Taking a Beginner’s Class in Life

monk paradeCall it synchronicity or coincidence, but when some image, item or theme repeats itself, I pay attention to it.

It’s 5 am and the day is breaking on my first day in Laos. I hear dogs barking outside my hotel’s bedroom window and as I look outside, to my amazement, I see a parade of Buddhist’s monks doing their daily ritual of alms giving. To see their bright orange robes in the pale morning sunlight sparked joy and excitement in me. Then fast forward later to an introductory ice breaker at my new school when I am asked to select one picture that I resonate with and explain why. I saw an image very much like the one here in this blog post of the monks.  Obviously, the morning experience had left an impression on me, which is why I believed I was immediately drawn to it, but then as I started to explore it more deeply,  I thought it is what the monks represent to me: contemplation and discipline. But to what?–that is what has plagued me and woke me up this morning at 4:14 am.

If I believe that every detail in my life has a message of the divine in it, then what would this repeating image of parading monks mean to me? This urge to understand is what got me leaping out of bed this morning. As soon as my feet hit the ground, it occurred to me that it is the ideal that monks strive towards, a  Beginner’s Mind:  having an open mind and heart, allowing for the mundane in life to become a fresh experience and to invite the magic of living back into awareness.

Moving into a new country, it is easy in many ways to have a Beginners’ Mind because there are all these new “adventures” that you get to explore like food, culture, and scenery. thich-nhat-hanh-quote-beginners-mind.jpgBut what about other elements that are not as novel, like our attitudes towards things, in particular, relationships. These relationships could be anything like how we feel towards our loved ones or how we feel towards mosquitos. It’s hard to enliven these stagnant attitudes with a new point of view. But for me, I think seeing these monks reminded me of the importance of the commitment to keeping open to the possibility that maybe something that I believe to be true may have another version worth exploring. Ideas that popped immediately to my mind were my personal relationships, how I feel about aging and my ideas about living with nature. Can I examine these ideas with a fresh perspective, remaining deeply curious and in awe of its presence in my life?  Although I am not sure what benefit this approach may yield, I am setting an intention to examine the dogma in my beliefs and observe how it impacts my decisions and feelings. I am going to liken this introspection as a taking a  beginner’s course in life. And today my course starts.

 

 

Innovate Yourself

There are many great people whose stories provoke me and have made me wonder if I was indeed doing enough with the gifts and abilities that I have have been born with. Currently, I am on the verge of one of a cathartic moment, as I read the biographical book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. I know it wasn’t on A Tentative Reading Lists for 2017 but it’s a must read. I am so inspired by him that it’s actually taken me a while to even attempt to articulate why it is that I feel the way I do. His struggle to envision the future to me is heroic, on par with my other heroes of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, due to his infinite pursuit of a dream that is larger is than himself. Now I know what you’re thinking–you’re comparing him to those great men?  Yes, yes, I am. Why?-because he stares at the abysmal status quo and is willing to do whatever it takes to disrupt it in an effort to move humanity forward. He has created a movement in technology and innovation that so is understated and he continues to doggedly persist in solving problems that seem impossible.

I think there are probably too many smart people pursuing internet stuff, finance and law. That is part of the reason why we haven’t seen as much innovation.

Elon Musk

I mean, how many of you worked on, let alone sat and pondered these issues?

  1. Making life interplanetary
  2. Accelerating the transition to sustainable energy
  3. Artificial Intelligence

So many great scientists and engineers have asked questions that are beyond one’s comprehension. However, Elon staunchly believes that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they choose to make a commitment to asking insane questions in the quest of serving the needs of humanity. When your curiousity collides with your passion, a life’s purpose emerges and you can do things so much bigger than you could ever imagine. He challenges the assumption that innovation is a natural outcome of civilization as if evolution is set on an inevitable course. But without drive and intelligence, nothing new emerges and people and the planet languish in complacency’s wake. The notion that something is “good enough” is the antithesis to improvement and growth.

People think just automatically that technology gets better every year, but actually, it doesn’t. It only gets better if smart people work like crazy to make it better…otherwise it actually gets worse.

