We Are One Voice the Universe Uses to Speak

My father died four years ago at the age of 96. By that time, he moved slowly, his head bent over, and he used a walker most of the time. Luckily, his brain and his ability to think remained sharp; slowed, yes, more easily frustrated, but deep until the last two weeks of his life.

 

And as I get into my mid-seventies, I sometimes feel him inside me. I get tired and sense him leaning over inside me or my head coming forward like his did. I slow down and feel old. Then I recognize what I’m doing and straighten up. In my mind and body, I go from 96 to 30. My posture improves. I feel more limber and energetic.

 

Most of us know Shakespeare’s famous lines from his play As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…” We enter a scene, and we form ourselves accordingly; depending on where we are or who we see, we put on a character, fabricate a history, try out gestures as we’d put on clothing. When meeting parents, or teachers, we think, feel, and act differently than meeting a close friend or an enemy.

 

But who are we acting for? Who is the audience? Is it for just for others or ourselves? There is often a performance aspect to our feelings and behavior even when no one else is around. We try out being different selves to help us decide what we feel comfortable doing or being, or try out different beliefs, attitudes to see how they feel. We might stand up straight not only to look brave to others but to convince ourselves.

 

I just started reading an interesting new book, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, by Annie Murphy Paul. She clearly explains how we could increase our strength, resilience, level of success, and decrease how much we suffer. It is the same point that Buddhism and other meditation traditions have made for hundreds of years but now we have modern science to back it up. It’s less what we perceive or the events of our lives that shape us than how we respond to them.

 

Over a hundred years ago, psychologist William James said we often think we have an emotion and then act. We see a bear in the woods, or maybe a domestic terrorist on the street, and we feel fear, our heart pounds, palms sweat. We feel an impulse to run, and we run. We think the fear makes us run. But James said it’s the other way around. We feel fear because our body has begun to sweat, our heartbeat has sped up, our legs twitch. Likewise, we know we’re happy because we’re smiling. The body leads heart and mind.

 

Our emotions are not formed whole but are constructed of different elements. Murphy talks about building blocks of emotion. First, there’s interoception, or the awareness of internal sensations, as well as awareness of external sensations. These are added to a cognitive appraisal or interpretation of these sensations based on our beliefs, past experiences, our society, etc….

 

**To read the whole article, please go to the Good Men Project.

How We Turn Commitment into Obligation and Put Obligation Before Joy

Two nights ago, just as I was about to fall asleep, I woke up. Did that ever happen to you? A flood of thoughts or insights filled my mind.

 

I had to get up early the next day to get to a class I had originally been looking forward to. But disrupting my normal schedule disrupted my ability to sleep restfully. Add to that concerns about whether people would wear masks, which would be provided but not required for attendees, and the event that should be fun was turned into a source of anxiety.

 

I was turning commitment into obligation and putting obligation before joy, thusly, crazily, resisting my attachment to the teacher and to my own desire to develop the skills and knowledge taught in the class.

 

Then I stopped myself: This was something I had spent many years studying. I was the one who decided to attend the class. No one forced me to do it.

 

And the image of how we can resist the bonds we ourselves create became very clear to me. Of course, we can resist anything that we feel compelled to do. But we easily forget the chain of events and decisions that lead us to forge our chains and compulsions.

 

And as the resistance and discomfort became clear to me, so too did the way to get free of it. I saw how to shift attention from the discomfort of having to wake up early to the opportunity I was giving myself to learn and be present. I shifted to a sense of gratitude, for the teacher, for all I had gained over the years from the course of study. It is not the arising thought by itself that determines the quality of mind and heart but how we respond to it.

 

The next day, one of my former high school students was also in the class. Since his graduation, we had stayed close, in contact. After class, he asked to speak with me for a few minutes. He told me he had been feeling bad lately. Everything that could be fun was becoming an opportunity to attack himself. This felt so familiar to me, like a synchronous evocation of what I had gone through the previous night.

 

When I could honestly face my internal struggle, I was better able to help someone else face theirs. And his honest question gave me the opportunity to question myself more deeply.

