It is gratitude I feel…

With palms together,

I wish you all a Good Evening.

My daughter and her fiance left with their son, my first grandson, Chase. These visits, as all visits are such that I contemplate all that I have and all that I am. I saw a saying, I am unsure of the author which says, “I exist as I am. That is enough.”

I retired outside knowing the next five days will be spent, almost in their entirety in a windowless office. The cicadas are singing their mating song; the pitch waxing and waning. The song of the cicadas hits a crescendo before another group of cicadas, far off to my left picks up the song and proceeds to carry the tune. I sit with my head tilted back and a flock of birds, their species unknown to me dart from tree to tree; their shape silhouetted against the fading light of dusk.

I began thinking of Thoreau as I am accompanied outside by his journal. A passage grips me and in a writing style known well to those who have read his words, identifies what I am feeling and expertly places those thoughts and feelings on paper. Thoreau, in a journal entry dated November 17, 1855, accurately sums up my feelings toward my family and my life.

“It is interesting to me to talk with Rice, he lives so thoroughly and satisfactorily to himself. He has learned the rare art of living, the very elements of which most professors do not know. His life has not been a failure but a success. Comparatively speaking, his life is a success; not such a failure as most men’s. He gets more out of any enterprise than his neighbors, for he helps himself more and hires less.Whatever pleasure there is in it he enjoys. By good sense and calculation, he has become rich and has invested his property well, yet practices a fair and neat economy, dwells not in untidy luxury. It costs him less to live, and he gets more out of life than others. To get his living, or keep it, is not a hasty or disagreeable toil. He works slowly but surely, enjoying the sweet of it. And thus his life is a long sport and he knows not what hard times are.”

As in past writing, Henry does a most excellent job of summing up my thoughts. Perhaps it is the life which I have chosen which, consistent with Henry has already done an adequate job of summing up my thoughts.

Namaste

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The End of Frustration

With palms together,

I wish you all a Good Morning

It’s a little after 10:00 AM and outside I see a blue sky which promises to provide a beautiful weather background for this Fourth of July. My heart is taking in this beautiful morning, a morning which followed a week complete with frustrations, joy and solitude. It often felt as though every day of this past week has been filled with more downs than uplifting moments. It is weeks such as this which challenge me. I make time every morning to ensure the day begins with the skills necessary to ensure a smooth transition from personal life to professional life and back again.

I believe I am a typical individual; as things get in the way throughout the day, frustration often rises and I find myself forgetting the skills which have allowed me to successfully manage the frequent turmoil. When the skills feel to be completely lost, I find myself resorting to a more primal response; swearing. To swear (paribhasa or sapati) is to utter rude or insulting speech, usually when angry. The Buddha described such speech as “rough, cutting, bitter about others, abusive to others, provoking anger, and disturbing the mind.” For many of us, despite our desire and the spiritual path which we follow, it becomes an easy path; a path of least resistance on which we find ourselves walking.

As with all life stressors which we may not have the ability to control, we are responsible for our response. When I discover that I lack adequate information to complete tasks at my job, when I discover there was misinformation and discovered or admitted I have no control over these stressors; calmness is all but forgotten. It becomes easy to rely on those primal responses. Those same responses which, when used again and again become second nature. I find myself going on auto-pilot and if left unchecked will find myself crashing and burning. We struggle with the knowledge that there are many life stressors over which we have no control and blame others for our life situations. Autopilot is nothing but a click away. We feel justified in our response because “everyone does it.”

I return to my daily practice in life to make sure there are many  other options than simply returning to autopilot. I sit quietly with my mind in meditation and letting it be what it is. When I am out on a run, especially a long run, I often do battle with my mind, my thoughts. It becomes easy to resort to autopilot and this skill of sitting quietly and training my mind to not reactively respond to thoughts is integral to my success each day. My mindful practice allows me to see things as they are when they happen as opposed to what I would prefer or like them to be as they happen. When I allow my mindfulness to take the front seat, it becomes easier to make adjustments in mood, behavior, and demeanor. It’s not that I am not frustrated, angry, sad or fearful; it is the ability to recognize these feelings and be able to create a space between these feelings, the thoughts which accompany them and my response. I can easily admit I do not always desire to take this the higher road. It is easier to yell, scream, swear and stomp our feet. This produces more stress which may not be noticeable at first but will certainly be remembered by those around us and give use the appearance that we respond reactively to everything in life. This causes a lack of trust by others in us and in our abilities. The more I practice mindfulness, the easier it becomes to not allow myself to enter this “danger zone.”

