Category Archives: Spirit

Reflections on the Bodhisattva

His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama (a.k.a. Gyalwa Rinpoche) serves as the highest spiritual leader of Tibet and a living Bodhisattva, or one on the path to Buddhahood (an awakened one). For those of us who are curious about this spiritual path, The Dalai Lama provides a roadmap in A Flash of Lightening in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.

bodhisattvaHe opens the book with a brief discussion of core Buddhist principles, including the Four Noble Truths (discussed in last week’s post). He also tells us that the Bodhisattva takes refuge in three elements: the exemplary life of the Buddha, the Buddha’s teaching (Dharma), and the community of followers (Sangha). They inform and model his or her thoughts and behaviors and provide encouragement on the path. Interestingly enough, the Dalai Lama cautions against taking the Buddha’s teachings at face value out of reverence. Rather, one should examine each precept thoroughly and respect them only when finding a reason to do so.

As I read through the book, I made note of several elemental character traits that the Bodhisattva embodies (and that we would do well to emulate):

Carefulness: We must beware of the tendency toward self-centeredness. We are interdependent beings who coexist in a complex web of causes and effects. We act in the best interests of ourselves and others by helping all beings find happiness and avoid suffering.

Attentiveness: We must be alert to the allure of negative emotions; they take root in the mind, obfuscate truth, and do harm. Attentiveness is the watchdog that guards against negativity in thoughts, words, and deeds, and directs the heart and mind toward all that is positive for ourselves and others. We must avoid even the smallest negative action; we should do even the smallest good.

Patience: Given pervasive suffering and our propensity to react adversely toward it, we must put forth the effort to cultivate a peaceful state of mind that wards off anger and upset. When we develop the capacity for forbearance, we grow in tolerance and remain undisturbed. When people behave unkindly toward us or others, we do not react in anger or retaliate. We consider them “teachers” with whom we practice patience; we offer them compassion. Likewise, when others are prone to lavish praise upon us, we must not become attached to it. Even if well-intentioned, praise is a distraction.

Endeavor: The enlightened being makes purposeful use of one’s short time on earth by doing what is good. We realize our potential by leveraging four supports: noble aspiration, firmness (i.e., confidence in our capacity to do the task at hand properly), a joyful countenance with regard to our work, and moderation (so we don’t overdo it and burn ourselves out!)

Meditative Concentration: Meditation trains and transforms the mind toward a focus on kindness, love, compassion, and non-harm toward others. It tamps down the distraction of random thoughts that may go negative or form needless attachment. This practice proves essential for clear insight. It cultivates a good heart, the source of all happiness and joy.

Wisdom: The wise person acknowledges that everything we experience in life – including our own sense of self – reflects our perceptions, not reality. Because ours is a relative truth, we must not cling to it and close our minds to new insights. Rather, we glimpse at the absolute nature of things by listening, reflecting, and meditating on our experience.

Finally, The Dalai Lama reminds us that we are but tourists on this planet for a short visit. Let us all resolve to receive this endowment with a good heart and a deep intention to take positive actions with compassion and make something useful of our time here.

Four Noble Truths

four noble truths

In discussing Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier last week, I mentioned Dr. Mark Epstein, MD and his influence on Harris’ path to meditation. Though Harris covered the religion beat for ABC News, he did not have a faith practice and was not drawn to spirituality. In fact, he initially bristled at meditation teachers whose calm demeanors and use of language seemed at odds with his sensibilities. In Epstein, Harris saw a man of science who had integrated his training and clinical experience in psychotherapy with the ancient teachings of the Buddha.

In Thoughts Without A Thinker, Epstein identifies the Buddha as a source of practical psychology. According to Epstein, years of deep contemplation on the nature of existence led the Buddha to profound insights into the human mind and its propensity for self-created suffering. The Buddha also discerned the means to relieve distress. He captured these insights in the Four Noble Truths.

