Remembering Those Who Taught Us to Love

This past April 17th, on my Dad’s birthday, exactly one and a half years since he had died, I started having dreams as well as daytime images of him and the places he had lived. I’d see the drive south on Atlantic Avenue toward his home on Berkley Square, Atlantic City, or see the view of the ocean out of the window of his condo. I’d see his living room in Virginia or the front of the house where we lived in N. Y. I’d see him walking bent down and forward over his walker or hear his voice clearly as if he was calling me on the phone.

 

Some think that after a loved one dies, we should just get over it as soon as we can. Think of other things. Do whatever we can to make the pain go away so we can return to whatever state it is that we call normal or comfortable. We humans love homeostasis as much as we love those who have helped us achieve that state in the past.

 

And, of course, to some degree we have to do that. There are other people in our lives, and other responsibilities. We have to go to work or school and feed ourselves. A new phase of our life has begun, and we have to let go of the old one.

 

But the people we love are, by that fact, part of us. They are an essential element of who we are. Forgetting them is forgetting ourselves.

 

We have to internalize, take on for ourselves much of what the other person gave us. When a parent dies, the child has to grow up. Sigmund Freud said (approximately) it is only after a parent’s death that a child knows what it means to grow up. I think I agree with him.

 

Although I was 70 years old when my father died, I realized I must now take on whatever I had emotionally and otherwise left for my father to do. When I was a teenager, I did what most teenagers do in this country ⎼ I fought with him almost daily. It was part of the psychological mechanism through which I learned who I was and how to become an independent person. Later on, I was able to reconcile with him.

 

Somehow, even though I only saw him 5 or 6 times a year (and talked weekly), just knowing he was there for me gave me a sense of safety and security. He gave me an ancestral home. When he died, he could no longer provide that. I had to, I still have to, learn how to provide that home for myself. He could no longer advise me about finances or argue with me about politics or encourage me to maintain contact with my relatives. Family was so important to him. I now have to learn to do these things for myself…..

 

To read the whole blog, please go to the Good Men Project, which published the piece.

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.

By Finding The Courage to Look At Yourself, You Discover the Courage to Defend the World

Right now, take a moment to simply breathe in, and then out.  Listen to your own body and what is happening inside by resting your awareness wherever it is called.  Maybe you’ll feel a bar of tension in your jaw or mouth or shoulders. Maybe you’ll feel an expansion in your belly as you breathe in, or a relaxation, letting go as you breathe out. Simply feel it.

 

If a thought or judgment arises, if you think, “I shouldn’t have thought that” or “why can’t I concentrate better,” just notice whatever occurs as you breathe in. And as you breathe out, return your attention to your awareness of feeling. Instead of letting your awareness be captured by self-judgments, simply observe, learn, and be kind to yourself. In this way, mind and body become one. You live in your own body and mind. Your sense of time slows to the pace of your attention.

 

The more you maintain focus on whatever arises, the more you feel a timeless awareness.

 

Slowing time is a beautiful remedy for stress and anxiety, and for the emotional harm this GOP administration is trying to impose on us all. Most, if not all of us, know what happens inside ourselves when we see his face or hear his voice—attacking Democrats as the enemy, attacking those seeking asylum at our borders as invaders or criminals, attacking reporters who question him as  “the enemy of the people,” attacking even his own cabinet.

 

When hate hits our bodies, we react. We tense. We don’t want to hear it—or most of us don’t.  How we respond depends a great deal on our past, on how we think about our own strength, or what theories or stories we tell ourselves about how the world works. These stories determine whether we respond by closing our ears, shield ourselves with hate, or whether we oppose it.

 

His attacks are meant to spread fear. We often think of fear as warning us to flee. But as we flee and hide, fear can increase. We stop acknowledging what we feel, stop being aware of what is happening inside. And thus we give him this power over us. We feel powerless. We allow him to turn off our interoception or inner knowing. This allows the inner tension to escalate.

 

Or we feel anger. But how do we direct and interpret that anger? Anger is an emotion of awakening. It awakens our sense of threat or danger and can prepare us to act. But if we don’t have clarity of mind and feeling to direct it, anger becomes self-destructive. We can feel angry that we’re angry. Or when we feel anger in response to fear, we treat it like a savior, a weapon of safety, and we can’t stop wielding it. We become our anger. We lose control. We lose ourselves.