Elon Musk

As I reflect on these ideas, it appears obvious to me that when people accept what is average, what is the bare minimum and don’t demand more of themselves and each other, then they are ultimately in a death spiral. Doing the same thing over and over again is actually going backward (such as thinking that drilling for oil is the answer to our energy needs now and in the future). I remember a famous quote from Albert Einstein that stated, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”, which if Elon Musk was to rephrase it, it might be: It’s absurd to think that doing the same thing over and over again will yield innovation.

Of course, you might just be thinking that’s all well and good for the development of plasma TVs, internet speed and space rockets, but so what, What does innovation have to do with me. I’m not an engineer or scientist, and I certainly not a millionaire. That may be true, but there is NO area in life that couldn’t be innovated; it only takes a willingness to acknowledge that failure is a possibility and do it anyway.  Take, for instance, Gandi. He went against the British government and won India’s independence through non-violence. Non-violence?! This idea still is revolutionary and to my knowledge, Martin Luther King is the only other man who has attempted to use it against oppressors with success. But the idea works! And yet we still wage war–outdated, archaic and what should be obsolete methodologies–when you look at the power of this innovative strategy. It’s the equivalent of riding a horse and buggy to work, and yet so many people favor guns and bombs over the more impactful approach of non-violence. This astounds me. Yet I digress….elon musk

If you were to trace the trajectory of anyone who did anything amazing, they did things in spite of their fear and knew that the person who they were now was not the person they needed to be, thus they had to innovate themselves. Not only did they seek to educate themselves, but they supplanted their beliefs so that the importance of their cause was too cemented in order to slink away from daunting challenges. These people have loads of fear but their faith in the do-gooding nature of their intended movement has more power over them. Going back to Gandhi, he was a rather wealthy lawyer from India who transformed into an incredible man whose heart was impenetrable to the evils of his self-doubt and worry cast upon him from naysayers. He legacy still remains: Be the Change You Wish To See In The World. This could be a true mantra for a life worth living if we were willing to make small, yet extraordinary changes in our thinking. These incremental changes have a snowballing effect over time. There is a level of willpower that must be developed and exercised so that we can overcome the mentality of the status quo and accept a higher version of what we could create with the intelligence we were given.

Obviously, this is something that I am ruminating on diligently–what sort of mental program do I need to download so that my small-mindedness gets an upgrade? What am I capable of that I am allowing fear to be my obstacle? In what ways can I innovate myself so that I can pay it forward to humanity?

Perhaps you too are haunted by these thoughts as you examine your life. How about we give each other permission and get set to work to do something amazing?

 

The End of Suffering?

Lately I’ve been suffering. Not from physical pain but from emotional pain. A couple of weeks ago we went to Barcelona to get a feel for our soon to be new home. During that time, I went on a few interviews for teaching positions, but I didn’t walk away bounding with joyful anticipation since I may be too progressive of an educator for their traditional institutions. (In one of my interviews, I asked if they do inquiry-based levictor-franklarning, and the lady looked at me as if I had asked her if they “give the children poison”. Awkward, to say the least.) So now I’ve written my thank-you emails and haven’t heard a word since. Surprised?…Well, I shouldn’t be, but the sting of apparent rejection still hurts. And the question is beginning to penetrate my thoughts: If I am not going to be a teacher, then Who Am I? This potential identity crisis is the basis of my suffering, as I recognize how my self-worth is wrapped up in my job description.

I’ve heard it said that that your worst day can actually become your best day if you can see it that way. Well, I’m open to seeing the gift in this experience, but let’s be honest here, that is easier said than done.

As a practice, when my mind starts to go dark and I begin ruminating and singing that song, “Nobody likes, everybody hates me, I think I’ll go eat worms”, I  dig in and do the work to shift my mindset:

  1. Observe and attend more consciously to my breathing
  2. Engage in more physical exercise that challenges me
  3. Practice more “mindful moments” when I can feel gratitude and enjoy the  subtleties and essence of my human experience–like a hug from my daughter or the smell of coffee or the beauty of the moon.
  4. Read and listen to more encouraging and inspirational things.

offer-life

This post is mostly about #4.