Our spiritual path accepts us as we are. We are not going to Hell for our responses. It is that we create our own Hell here on Earth.

Why I’m not afraid of dying

I felt compelled to share this beautiful story written David Menasche at CNN. I was moved by this story because it was a teacher who shared her passion with me that helped me to be where I am today and also helped me to share my passion for life and for change with my patients.

For 16 glorious years, I taught 11th-graders at a magnet high school in Miami. For me, teaching wasn’t about making a living. It was my life.

Nothing made me happier or more content than standing in front of a classroom and sharing the works of writers such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jack Kerouac, Tupac Shakur and Gwendolyn Brooks and watching my students “catch” my passion for language and literature.

I loved watching these 15- and 16-year-olds grapple with their first major life decisions — future careers, relationships, where to live, which colleges to attend, what to study– at the same moment they’re learning to drive and getting their first jobs and experimenting with identity and independence.

There wasn’t a day when I didn’t feel privileged to be part of their metamorphoses and grateful for the chance to affect their lives.

My classroom was my sanctuary, so on the day before Thanksgiving in 2006 when I was diagnosed with an incurable form of brain cancer at 34 and told I had less than a year to live, I did what I always did. I went to school. I needed my students to know that I trusted them enough to share life’s most sacrosanct passage. Death.

They, in turn, helped me to live in the moment and spend whatever time I had left living well. For six years, the only time I wasn’t in class was when I was undergoing brain surgery. I never avoided the topic of my cancer, glioblastoma multiforme, with my students, but it was not something I dwelled on, nor did they.

I covered my bald, lacerated head with a woolen hat and scheduled chemotherapy around my classes, and I got so good at being sick that I could run to the bathroom, heave into the toilet, flush, brush my teeth and fly back to class in under three minutes. They pretended not to notice. During that time, I even won “Teacher of the Year” for my region. I was grateful for every breath and felt as if I could live that way forever.

Then, two summers ago, the tumor in my head decided to act up. I was playing pool with a friend when I was struck with a catastrophic seizure that left me crippled and mostly blind. After two months of physical therapy and a grim prognosis for improvement, I was forced to face that I could no longer be the teacher I once was and I tendered my resignation.

The cancer had finally succeeded in taking me out of the classroom, but I wasn’t ready to let it take me out of the game. I wasn’t afraid to die. I was afraid of living without a purpose.

To paraphrase Nietzsche, a person who has a why to live can always find a how. My “why” had always been my students. I just needed to find a new “how.” Since I no longer had a classroom for them to come to me, I decided that I would go to them.

My students had taught me the greatest lesson of all…what matters is not so much about what we learn in class, but what we feel in our hearts.
David Menasche

In September of 2012, I posted my plan on Facebook. I said I wanted to spend whatever time I had left visiting with former students. My purpose was to have a chance to see firsthand how my kids were faring and to witness how, if at all, I had helped shape their young lives. It was an opportunity that few people ever get, but many, and particularly teachers, would covet.

Within hours of posting, I had invitations from students in more than 50 cities across the country. In early November, I set off on my journey, traveling across America by bus, by train, just me and my red-tipped cane.

Over the next three months, I traveled more than 8,000 miles from Miami to New York, to America’s heartland and San Francisco’s Golden Gate, visiting hundreds of my former students along the way. I had hoped I would discover that I’d instilled in at least some of them a lasting love of books and literature, and a deep curiosity about the world. But what my trip taught me was something even more gratifying.

What I learned from my travels was that my students had grown up to be kind and caring people.

People who picked me up when I fell over curbs, read to me from books I could no longer see, and cut my food when I could not grasp a knife. They shared with me their deepest secrets, introduced me to their families and friends, sang to me my favorite songs and recited my favorite poetry.

As I had hoped, they recalled favorite lessons and books from class, but, to my great surprise, it was our personal time together that seemed to have meant the most to them. Those brief, intimate interludes between lessons when we shared heartaches and vulnerabilities and victories were the times my students remembered.