 

When we look directly at our own anger, when we feel what it does inside us, we might notice the pain it causes. And behind that pain is an enormous realm, of caring about what happens to others, our world, and ourselves. When we perceive what is behind our anger, it yields to clarity. We focus on a larger reality.

 

We need to honor and respect our own inner world, feel what we feel and hear what we say. This way we let go of things more easily and live more fully. There is no inner warfare, no constant rumination, and no unnecessary conflict with others. We can think with every part of ourselves without fear and so we feel free to allow every part of others to be acknowledged.

 

Almost every act of this American political administration tries to teach the opposite. It tries to create in all of us a sense of inner chaos, disharmony, war, so we will war against whomever or wherever they direct us. They try to dehumanize us so we will do the same to others.

 

So by listening to and caring better for ourselves, we resist this administration. By honoring our humanity, we realize and cherish the humanity of others. We see ourselves with clarity and thus see the world with more clarity. Then we can act politically and socially with determination, kindness, and insight. Then we preserve our freedom.

 

When we have the courage to look directly at ourselves, we find the courage to act with clarity to defend our world.

 

 

Here is an exercise (based on a Buddhist compassion practice) to help you find both calm and understanding when you need it, or when the mindfulness practice above is not enough:

 

Close your eyes and take a calm and deep breath in, then a slow, long breath out. Simply sit, quietly. With your next breath, imagine feeling care, love, a parental sort of love, toward a young pet, or a young person. Just allow the image of a young animal or person to come to your mind, or the words care, love, child. Where in yourself do you feel this care or love? What does love feel like?

 

Then imagine a friend. Imagine this person, too, feels a similar feeling.

 

Then imagine someone you don’t know, someone you saw on the street, or in a store. Or imagine someone you disagree with. Imagine she or he feeling love, care, just like you do. They are different from you in so many ways, yet they, too, share this capacity with you. They, too, can love.

 

This is a simple thing. Yet it is so often lost. Sit for another moment, and find the feeling of love inside yourself. Find the recognition that those around you—no matter how different in some ways, they, too, want to find and feel this love. They share this with you.

 

*This post was syndicated by The Good Men Project.

 

Democracy, In Some Ways, Is Like A Love Relationship

There was a time just a few years ago when people in the US felt the world was relatively set and would continue largely as it was. People found meaning in their careers, not through political action. It was easy to be complacent. If you had a home, enough to eat, owned a TV and watched it,  and were absorbed by social and other digital media, it was easy to think any apparent crisis was just that—apparent, not real, more like a commercial interrupting the important stuff.

 

I read an article yesterday in the Intelligencer by Rachel Bashien, Zak Cheney-Rice, Amelia Schonbek and Emma Whitford entitled: “12 Young People on Why They Probably Won’t Vote.” These young people were clearly responding not only to the reality developing when they were growing up but to the election of T. “2016 was such a disillusioning experience.” They were disheartened by the election results. They saw their ideals shot down. And now many of them have trouble motivating themselves to take action. Only an inspirational leader could motivate them to act, but the Democrats are just not inspirational.

 

Other sources say our young adults are more likely to vote then in previous years. According to MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle and Ali Velshi, an NBC News poll of GenForward Millenials found that 31% are planning to vote, 26% probably will vote. That doesn’t sound very good, but it’s up from 19% in 2014.

 

Let’s examine the implications of the way of thinking spelled out in the article. They, we, didn’t get what we wanted, so why act now? We failed once; why try again? It would be better, more fun, to go back to TV, entertainment, and to social media and forget about the world outside our imagination.

 

This way of thinking robs us of power. It places the responsibility for what happens inside us on something or someone external to us. I wrote a blog just a month ago about how people in a love relationship can attribute their own feelings of love to the loved one, and thus make themselves feel powerless. Or they think, when they feel anger, the person they are angry at will suffer from their anger. They therefore let their belief blind them to the reality of how they suffer from their own anger.

 

Likewise, instead of learning how to participate more effectively in politics, we let ourselves feel powerless about effectively influencing the political reality. We mistakenly think we need someone else to inspire us, and that we ourselves are not strong enough to do so. …

 

So, on Tuesday, let us vote. Let us vote not just to win (and we must do everything we can that is humane and effective so we do win), but also to learn how to be even more humane and effective next time.