So about a month ago I got introduced to a show call Inside Quest (the host kinda reminds me of one of my nephews) on YouTube and so I decided to check out their directory of episodes. Well,  I came across this interview with Tony Robbins and it resonated deeply, making me realize what my suffering is about but also how it can be cured. Here are some thoughts shared by Tony Robbins that shook me out of my self-pity stupor:

The way you suffer is to focus on yourself. Suffering comes from when we are obsessing about ourselves: what we are getting or not getting; what we should have done, what others should have done for us. Its’ the Me, Me, Me, Me, Me Game.

Suffering can be worry, can be anger, can be frustration–anything that takes you out of a ‘beautiful state’…..but you can end suffering by stop focusing on yourself and start focusing on something you want to serve that is greater than yourself.

-Tony Robbins-

When I stop to consider these words, I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude, thinking about how liberating this experience can be for me. Perhaps this might be the time to develop some new skills and an opportunity to explore some new career paths. What is my new “WHY”? Who can I help and how can I serve the world in a bigger way?

Because I have so many interests, I don’t know the answer to this question yet, but what I do love is the potential to now choose my mission in life and the freedom to explore it without feeling shackled to the expectation of being “the bread-winner”.  Right now, in this moment of awareness, I can decide to trade my expectations for appreciation. In this instant, I am willing to stretch my mind in a new direction.

(God HELP me–I need it!)

And I decided to write about this in a public forum because I am hoping that people like you (known or unknown to me) will hold me accountable to thinking bigger and acting greater than ever before.

In advance, I want to thank you for that!

Until next time….Keep breathing.

 

 

 

The Empty Boat

If your mission in life is to make a positive difference and not to prove how smart you are and right you can be, then you will appreciate the message of the Empty Boat.

 

 

If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty.
He would not be shouting, and not angry.

If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you.

-Chuang Tzu, a Chinese Taoist philosopher

 

I love this reminder–that no one is intentionally acting maliciously toward us. Just as an empty boat that rams into us isn’t aspiring to injure us, so too people who act unkindly are unconsciously acting out of their own desires. It’s nothing personal. We are not victims of circumstance and until we realize this, we will remain imprisoned by this offense. However if we can shift our focus,  assuming innocence and not attaching to it responsibility-quotes-you-must-take-personal-responsibility-quotesemotionally, then we can experience greater freedom and joy in our lives.

So, as we sit in our boats, we are always at choice as we traverse the rivers of life. So what can we choose?

Well, as I see it, there are 3 directions that I can cast my gaze when reflecting upon how I engage in life:

  1. Looking inward: my thoughts and judgements of myself.
  2. Looking outward: my thoughts and actions towards people.
  3. Looking at the environment: my response to the changes which I have no control over.

I know that I have to take personal responsibility for the emotions I feel, and I am at choice to greet these “empty boats” with anger or amusement.  It’s a habit that I wish to cultivate, in which I can view these aspects of my life with non-attachment and acceptance.

 

Can We Stop Gun Violence by Making Compassion a Habit?

If anyone has studied the Chaos Theory, then they have the understanding that nothing is random even though it is unpredictable. Coincidences are an illusion. Even one small act can have profound effects, such as the flap of a butterfly’s wing.

So this week was no surprise that my mindfulness practice mirrored the curriculum of our inherent oneness and the need to cultivate compassion. As my key take away, I reflected on remembering our common humanity–see the WE and not just the ME.

Due to the shooting in Orlando, FL in America, I was deeply moved, not just by the violence of the shooting, but by the reaction to the trauma. I wondered if people could experience greater compassion if they would feel that they need to cling to their guns to provide them a sense of power. Could embracing the notion that we are ONE despite our religions, our ethnic backgrounds, our political leanings, our level of wealth, etc.. and recalling that “we are our brother’s keeper” be a powerful enough reminder to curb our need to “protect” ourselves from one another and stop using the 2nd Amendment as a shield from our feeling of powerlessness? Now we could argue if owning a firearm is really a right or is it a privilege and hence the need for gun control, but that’s not the point. As I see it, it is the cause for such a horrific act of violence that needs to be argued–why would anyone feel a deep malicious desire to kill others? And I am not referring as so much the mental state of the perpetrator, but the underpinning lack of consciousness that seems be prevalent in these senseless crimes, in which there is a lack of connection to people, emotionally unplugged from the beauty, love and grace in life.  And it wasn’t just the shooter, because so many other hateful things have risen to the surface and have been brought to light as a justification for killing innocent people.

