The Snow Falls in Slow Motion as the World Turns too Fast: We Age Slowly and Feel It Suddenly

After several days of dangerous weather throughout the nation causing too much death and disruption, a “cyclone bomb” in many places, going from rain to ice to blizzards, with extreme windchills ⎼ temperatures changing where I live in a matter of hours from 45 degrees Fahrenheit to zero or below ⎼ today is cold but the snow is falling lazily, individual flakes dropping from a still, gray sky.

 

Inside myself, there’s a stillness in the center of a storm. A feeling that my life is changing too quickly, that I’m aging too quickly. Despite being 75, until recently I had felt internally maybe 35 or 40. Still exercised an hour and a half to two hours each day. Still wrote blogs each week. Until a year or so ago, despite being retired from regular teaching, and when the pandemic allowed it, I still led an after school martial arts class at my old school. But not this past year. One health concern after another, and the sickness and death of friends and family ⎼ this is aging me.

 

Add the earth in tears with so many species in crisis and near extinction; so much hate, politically manipulated hate and violence, thanks a great deal to a former President who, despite now being out of office, is still lying about and working to overturn an election he had lost, overturn democracy. Then there’s the invasion of Ukraine and the pandemic ⎼ this ages all of us.

 

My dad died at age 96. Before dying, he looked me in the eye and said, “you know, this man is dangerous.” He was warning me that DJT reminded him of the early years of Hitler. He would say the would-be dictator’s name, but wouldn’t say the German dictator’s name, and wouldn’t say ‘Nazis’, just pronouns, ‘him’ and ‘them.’ This wasn’t a warning I needed. But it did make the DJT presidency even more real and frightening to me.

 

Months earlier, my dad had talked about spending his whole morning just getting dressed and ready for the day. And then most of the evening getting prepared for bed. I wasn’t the most understanding, then. My comparative youth got in the way. But now I feel what he was saying. We age to the point where we spend most of our day waking up and then going to sleep. Or maybe, we do that our whole lives without realizing it, preparing for life instead of realizing we’re living each second of it.

 

We think death won’t touch us, then it does, and powerfully. At some point we need to look at the slowly falling snow and realize here we are. This is it. We’re falling; we have been falling since we first stood up. And now, the flake of snow is getting closer to the ground.

 

Can this closeness turn the whole thing around and make us also closer to waking up, to wising up as we get closer to dying?…

 

 

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

The Bear, the Raccoon, and the Hawk

It’s been eight to ten days of “firsts.” Last week, we woke up to find a hawk, with a bleeding chipmunk in its claws, sitting on a branch of the old apple tree outside the front door. That was a first.

 

A few days later, after midnight, a raccoon came in the second-floor cat window to the bedroom. We only knew it was there because one of our cats stood up on the bed and loudly hissed, waking us up. My wife and I got up and yelled at the coon. It climbed back out the window and we ran out the front door pursuing it, trying to frighten it enough so it wouldn’t return

 

The most dramatic and surprising visitor was the bear. Black bears are not unknown to the area. We had bird-feeders destroyed by bears in the past but only saw the mangled feeders left behind. But at 8:15 am this morning, with the sun shining behind it, we saw a bear cuddling a bird-feeder in the yard of our house.

 

Years ago, I had had nightmares about bears breaking into the house. And here one was, walking toward the apple tree where the hawk had rested just a few days earlier, and where the bird feeder had once rested. No nightmare, just fascination. All I thought about was preserving the moment, finding the camera, and taking pictures. I went from window to window looking for good angles for photos.

 

The bear seemed so soft when I studied it, so— not human, yet not that different. A cousin in the animal world and a fellow mammal. It had an inquisitive face and wasn’t afraid to look up at the window where I stood with the camera. It was driven more by thirst for food, for seeds dropped by birds from the feeder, then by watching us.

 

But when it walked right up to the front door, stood up on its hind legs, and reached out as if to knock on the door or knock out the window⎼ everything changed. My wife started shouting at it and banged her fists against the wall. I ran out the side door with 2 metal bars and started hitting them together making a wonderful clanging sound. The bear disappeared so fast we didn’t perceive where it went. It was like it was never here⎼ except for the photos, memories, and mangled bird-feeder. Too bad we didn’t take a picture of it at the door.

