed with finding purpose and meaning in life I found this refreshing.  Sometimes I stress myself out being me.  Consciously and unconsciously I have created an image that I feel I must live up to every day.  Other people also have an image of me that they expect me to be.  I think we all do this and we all have expectations of how we think we should be and how other people should be.  Wouldn’t it be great if we all stopped acting and just be who we really are?  Wouldn’t it be great if we all could just relax and live?  I’m sure I am not alone when I say it can be exhausting to be me.  Sometimes I wear myself out trying to be who I think I am or who I think I want to be.  It will take some concentrated effort for me to simply live each day without trying to assign purpose or meaning to everything I say or do.  Even writing these daily thoughts is sometimes a burden because there are a lot of people who expect me to do it and who tell me how meaningful they are to them.  This is why I generally never write on weekends.  I need a break from trying to be deep and meaningful.  Living without a specific purpose, or living without every action having some deep meaning, is not necessarily a meaningless life.  Maybe all we need to do is what’s required of us but doing it with love, kindness, and compassion.    

Life Is Not Always Fair

Life is not fair and the way it plays out can rarely be explained with logic.  Some people seem to have a charmed life while others seem to have a disproportionate amount of suffering and struggle.  Some people seem to have all the good looks and brains while the rest of us are average.  Some people seem to have all the talent while many of us struggle to find our gift.  Some people seem to meet the challenges of life with relative ease while most of us must struggle and crawl our way to meet life’s minimum requirements.  I generally believe in karma but sometimes bad things happen to good people while other people who are less than good seem to fall into good things.  I cannot explain life.  All I can do is try to live my own life with meaning and gratefulness and try my best to support and encourage others to do the same.  Despite the unfairness of life, I tend to think life happens as it should.  I have been very blessed in life but I have also had my share of pain and heartache.  It is easy to be grateful for the blessings but sometimes difficult to see the value of the pain and heartache.  However, my pain and disappointments have often been good teachers and in the long run may have been blessings in disguise.  You can’t give up just because life is unfair.  Life with purpose.  Live intentionally.  Strive to be good and to do good.  Life has meaning even if it may be unclear to us in the moment.     

Monday, April 27, 2015

Enjoy What Life Gives Freely

Many mornings when I leave home there are magnificent sunrises.  They can be truly breathtaking.  Even though I regularly encourage others to practice mindfulness and to be in the moment, I don’t always do it myself.  Sometimes I get so caught up in the routines and demands of life that I forget to pay attention and notice things.  Sunrises reminded me that despite whatever struggles I might be experiencing, life goes on and there is beauty all around us.  It is a wakeup call to me to not let the demands of the moments overshadow the wonder of the eternal now.  The world is full of beautiful art, most of which I cannot afford.  Sunrises are a work of art that are totally free and given to everyone to enjoy.  I wonder how many of you do notice them.  It is so easy to go through life asleep or with your eyes closed.  We all need to wake up and pay attention.  Life is continually giving us gifts but too often we don’t notice them.  Today I encourage you to wake up and be alive.  Open your eyes!  Notice the goodness and beauty around you.  Whenever possible, stop what you are doing and drink it all in.  Don’t be overwhelmed with the demands of your life or its busyness.  Once in a while just stop, breathe, and enjoy it.  Sunrises are a gift.  Sometimes being in the moment is all about timing and the time is now.      

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Just Breathe....

In physics for every action there is a reaction.  This is a law of nature.  For most of us, this is also true in our emotional lives.  Unfortunately we usually believe that our feelings are who we are.  This is not really true.  Our emotions do not define us.  When things happen in our lives we usually react in some way.  I tend to overreact to things I do not like.  I also tend to underreact to things I do not consider important.  Of course, what I do not like and what I do not think is important is not necessarily reality.  One of the challenges of life is to get beyond emotional reactions to things.  Overreacting and underreacting are emotional responses.  What we need to do is strive to respond to life and not to react to it.  In my mind a response is more intellectual and considered.  When my reaction is anger, I try to figure out why I am angry.  What is it about the situation that makes me feel angry?  I am a man of great emotion and occasional passion.  Deep feelings and passion are not bad things in and of themselves.  However, I try really hard to get past some of my emotions and to respond to things in a more considered and thoughtful way.  This is very hard for me sometimes.  Maybe it is for you too.  I challenge everyone who reads these thoughts today to go through this entire day without reacting emotionally to what happens to you today.  Whatever challenges this day brings, try to respond rather than react emotionally.  My guess is that you will find it very difficult.  This is one of the reasons I meditate.  Meditation helps me to be centered.  When I am centered, I am calm.  When I am calm, I can more easily respond rather than react emotionally.  Sometimes in my day I have to say, “Breathe, Michael”.  You should do the same.             

