How to Be Who We Truly Are: Sometimes, Our Dreams, And Those Closest to Us, Can Show Us Exactly What We Need to See

When I was in college, I was totally engrossed in learning, studying philosophy, psychology, etc. Equally I was involved in demonstrating for everything from stopping a war to getting funds to feed and clothe children. I felt that the life of the world and my life shared the same stream.

 

But right now, in this time in history, the link between most of us and those in power has grown too distant. The sense that what I do influences world events or that life has meaning in and of itself is getting lost. Sometimes, I can feel like one overwhelming cloud is darkening all our lives.

 

But other times⎼ for example, last night. I don’t know why, but even something little can change everything. I went to bed, did a short meditation, said goodnight to my wife and cats. And when I turned out the lights, like usual, the darkness surrounded me. But it was a different sort of darkness, amazingly quiet, except for the soft purring of the cats, and so much like an embrace. The anxiety and worry disappeared. No thoughts were anywhere.

 

And right there, while resting my head on the pillow, I felt in the middle of everything. The quiet of that specific moment encompassed everything. I can barely describe it now, other than to say the night seemed to open to me. All that was needed was to let myself in. And a sense of peace would be waiting for me. And then it was.

 

We so benefit from better understanding ourselves. I’d been having a painful and possibly serious health issue. And last week, I needed to undergo a medical procedure to help heal it. The night before the procedure, I was anxious. Since I had to wake up earlier than normal to get to the hospital, and my condition often interfered with sleep, I was worried about how much sleep I would get.

 

But I fell asleep just fine. And soon entered a dream. Without going into too much detail, my dream-self heard, and then saw through a window, someone outside our house. There was snow on the ground. The person was walking away from me and suddenly fell into the snow. I got up to go out after them. But before I could, the dream changed location.

 

I was in a huge barnlike structure occupied by a group of maybe ten, maybe twenty people. I couldn’t see any of them clearly. And someone was just out of sight, partially hidden. But I could clearly feel this mystery person was important and was getting ready to lead the group in an activity.

 

However, one person in the group, who I felt to be an outlier, an independent sort, started chanting Ooommm. Or AUM. On their own. A few others joined in. I joined in. This was a simple OM, very natural. It’s a practice I first learned in a college improvisational theatre group. Just taking a breath in; and as we breathed out, we let the air pass through the vocal cords and naturally vibrate out the sound. Concentrating on the feel of the sound, we then heard the silence we created in and around us….

 

*To read the whole article, please click on this link to The Good Men Project.

Instead of Shrinking Our Lives, Expand Them: Going As One United Being into a Beautiful Day and Into that Good Night

Why does feeling the sun on our face, or even seeing it out the window, create a sense of happiness?

 

Most of us love it when, after days of rain or cold weather, the sun is visible, and the sky is clear. Especially in the spring, and the blue color just goes on forever, the day is not just physically but emotionally brighter.

 

Of course, if there’s been a drought or we’re allergic to the sun or worried about skin cancer, that spoils the fun. But a sunny day? We use that as an expression of being happy; or a sunny disposition as being positive, uplifting. Or we see the sun and feel that, as we look up, for now at least, we can enjoy a moment. We can allow ourselves a respite before the clouds move in.

 

And sometimes, we can find a sun living in ourselves. Or we might find a sense of quiet presence or get absorbed in something we love. Maybe it’s writing a story or meditating. Or we’re practicing a martial arts kata, dancing, listening to music, or walking next to a waterfall, and we’re gone. There’s nothing left of us but the creating, the kata, the dance, the music, the waterfall. It’s so amazing that we can feel most ourselves when, as the 13th century Japanese Zen teacher Dogen Zenji put it, we forget ourselves in action.

 

Contemporary Zen teacher, environmental activist, and author David Loy put it very clearly for me in a recent talk. When we do something not as a means to something else, or to get somewhere else; when we do an activity for it-self, not for what prize we may get from doing it, we can be transformed. We cease to be self-conscious and become more deeply conscious. We become sun conscious, activity conscious; we become more aware, more mindful of how one action, emotion, sensation, or thought flows into the next and forms our quality-of-life experience, so we can adjust, deepen that experience. In his talk, David Loy illustrated his point with the explanation of Karma yoga, the yoga of action, from the Hindu spiritual classic, the Bhagavad Gita. When we do something without being attached to the results, but aware of the rightness of what we do, we are more likely to be transformed positively by the action.