 

What should we make of this event? Clearly, the human and non-human are meeting more often than expected, not that the human world was ever separate from the rest of nature. But we humans are spreading everywhere. The realms where non-humans could live without our interference are getting smaller and rarer.

 

Many primatologists, zoologists and others have speculated that wild creatures like bears live immersed in the world of trees, bees, rivers, fish, rain, as well as other bears, just like we are immersed in sunshine, buildings, cars, technology, religions, politics, history, and other humans. Their world is one of more direct sensation. Ours, more abstracted, languaged, filled with our human imagination and thus with time, plans, and worries.

 

So, what happens when a bear lives so close to humans? Does it develop worries? Does it suddenly want to wear a watch and listen to the weather report? …

 

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

Why Is Nature Capable of Being So Comforting? We Can’t Escape the Earth or the Universe Because We Are It

Why does nature have this effect on us?

 

I take a walk in the woods and thoughts fly off like birds⎼ swallows, crows or chickadees, to be replaced by insights or a beautiful sense of quiet. Or I sit on the beach, by the ocean, and my attention goes to the seemingly infinite space over the water. My whole body seems to move rhythmically with the sound of the waves. Before I was tense, my mind and body racing. Now, as I’m sitting with the ocean, I am comforted. Relaxed.

 

Why is this?

 

I’ve used the rain, the sky, the sound of birds and peepers, crickets, and cicadas, the feel of my breath or the air on my face, the seasons, the glow of the moon in the middle of the night or the wind in the middle of the day as doors to meditation, or to calm and slow down enough so I can feel or perceive the world and myself more clearly.

 

Even an ice storm can evoke a sense of beauty; and the dark clouds of a hurricane can reveal a sense of awe⎼ right alongside the fright.

 

Being outside in nature or viewing it helps us stay healthy, happier, and recover more easily from illness. We experience less stress and pain and heal quicker in a hospital if our room has windows facing trees, streams, or mountains or there are murals of such scenes painted on the walls.

 

Something like 170,000 years ago, evolutionary changes like a loss of body hair and a subsequent need for protection from the elements led early humans to clothe themselves. Or maybe it was also for artistic reasons. Maybe as long ago as 400,000 years ago, certainly by the Neolithic Revolution of 12,000 years ago, we began to build homes, shelters from the storm, or from dangerous animals. Later, we began to build walls to protect us from our own species. We then tried to control nature or wall it away, but we couldn’t, so we walled ourselves from nature, or tried to do so.

 

Likewise, in our personal evolution, so many of us had to wall away traumas that were too much to face at the time or aspects of ourselves we didn’t know how to integrate or accept.

 

And because of this effort, of walling ourselves from nature or ourselves, the question arose: why is nature⎼ why is what we are walling away so often healing to us, despite the storms, the ice, the fires, and the bears?

 

Because nature ultimately includes everything. It’s not just trees, beaches, streams, and sky that can comfort us. Almost any aspect of nature can be used as an object for meditation and for calming ourselves, but so can almost anything we perceive. A poem, a work of visual art, a person, pet, park bench, building, a piece of paper, a question. We can use the mere act of looking to help us see more clearly, or a moment of fear to study how we construct emotions. The key is to find what comforts us….

 

 

**If you’d like more information on any of the practices referred to in this piece, click on any of the links provided, and, if possible, find a reliable and experienced teacher, therapist, mentor to be a guide.

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

The Myth of Today: The Call Is Not to Enter the Dark Forest by Ourselves, But, by Ourselves, to Call Others

I’m sitting here, feeling my hands on the keyboard, noticing my breath is a little short and jumpy.  Anxious. Worried. A dark curtain is hanging out behind my right ear. And I notice a desire to do something to part that curtain; to change the situation of our world today, or at least bring some calm to myself, so the anxiety will explode into bits of nothing, or into the past to be studied like ancient history. So, I can feel the joy that deeply wants to be felt.

 

A friend calls on the phone. I take a deep breath and we talk, which lifts me out of the anxiety. A little mindfulness and the voice of friendship can do that. We all need that voice.