FIRST: All existence is dukkha. The word dukkha is often translated as suffering, but a better sense of it might be pervasively unsatisfactory. We are mere mortals whose physical bodies are subject to disease, decay, old age, and death. We are prone to mental anguish by the fleeting nature of pleasurable experience and the disappointment that comes with not getting what we want. We are distressed by life’s uncertainty – never really knowing who we are, where we stand, or what will come next. And we feel pain when reality pierces the veil of our illusions. This is the reality of existence.

SECOND: The cause of dukkha is craving. We crave pleasurable sensory experiences. We have a deep desire for security that the vicissitudes of life disrupt. We thirst to understand the essential core of our being and often create false selves in order to satisfy it. We suffer when our experiences, our sense of stability, and our assumptions prove transient. So, it might be said that dukkha is not a function of what happens to us in life, but rather a function of our yearning to make it other than it is.

THIRD: The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving. When we identify the sources of our craving and become liberated from them, we are free to experience life with a sense of equanimity. We enjoy sensory pleasures without becoming attached to them. We experience life moment-to-moment without undue anxiety over its impermanence. We forego the need to define ourselves. In short, we relieve suffering not by changing life, but by changing the way we perceive it.

FOURTH: There is a path that leads out of dukkha. This Noble Eightfold Path includes right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Mindfulness and meditation loom large in Buddhist practice. In the act of bare attention, we notice our surroundings and the stream of thoughts that attend to our human experience moment-to-moment. We slow down and both observe and tame the ego and its relentless inner dialog. We are invited to notice our stray thoughts and feelings without taking ownership of them. They are “just thoughts” or “just feelings.” We learn to separate our reactions from raw sensory events and give ourselves space to explore them with interest, tolerance, and compassion. And when we come face-to-face with cherished images we hold of ourselves, we may well realize how insubstantial they truly are. We can let them go.

One might perceive the Four Noble Truths as pessimistic and the call to mindfulness ascetic. Nothing could be further from the truth! Rather, when we open ourselves to the transitory nature of existence, Epstein notes a “shift from an appetite-based, spatially conceived self [that is] preoccupied with a sense of what is lacking to a breath-based, temporally conceived self [that is] capable of spontaneity and aliveness.” We can let go and surrender to the moment. And that seems quite satisfying to me.

What is Karma?

Jagadish Vasudev (a.k.a. Sadhguru) served as my teacher this week. An Indian yogi and author, he recently published Karma: A Yogi’s Guide to Crafting Your Destiny. Here are key concepts.

karmaKarma is not some outside force that acts upon us for better or worse. We are not unwitting beneficiaries of “good karma” or unfortunate victims of “bad karma.” Rather, every thing we do, think, or feel creates an imprint on us. These imprints inform our habits, predispositions, and tendencies. They also determine what we attract and to what we are attracted. We may go through life letting this karmic imprint drive us and live with its consequences. Or, we can elevate our awareness and learn to rewrite our “karmic software.”

In simple terms, karma tells us that every action we perform has consequences. Those consequences can have individual or collective impact. They also shape the people we become and the societies in which we live. When bad things happen to good people, we find the root of the problem in collective karma.

Volition matters more than action. We may act impulsively and suffer a regrettable outcome that causes pain temporarily. But when we repeatedly contemplate hostile or vengeful acts – even if we do not take action on them – we darken our souls and suffer internally. On the flip side, we create positive karma when we consistently operate out of a state of fulfillment versus inner hankering no matter what our circumstances. While we may not be able to control what happens to us, we always have the freedom to choose our responses. This freedom enables us to chart our destiny, not be ruled by it.

Karma also has to do with our sense of self. We experience karmic bondage when we hold rigidly to identities formed by our DNA, families, cultures, life experiences, and memories. We lose touch with our discerning minds and work largely according to engrained thoughts, prejudices, and patterns. We become ensnared by external goals and expectations; we march unconsciously toward them. We find release by holding our identities and histories lightly. A loosened grip provides flexibility and greater potential for transformation.

Karma is an invitation to look within and take responsibility for our lives. We needn’t chase after what society deems worthy or laudable. Saghguru tells us:

“We were never meant to act to find fulfillment. Fulfillment was seen as an inner condition. It could not be pursued externally. We act in order to express our fulfillment, not acquire it. We act in order to celebrate our inner completeness, not pursue it.”