 

When we work for social justice, for example, we do the best we can, being as strategic as we can. We want to create better conditions in the world and make a difference; but our personal achievement is the action itself that we take. No matter what we do, we are most likely to have good results if we focus on doing the best we can, now, and not on worrying about the future or how far away it is.

One passage in the Gita says:

“You have a right to your actions.

But never to your actions’ fruits.

Act for the action’s sake.”

 

I remember, when I was teaching secondary school and students read this passage in the Gita, they at first disagreed with it, or disliked to it. They asked, “Why not be concerned with the fruits of our actions? When we do something well, don’t we deserve praise? Don’t we want to foster a concern with the fruits, or at least the ethical consequences of our actions on the world?” …

 

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

When Joy Is Hidden in the Very Air We Breathe

Have you ever had this feeling that right outside the bedroom window, on the other side of a surface you’ve touched, like the bedsheet, or a stone in the garden⎼ like a voice carried in the wind that you can’t quite make out, there is an insight, a joy waiting, hidden right there? And all you had to do is breathe a little more deeply, shift your perspective a hairsbreadth, and you’d see it in whatever is felt, hear it in whatever is touched?

 

This isn’t a hope you have but something else.

 

I feel this almost every morning when I wake up, if I don’t rush off or I’m not too angry or depressed by the pandemic or the GOP. Right behind my last dream, sitting next to the stiffness in my back, there is this sense, this urge or yearning to look deeply at the red bee balm in the garden, the yellow daylilies, the cats that lie near my feet.

 

When I took a walk yesterday, I tried to remember a time in my life when something hidden was suddenly revealed, or a work of art created itself with my hands. Something dramatic, that I hadn’t already shared with people; but nothing came to me. At first.

 

There are many examples provided by famous visual artists, athletes, poets, and composers. Zen teacher David Loy provides many in his book The World Is Made of Stories. He quotes the artist Escher talking about his drawing taking on a life of its own. The composer Stravinsky hearing music compose itself; he didn’t do it. The writer Borges saying, “I don’t write what I want… I don’t choose my subjects or plots. I have to stand back and receive them in a passive moment.” The poet Blake talking about poems coming to him almost against his will.

 

I am retired now, but the memory of my years teaching soon came to mind. Many times in the classroom the right way to reach a student or right answer to a question just appeared, flowed from my mouth spontaneously, unplanned. Painfully, not all the time.

 

Too many times, especially when I was inexperienced, the right response to a student often eluded me. But over the last few years of working, the number of wonderful moments were multiplied, when I was well prepared yet open, trusting the students and trusting myself. I also practiced mindfulness regularly in some classes.

 

As I was walking back home, down the steep rural hill, suddenly through the trees there was a view that went on for miles. It was only a peek, a break in the trees visible for a few steps when the road turned just right. I stared for a moment, absorbed, gleeful.

 

And a thought popped into my head. The reason I might touch a surface and a new reality whisper to me was because that is exactly what happens sometimes. We touch the hand of a lover and suddenly there aren’t two separate people anymore. There is only the touch. We quiet our minds, even though our hearts might be jumping wildly, and a new reality is born. We touch and are touched simultaneously, love and are loved….

 

*To read the whole post, please click on this link to the Good Men Project, which published it.

How Beautiful Is A Good Belly Laugh: We Expect a Hannibal Lecter but Instead Find Mr. Rogers

Can you imagine or remember a moment when simply looking, listening, or tasting was all you needed in life? When time disappeared and nothing else was desired, nothing was thought missing? Or when something was just so beautiful and unexpected, all you could do was smile or laugh?

 

In No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-Men Kuan, a translation of the classic collection of Koans or public records of conversations between master and student that led to enlightenment, the poet and translator David Hinton wrote “once mind is emptied of all content… the act of perception becomes a spiritual act.” It becomes selfless, simply a mirror reflecting what is there before it. Slow, respectful. Letting each thing be utterly itself. No violence is possible. No anger or let down. Closer to an act of love than anything else. Just loving by sensing.

 

Hinton says this perceptual clarity is a way of awakening, of seeing the world and oneself in the same instant. It is a way for one being to meet another.