 

I realized what my former student was going through was something we all can go through, especially as we get older and wonder who we are and where our lives are going. We begin to realize our expectations and understanding of ourselves has not been accurate. We usually take our thoughts as literally true as we search for a clear definition of who we are. But who we are is never clearly definable; if we’re breathing, alive, we’re never completed and always changing. That is why in Buddhism, for example, the whole idea of what we mean by a self is questioned. Psychiatrist and Buddhist teacher Mark Epstein wrote a book with a title that succinctly states this teaching, how we have Thoughts Without a Thinker….

 

**To read the whole piece, please go to the Good Men Project.

 

No More Hate: We Have A Choice About What Kind of Person We Will Be

Do you know the term ‘grok’? It was invented by author Robert Heinlein, and made its first appearance in 1961 in his science fiction novel, A Stranger In A Strange Land. If you don’t know the word, maybe add it to your vocabulary. It means to really understand something or someone, to empathize, merge with another person, idea, place, or thing so deeply you know them or it from the inside. It would be wonderful to grok something or someone, don’t you think? Or maybe certain somethings or someone, anyway?

 

I’m a straight white male. I don’t grok what it might mean to be Black in America today. I don’t grok what it might mean to be a female, either, or any gender other than mine. Or maybe what it would mean to be anyone other than me, now. Grokking ‘me’ is difficult enough.

 

But I was thinking about racism, especially since today, June 1st, is one hundred years after the Tulsa race massacre of June 1, 1921. When racist hate exploded into mobs of white people burning homes and buildings, killing black people, men, women, children, maybe as many as 300 people, shooting them, setting them aflame, bombing them, Americans bombing Americans just 3 years after World War I. And those in the mob were never held responsible. The people who had the institutional power to do so took part in or supported and turned their heads and hearts away. This is too disturbing to grok, but maybe I need to.

 

I wrote a blog recently about how hate, greed, and ignorance, what Buddhism calls the 3 poisons, cause suffering. Suffering is not the same as pain, but your response to it. For example, interpreting stomach pain as indigestion hurts so much less than thinking you have COVID-19, or cancer.

 

The poisons create a vacuum inside us, a vacuum that can be so encompassing you lose understanding for what you yearn or lust for. You focus on what you want from or how you can use other people. They become dehumanized to you, and you to yourself.

 

Racism may be hard to define but most likely includes hate and misinformation institutionalized⎼ taught, enforced, inflicted on people by legal proceedings, media, education, economics, politics, etc. According to Dismantling Racism (dRworks), it includes many factors, like race prejudice and systemic discrimination to preserve white power, depriving BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities of an equal and just place in society.

 

Hating is not only anger or aggression but a compulsion to hurt. We’ve seen this too often over the last five years, or forever. It shoves people and reality, especially the reality of who people are as individuals, away from you. And it is addictive. You blame who or what you hate for your hate. And for your pain. Pain you might not have initially created but certainly augmented by projecting onto this other person or group the power to cause your suffering. You feel diminished. And you imagine by hating you regain power; you harm them or try to diminish them back. But you carry the hate. So, you hate yourself. The more you hate others, the more you hurt, the more you hate. A spiral of addiction.

 

And this can spread easily and harm everyone you meet. Hate is the denial of compassion, of love, of humanity⎼ of grokking. When you see hate in someone’s face, it is hard not to fear the ill-will is directed at you. So, there’s fear, too. And ignorance. The only community it fosters is a communion of fear, hate, and ignorance. It undermines all other community.

 

When I was a teenager, my family lived in a suburb of New York City. One Sunday afternoon, I was walking my dog up the block and saw a friend. We stopped outside his house to talk. A car full of white teens also stopped, in the street near us. We were Jewish. They were Catholic. I don’t remember how I knew this or if I just presumed it⎼ or if they yelled something at us. There had been several incidents at the time of harassment of Jewish people by Catholics. But my dog suddenly barked. A gun was raised and pointed out the window at us and fired.