 

So much is changing. So much is threatened. And it’s difficult to see how we can influence a change for the better. But just as the voice of a friend helped lift me out of the grip of anxiety, joining with others, and feeling the yearning and the need to act, together, does the same. There might be fear there, that is true. But also light, hope. A sense of the future emerges, that there can be a future. That there can be joy and love in the future.

 

This is one way we dissolve anxiety. We see that it’s there, name it, and then do something to alleviate it. Worrying can deprive us of ourselves. Learning, planning, acting can give us the strength we need, so we feel we have strength and power. It is a kindness that we give ourselves, and kindness is so needed to change the world. Kindness to ourselves and others helps us part that curtain so we can see ourselves more clearly, with more perspective.

 

And getting a larger perspective is a second thing we can do. We can do that partly by taking walks in nature, studying mind-body disciplines like martial arts, yoga, and meditation, reading history, politics, science, literature, humor, etc.

 

I remember reading Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with A Thousand Faces. This is a powerful book to read and share with students and friends. It can open doors to widely divergent works of literature and religion that otherwise might be closed, such as the story of the Buddha to Bilbo Baggins. From Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo to Gilgamesh, the hero of the first story ever written. From Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to Star Wars and Close Encounters.

 

Campbell’s book explicates the hero cycle, a pattern that heroic characters have possibly followed in their path to enlightenment, redemption, or saving lives. One part of that path is The Call to Adventure. The movie Star Wars begins with Luke Skywalker living with his aunt and uncle. He is enveloped in his normal world, knowing nothing of who he is and feeling distant from the battle taking place in the universe around him. He is asked by Obi Wan Kenobi to join in the quest to rescue Princess Leia. He refuses. At first.

 

Then he goes home to find it, and his aunt and uncle, burned. The struggle has become personal, and he is ready to heed the call. George Lucas used the hero cycle quite very deliberately in creating the movie….

 

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

 

***Photo is the Lion Gate of Mycenae, Greece.

How Do We Face What We Believe is Unfaceable?

How do we face a fact or situation we believe we cannot face? Or respond skillfully to a personal or collective crisis?

 

In the Winter 2021 issue of Tricycle Magazine: The Buddhist Review, there is an article by environmentalist Paul Hawken adapted from his new book Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation. Hawken says we live on a planet dying due to severed connections between human beings and the natural world that sustains and contains us. The decline of the earth is its’ adaptation to what we are doing to it.

 

72% of Americans know that the consensus of scientists is that climate change is human caused. A U. N. panel recently labeled the situation a climate emergency. But Hawken says that if we stop making the mistakes we’re making, if we end the disconnection, if we cease the production of fossil fuels, redirect the economy to stop overconsumption, deforestation, wars, etc. the earth will come back to life. This is difficult but possible. But many don’t, won’t or can’t allow this to even be a possibility in their mind.

 

Many have come to think we have already gone too far, or it would take generations to stop catastrophic global warming. But Hawken says, if we can reduce carbon gain and achieve zero net carbon emissions by 2050, we can regenerate the planet in one or two decades.

 

It is easier to not-think about it. To not consider the possibility that the planet, or human life on it, can be saved. For some of us, to bring the earth’s future back to life inside our heart and mind brings the hurt back to life. Pain. It can feel easier to fashion scabs of anger or ig-norance than face pain.

 

I think of two friends and neighbors who say they have given up. They usually vote. Maybe this is a sign that vestiges of hope or commitment remain⎼ or of love. But they won’t do anything more. Won’t help get out the vote or call politicians or take to the streets. They say it will do no good. Maybe the grief they feel over the dying earth has immobilized them.

 

And I understand this response. I too feel the grief for what and whom we’ve lost, for the losses from the pandemic, for an easier time when I did not feel the earth itself was on the way to the emergency room, or that white nationalists might once again inhabit the White House like they did just a year ago. I, too, yearn for comfort.

 

In a recent blog, I described how it’s less the situation we face, or the sensations we feel, that determine our emotional state, but our response to the situation and feelings. We often think of fear as what readies us to act to protect ourselves. But as psychologist William James pointed out over a hundred years ago, we don’t have an emotion and then act. We don’t see a bear in the woods, or maybe a domestic terrorist on the street, and then feel fear, and run.