 

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

 

To Keep Love Alive, Know How Love Is Born

We all want to be loved, so it is no surprise that so many blogs, so much art, so many movies, plays and novels have been written or created about it. And no surprise that so many of us want to understand how to have a good relationship or keep love alive. When someone says to us, “I love you” or we say it to someone else, it is a pivotal moment in our lives.

 

When we feel loved, we can feel we have “made it.” We might feel not only that “life is good” but “I am good.” What we yearned for has been found. We feel whole.

 

But to keep love alive it’s important to know how love is born. When we look within our self and study how the emotion is constructed, we see that love, like any emotion, is not just one overwhelming entity. It involves so much of who we are. It is feeling and sensation mixed with memory, thoughts and how we view the world and ourselves.

 

For example, when we fall for someone, we usually think it is the other person who fulfills us or makes us feel so alive and complete. But it is not the other person who completes us. It is our loving that completes us. It is the way we relate to another person, by caring so deeply that we feel open, vulnerable, and yet strong enough to take whatever occurs. It is our ability to recognize another person is not the same as us, yet part of us, which completes us.

 

If we think of the other person as the source of our love, all kinds of craziness can ensue. We can think our happiness lies in someone else’s hands and we are powerless—or that this other being exists entirely for us. We can feel so overwhelmed by our attraction for the other person that there is little room left for the reality of that person.

 

This is why love can turn to anger, possessiveness, even violence. We come to see the other only in terms of how he or she fulfills our image of whom they should be, and we never see who they are….

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

 

 

In Today’s World, Reading Books and Caring for Others are Acts of Defiance

One of the biggest threats of this administration is to your sense of who you are as a human being. It is difficult to believe in mutual love and caring when faced with the actions and words of Roy Moore or Steve Bannon, or compassion when faced with the actions and words of Paul Ryan, or beauty when faced with Mitch McConnell. It is difficult to believe courage is possible when many Republicans, who once criticized the president’s racism or spoke out for health care for children, now support his agenda and this tax bill. It is difficult to believe learning, clear thinking, and scientific research is possible when faced with Betsy DeVos or Mr. T. In today’s world, reading books on topics such as (but not limited to) science, philosophy, anthropology, history or poetry is an act of defiance.

 

So, as a new year draws close, dedicate yourself to rebel not only against the abuses of this administration, but for the possibilities of human nature this administration seeks to squash. Seek to understand the actions of people like Mnuchin, Pruit, Sessions, and Flynn, but also Elizabeth Warren, Doug Jones, and the courage of women who spoke out against abuse by Moore, Mr. T, and others.

 

Rebel not only out of understanding how destructive this administration is to our health care, environment, democracy, and national security—but for love, compassion, and a desire for beauty.

 

When you come home from work tired, tired of long hours of work. Or you return from a protest or from completing phone calls to congress and you feel you have lost the sense of what hope is, read Rubin Alves’ poem Tomorrow’s Child. Or if you need to quiet the noise inside and aren’t able to meditate, or walk along a seashore, read Pablo Neruda on Keeping Quiet. Or you don’t know if you should take a chance on your dreams, read about what happens to a Dream Deferred, by Langston Hughes.

 

When you feel taking action or even listening to the news is too difficult, or “When despair for the world grows in me,” read Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things. Or when you feel you are catching the illness of fear and selfishness, or that you have no power, read about the power of Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye— “…it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.”

 

When you feel alone in the struggle even though most Americans, most people in the world, agree with you, read The Low Road by Marge Piercy:

“…it starts when you care

to act, it starts when you do

it again after they said no,

it starts when you say We

and know who you mean, and each

day you mean one more.”

 

And, along with Mary Oliver and her poem What I Have Learned So Far, “Be ignited, or be gone.”

 

Do not forget that love is a possibility in every life. (I don’t know about psychopaths.) We all share more than we differ. But for some, love is a possession and a wall. They hold tightly onto the few as if to possess them, and wall away all others. And in doing so, they wall away themselves. But for many, love is a second skin. It is a boundary allowing you to feel life, to feel yourself, more intensely, and to contact, open to others, more securely.

 

Yes, do what you can to find the power in yourself not only to take action and rebel against injustice and ignorance, but to make joy, kindness, education and care for others the central point of what life and even politics is about. This is the greatest gift you can give anyone, including your self, in this or any season.