 

I don’t know if they meant to kill us. My friend and I jumped more than ducked. It happened too fast for us; we were not used to hate coming from guns. And it was hate. Neither of us was hit, although one bullet did break through a window of the house, just missing my friend’s younger brother. We were lucky. So many others before and since, of so many communities of people, were not. Just consider all the violence over the last five years (or forever) against people who are Black, or Asian, Indigenous, other People of Color, and LGBTQIA, etc.⎼ for example, of Black Americans shot by police for being Black while simply walking (Michael Brown), driving (Duante Wright), asleep at home (Breonna Taylor), or being a child playing (Tamir Rice).

 

Hate can destroy society. We must take action to stop it, neither let ourselves be infected nor forget. We stop it by studying and teaching history. And by learning to better grok ourselves and others, better grok both what supports racism and other forms of hate and what counters it⎼ or what turns us to the better angels of our nature. To compassion. We are capable of both hate and compassion. We have choices about what kind of people we will be. And we can’t allow anyone or anything to convince us otherwise.

 

 

*Here are additional resources to learn about and teach history and stop hate:

Facing History and Ourselves,

The 1619 Project,

Native Knowledge 360,

Asian Americans K-12 Education Curriculum,

The Zinn Education Project.

Others:

USvshate.org,

Anti-Defamation League

Confronting White Nationalism in Schools

SPLC: Hate in Schools

Learning For Justice

Science for the Greater Good: Science Based Practices for Kinder Happier Schools

 

**This blog was syndicated by The Good Men Project.

Finding Comfort Within: Flying Like A Bird or Setting Like the Sun

What brings you comfort?

 

It’s a wonderful sunny day. Despite the cold temperature, I open a bedroom window and take a breath. The air feels remarkable, clean and tasty. It’s been weeks since we’ve had a day like this.

 

Close your eyes partly or fully, or as much as you feel comfortable doing, take a nice breath in, and out, and taste the air. Just enjoy being nowhere but here for a moment. Then let come to mind a time you felt a deep sense of comfort. What was the situation? Where were you? Were you by yourself or with others? What were you doing? Notice what comfort means to you.

 

When I think about this question, I realize the answer has changed throughout my life. As a child, I remember walking my dog in the wooded area in our neighborhood. Sometimes, we’d take off on a run and all else would be forgotten. All that existed was us, running, together.

 

When I returned home during my college years, to visit my parents in New York City, I remember late nights, after everyone else was asleep and the city had quieted, my mother and I would sit and talk, openly, like at no other time.

 

When I first moved to Ithaca, my future wife and I lived with a group of people near a gorge and waterfall. When I’d go out and stare into that waterfall, I’d see first the flow of water. Then my perspective would shift to focus on one drop, one amongst the multitude, racing down, crashing, disappearing into the current of the creek. Any tension I had previously felt, any thoughts, would be washed away. I’d be left emotionally calm and mentally clear.

 

Now, after getting up and doing basic exercises and stretching, I love to sit with a book that inspires or challenges me. It is a grave mistake to think of reading as an automatic or passive activity that involves simply repeating in your mind someone else’s words. When you give reading your full attention you get to see the world with someone else’s eyes. And this new perspective illuminates depths missed in yourself.  Without a quality reading, the quality of the writing is never perceived. This is why holding a book can feel like holding a mystery or a treasure chest. Reading online or with a kindle doesn’t do that for me no matter the content. In fact, it turns me off.

 

Or writing⎼ I love to write stories, blogs, poems, etc. in the morning, when my mind is fresh. The words enable me to transform into other people, or to fly like a bird, to rain and snow and set like the sun or cuddle with a cat. Creativity can be so satisfying….

 

*To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

Freeing Our Minds: So We Don’t Feel Caught in A Place We Don’t Want to Be

In every life, there are moments (or months) that feel endless, when we don’t like where we are but fear we can never get to somewhere other than here, sometime other than now.

 

This is the nature of fear. It can hold us so tight in its embrace that one moment can seem eternal, and we forget all but a tiny fraction of who we are and what we are capable of being.

 

One such moment happened years ago, when I was hitch-hiking in Europe. Today, during the pandemic, it seems incomprehensible that anyone could have traveled so openly. At one point I was hitching from southern France to Sweden with Ingrid, a Swedish friend I had met in Nice, France. I was actually escorting her home, as she had run out of money to fly or take a train and I didn’t have enough to lend her⎼ and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. The fastest and easiest route was through Germany. We decided to stop off in the capitol, Berlin, and found a ride to take us there.