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Life Lived In Awareness

I am just an ordinary man trying to live a meaningful life.  I try to live my life with a deep spiritual awareness while striving to practice kindness and compassion to everyone I encounter.  This is not easy.  It is said that the human spirit is indomitable.  Under duress most people pull through in the end.  The challenges of daily life are often subtle and rarely seem monumental.  Most of our daily lives involve faithfulness to people and commitments, honest work, daily chores, care of the body, and attending to the needs of those who are closest to us.  Beyond the needs and chores that we expect each day are the curve balls that life sometimes sends our way.  In spite of all the challenges and disappointments, life is still a wonderful thing.  In addition to an attitude of gratefulness, I also strive to maintain a sense of wonder.  I must admit that I am sometimes cynical about life.  In spite of that weakness I try to always allow myself to be impressed.  I want my life and the lives of others to have a “wow” factor.  In the midst of the ugliness of life I want to notice the beautiful.  When I am walking down the street I want to notice the flowers and I want to inhale their fragrance.  When it is a hot day I want to notice the breeze as it blows through the trees and across my face.  I want to be in touch with life.  I do not want to sleepwalk my way through my life with my senses dulled and my awareness minimal.  A meaningful life is a life lived in awareness.  It is a life lived awake.  Such a life is meaningful, spiritual, and alive.      

Monday, April 20, 2015

How You Present Yourself

Most people know that my youngest son is a priest.  By all accounts he is well liked and respected.  I have heard compliments about him from some of his parishioners, fellow priests, and even the Archbishop sings his praises.  My wife and I were once discussing this with him and he responded, “Well, Mom, it’s all in how you present yourself”.  I couldn’t agree more.  I was once told that 80% of success is “showing up”.  I would generally agree with that but I would also say that a very important element of success in life, not just in the workplace, but everywhere, is how you present yourself to others.  I am not talking about kissing up to people and pretending to be something you are not.  When you “show up” for life, be an authentic person.  Everyone should think about how they appear to others.  Perception is not always true reality but perception is reality to most people.  As all of us walk through life we are judged by others and opinions are formed about our character and integrity.  Misconceptions can have a very negative impact on how we are seen by those around us.  Many misconceptions are based on how we carry ourselves and how we present ourselves to others.  If you act like a fool, you will be perceived as a fool.  I am generally perceived as a very nice person.  Some people, however, perceive my kindness as weakness.  That would be a mistake.  Another person having a bad day can be perceived as grumpy although they might be very loving and kind most of the time.  We all have a bad day once in a while.  Leaders who seem to ignore people’s feelings can be perceived as uncaring but maybe they are just “under the gun” that day.  People who create a lot of drama and who have constant needs they expect to be met are often perceived as “heavy maintenance”.  Constant whining, complaining, and “neediness” are exhausting to even the most patience leader.  Misconceptions can go both ways.  Sometimes people present a positive image that is false and insincere.  Such a person is inauthentic and phony.  If you want to be accepted, liked, and admired by others, present yourself as a reasonable, intelligent, cooperative, and mature person who is also sincere and authentic.  Be someone that others want to be with.  Don’t be the type of person that makes others want to run for cover when they see you coming.  Life is difficult enough without other people wearing you out or filling your life with negative energy.  Every time I write thoughts like this, someone will write to me and say “Michael, you can’t be nice all the time.  Sometimes a person needs to be aggressive and assertive to deal with injustice or some other harsh reality of life”.  I agree.  Nothing fires me up more than unfairness or people being treated badly.  However, these thoughts today are more about the image and brand that we create for ourselves by the way we act.  If I had to choose between a cooperative, team player type of person, with a pleasant personality,  or a know it all, pain in the butt, guess which one I would choose?  Whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not, we are all selling ourselves to the rest of the world.   Present the best version of who you are or you may be left on the shelf to gather dust.    