Life should be an expression of happiness, not its pursuit. It is best viewed as an offering to a universe to which we are all connected. With attention and awareness, we can immerse ourselves in right action and lose consciousness of the self. We become involved in the process, not the outcome. Life becomes an endless outpouring of internal joy.

To that end, Saghguru encourages us to live in the moment. The past is a memory, and the future unwritten. Yet, we often cloud our present experience with their influences. Why be enslaved by your old baggage (old karma)? Why constrain your future before you even live it? We need to give our present karma an escape route. For example, a meditation practice can help us create distance from our minds and thereby create distance from thoughts about the past or future. Saghguru says:

“When there is no karma imprint in conscious experience, every action and experience becomes liberating… You have the choice and the ability to be any way you want in a given moment.

Finally, Saghguru admonishes us not to think of karma in terms of a lifetime (or lifetimes!) of accumulation. Think of it in terms of this living moment. It’s that simple.

Radical Acceptance

I enjoyed reading Tara Brach’s book Radical Compassion so much that I was drawn to an earlier work, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha. Both books serve up sound teaching, real life examples, and context-specific meditations. While neither last week’s post nor this one will capture the richness of the text, I’ll highlight a few concepts that struck home.

Tara defines radical acceptance as a willingness to experience ourselves and our lives just as they are. It’s comprised of two mutually reinforcing elements: the ability to see clearly in the present moment (i.e., awareness), and the ability to hold that experience with kind and loving attention (i.e., compassion). Both elements are essential for acceptance to take flight. Awareness alone feeds our inclination to analyze our experiences and get caught up in stories about them. Compassion alone makes us vulnerable to self-pity.

awareness and compassion
A critic might argue that acceptance diminishes motivation for continuous improvement. If we deem ourselves “OK,” why bother changing? Tara would argue just the opposite. When we bring a kind and clear attention to our humanity with all its limitations and capacity for error, we disrupt reactivity – e.g., fear, shame, anxiety – and the defense mechanisms that go with them. We acknowledge what is. We allow ourselves to feel what we need to feel and then move forward with positive action. Unprocessed pain keeps us stuck, if not miserable. “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”

A critic might also argue that acceptance negates responsibility. Again, this critique proves misguided. Having mindful awareness and compassion for our actions does not release us from responsibility for them. Rather, it relieves us of the self-hatred and recriminations that thwart our ability to respond appropriately, make reparations, and restore right relationship with ourselves and others.

Radical acceptance makes space for acknowledging and responding to human desire. The world is full of sensory stimuli that give us pleasure – a beautiful sunset, a delicious meal, the aroma of freshly baked bread, an uplifting song, the touch of a loved one’s hand. We can also take great pleasure in our work and the sense of accomplishment that comes from mastering skills or attaining goals. And we can enjoy the companionship of lovers, family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Human desire does not make us less righteous or spiritual. Quite the contrary! Desires and their fulfillment confer a profound sense of being alive. That being said, our awareness calls us to the recognition that all such experience proves transient. We must counsel ourselves to be free from overly identifying with them. No matter how gratifying our experiences, we cannot hold tight to circumstances that are by their very nature in a constant state of flux.

On what resources can we draw to provide support for the experience of radical acceptance? Tara names three fundamental refuges that offer sanctuary for our awakening hearts and minds.

An awakened nature enables us to surrender into an experience of boundless compassion with the prayer, “I take refuge in the Beloved,” or, “I take refuge in the awakening heart-mind.” An awakened nature does not promise the absence of fear, but rather a refuge that is vast enough to hold our fear and vulnerability with lovingkindness. It is the promise of freedom and serenity.

The dharma (the path or the way) recognizes that everything within and around us is subject to change. It cautions against the temptation to resist or hold on to the stream of experience. By taking refuge in the dharma, we awaken from the trance of fear and realize our true nature.