 

It was 1966. Germany was divided into 4 zones: one controlled by the Union of Soviet-Socialist Republics, one by each of the main Western allies⎼ the U. S., Britain, and France. Berlin was similarly divided but was located in the East or the Soviet zone.

 

When we arrived at the border between East and West Germany, we found it to be a scene out of a war movie. It was heavily fortified. On the Eastern side, not only were there East German troops but Russians. An American troop convoy, with several truckloads of soldiers, had arrived just before we had, and the border guards were inspecting the vehicles before letting them through. This was the height of Soviet-American tensions from the Cold War. Just four years earlier was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Five years earlier, the Soviet-Russians ordered the wall between East and West Berlin to be built to stop people from escaping Soviet oppression.

 

Two border guards stopped our car and told Ingrid and me to get out. We were led inside a cement block building where we were searched and asked to take out our passports. When Ingrid opened her passport, her photo fell from the page to the floor. At that moment, everything stopped, and we froze in place. A large female soldier took Ingrid’s arm and led her to a back room. I was told to stay put.

 

While I was waiting, the driver came in with our back packs. He said he was told to continue on without us and left, wishing us luck.

 

Here we were, stuck at the East German border, with no ride, my friend being questioned in a back room, the authenticity of her passport now doubted by authorities hostile to both our nations. Any attempts by me to ask questions about Ingrid’s status were rebuffed.

 

And it was getting late in the day. Hitch-hiking across the border was difficult anytime, but at night, it could be dangerous….

 

*To read the whole post, please go to the Good Men Project.

Expanding Our Sense of Self Can Create Revolutionary Moments of Happiness: Caring for Ourselves During the Pandemic

In my last year of college, 1968-9, the improvisational theatre group I was part of rehearsed on a stage in a coffee house. Not only our group rehearsed and performed there, but singers and other performers, sometimes famous ones. That was where I heard Odetta,  Tim Buckley, Dave Van Ronk, Doc Watson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.  At a vigil for peace in Vietnam, Joan Baez was seated behind me and, at one point, started singing “The Dove Is A Pretty Bird.” Can you imagine suddenly and unexpectedly, from right behind you, hearing her voice burst out in song? It was shockingly beautiful.

 

One night, Joni Mitchell performed there. It was winter and she had just broken up with a boyfriend. Every song she sang, even the upbeat ones, was a song about sadness.

 

At that time, I was dealing with a form of depression, but didn’t have the insight to name it that. There were days I felt I was being attacked from within. I would have a good time, talking with friends, dancing, and suddenly felt like I had no right to have a good time. I had to do something great first ⎼ change the world and prove my self-worth, or at least get a good paying job.

 

That night, I was totally absorbed in Joni Mitchell’s singing. But after her last set ended, any pleasure I had taken in the music turned into pain. I left the coffeehouse on my own without saying goodbye to my friends, got on my motorcycle, and took off. I drove into a storm of my own making, to freeze the pain so it could no longer touch me.

 

Depression is not just a lowered mood. The word means to press down, weaken, and reduce, as in to reduce the information you take in, or to feel the weight of the world press down on you. You might fear a situation is reducing, stealing your life from you and you are not strong enough to stop it. Depression makes the world look so dark you can’t see much of it, certainly not see anything that might lighten it up. Sometimes, you don’t even see who or what stands in front of you. And your ideas about life and reality can be as rigid as the metal bars of a jail cell. Finding the key to let yourself out can be difficult.

 

Or maybe it’s wrong to say that depression dims the light. It is more accurate to say that when the light is dimmed by your neurochemistry or your response to a situation and you feel locked in a jail cell of your mind and can’t find the key ⎼ then you are depressed.