 

Instead, our response is constructed in stages. We feel fear as our body begins to sweat, our heartbeat speeds up, our legs twitch. Fear is an interpretation added to sensations. The sensations themselves are the same as a stress response or emotions like excitement. The interpretation includes thoughts such as labeling a threat as unmanageable as well as an inclination to act, for example, by hiding….

 

**To read the whole article, please click on the link for the Good Men Project, who first published the piece.

Love and Compassion Are the Other Faces of Beauty

I look out the window of our den and notice the standing Buddha in the garden has a hat of moss, of both a light and dark green with a lighter tone on the right side of his nose. He also has a shawl of moss over his robes. Does it keep him warm? His smile is so calming and clear it draws me in. Then he seems to dance, or is it breathe, or maybe the whole scene is breathing as my eyes dance over him.

 

My breath and his are after all the same breath.

 

He looks so beautiful to me. Is this what beauty is, a quality of me or a way of relating to something or someone else, a quality of focus, attention, or breathing? A drawing in. And can everything in this scene or anything anywhere that draws us in be touched like this? There is a large stone behind him ⎼ rust, grey, green, and shaped like a mountain. It also looks beautiful. What about the bush, the tree, the flowers, the weeds? In the right light, the Buddha looks bigger than a mountain. But why does he draw us in?

 

We say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Maybe it’s this quality of attention of the beholder in the specific moment. Right now, is beautiful. I had a plan for this morning, but the Buddha took it over. Or maybe beauty did that.

 

Buddhism and other traditions say the separation we often feel between ourselves and others, between us the seer and what we see, is an illusion. But what does that mean? Can we feel as if we were the statue breathing? Is that possible? And who wants to be a statue? Instead, maybe it means that we live each inch of space occupied by mind.

 

We see something and think that statue, that person, that dragonfly or flower or car is over there, and I am here. But what about the air an inch from my face? Or the pavement I am standing on? What about the suffering we see over there or the injustice? The thing or person next to me is next to me all the way to whatever. Why separate the me here from the you there, the eyes from the eyed? Why forget all that is there between us linking us? Don’t we live the world we breathe in?

 

Maybe we separate because there’s hurt here or there, and over and over we re-build a wall to shield us from the pain. We all have hurts. But the wall can be more like a suit of armor we wear wherever we go. And everything we try to touch has the wall, the metal suit, standing in the way. All we ever touch is the inside surface of our armor and so we feel that just on the other side and way too close, a battle is raging.

 

Gently, consciously, we can find a safe way to name what we feel, or find a place of comfort inside as well as outside ourselves. By doing this gently, mindfully, our mind becomes gentler, and we perceive more consciously, and clearly.

 

Constantly, we are switching perspectives back and forth….

 

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

 

Being Gentle with Ourselves When the World is Being Harsh

 

It was such a relief back in June when the numbers of people sick from COVID were winding down and the promise of a degree of safety, thanks to the vaccine, was rising up. We had (and have) a rational political administration and summer was approaching. But now, due to the Delta and other variants, and due to the fear and ignorance caused by the GOP and others spreading misinformation or disinformation about the vaccine as they earlier did about COVID-19 itself, it is difficult to know how safe we are or what is safe to do.

 

Thanks to the vaccine, I can consider visiting relatives and friends in other states, people I haven’t seen in person since the pandemic began. But in some sense, this adds more confusion. What variants might lie between here and there? Will I infect or be infected? I am vaccinated, but since I could still carry the virus, do I have to be tested first?

 

And I don’t know if what I am feeling is the psychological effect, the trauma of the pandemic combined with the trauma of four years of DT. Or, since what I feel is probably from a mixture of causes, I wonder what degree of what I’m feeling is simply fear. After hunkering down and making safety my primary concern for so long, it is difficult to take risks or step out.

 

But what I do know is the importance of being real to myself, and gentle when the world is being harsh. If I can find the patience and clarity to be gentle with myself, I can be gentler and clearer with others.

 

And I can take this moment as an opportunity to learn new things about myself. When I’m open to it, I discover new things about where and who I am. I feel even more at home with whatever and whomever I am with. So, when I do venture out, I am going from home to home.