 

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

We experience such moments in so many ways but lose them somehow in all the bustle of our lives. We stare transfixed at a work of art or nature or hear a song that stops all thought, or we read a poem that takes us to a new world. The beauty clears us of ourselves.

 

When I was younger, I hitch-hiked from New York to California and stopped at the Grand Canyon. I remember standing at the edge of it, just staring, immobile, barely breathing. From behind me I vaguely remember voices of other tourists arriving but didn’t want to turn away from the canyon. A woman I didn’t know approached closely and suddenly saw what it was all about, suddenly saw what was there ⎼and maybe what wasn’t. Whatever idea she had of the Grand Canyon was inadequate or wrong. All she said, and she repeated it over and over again, was “Oh my God. Oh my God.”

 

Mary Oliver, in a poem titled “Mysteries, Yes”, said:

Let me keep company always with those who say

            ‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment,

            And bow their heads.

 

Or, in the poem “When Death Comes,” she tells us,

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

 

We often expect that life will be like a shove from behind, or merely a bump. Unexpected, yet not, we are surprised and turn around with clenched fists. We build in our mind a Hannibal Lecter but instead find Mr. Rogers. Or instead of a threat or an enemy we find someone as surprised as we are. Someone who openly welcomes us with kindness. We realize the contact was an accident. And we laugh. All the tension dissolves in an instant, and butterflies fly from our mouth instead of curses. We feel delicate and open instead of iced and closed….

 

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

The Joy of a Tango in the Morning: Even Our Shadow Can Surprise Us

Despite the recent horrendous killings in Boulder and Atlanta,  there were two moments this week when somehow I broke out into a deep smile and dance. Somehow, we must find joy between the sadness.

 

There have been so many large scale downs and ups in recent years. January 6th was an historic down, January 20th an exciting up. Before the inauguration, I too often felt fright, anger, revulsion, grief and sadness about our world.  I had taken refuge from the viruses of DT and COVID in friendships, meditation, creativity, political action and exercise.  But this week, two seemingly small events turned moments of my life from a waltz to a tango.

 

The fact that it’s spring and it feels like multiple winters are ending at once certainly has turned up the volume on life. On Sunday, a blog of mine that referenced morning light and sounds was going to be published and I wanted a photo of the morning to put on my website. So I woke up and went for an early walk. I walked for maybe an hour and a half, taking twenty or so photos, not trying to capture but simply express the moment. And what a moment it was. The clear, almost baby blue of the sky. The freshness of it all. The expansiveness.

 

Part of the joy was the newness. I usually walk in the late afternoon, when the sun is already partly hidden by the hills. But not today. Today I was not caught up in doing things in the house or in cold shadows.

 

Over the last year, I have walked this road so many times, almost every single day, and the familiarity has transformed it into something else, not just a home, but a way of greeting myself. On a steep section of the road, a tree stood on the edge of the bank, three feet of roots exposed, it’s inside turned out. There is an old stone foundation just beyond the pine forest that was abandoned decades, maybe a century ago, a house-sized unknown reminding anyone who looked that even here, where now there is forest, there is a human past.

 

Sometimes, I get lost in thought as I walk. I’d remember passing an old tree that is half rotted, with a metal fence growing through its belly. And then I’m 200 feet up the road, in the oak and maple wood, where an old house lies snapped in half, like some giant named age and abandonment had just grabbed both ends and broke it in half over his knee. I take a few breaths and continue.

 

And then, around a bend in the road, between two trees, I saw my own shadow. It surprised me. It had been tailing me all along but because of the angle of the sun relative to the road I hadn’t seen it. Now, what had been behind me was in front. And my focus deepened. Any thoughts that arose sprouted into reminders to look around me at the snowdrops and other new flowers, or to listen to the sound of water running in the streams and ditches along the road….

 

*To read the whole article, please go to 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.

Discovering A Depth in Ourselves Often Forgotten in this Crisis

Change can happen so quickly. Just a few days ago, we had snow and sleet⎼ in May! Spring flowers were covered by snow, broken by sleet, and blossoms were blown from the branches of cherry trees. Yet right now, it’s sunny and warm. All the snow is just a memory.

 

And even though it took a few months, it feels like it was just a few days before the pandemic changed everything. It is a storm that rages through our lives, but instead of ending in a day or two it continues on. And it is two storm fronts combined, COVID-19 ⎼ the fear of illness as well as the news of infections, deaths, jobs lost, schools closed⎼ as well as the DT administration and all the ills it brings us each day. But both of these, too, will end.