When It’s Time

Death can be a powerful teacher. Maybe nothing is more powerful. Yet it is awful and terrifying. It can teach us not to waste a moment, and that no moment (if you can feel it) is ever wasted. It can wake us up to the central choice in our life, namely, how much will we allow love to animate our life?

 

My Dad is in hospice care right now. He is in Virginia, I am now in New York. He is 96 years old, no longer conscious, and can die at any moment. He wants to go. Over the last few months, he said I have accepted that I will die. What I worry about is the pain. He had seen his Dad beg to die. He had seen his sister beg to die. He did not want to beg to die. He had too much grace to say it in a hurtful way, but a few days ago, he begged to die, or beg that we would take away the pain. And we tried to take away the pain.

 

For several years, I taught a philosophy class for tenth-twelfth grade students called Questions. We studied the questions that the students and I most wanted to confront. The first unit, and often the most meaningful, was one on death. We talked about it from many directions and perspectives. How did different cultures think about death and dying? What rituals did they have? We looked at how people can face their death and help people who are dying. Teaching that class was helpful to me, too. What was most helpful to students, I think, was learning they had the power to face even their deepest fears and talk about them.

 

Yet, as I sat with my father, I realized there was so much I hadn’t learned. I knew that regret and feeling responsible for all that I hadn’t done or didn’t think of doing was normal, yet as I faced my father’s pain and suffering, I felt it anyway. As my wife, Linda, said it, death was not theoretical any longer.

 

One of my biggest wishes was that I had talked more frequently, so it had sunk in, with people who had gone through being with a person who was dying. Or I had listened more deeply to the one or two teachers I had in my life who were able to speak sincerely, insightfully, about it. How can we help others? How do we arrange for hospice? When the person is no longer conscious, should there always be a loved one with him or her? How much can an unconscious person hear or need us? How can we live with death?

 

I felt awful leaving him. He had called us, on Tuesday morning around 8:15 am, first my brother and then me, to say goodbye. He was in a hospital bed, having trouble breathing, and thought he was about to die. I think that after he spoke with us, he went through his contacts on his phone to call several more people. It took Linda and I about three or four hours to get packed and cancel all our work and appointments, and 8.5 hours to drive there, through snow storms and traffic. And luckily, he was still relatively aware and conscious Tuesday night. He told us to go rest and see him in the morning. Wednesday morning, he was occasionally conscious and with us, but in more pain. His condition dropped off rapidly after that. When we left on Saturday, he was unconscious. The father that I knew was mostly gone. My brother and cousins and the hospice caregiver was with him as we left. The nurses said he might continue like that for several days, maybe a few weeks. Yet, I felt awful leaving.

 

My course taught me some important lessons about dying. I knew to prepare on my own so I didn’t burden my Dad with with my tears and with my inability to let go. I tried to let go so he could let go. We had been very close over the last few years so there were no problems between us that we had to resolve.

 

I did not lie to him about his condition. I did not say to him anything that I didn’t, truly, feel. He said ”I know that if I felt there was an afterlife, I would be more comforted, but I don’t.” I did not talk about an afterlife. I did not talk about Karma. I just agreed with him, and added, “I guess we just don’t really know.”

 

What I mostly did, when I was with him, was sit with him. I told him I loved him, frequently. Sometimes, I meditated with him. Sometimes, even though he was unconscious, he would get agitated. He would move his feet, or try to get up, or start a sort of moaning. In those moments, I would hold his hand or massage his shoulders.

 

The caregiver was wonderful. She would sometimes hold and massage his feet and help him move, in bed. They’d do this sort of chant. She’d ask him, What are you doing, Mr David? His name is David. He would then say his name, and she’d repeat it back to him. That would go on until he quieted.

 

Other times, I’d silently wish him to be at peace, to feel loved, and be able to let go. I pictured him being surrounded, embraced by a warm, white light. I pictured him going into that light. Sometimes, it seemed to help. He would calm down, stop walking in the bed. But other times, even after he stopped sleepwalking, his breathing would remain agitated. He did not go off into the light or the good night. He did not, or his life did not, go by his or my timetable. Some other force was at work.

 

We might imagine we have control over our life and our situation. We imagine this control derives from our rationality. And some of it does. We can do so much. Our rational mind is so powerful. But the rational mind, as Jung and Freud, Buddha and Jesus, as well as countless others have said, is like a boat on a vast ocean. We have to let ourselves be more aware of, more intimate with, that ocean. We have to do that in each moment of our lives so that, when death comes, we have more of an ability to live even death as well as we possibly can.