 

I have a vague memory, which I’m not sure is accurate, of my father telling me that if I tried to make a living as a writer, I’d end up as a bum on the Bowery. Or maybe I subconsciously stole that image from somewhere, like a Henry Miller novel, and imposed it on my Dad ⎼ or on myself. I feared that if I worked at something creative, like writing or acting, or some profession I really liked, I’d wind up a Bowery Bum. Maybe my writing and acting was a way to rebel against that fear. Such a disturbing image can lock up your mind….

 

**To read the whole post, discover the conclusion of the piece and ways to better care for ourselves and our families or friends, go to The Good Men Project.

 

My Favorite Dance Music

My wife was watching Sleepless in Seattle. Such a classic scene, at the end, when the two destined lovers finally, after so many twists and turns, let go of their own resistance and embraced their lives and each other. Jimmy Durante provided the musical background.

 

Make someone happy

Make just one someone happy

And you will be happy too.

 

And I pulled my wife up from the couch. She laughed, and we danced around the room. Milo, our cat, was sleeping in a chair and I stopped dancing and sang to him and he started purring.

 

And then, a new moment. My wife went to the bathroom to brush her teeth and I went upstairs to the bedroom with a book of poems, Cold Mountain, written by the Chinese hermit, Hanshan.

 

Such moments, ordinary and yet not, make a life full.

 

Cold Mountain says, Seeing the empty sky, things grow even more still. And I realized stillness and dancing arise from the same root.

 

Dancing with my wife

The cat purrs.

 

The moon in the window

So still, so full, so empty.

When the spirit is right,

The cat and the moonlight

Provide the perfect dance music.

 

To read the whole post, please go to this link to the Good Men Project where it was published.

Being Patient Even With Impatience: Developing Patience and Personal Strength

I remember a conversation I had with a student when I was teaching high school. I think I said something like “you have to be more patient.” And the student responded, “Why should I be patient? I want what I want now.” I probably had the same thought when I was a teenager.

 

Why be patient? With political and social issues, what does patience even mean? This is an important question today, as there is so much that needs to be challenged and changed. Does patience mean you should let racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, greed, etc. continue as it is? If so, I think patience is misunderstood. How is patience helpful when you can’t get what you think you need or can’t understand a situation, another person, or yourself?

 

The root of patience is the Latin ‘pati’ meaning ‘suffering.’ Patience is the ability to endure adversity, discomfort, stress and even pain. In any life, if you want to do something challenging, you will face stress and adversity. If you can’t face this, how deep a life can you have?

 

Here is a practice of mindful inquiry into what patience means to you:

 

Take a moment to close your eyes partly or fully. And just hear whatever arises in your mind, or feel whatever feelings or sensations come to you. Then say the word ‘patience’ to yourself. Say it again. What feelings, thoughts, and memories come to you? Just notice them. You need do nothing else but notice.

 

What does the word mean to you? What purposes does patience serve? And how often do you feel it? When don’t you feel it?

 

Do you get impatient when something is happening that gets in the way of what you want to happen? Or gets in the way of your image of how things should be?

 

Simply sit for a moment with the feeling of patience, that you can face what you need to face.

 

Then take a deep breath and return your attention to where you are seated.

 

What goes on in you when you’re impatient? When you’re impatient, you might feel you can’t wait for something to happen or something to end. You feel a contradiction between what you are looking at and what you want or imagine should be true. You are uncomfortable or dissatisfied with the now. But the impatience is not just about the contradiction. It is about feeling that if it isn’t true now, it might never be true. …

 

To read the whole post, click on this link to The Good Men Project.

Where Will Our Words Lead Us?

It is raining. It is raining on the foot of snow that fell last week. It has been raining, it seems, since the beginning of August and it is now almost December.

 

I can hear the rain striking the roof, the snow melting on the drainpipes, and the wind in the naked trees. A woodpecker pecks on the wood siding of our house, then stops to look in the bedroom window at one of our cats, Tara, who looks back at him, excited.

 

Chickadees, blue jays, cardinals, tufted titmice, nuthatches, downy and red bellied woodpeckers, and squirrels surround a bird feeder hung from an apple tree branch and the food spread below it on the ground. The branches of the tree are tipped with light. Dripping ice or rain acts almost as a prism, not to refract but concentrate the light.