 

And we can use our imagination and empathy to see and feel ourselves in the home with whomever we’d like to visit. One purpose of the imagination is to help us think. When I stopped what I was doing and imagined being in the living room of a friend or family member, talking, looking eye to eye, feeling what I felt for this person. I overcame the physical distance with imagination and the emotional distance disappeared. The situation was simplified a bit and I was able to think more directly and clearly.

 

Of course, the imagination can also be detrimental. We can get caught up in images of hurt and disaster, especially when we’re stressed. Another reason we have an imagination is to help protect us from harm….

 

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

Why Is It So Hard to Develop Intimate Relationships? A Mystery Meeting A Mystery

In a recent blog, I wrote about feeling intimacy with the world around us and was asked about human, loving relationships. And why is intimacy often so difficult? I was at first reluctant to answer. It is such a personal subject, and no one has it all together. There are psychological and ethical guidelines but no mapquest.

 

Yes, we often use the word ‘intimate’ as a synonym for sex, as if “I was intimate with so and so” meant, “I had sex with so and so.” As if the sex was the most important part of the relation. But that often obscures the reality.

 

And I say this not just because I am an older man who thinks of sex very differently than I used to. I didn’t always realize that the desire for sex can mask a desire for something more than pleasure, for a way to get close or stay close, to pull down the separation we often feel and just be there with another person. To let go. To see into another life. Because being totally with another being so we see how they see and feel even a little bit what they feel is better than good sex. Or maybe it is the heart of good sex. Or maybe it’s the heart, period. A type of, or aspect of, love. It is what makes long term relationships not only work but be exciting.

 

In this sense, sex can even be a roadblock. It can be so intensely focused on our physical pleasure that we lose sight of this deeper desire we have, the deeper fulfillment we can experience.

 

If intimacy is “what we truly desire,” is it so difficult to create because it is unusual? Do we have a fear of getting what we truly desire? Or a fear of what being intimate might lead to? Or of how intimacy might change our sense of ourselves? Or has our trust been shattered by some violation in the past so we can’t risk such a moment ever happening again?

 

To pull down the walls and end the sense of separation we often feel means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and to notice and feel even the smallest emotional movements in another person. Clearly, vulnerability can be scary. We can be hurt. To truly know another, to feel our way into another person’s sense of life is best accomplished when we allow ourselves to also be known.

 

It is to let go of our images of who we are. This is the most complicated part. We often need a meditative practice or a guide to help with this. We often think of a self as having permanent characteristics that distinguish us from others; and think of what distinguishes us as what separates us. We are here, they are there. Never the two shall meet. So, if the two never shall meet, intimacy is impossible. Trust is difficult. So is real joy. Life becomes a continual pretense or acting a part. We act the part of whatever we imagine the self is or someone else wants or needs. And we feel fake or ungrounded….

 

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

 

The View of Oppression is “Nothing Will Work.” The View of Friendship is “Everything Matters”

There are crucial links between what is needed to stimulate political action to fight tyranny and what is needed to limit or reverse global warming.

 

The first lesson discussed by Timothy Snyder about fighting tyranny in his best-selling book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is “don’t obey in advance.” Don’t give up, don’t just give would-be tyrants the power they crave. The fourth lesson is “take responsibility for the world.” “In the politics of the everyday, our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much.” Everything counts, even our smallest actions, even what we imagine. But the tyrant tries to make us feel that nothing we can do matters.

 

In the beginning of a tyrant’s power, people can successfully resist without paying a big price. Our right to protest, vote, speak our feelings to friends and neighbors, write blogs, start local organizations are protected.

 

The same is true, now, with the environment. “If you’re doing nothing, you’re actually doing something”⎼ you’re helping the autocrat, or you’re assisting global warming. “Never consent to an authoritarian.” Never consent to simply allow the destruction of our world.

 

It is just over a week since The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its report, saying the situation of our planet is dire, “code red,” but we can still do something to slow, minimize, or change it.