 

Death is a powerful teacher, if we are willing to learn what we can from it. If we are willing to let ourselves look at our possible death, and thus, the individual moments of our lives, with as much honesty as we can, and to live with as much love as we can. I know this. I just have to do it. And I continue to wish, to imagine my Dad, peaceful, loved, and able to let go.

 

**Maybe,  in a future blog, I will write about some resources my students and I found helpful, but I can’t do that now.

Let Love Live

I’m sure you, too, are amazed at scenes like this: You’re watching your child at play, or a puppy running around the yard. Or you’re walking in the woods and see a kit (baby fox) or a butterfly.

 

Or—I am sitting in bed, a magazine on my lap. My wife is next to me, doing a puzzle. In between us, near our feet, are two cats, sleeping. I look at them, at all of us, and feel awe. Ok, the cats are simply sleeping, my wife, puzzling. But there is such trust on that bed. These beings want to be here, with me, with each other. They care. Or we care.

 

One of the cats, Milo, starts twitching, as if dreaming. He wraps his front paws around and over his head, as if to hide. I lean over and touch his back, and the shaking stops. He relaxes, releases his head and turns over, showing me his belly. There is such vulnerability there, delicacy. I give myself to you, and you give it back, enhanced.

 

I am reading an article in the September issue of Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom For Our Time. It is a wonderful conversation between two Buddhist meditators and educators, Sharon Salzberg and Bell Hooks, about “The Power of Real Love.” Sharon talks of growing up thinking that love is something given by others, but she now realizes it is an ability, a capacity, maybe even a responsibility we have in ourselves. Bell Hooks talks of love as residing in our actions, not just in our feelings. But in this day, in this political climate, where fear and hate are so frequently in the news—How do we love? How do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and care when the forces of domination seem to surround us?

 

Actions taken out of love can be the most difficult and painful in our lives—and the most liberating. There is more power in the touch of love than can be conceived and dreamed in fear and hate. Fear can be a message to wake up and observe more closely or to turn away. But it is built on opposition, and is unstable. It lasts only as long as we maintain a threat or an enemy, and a wall. Those outside the wall are rejected; those inside the wall are suspect. Such fear needs our compliance with it in order to succeed.

 

And this is our choice each day. You, me, all of us still have this choice. Will we touch and be touched by what is happening to those who share the earth with us? Will we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and learn what is going on, to care and to act? Will we allow love to live in us, or will we cover our heads and hearts with fear?

 

**And thank you to Bell Hooks and Sharon Salzberg (and Lion’s Roar) for the conversation and teachings.

Joy

Joy—What is it? Such a short and simple word. Sit quietly for a moment and let a moment of joy come to you. Maybe it will be a memory from the past. Maybe just a touch of the emotion itself will fill your heart. What do you feel? A sense of lightness, bubbling, or overflowing? A weight lifted from your chest? A release of something deep down, a sense of letting go or coming alive? An opening? You might feel you’ve discovered a secret and want to share it. Your hands might want to rise up, your body want to dance, your face smile, as if you were embracing the world, and your self.

 

I remember such moments. I remember receiving an email from my agent that my book was going to be published. I could barely believe it. Excitement and ordinariness both arose in me. Here was an email—I had received thousands of emails before, but none like this one. It was as if I had been hoping for this moment for my entire life. As if all prior emails had this one buried within them as a possibility. Likewise, when good friends or family came to visit. Or snow days, or at least when I first heard the announcement of a snow day. A burden was lifted. Or something feared was ended.

 

Joy can be what pushes back against fear. All emotion has this dynamic quality to it. No emotion is just one emotion. When one emotion surfaces, others arise on the borders. Love can carry fear as well as joy. Why is there fear with joy and love? Because love is allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Part of the ecstasy of love is the affirmation and sense of strength that comes from believing in yourself enough to know you can do this, you can feel this, even though pain might result from it.

 

When afraid, what do you do? Fear is a turning away from a threat or the possibility of pain, of hurt. It can be running away from others, from life, or a walling off, a way of hiding. It is the flight-freeze response. When afraid, you want safety and control. One way you gain a sense of safety is by rigidly controlling the moments of your life. You bind up time by filling moments with the simple and familiar, so nothing unknown and unfamiliar can occur. Fear is of the unknown or what might happen to the known.