viktor-frankl-quote

So here is the flapping of the butterfly wing. Me, thousands of miles away, feeling the impact of this atrocious event. I reflected and wondered about my own acts of violence (not bullets, of course, but the things I say I do which create harm) in my life–toward myself and toward others.) I tried to take note of these moments, offering the wishes, “may you be happy, may you be well, may you be peaceful, may you be safe.” It helped me to cultivate gentleness towards myself and others. As I think about the importance of practice, I wonder if I was to really commit to this and create a habit in which my default mode was compassion, who I would be in 1 year from now? And I am curious–how long would I need to practice this in order to cultivate this hard wiring of compassion? Would keeping these people in mind (as well as Sandy Hook and so many other senseless mass shooting victims) who were shot down be enough to keep me focused?–Remembering that the world needs LOVE and UNDERSTANDING.

If I was to create this habit of compassion, is the risk that this practice might ripple out in the world to make a difference enough to solidify this worthy goal into the fabric of my daily life. Could you imagine what serendipity might ensue from a cascade of events that arose from a moment of compassion, understanding and love? In this way, there might be some sense made from the murder  For surely this too is the flapping of the butterfly wings as well.

May we be Happy.

May we be Well.

May we be Peace.

May we be Safe.

May we be WE.

Stickiness

Muhammed Ali said that “If you want to win, start within”.  He was such an inspirational man, but what made him such an icon was that he had the courage and commitment to choose his thoughts about himself.  The older I get, the more I grasp that in order to evolve, we must meet our thoughts and beliefs where they are, shake hands with them, and move on–they are not who we are, but where we are. We can may feel that we are “stuck” in this mindset, but it is possible to detach from them and choose new ones.

muhammad ali

I’ve heard it said before that to know and not do is to not know. And that’s true–how many times have we learned something, thought it was interesting, but then did not act any different as a result of it?

Since I’ve begun this deep dive into mindfulness, I’ve started to become curious what is my “mind-full” of? What kinds of thoughts am I thinking? Since I want to approach this as the observer, I have been viewing my thoughts in my meditation without judgement and elaboration, trying to engage my mind in the present, labelling my thoughts as a thought about the past or a thought about the future; and after noticing this, putting my attention on the breath, allowing  my mind to  wander but then gently bringing it back. I think I have been rather successful at this exercise because I was touched by the article about mindfulness stress reduction, and, in particular, the following quote:

“Since it is really about the present moment, the approach has to be spontaneous rather than thought out in advance. It has to be embodied. I just trust that, in a sense, my whole life has been a certain kind of preparation for this moment we call now, and that whatever emerges will be good enough. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It will be good enough for that moment. I have never found that that was not true.”- Jon Kabat-Zin

 So now I have been extending my practice beyond the course’s mediations. Since the beginning of this week’s work, I’ve put a sticky note on my laptop to help cue me into cultivating a stronger sense of presence and mindfulness. My note says:

  • Am I breathing? (this has helped me to check in with my breath),
  • Where’s the Magic? (this is to help me find some wonder and awe in my surroundings or experiences.), and
  • Who can I Cherish? (this is to help me connect with the people around me and experience appreciation for them).

I am hopeful that this practice is “sticky” and moves me to help me to create a greater habit of mindfulness outside of these meditative exercise and embody this practice in other areas of my life. I’d rather have my MIND-FULL of thoughts of joy and appreciation, rather than doubt or worry. I feel like this is also great mental training–like Muhammad Ali–cultivating a mind of a champion. In this way, I tap into the power of my being, the gifts that life has to offer me, and the joy of experiencing my loved ones and colleagues.

It’s hard to imagine how much of my life is shifting from noticing the little things. And it reminds me of another quote from The Greatest Man who ever lived: “Don’t count the days, make the days count.”

ali2

RIP, brother.