The sangha (community of spiritual aspirants) tells us that we belong to all those who desire to awaken. As Tara says:

“Being with good friends helps us relax about our inner weather and stop regarding our painful emotions or confused behaviors as symptoms of spiritual backsliding. As we bring our vulnerability, insight and heart into conscious relationship, we realize we are all waking up together. In this environment of togetherness, deep healing becomes possible… [Moreover] when radical acceptance blossoms in our relationships, it becomes a kind of spiritual reparenting that enables us to trust the goodness and beauty of who we really are.”

Take a Pause and Practice R.A.I.N.

I just finished a 10-day Radical Compassion Challenge with Dr. Tara Brach during which I also read her book, Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of R.A.I.N. It was a wonderful experience and a very good read.

Merriam-Webster defines compassion as “a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” This definition suggests that compassion is an emotion directed outward with an implied penchant for action. Tara asks us to take this sensibility and apply it to ourselves. She argues that when we find the courage to love ourselves into healing, we amplify our capacity to exercise care, compassion, and forgiveness in service of others and the world at large.

In today’s world, it’s not easy to be emotionally attuned. Many of us are running our legs off trying to keep up with work and home responsibilities. When we’re not caught up in the busy-ness of life, we can become enthralled with screen-based distractions – binge-watching TV, surfing the web, texting, using social media, checking email, etc. We can place ourselves in a kind of trance where we either don’t notice what we are feeling or get swept away by emotion (e.g., anger, fear, anxiety). I know what it’s like to fall under those spells.

I frequently watch TV when I don’t have anything else to do. Even when I choose a decent show, I can find myself getting restless. Rather than tap into the feeling and explore it, I head on over to the kitchen to fix myself a snack. I can be well into my second or third handful of mixed nuts before I wake up and go, “What a minute! What are you doing?”

I also know what it’s like to be in the grip of a strong emotion. Just this week, a planned 2-hour webcast was delayed 30 minutes due to technical difficulties and another 10 minutes due to user error. Given that I’d paid a pretty penny for the class, I was really steamed by the presenter’s lack of preparation. I allowed my irritation to get the upper hand, thereby diminishing my enthusiasm for the material once the class got up and running.

What’s the remedy?

Tara invites us to pause, take a breath, and connect to our moment-to-moment experience. Rather than focus on what’s happening on the outside, take a genuine interest in the real, living experience in our minds and body. We can learn to respond (and not simply react) by practicing R.A.I.N. (Recognize – Allow – Investigate – Nurture). Here’s an explanation and a case in point.

recognize, allow, investigate, nurture

Recognize: Pay attention to thoughts, emotions, and sensations as they arise. So, before getting out of my comfortable chair in front of the TV and heading into the kitchen, I could pause and ask myself what I’m feeling. I’d probably admit that I’m less-than-captivated by the on-screen entertainment. I’m restless and bored; I’m not hungry.

Allow: Let the thoughts, emotions, and sensations just be. Don’t try to control or judge them. Don’t label them right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate. Just say “YES” to them and invite them to sit with you. In particular, I could simply acknowledge that I’m not stimulated by television. I don’t need to pass judgment on the content of the show or berate myself for choosing to watch TV instead of doing something else. I’ll just allow boredom and restlessness be boredom and restlessness.

Investigate: Bring an interested and kind attention to the experience. Notice what assumptions and beliefs undergird your current feelings. What sensations do they evoke in the body, and where are they located? What do they seem to be telling you? As a chronic thinker, I’d be tempted to stay up in my head and analyze my feelings and figure out what they mean. But Tara invites us to notice where these feelings show up in the body. Oh, I’m feeling tingly and fidgety in my arms and legs. There’s an aliveness within me that seems to be pushing against being sedentary.

Nurture: Call for a response from the wisest and most compassionate part of your being. Allow yourself to feel loved, supported, and worthy. Trust in your essential goodness. Take action to further your highest good. Mmm, maybe I should take a walk and enjoy nature. Or find a really good book to read. Or call a friend and have a wonderful conversation. Or maybe change the channel… haha!

It just might be a good idea to write PAUSE on post-it notes and place them strategically around the house. They’ll remind me to take a breath, practice R.A.I.N., and help me be more present.