 

You can do the same with your mind, filling it with thoughts and worries. Worries can seem like little magical mental devices you use to ward off what you worry about or fear. You deep down think “if I worry enough, what I worry about won’t occur.” You fill your mind with thoughts you’ve had hundreds of times before, to ward off the possibly dangerous and unknown with the safe and known, or with what you have already lived through. You use these worries and thoughts even though they might not be fun, because you’re focused on safety first, not joy.

 

The problem is you can go too far and create what you want to avoid. In order to maintain a wall, you have to create a sense of there being dangers outside the wall that must be avoided. You want to live. But by walling yourself off, you might wall away excitement, friendships, a sense of being fully alive. When you rigidly control the moments of your life, you don’t actually feel safe. You feel rigid. Rigid is another way to say fragile and fearful.

 

You have to let the light in in order to see what you have or could have. You have to take some chances in order to know you are capable of doing so. You have to embrace life, as much as you can at the time, and even when it’s difficult, in order to feel embraced. You can’t totally wall away the sense of vulnerability, because within it lies hidden not only life, but love and joy.

The Mystery You Solve As You Live

When I was in college, before going on a date, especially in my freshman and sophomore years, I remember I would first read a philosophy book or play music I loved, like that by Bob Dylan. I’d play “All You Masters of War” or “Maggie’s Farm” and feel filled with energy, with something to say, with character, and a self.

 

I’d become a persona built from my understanding of Dylan and what he meant to me. I’d become a rebellious philosopher, a person with a meaningful life who had meaningful things to say. I’d become, or tried to become, this mask that I wore for my date. I’d become, for a moment, someone worthy of loving.

 

But to focus on being this persona had side effects. I was looking for my self, “looking for love in all the wrong places.” The persona was a mask I wore not only for others but for my self. It hid me from myself. I expected it to be the real me, not whoever it was who wore the mask. So the reality of the wearer of the mask was hidden. And this led to a subtle sense that something was wrong with me. I felt anxiety because I could never feel real as a mask. A mask, no matter how well crafted, never feels like a face. Who wants to kiss a mask?

 

Only later on did I begin to realize that it wasn’t the music that “filled me up.” It was my love of the music that filled me. When the quality of mind is loving, whatever or whomever you meet is greeted with this emotion, including yourself.

 

Understanding the self is such a mysterious and complex endeavor. The more you look for the self, the more difficult it can be to find it. As Dogen Zenji, a 13th Century Japanese Buddhist teacher put it, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things….” You might think you are this image or memory you cherish, some demands or expectations you cling to for yourself, some hope that your parents or others hold out before you. But who you are can never be summed up by an abstraction, or a label you put on your character.

 

You don’t automatically develop this self-understanding. It is something you must work to discover, so persist at it with some gentleness. It’s not something you learn once and forever. It is a curriculum made by nature for your whole life, a class in which we are all both students and teachers. You have to learn that to live well, and to live fully, is what life is about. When you think of life as perpetual learning, or as a mystery you are solving as you live it, then you don’t spend too much time regretting or attacking yourself. You are more mindful; you notice, learn, and change. And to be open to learning, to learn well, it is helpful to be kind, or you won’t take in what is offered to you, and what is there in front of you. You need to appreciate, even love your life, in order to fully live it.

 

So, when you’re feeling lost or anxious or lonely, close your eyes and notice whatever arises. Feel the fact that you can feel and know. Simply breathe in the moment and let it go. If you normally hold up a mask of being unloved, you could instead hold up an image of someone who feels loved. If you normally hold up a mask of being powerless, imagine the face of someone who feels internally powerful. It might not be easy, but you can get better at doing it. You can even ask for help if you get stuck, find a teacher or therapist who you think knows his or her own mind. And study yourself: who is it that controls the whole play, who sees whatever is seen, who provides whatever reality is experienced?

 

The Lehman Alternative Community School, where I used to teach, has a Community Service graduation requirement. Service was such a meaningful experience for students that, at one of our weekly all school meetings several years ago, they voted to increase the requirement from 30 to 60 hours. Giving to others, and recognizing the reality of others and the suffering they face, and working to diminish that suffering, is helpful to everyone. It is especially helpful when you feel anxious or confused about who you really are. By giving, you feel you have more to give. You feel your inner world exceeds even your understanding of it, and in that excess you find yourself.