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Live With A Grateful Heart

Forever is composed of now’s.
-Emily Dickinson
From time to time events in my life remind me of the importance of living in the now and enjoying every moment of my life.  Even when I am able to do this, it is a challenge.  It is difficult to be present.  If we are honest, most of us would have to admit that we spend many moments of our lives doing things we don’t want to do.  Acknowledging this, how do we find joy in the moments of our lives?  I think we have to seek reasons to be grateful, especially when those reasons are not obvious.  Maybe you don’t like getting out of bed in the morning.  Be grateful you are alive.  Maybe you don’t like coming to work.  Be grateful you have a job that provides financial support for you and your family.  Maybe your Boss is driving you crazy today.  Be grateful for the times they have shown you kindness.  Maybe the morning and evening commute is getting on your nerves.  Be grateful for your mobility and ability to drive.  Maybe you don’t feel like cooking dinner.  Be grateful you have food to eat.  Maybe you don’t like to clean or do laundry.  Be grateful you have a home to clean and food to cook.  Beyond the mundane activities of life, be grateful for sunrises and sunsets.  Be grateful for good books and enjoyable music.  Be grateful for a comfortable chair or bed after a long day of work.  If you struggle to find good things in your life for which to be grateful, be grateful for all the bad things you have been spared.  Be grateful for your life and all the life around you.    

Friday, April 17, 2015

Relaxing In My Not Knowing

Two Zen monks are sitting side by side while meditating on the bank of a river  The older and wiser monk finally says to the younger monk, who has a look of dismay on his face, “Nothing else happens.  This is it.”
If you are like me, then you surely sometimes wonder to yourself, “Is this it?  Does nothing else happen”?  Much of my life’s journey I have been on a quest to find meaning in my life.  More often than not I do not feel successful.  Sometimes I wonder if I am searching for something that is simply not there.  Too often I feel like life is a treadmill and I’m getting nowhere.  Is it possible that this is it and nothing else happens?  Is my life nothing more than a revolving door with me doing nothing but coming to work, going home, falling asleep on my couch, waking up so I can go to bed, and then beginning the whole process over again the next morning?  This is what my life often feels like.  I want to believe I make a difference but do I?  Occasionally I feel passionate but more often than not I feel like I have lost my mojo and that I am turning into a grumpy old man.  The constant search for meaning can be exhausting.  After originally writing these thoughts I got home one day and waiting for me was an email from a friend containing an article that she said reminded her of some of my previous thoughts.  It was an article that talked about three major phases of life.  The first and longest is the time we devote to accumulating wealth and material well-being.  The second is the accumulation of spiritual things, i.e., gurus, seminars, retreats, and mystical experiences.  The third phase is called divestment.  You stop shopping for enlightenment and you make peace with not knowing.  You make peace with life and accept that life is not a question to be answered or a problem to be solved but a gift to be enjoyed.  I think I am now in this third phase.  I need to relax in my “not knowing” and simply enjoy life as it unfolds.      

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Do What You Are Doing

Do what you are doing when you are doing it.
Prayer is attention, attention is prayer.
Do what you are doing when you are doing it.
When you sit, just sit.
When you eat, just eat.
When you drive, just drive.
When you shower, just shower.
When you talk to a friend, talk to your friend.
Do what you are doing when you are doing it.
God didn’t create light and check his email.
Do what you are doing when you are doing it
And you can pray all day in all ways.
Do what you are doing when you are doing it
And you’re practicing the presence of God.
-Joe Zarantenello
This excellent poem was written by a man I know who runs a retreat center.  It requires little commentary from me.  This poem perfectly describes mindfulness and Zen.  Be where you are and do what you are doing.  It’s that simple and it’s that difficult. Amen.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Differences Can Compliment One Another

Me and a book is a party.  Me and a book and a cup of coffee is an orgy.
-Robert Fripp
This is one of my favorite quotes.  Robert Fripp is surely an introvert although his career has been spent in the extroverted world of rock music.  I used this quote in some Myers-Briggs training I did about a year ago.  There is often disagreement and even conflict among us.  I hoped my training gave everyone a better idea of why we all think and act like we do.  My greater hope was that people saw how our differences can complement one another rather than be a source of conflict.  I am reminded of a time when I went to France and spent a week with people from twelve different countries and several different continents.  It was interesting to me how the people came from different cultures and backgrounds but at a deep human level they were all the same.  The vast majority of people in this world want the same things.  They want to live in peace and harmony.  They want to do honest work.  They want to take care of their families and get along with their neighbors.  They want to avoid suffering and they want to be happy.  We are all human beings and we come in a variety of shapes and colors.  Some of us are introverts, while others are extroverts.  Some prefer to make decisions based on facts and data while some prefer to go with their intuition.  Many keep our societies flowing by following our rules and laws.  Some support this by making their judgments based on personal values.  A whole lot of people keep us on track by ensuring things have a beginning and an end.  Others go with the flow and adapt as needed.  Our world cannot survive by thinking or doing things one way.  Variety is the spice of life and diversity in thought makes it all work.       