 

As a teenager, I remember many of us thinking being at school was preparing for life, not living it. We wanted “real life” to begin. Well, if real life hadn’t already begun for us, it is here now. This is it. Whatever we learned or studied, we have to use it now to help ourselves and others through this crisis.

 

Meditation or mindfulness has become the core structure of my day, along with greeting my wife and cats. I am so grateful to my teachers for showing me these practices. Each morning, I stretch, exercise, and meditate. When either fear or worry show up, I know I can let it go, or at least diminish it. Best of all, meditation provides a means to get quiet inside and study whatever occurs, so whatever occurs can teach me how to perceive with less projection or distortion, think more clearly, and grow stronger.

 

Due to the pandemic. I can’t go to the gym, so I’ve brought my workout home. I work out here more than ever, take more walks, do more breathing exercises and martial arts training.  And it’s not just more, it’s better. I have no other place to be, so I am here more thoroughly.

 

Writing stories, personal or persuasive essays or blogs, has been another way to learn about myself and feel more positive emotionally. It requires a combination of creativity, critical thinking, mystery-solving, and meditation. My first drafts are often journal entries or responses to an article or poem I read, a news program or podcast I listened to. I record an insight or something that intrigued me. Or I just write what I see around me or feel. And then I follow it up, do research, dive into the puzzle of my mind and write a full draft. And then take a breath. Sleep on it. Let it sit and percolate in my body and dreams….

 

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

Getting Out of Your Story to Tell Your Story and Live Your Life

It’s Not What You Write or Say That’s Perfect. It’s the Whole Moment That Can Be Perfect

 

How often do you write something, think it is perfect, and then two minutes or two days later, you find all these points you missed or words with meanings you never noticed before? Or you do something and later regret it or realize you could have done it better? And you imagine other people noticing the same deficiencies you noticed, and because of what they notice they think of you as lacking in insight or vision or whatever. It is so difficult to see ourselves or our actions clearly. It is impossible to know all that we might wish we knew.

 

Writing is never done. There is an illusion or maybe a delusion that you can do something, create something, and if you feel it is perfect now then it will be perfect forever. How you perceive or think about it now will be how you will perceive it later. You think of the piece you just completed as having a character totally divorced from your character, as the reader.

 

I was recently listening to the NPR Ted Radio Hour and Daniel Gilbert, author and a professor of psychology at Harvard, talked about the “illusion of stasis.” You can reach a point in your life where you think you have arrived at the “end of history.” Most of the changes you will go through will have already happened. What you think now will largely be what you will think later.

 

But nothing is static or complete by itself, or perfect, except “in the eyes of the beholder.” You might feel that something you create is wonderful, especially if you did the best you could, at that particular moment in that particular place and maybe with those particular people. And it might be wonderful. But what is wonderful or perfect is the whole situation, not any one part of it.

 

When you write, if you focus just on the writing and forget the entire universe that contributed to that piece, you might get lost in what you are thinking about. You might get lost in the story you are telling. And later, when you realize what you had missed or how your view had changed, you might berate yourself for your shortsightedness. Let go of this judgmental thought and be kinder to yourself.

 

But if, for that moment, you have done your best. If, for that moment, you have lived, thought, loved, and been sincere ⎼If you have been real to yourself and not left thoughts unrecognized or important words unsaid, you will arrive, as fully as possible, in a new moment. You will recognize that because you did what you did in the past, you can now see even more, imagine even more, feel even more….

 

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

A New Review of My Book “Compassionate Critical Thinking”

The organization, mindfulteachers.org, a wonderful organization, just published a review of my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching. The book was published by Rowman & Littlefield. It is a book that, I hope not only will help teachers, students, and parents in this time of anxiety and threats, but maybe help anyone trying to understand him or herself and what is happening in our world.

The review begins:

“Often, you have little choice in what material you teach; the only choice you have is how the material is taught… When a teacher enters the classroom with awareness and genuine caring, students are more likely to do the same.”


Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching is based on Ira Rabois’ thirty-year career teaching English, philosophy, history, and psychology to high school students. 

Rabois includes six types of practices in his teaching:

 

To read the whole review, go to the website. Enjoy.