 

It is so easy to feel our actions won’t matter. We can worry that the problem is too big, now, or that we’re not sure what the most effective thing is we can do. We want to see a measurable response to our actions, to see an effect. This can be a sort of egotism. Sometimes, we must just do the right thing without knowing how much effect we’ll have, or without seeing ourselves acknowledged for what we’ve done. Sometimes, we must do little things just to know we can do anything. If we don’t act while we wait to find the most effective action to take, there’s a good chance nothing will get done. If we don’t act, why should anyone else? Fear spreads easily. So can hope.

 

Hopelessness is so easy to feel. It includes not only a sense of powerlessness but isolation. When hopeless, we don’t feel the rest of the 72% of the population that shares with us the understanding of the role we humans are playing in causing climate change. We feel the fate of the world is our fate, and at the same time we feel separate from others, unable to reach them or to convince them to act. Every breath we take is the world breathing.

 

It is like when we’re sick, and it’s difficult to imagine what it is like when we’re well. We suffer from a failure of imagination. Or when we’re depressed, we can’t hear or absorb information that speaks against depression.

 

In 2019, the Zen teacher, Norman Fischer, came out with a book called The World Could Be Otherwise: Imagination and the Bodhisattva Path. A Bodhisattva is someone who focuses on relieving the suffering of all people, not just oneself. And the imagination has a power larger than what we often realize. It shapes what we think is possible. “It leaps from the known to the unknown… It lightens up the heavy circumscribed world we think we live in.” Fischer says the world not only can be, but is more than the tangible, the knowable, the negotiable; more than the data which gives us the illusion we can know all there is to know….

 

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

One Gift of the Arts is Help Us See with A Diversity of Eyes

It all started one night after getting totally engrossed in viewing Japanese woodblock prints, particularly the night scenes by Kawase Hasui. Hasui was one of Japan’s most prominent and prolific printmakers who died in 1957. He created landscapes that beautifully merged humans⎼ their homes, boats, shrines, castles, and temples⎼ into the land around them.

 

I was looking through several paintings and when one stood out, I’d wonder why that was so. I’d imagine myself in the depicted scene or sit with the mood the print and my seeing of the print created.

 

One night scene was of the Chuson-ji Temple, in the town of Hiraizumi, Japan. A long series of wide steps leads up through trees to the temple. There is moonlight and a bright star, but no moon. I allowed myself to slow down, stop rushing, and just linger on the scene, to sort of let my eyes feel the steps so I could walk up them and reach the building itself.

 

Then I’d close my eyes and let the scene rest inside me, before opening them again to allow whatever new details I had noticed enter the picture. By touching in this mindful way, we are touched; we feel what we see. The artwork has more dimension. I learned this practice at a retreat organized by psychotherapist Lawrence Leshan, and by The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation, by Frederick Franck.

 

After doing this for a few hours, I drove into town to buy groceries. Along the way, the scenery took on a totally new quality. The homes surrounded by trees, the lights amidst the dark, the moon over the hillside⎼ one minute, the scene around me was the physical road and trees. The next, a beautiful portrait of the same.

 

A few days later, in the daytime, a similar experience occurred. As I walked up the rural road where I live, I saw as I might normally see⎼ light breaking through the hillside forest roof and bouncing off the leaves of the trees ⎼ and then as Hasui might paint it. By viewing the art, my eyes were tuned to beauty; I now had two sets of eyes, two ways of seeing.

 

Hasui seemed fascinated with how not just art was a creation, but vision itself. He was almost too prolific. He painted the same scene in different times of day and different seasons. There are at least three renditions of the Chuson-ji Temple, for example⎼ one at night, one on a spring day, another in the snow. But what we see in each painting is one moment; we see each instant as a once in a lifetime event.

 

We can see how everything changes or is change itself. Henri Bergson, a French philosopher, said: “Reality is flowing.  This does not mean that everything moves, changes, and becomes; science and common experience tell us that.  It means movement, becoming, change is everything there is, there is nothing else.  There are no things that move and change and become; everything is movement, is change.”

 

The beautiful red temples Hasui painted were not just an external scene he perceived but an element of the artist, his history and mood, the time of day, the weather and quality of light, the remnants of the past in the present. We are not a being locked in a wall of skin, but one movement in a universe dancing itself into being….

 

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