Monday, April 13, 2015

Pebbles Tossed Into A Pond

I am not trying to make a big splash with the things I write about.  My basic goal is to enlighten people and to expand their consciousness.  Rather than make a big splash, I hope that each day I am tossing pebbles into a pond and the ripples caused by my writing encourage other people to think for themselves.  I am often amazed at how little most people think.  It seems to me that most people are focused on the needs of the day and not on the quality of the day.  I don’t know why I am driven to seek enlightenment or to feel a need to enlighten others.  Lots of people who are smarter than me are not necessarily deep thinkers and people who are deep thinkers are not necessarily practical people.  In fact, many deep thinkers have their head in the clouds.  Only the best of them also have their feet on the ground.  I am a strong advocate of contemplation.  I encourage people to find some time in their life when they can ponder their own lives as well as the bigger picture beyond their own personal concerns.  Contemplation is part of spirituality.  Spirituality in simple terms is how you put the spirit into your reality.  Contemplation and spirituality can lift us above the sometimes petty concerns of our daily lives.  They can also expand the best parts of who we are.  Contemplative and spiritual people can show us how to be more loving, giving, and compassionate people as well as more connected with the deeper realities of life.    


Yesterday’s daily thought for my personality type said “your type has patience which is supported by a quiet strength and tremendous endurance.  You are able to hang in there through hardships and difficult experiences”.
I have found the idea of patience to be somewhat ironic in my life.  Some people think I am the most patience man they ever knew.  It is true that my feathers are seldom ruffled.  Occasionally I have a meltdown but it very rare.  I seem to be more patient and tolerant the older I get.  I am not sure if it is healthy or dysfunctional but my lifelong coping strategy has always been to wait out whatever is annoying me.  I guess this is how I “hang in there” through hardships and difficult experiences.  My wife calls this being stubborn and hard headed.  On the other end of the spectrum I have very little patience with ignorant people and any kind of BS.  Who has the time to argue with fools or listen to a bunch of baloney?  My patience is limited so I prefer to use it with people who need it.  My time is also valuable so why waste it on BS?  I seek the truth and I strive to always speak the truth.  As I once read, “always tell the truth and you won’t have to remember all your lies”.   In addition to truthfulness, we should strive to be patient, especially with other people, because sooner or later we will need to be on the receiving end of such patience.        

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Total Consciousness

A few nights ago I had dinner with my granddaughter.  However, these thoughts will not be a review of the poor service I received at Bob Evans restaurant.  They are about a conversation I had with my granddaughter.  At some point she said, “Paw Paw, I find it interesting that the older I get the more I feel like a person.”.  I thought this was a deep statement coming from a ten year old.  I guess even granddaughters don't fall too far from the tree.  She went on to say that babies don’t know they are persons or that they exist.  My first response to her was that I always thought she was a person from the moment she was born and at this stage of my life I cannot remember life before she existed.  I went on to explain in my best grandfatherly way that all of this was about self-awareness and consciousness.  Chloe is now very conscious that she exists as an independent and autonomous human being.  This was a wonderful conversation as we ate our dinner of scrambled eggs, biscuits, and gravy.  I love watching my granddaughter grow up.  She’s a wonderful young girl who has greatly enhanced my life and given me a lot of joy.  She also keeps me on my toes with her evolving consciousness, self-awareness, and intellectual curiosity.      

Thursday, April 09, 2015

The Eightfold Path To Enlightenment

  1. Right View
  2. Right Intention
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration
These are part of a Buddhist teaching called the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment.  In my mind they are applicable to any faith tradition.  The path teaches us to see things as they really are and to always have pure intentions without hidden agendas.  We can practice right speech by always telling the truth.  Our actions should be for the building up of others and not to break them down.  Right livelihood means to do work that is honorable.  Our actions and livelihood should be given proper and appropriate effort.  This means to do what is necessary and needed without over doing it.  Right mindfulness is being where we are and doing what we are doing and right concentration is giving our activity the thoughtfulness it deserves.  If we do all these things consistently we will be enlightened.