And it was through them I realized that those very human moments, when we connected on a deep and personal level, were what made my life feel so rich, then and now. My students had taught me the greatest lesson of all. They taught me that what matters is not so much about what we learn in class, but what we feel in our hearts.

I am a pragmatic man. I know there is no reason I should still be alive. The cancer never lets me forget that it and not I will ultimately win this battle of wills. I know the disease will have its way with me, and sooner, rather than later.

My limbs are withering and my memory is fading. Yet as my world dims from the tumor growing in my head, I see ever more clearly the gifts the promise of an early death has brought.

My travels are done, but my students are never more than a phone call or an e-mail or a Facebook message away. And from the lessons I learned on the road, I, to borrow from the great Lou Gehrig, will die feeling like the luckiest man on Earth.

Be firm but bendy

“Life is a balance of holding and letting go.” – Rumi. Rumi was a 13th century Persian poet. He knew of the things which while being relevant today, we forget or more accurately we refuse to follow.

I woke up this morning and got ready to make a long awaited trip back to the chiropractor. The pinched nerve in my left arm/shoulder has been screaming at me the past month. I parted the slats of the blinds in my room. looking outside it was still relatively dark. A slight rain had begun to fall. I glanced toward the driveway; two cars would need to be moved into the street in order to navigate the driveway. I felt my mood sour and my arm ache. Meditation has been difficult as a result of the pinched nerve. I went for a brief run and my head began to clear.

We all have rules, routines in our lives. It is this routine which gives us direction in our life. The ability to be mindful of these rules/routine spills over into every other area of our lives. when we allow this level of mindfulness we allow ourselves to notice the texture of our life, to experience and truly live life.

It is this level of mindfulness which allows inner balance and when we feel an imbalance, it becomes easier to correct that imbalance.

Many of us are taught to be “steady as a rock” and “rigid” in our thinking. While it is important to have a firm foundation it is also important to be flexible in our thinking. So be firm but bendy

Namaste

Running, Mindfulness & Rain

I was awakened this morning by a light breeze as it whispered in my ear through the open bedroom window. Groggily I reached for my glasses and the numbers of the clock became increasingly clear. It was 4:55 AM. My alarm would sound in just 5-minutes. 

 
I lay in bed and listened to the breeze. It reminded me of my desire to run this morning. In my other ear was a much louder declaration, it was the rain; falling hard on the concrete outside. The rain suggested I reset my alarm and sleep for an additional hour.
 
When I am unable to run, I resort to another form of meditation; Mindfulness meditation. This meditation form is completed as a sitting meditation. Meditation, while running or sitting helps me to develop a deep understanding of the inter-connectedness and inter-dependence of all life and offers me practical tools to better integrate mindfulness into my daily life.
 
Thich Nhat Hahn also known as Thay, warns us that civilization is at “risk of collapse from the environmental and social damage caused by the voraciousness of our economic system.” My meditation practice helps me see an alternative vision that focuses on true happiness which Thay believes we have sacrificed on the alter of materialism.” Thay’s teachings are “based on transforming our suffering by letting go of the scars of the past as well as the worries about the future.” Thay believes, as do I that this is accomplished through meditation and mindful living. Thay spends a great deal of time discussing our addiction to material consumption as a “clear sign we are trying to paper over our suffering.” Thay suggests we should go in the opposite direction, to the very heart of our pain in order to transcend it. Business growth is based in shareholder earnings and measured in the profit and loss column of a spreadsheet. While it is undoubtedly important to make a profit, it is also important to remember the inner journey. We neglect the emotional needs of our employees. We expect them to work harder, longer and produce more all while attempting to accomplish this with less resources and support. 
 