When my husband and I gather for our holiday meal tomorrow, we will be guided by the Haudensaunee Thanksgiving Address, provided in edited form below.

Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as people.

We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time

We give thanks to all the Waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms – waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans.

We turn our minds to the all the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We send our greetings and thanks.

Now we turn toward the vast fields of Plant life. As far as the eye can see, the Plants grow, working many wonders. Since the beginning of time, the grains, vegetables, beans, and berries have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from them, too. We gather all the Plants together as one and send them a greeting of thanks.

Now we turn to all the Medicine Herbs of the world. From the beginning they were instructed to take away sickness. They are always waiting and ready to heal us. We are happy there are those who remember how to use these plants for healing. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the Medicines and to the keepers of the Medicines.

We gather our minds together to send greetings and thanks to all the Animal life in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We are honored by them when they give up their lives so we may use their bodies as food for our people. We are glad they are still here and we hope that it will always be so.

We now turn our thoughts to the Trees. The Earth has many families of Trees who have their own instructions and uses. Some provide us with shelter and shade, others with fruit, beauty and other useful things. Many people of the world use a Tree as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind, we greet and thank the Tree life.

We put our minds together as one and thank all the birds who move and fly about over our heads. The Creator gave them beautiful songs. Each day they remind us to enjoy and appreciate life.

We are all thankful to the powers we know as the Four Winds. We hear their voices in the moving air as they refresh us and purify the air we breathe. They help us to bring the change of seasons. From the four directions they come, bringing us messages and giving us strength.

We now send greetings and thanks to our eldest brother, the Sun. Each day without fail he travels the sky from east to west, bringing the light of a new day. He is the source of all the fires of life.

We put our minds together to give thanks to our oldest grandmother, the Moon, who lights the night-time sky. She is the leader of woman all over the world, and she governs the movement of the ocean tides. By her changing face we measure time, and it is the Moon who watches over the arrival of children here on Earth.

We give thanks to the Stars who are spread across the sky like jewelry. We see them in the night, helping the Moon to light the darkness and bringing dew to the gardens and growing things. When we travel at night, they guide us home.

We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened Teachers who have come to help throughout the ages. When we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people.

Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator.

We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way.

Restore Relationship with the Land

mountain lakeIn nineteenth century America, Native Americans in the Eastern United States were forcibly relocated from their ancestral homes to lands west of the Mississippi River. Those who remained were forced to abandon their languages, customs, and beliefs and adopt Western European sensibilities. In the process, we quashed their deep reverence for the land and the way of life that kept it healthy and whole.

In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer calls for a return to Native American sensibilities in response to sustained assaults on the delicate ecosystem on which all life depends. As a botanist, she leverages the scientific method to assess the environmental cost of our inattention to the environment. As a member of the Potawatomi Nation, she brings her people’s stories, traditions, and practices to bear on reorienting our thinking and finding a path toward restoration. The book is a delightful and evocative read.

She begins with the story of Skywoman who fell to the earth and worked collaboratively with all of the creatures who preceded her to co-create the world. Each contributed gifts to benefit the common good; some made sacrifices to benefit the greater whole. The story tells us that nothing comes into being without cost. We are admonished to respond with gratitude and a sense of responsibility for what has been given.

While origin stories may vary across tribes, the central tenet of connection to the land and all of its creature remains. Native Americans belong to the land in a way that sustains them physically and spiritually. It provides them with the bounty of its harvest; it is the great teacher that counsels them on how to live in harmony with creation and with one another. Here are some of its admonitions.

Create a home where all life can flourish. All things have a purpose. Individuals, animals, sea creatures, plants, insects, waterways, and elements of nature bestow distinctive gifts that contribute to the well-being of the whole. Never interfere with the sacred purpose of another being. Never imperil any part of this intricate web lest you jeopardize your own survival. Practice kindness and compassion.

See the world as a gift. Live in acknowledgement of an earth that feeds you, quenches your thirst, and provides warmth and shelter. Stop and take note of these rich endowments. Give thanks. When you abandon gratitude, the gifts abandon you.