Monday, April 06, 2015

God Is Awake

Have courage for the great sorrows in life, and patience for the small ones.  And when you have laboriously accomplished your daily tasks, go to sleep in peace.  God is awake.
-Victor Hugo
This one of my favorite quotes.  Victor Hugo lived in France in the 1800’s and is the author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  We should all post this quote on our wall as a reminder to ourselves that no matter what we may have to deal with during the daytime, God is always awake, and we should allow ourselves to go to sleep each night in peace.  We all will have great sorrows in our lives sooner or later and it will be a rare day that does not require some level of patience.  Many of us fret and obsess and work ourselves into a frenzy worrying about our problems.  In my experience life takes care of itself and it generally unfolds as it should.  It is not a bad thing to live your life as though everything you need is dependent on your personal efforts to meet those needs.  I believe such effort is rewarded.  At the same time it has also been my experience that everything I need seems to come my way eventually.  Some people do not think this is true because they confuse their needs with their wants.  I have a little Zen garden on my desk.  Two small Buddha’s sit in the garden with a small sign that reads “What, at this moment, is lacking”?  A former teacher and friend of mine once said, “The moment is as perfect as it can be”.  If we live in the moment and appreciate its fullness, we will often realize that nothing is lacking and the moment is as perfect as it can be.  This moment seems very good to me.  Admittedly, sometimes at night when God is awake, he gets lonely and wakes me up to talk.  I’m not always in the mood but I am grateful for all the nights I sleep deeply and God watches over me.  

Friday, April 03, 2015

Life Is A Balancing Act

I once wrote that balance is found in the tension of opposites.  Balance in life can be found at the crossroads of hanging on and letting go.  Unlike the famous bluesman, Robert Johnson, who made a deal with the devil “down at the crossroads”, our deal is with life, not the devil.  Life is a continuous balancing act.  We are formed into the people we are from all of the experiences we’ve had and how we have handled those experiences.  Along the way we have acquired values and beliefs that guide us as we go forward.  It is these values and beliefs that we hang on to as we are tested in life.  What we need to let go of are our insecurities, our fears, our obsessions, our compulsions, and our immature impulses.  Finding balance in life is not easy, even for the most psychologically healthy.  In addition to hanging on and letting go, we also need to look at the activities of our life and how we spend our time.  Many of us have been told by our mothers at one time or another that “we’re burning the candle at both ends”.  All work and no play not only makes Johnny a dull boy, it can make him a stressed out and unbalanced one as well.  Work is not the only culprit.  A life where we are always “on the run” should be balanced with leisure and rest.  Interaction with other people should be balanced with solitude and “me” time.  When one is balanced, one is living a centered life.  When you are centered within yourself, and your life is balanced, you will have peace of mind and the storms of life will not unravel you.  

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Contemplating The Universe

Sometimes I just sit and think.  Other times I just sit.

When was the last time you sat in a solitary place, quieted your mind, and simply contemplated the universe?  Yesterday I wrote some thoughts about putting work into proper perspective.  Work and other activities can take up too much of our life and leave us frazzled and stressed.  Times of busyness and activity need to be balanced with quiet and solitary reflection.  You don’t have to be an intellectual to be reflective and introspective.  The Greek philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”.  Many people find and take time in their lives for retreat.  When many people think of a retreat they think of a battle in a war where you are losing.  In order to live to fight another day, you retreat.  Hopefully most of our daily lives do not feel like we are in a war zone.  The best of lives, however, are filled with challenges and demands that can leave us exhausted and depleted.  It is a rare person who could not occasionally use a time of retreat to recharge, renew, and refresh.  If you are lucky, maybe you can run off to a monastery retreat house for a weekend.  If that is difficult, take an afternoon off and go to the park.  At the very least, take some time and sit in silence in your own backyard.  Sometimes the best I can do is retreat inside my own mind.  However, sometimes that is a noisy place with all the inner chatter that strives to run my life.  One way or another, look for opportunities to simply be.  I am confident you will not regret this time or consider it wasteful.   

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Putting Work In Perspective

When I walk around my office what I see much of the time are people just trying to get through the day.  Perhaps my vision is flawed but I think not.  This does not mean that people don’t care about what they do or that they are not trying to do the best they can.  I think it means that most people cannot come to work every day and act like they are playing in the Super Bowl.  Work cannot demand 90% of our daily energy.  If you go home every day brain dead and exhausted, something is out of whack.  You should be tired after a day of work but not in need of life support.  I come to work every day wanting to do a good job and trying to make a difference.  This doesn’t mean I am always driven and highly motivated.  Some days I don’t feel good, other days I lack motivation, and occasionally, to quote my wife, “I’m tired and I’m tired of it”.  Certainly there are some individuals who strive to inject positivity, motivation, and engagement into the workday and these people should be commended.  Work is an important and necessary part of life.  Sometimes, however, I think we try to  make work more important than it is.  Many people, including me, work to live rather than live to work.  Work is only one slice of the pie of life.  In my life, and I believe in the lives of many, leisure, rest, and activities that promote our intellectual and emotional growth are equally important.  At its best work is part of the creative process of life.  At its worst it is a daily grind full of drudgery, meaningless routine, mind games, and office politics.  I believe most of the people I see every day struggling to get through the day are actually hardworking, loving, and caring people who are doing the best they can.  They should be commended.