I recall my father saying when  we discussed career choices as a child, saying, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” 
 
Much of my social work practice, firmly grounded in Eastern philosophy is also deeply rooted in Thay’s writings. Having been a practicing social worker since 1986, barley a day goes by when I am not overjoyed by my career choice. There once was a time when unhappiness was my best friend. This was a direct result of my need to compare myself to those around me. The neighbor with the new car and the big screen TV became my mentors. While they are nice and they do bring momentary happiness, I still felt empty. I was reading a recent post from a blog called, bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com. I stumbled across this blog after reading one of his books titled, “Bike Snob: Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling.” In a recent post, Bike Snob opened my eyes and made me look at my remaining attachment to material possessions. He says, “Honestly, people are such wussbags about their cars. The idea that a vehicle that weighs over a ton and lives most if not all of it’s life outside somehow shouldn’t get dented or scratched is completely delusional. If you’ve ever gently rapped on a car to let an oblivious driver know that he or she was about to run you over then you know how hysterical these morons can get when you dare touch their stupid, over-sized appliances. It’s like getting upset at someone for messing up the front door of your house by knocking on it.” He goes on to say, “Sure, I realize a lot of the blame lies with banks which trick people into leasing cars with easy monthly payments and then make them pay out the ass for every scratch and scuff when they finally return it, but it’s still pathetic how invested people are in the appearance of their econoboxes.” I laughed heartily when I read this post for what more is there to say. Many of us have a similar relationship with material things while we neglect the emotional relationships for which we lack an understanding of their importance. For me, as I learned growing up, it was in fact the perceived appearances that others have of us which defines success. I began to realize, throughI struggled with this fact for many years. 
 
I now define success by what I am able to offer to others. Materially I have little, but emotionally I am wealthy beyond my wildest imagination. My decade old car sporting 120K miles and many scratches still does the job for me. It suits me like an old pair of jeans; broken in and comfortable beyond belief. The remainder of my life falls completely into that realm. I have family and friends who love and care about me, a roof over my head, meals on my table and everyone in my family has been blessed with good health. For those things I am grateful. What more is there?
 
Namaste.
 

It’s sad

I do my best…every single day. Some days are more difficult than others but still I reach for my smile and ensure it is firmly affixed. Sometimes, that smile, loosely attached, loses its grip and falls off between my bed and the shower. I realize by my quiet that this has happened. As soon as I recognize its absence, I begin to sing or hum and the smile returns.

 
I grew up with a father diagnosed with Polio. I recall from a young age the limp which accompanied him throughout his day. At the time I did not know what it was or why it was there. It was part of my dad and I love him. As far as I was concerned it was another part of him to love.
 
I took my share of lumps in the school yard because of that limp. I look back and like my dad am thankful for that limp. He always told me that limp was a gift. He had learned from his father to never allow anyone to tell him what he could and could not do. He used that limp as a constant reminder that life is difficult and full of challenges. Challenges are made to be overcome; at least that’s what he told me. I have learned this is true.
 
That advice has served me well these many years. I feel lucky to have grown up with a father with such a point of view. Sure, we didn’t do the things that most boys did with their dad’s, like throwing a ball around. My dad struggled to do those things and as I grew older I recall him apologizing for what he could not do. I always told him “It’s alright.” I know today throwing a ball around was not something that was important. Mt dad gave me a far more important gift; the gift of introspection and love. Like most, this was a gift that I did not realize was a gift until many years later. It is also a gift which has served me well in my marriage (26-years), my two children (Marissa 24 & Stephen 20), and in my career as a social worker since 1985.
 
I have recently spoken with several individuals who attitude has been “poor” to say the very least. I have found it to be blaming, condescending and most troubling, laughing at those less fortunate. I confronted the tone first with a disbelieving facial expression. This response was not met well nor was the response to my direct verbal confrontation. I have learned to accept, as difficult as it has been to accept not everyone perceives these situations in the same fashion as I do. I am forced to remind myself I grew up with the understanding these behaviors were not acceptable and as a result I do not treat others in such a manner.
 
As Thich Nhat Hahn says, “I smile, breathe and go slowly.” In the space between each breath I recall this poem by the same Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn, “Call Me by My True Names.”
 
Call Me by My True Names

Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow –
because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing 

on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, 
when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
 

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, 
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, 
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean 
after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, 
my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, 
with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood”
to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, 
so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, 
so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

Thich Nhat Hanh

 
As a social worker and sentient being, I practice compassion everyday. My meditation practice has taught me to be strong in the face of adversity and Mindfulness has taught me to remain in this moment. This is the gift given to me by my father and it is only right that I return this great gift by passing it on to others. If you do not wish to listen to what I say, perhaps I can be a better leader by demonstrating and sharing my gift of compassion with you.
 
Namaste