Pair gratitude with the practice of reciprocity and responsibility. While the earth’s gifts are given freely, they require attentive caregiving to sustain their bounty. Just about everything we use or consume comes at the expense of another life. Reciprocity resolves the moral tension of taking life by returning something of value to restore the balance of nature. Responsibility encourages life-sustaining practices that ensure a healthy ecosystem across the generations.

Reconnect with the landscape by planting a garden. Be mindful of the ways in which food production results from a partnership between the land and its nutrients, the sun, the rain, and the human caregiver who sows the seeds and watches over their development. Consider what it takes to keep this garden healthy and productive year after year. As you work in the garden, let it feed you in body as well as spirit.

Participate in honorable harvests by taking only what you need and using everything you take. Engage in practices that bring forth long term benefits for people and plants. Never take more than half; leave the rest to maintain the health and vigor of wild life. Celebrate and give thanks for every mouthful.

Live in community. Keep one another accountable for your commitments to honor the whole of life. Use ceremony to codify what matters and bind the community together.

In all things, be vigilant against greed. Do not be fooled into thinking that belongings are more meaningful than belonging. Restraint, sharing, and stewardship are essential for survival. Stand against an economy that destroys the earth to profit the greedy; demand one that aligns with life.

Leave the world better than when you found it.

Read the book… or, better yet, check out the audiobook and listen while Dr. Kimmerer shares her wonderful stories and words of wisdom.

Twelve Practices for Spiritual Insight

I had occasion recently to reacquaint myself with Carolyn Myss’ Anatomy of the Spirit: The Seven Stages of Power and Healing, one of her 5 New York Times best-selling books. She’s a self-described subject matter expert in the fields of human consciousness, spirituality and mysticism, health, energy medicine, and the science of medical intuition. The book explores “energy anatomy,” a line of inquiry that correlates emotional, psychological, and spiritual stress with disease.

As one who has been interested in the mind-body connection and its impact on well-being, I found her work intriguing. It ties the 7 chakras, bodily organs, and related mental/emotional issues to specific physical dysfunctions. (See attached.) While I would pursue conventional medical treatment should I experience any of the indicated maladies, I’d certainly give due consideration to the indicated mental/emotional issues and their influence on recovery. Read the book for a detailed exposition of her work.

For today’s post, I thought I’d paraphrase her twelve practices to attain symbolic sight and increase one’s ability to mirror divine reasoning. They’re good advice and may very well contribute favorably to a healthy lifestyle. They are:

  1. Practice introspection. Notice what you do and what you believe; explore the roots of your behaviors and worldviews.
  2. Be open-minded. Be an attentive observer to your thoughts and take notice when your mind “shuts down.”
  3. Be on the alert for defensiveness. It’s a clear indication that your mind is working to keep new insights from entering and influencing your consciousness.
  4. Recognize that all situations and relationships are “teachers,” even if you cannot recognize the messages or lessons in the moment.
  5. Pay attention to your dreams; they may provide valuable guidance and insight.
  6. Process and release thoughts that promote self-pity or anger; stop blaming others for things that happen to you. Such thoughts keep you stuck in unhealthy places and forestall growth.
  7. Practice detachment. Gather relevant data dispassionately to make the best possible decisions in the moment. Don’t constrain yourself to work toward a specific outcome.
  8. Refrain from judgments about people, situations, and the size and importance of tasks. The narrow window of the present does not provide a complete view of all the facts or details of any situation nor the long-term consequences of your actions.
  9. Recognize when you have been overtaken by fear and allowing its influence to govern your behavior. Identify the source and its impact on your mind and emotions. Make choices that diminish its influence.
  10. Distance yourself from value systems that argue for achieving certain goals as the precursor for success. Visualize success as an energy force through which you achieve enlightenment, self-control, and the wherewithal to navigate the challenges and opportunities that life presents.
  11. Act on your inner guidance; don’t wait for external validation of your intuition. The more you cling to a need for “proof,” the less likely you’ll receive it or recognize it when it comes.
  12. Focus your attention on the present moment. Don’t linger on the past or worry about the future. Learn to trust what you cannot see.