 

Max, another of our cats, sleeps between Linda, my wife, and me. Linda is reading a novel. I am writing this.

 

At first, it was not just the sky that was gray. My mood, even the trees, looked gray. I could barely see the blue of the blue jay or the red of the cardinal. But the more I listened to the rain and the snowmelt, listened for the moment words began to form in my mind, it all changed. The sky lightened as I focused on the light on the tips of the apple tree branches.

 

And when I allowed myself to feel the fact that this person and this cat were here next to me, one reading by my side, one sleeping by my hip, my mood lightened. All sorts of words came to me, but none were as deep or eloquent as the reality itself, or the feelings.

 

Our words can be the way we speak a self into existence. They can split the world in two by separating in our thinking what we perceive from who is doing the perceiving. We then think what we perceive is “out there” distinct from us “in here.” We think the gray mood we feel is entirely caused by the gray sky. We mistake the world of our words for the world itself. And then we imagine we live in that world of words.

 

Or words can be signposts leading us back to the point before words were born, to where we tie feelings to thoughts, sensations to memories, and create emotions and understandings. It is where we shape how we perceive the world with what we have learned about it. It is also where we all, where every single being, meets all others more directly. It is where practices such as mindfulness or meditation can lead us, so we learn how to pay attention, each moment, to whatever arises.

 

Emotion is not just feeling. It begins with feeling but includes thoughts, sensations, and proposed actions. Just consider the thoughts that go through your mind when you’re jealous, or the sensations you experience when angry. One purpose of emotion is to tag the stimuli we sense with value so we know how to think and act.

 

Daniel Siegel, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, describes phases in the process of constructing emotion. The first phase is jolting our bodies to pay attention. Siegel calls this the “initial orienting response.” The second is “elaborative appraisal,” which includes using feelings to label stimuli as good or bad, dangerous or pleasing. We begin to construct meaning and then prepare for action. We feel good or threatened and then want to either approach or avoid someone or something. These first two phases can be unconscious. In the third phase our experience differentiates further into categorical emotions like sadness, happiness, and fear. And we have conscious responses.

 

Emotions thus integrate diverse realms of experience. They link physiological changes in our bodies, feelings and sensations, with words, with explanations of how things work, and with perceiving and communicating social signals. Without this orienting attention and assignment of value, we could not learn and we could not act. In other words, body, mind, and relationships arise together in an emotion.

 

In order to think clearly and act appropriately, we need to mindfully step back from any particular way of thinking about a situation or person. We need to reflect on how we are hearing words. Do we hear them as self-contained objects, whose meaning and very being is created entirely by the speaker? If we do this, the other can become a label, a threat distinct from us, and a not-me that we can have no empathy for or any relationship with. If we don’t hear what we say to ourselves, we miss a good part of any conversation.

 

Or when we hear the words of another person, do we hear them as arising from another thinking, feeling being not much different from us? Do we take time to pause and feel how his or her words radiate in our mind and heart? Do we respond not just to the meaning we think the other person intended but also to the whole situation—to our own humanity as well as theirs? Do we respond with care and awareness that what we say creates not only an identity for this other person but for our selves?

 

When we speak, we often think we are simply expressing what is in ourselves. We then don’t realize we can’t speak ourselves into existence without speaking an audience into existence. We speak to who we think the other person is, or who we would like them to be. So, before speaking or acting, it’s important to check how accurate or comprehensive our words are, and what they imply about ourselves, about whom we are with, and the nature of the world we live in.

 

And doing this can make all the difference. It can free us from a gray mood, allow us to realize the beauty in the rain, and really see who we are and who is sitting beside us.

 

This post was also syndicated by The Good Men Project

Remembering Those Who Have Loved Us

Love is a mystery. Certainly, we can talk about what it feels like when we love or feel loved. Neuroscience can tell us about our brains in love, poets can expose some of the depths of the emotion, and psychology and mindfulness can awaken us to how it arises in ourselves. Yet, relationships touched by love have qualities that go beyond anything we can consciously explain.

My Mom died 12 years ago, yet every Mother’s Day I still have an urge to do something for her….

To read the whole post, go to The Good Men Project, who published it on Mother’s Day.