A Healing Balm for the Holidays

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, the day on which the holidays officially begin. (Yep – I ignored the Christmas decorations that were already going up in October!) We’ll spend time with my mother at her Memory Care facility and enjoy a (small) bite to eat while we watch a DVD together. Then we’ll share a meal with friends who were gracious enough to include us in their family gathering.

I’ll confess that I’m having trouble putting myself in an appropriately thankful spirit. On a conscious level, I am well aware of the many blessings in my life, not the least of which are family, friends, purposeful work, and the good health and resources to enjoy them. However, I’m overbooked for the umpteenth time in my life and wonder how I’ll get myself through the next few months. I can’t scan the headlines without getting a knot in my stomach.

As I was flipping through an old notebook in search of inspiration for this week’s post, I came across a poem that I first read in high school. It is timeless and good medicine for what ails me… and perhaps you, too.

by Max Ehrmann

peaceful gardenGo placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

The Road to Character

New York Times columnist David Brooks has made his living observing and commenting on the political and cultural developments of the day. In The Road to Character, he turns his attention to the annuls of history to explore a moral ecology that stands in sharp relief to the prevailing focus on the self. He writes:

the road to character“My general belief is that we’ve accidentally left this moral tradition behind… We’re not more selfish or venal that people in other times, but we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built. The ‘crooked timber’ moral tradition – based on an awareness of sin and the confrontation of sin – was an inheritance passed down from generation to generation. It gave people a clearer sense of how to cultivate the eulogy virtues, how to develop the [better] side of their nature. Without it, there is a certain superficiality to modern culture, especially in the moral sphere.”

Brooks explores this terrain by providing real-life examples of how the shaping of a human soul worked. His intent was to allow his readers to glean important lessons and insights by bearing witness to these extraordinary lives. I found each of these biographies riveting – well worth the time it took to engage them.

While Brooks is loath to suggest that there is a twelve-step program to lead interested parties to a moral life, he identified a number of “threads” that seemed to run through the lives of the individuals that he highlighted in his book. The associated prescriptive for righteous living might read something like this:

  • Lead a life of purpose, righteousness, and virtue, not just one of pleasure.
  • Recognize our innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence as well as our propensity to see ourselves as the center of the universe; use this awareness as the starting point for moral and spiritual development.
  • Engage earnestly in the struggle to overcome our baser instincts and grow in moral strength through a lifetime of effort. Sacrifice worldly success for the sake of inner excellence.
  • Practice humility, recognizing that we are underdogs in the struggle against our weaknesses.
  • Be vigilant over prideful tendencies that ignore our failings and deceive us into believing that we are better than others.
  • Be more attuned to the internal struggle against our deficiencies than the external journey up the ladder of success.
  • Become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment.
  • Build enduring character traits – e.g., courage, honesty, humility – through sustained attachments to worthy people, causes, callings, and convictions. Be faithful through thick and thin.
  • Leverage redemptive assistance from the outside – faith, family, friends, ancestors, exemplars, traditions, institutions – to achieve self-mastery.
  • Recognize and surrender to the saving power of grace – from love of family and friends, from the assistance of a stranger, and from God.
  • Be a grateful recipient of the endowment of practical wisdom, traditions, habits, manners, moral sentiments, and practices from our forbearers, recognizing that experience is a better teacher than abstract reason.
  • Serve work that is intrinsically compelling and commit to its pursuit, ever mindful of what life is asking of us.
  • Be good stewards of organizations over which we are called to be leaders, passing them along to others in better condition that when we found them.
  • Attain maturity by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation, sure-footed in pursuit of noble purpose, and clear-headed amid reactions from admirers and detractors.

For those who might find the narrow path to righteousness stringent, Brooks provides a comforting and salutary observation:

“There is joy in a life filled with interdependence with others, in a life filled with gratitude, reverence, and admiration. There’s joy in freely chosen obedience to people, ideas, and commitments greater than oneself… There’s an aesthetic joy we feel in morally good action, which makes all other joys seem paltry and easy to forsake.”

Read the book and have a vibrant discussion with friends about it. It just may change your life.