Twelve Contemplations for a Better Tomorrow

Are we there yet?

Kids have no sense of time, which has annoyed parents since the automobile first started rambling across America in the early twentieth century. While parents ruminate about the past and worry about the future, kids just live in the here and now. “What’s for lunch?” is as far as they look forward and yesterday is easily forgotten. In the last few years, however, both kids and adults were on the same page: would the present never end? We all seemed stuck; triangulated between the forces of fear, bewilderment, and boredom. Our world oscillated like a gyroscope with a slightly bowed axis, leaving us in a dizzied state of disorientation. As if we were walking through a hall of mirrors where our reflection is distorted and we struggle to recognize our likeness. Familiarity seemed always just beyond our comprehension. Normal? Get real.

To muddle things further, since the presidency of Trump and the pandemic, it seems we can’t get anything done. Collective action for the greater good has succumbed under the weight of divisive malice. Innovation of any kind, from technology to popular culture has been in a Covid-induced stupor, and violence has become the prevailing currency of all disputes. Notwithstanding the many so-called influencers who pursue fandom on social media, our culture entered a period of mind-numbing stasis. Been wowed by a new technology lately? Inspired by a new young leader? Seen a great new movie? Listened to stunning new music? Been enthralled by a new author? Neither have I. I expect someday historians may look back at this era and call it the Big Dark Pause. The life expectancy of Americans has dropped two years in a row—for the first time in over one-hundred years in 2020, and the second in 2021. There is nothing darker than premature death.

However, this too shall pass.

In historical context, pauses like the current one signal a pivot point after which a new direction, with predictably hopeful enthusiasm, is set anew. We move forward with new norms, expectations, and inspirations. In the meantime, pauses also offer an opportunity to recenter the self in a manner to affect personal orientations and dispositions. To find light in the darkness. Now is the time to prepare, before the gyroscope’s axis straightens. Crises always offer opportunities if we are willing to do the work.

I received a number of inquiries following my August 2 post: “The Identity Trap: Suffering or Transcendence?” that described four phases of life and the keys to avoiding suffering in the last quarter in favor of transcendence. Several readers asked for more input on their own quest to reset their lives as we emerge from our current malaise. What follows here are a number of contemplations to consider. My own journey has been informed by two ancient philosophies: Stoicism and Mindfulness. From Seneca to Buddha. Each is unique. Each is powerful. I have found both to be extremely valuable.  I also realized that the only way to make sense of either was through immersion. Between language, time period, and cultural differences, it is difficult to assimilate much of the knowledge that can appear abstract, circular, and paradoxical to the modern western mind. In addition, the confusion one must endure from many teachers using different definitions for the same terms can be quite frustrating. So, my synthesis of contemplations (after wading and wallowing through many books, podcasts, and lectures) is offered below as a utilitarian guide to a personal reset. I have attempted, as best I can, to extract the essence of the ancients in a manner that is both understandable and useful for people like me; for people like you.

Here you go:

  1. Get naked. (Metaphorically, of course.) If you are over forty-five, let go of your carefully crafted identity you wear like a suit of armor. It may have served you well when you were younger, but if you want to live your life on the path to tranquility rather than suffering—you need to let go of your identity and give your ego a much-needed rest. Our psyche, formed from our beliefs, knowledge, experiences, fears, preferences, and prejudices gets way too much playing time. Keep your heart and mind open. Learning is essential. Focus on crafting wisdom rather than hardening your identity. Being naked as a default state leaves all your options open. You can wear what you want to fit the situation and its circumstances. And, no one will accuse you of becoming a bore—you will never go out of style!
  2. Reality is what it is. Let it be. Manage your relationship with reality rather than trying to affect reality itself. I have always been a big believer in manifesting my own destiny; in controlling outcomes in my favor. After years of banging my head against that wall, I have awakened to the fact that most outcomes have nothing to do with factors within our control. Thinking otherwise is admirable, but delusional. That is not to say I do not believe one person can’t have an extraordinary impact on the achievement of a particular goal, just that there are too many exogenous variables—outside of our control—that have influence on results in a world that is now as integrated and complex as ours. And, in the last few years, exogenous variables have played a ferocious role in outcomes. Mitigating risk has become an extraordinary challenge. Shifting your control-freak disposition to your relationship with reality—as it is—rather than believing you can affect reality directly is a much saner way to live.
  3. Die to live. If today was the last day of your life, would you die in peace? If not, why not? Make a list of the why-nots. First, eliminate bucket-list items: things you want to do that amount to little more than ego-satisfiers. It doesn’t mean you eliminate them from your pursuits, but recognize that they are actually superficial in the scheme of dying in a state of peace. Then, identify each item on the remaining list as in your control, or out of your control. Discard—cross out—those items out of your control. This can be difficult, but it makes no sense to trouble yourself with items that you can do nothing about—for whatever reason. Most unresolved issues that remain will come in three flavors: obligations, dependencies, and conflicts. Finally, work your list. The goal is to eliminate as many items as is possible. Once that is done you may die in peace. Of course, you won’t—at least not on that day—but here’s the big payoff: every next day is a gift! Every next day can be enjoyed in a state of liberation. One last caveat: after your liberation, don’t add anything else to that list in the future. That would just be dumb.
  4. Now is all that matters. Be that kid in the backseat of the station wagon again. Stay present. There is absolutely nothing you can do about the past. Throw away that rearview mirror. Dwelling is dangerous for both mental and physical health. Look to the future to foster hope and aspiration, but don’t fool yourself about expected outcomes. The only moment you can affect with some certainty is the present. Focus on mastery in the moment, one moment at a time. It doesn’t matter if you are washing dishes or performing before a large audience. Everyone benefits: the dishes, the audience, and you. And, those close to you will suddenly find you much more interesting if you pay attention to them in the moment.
  5. No regrets nor desires. Regrets are about the past and desires are about the future; they are not the now (see #4 above). Moreover, they reflect a dissatisfaction with reality (see #2 above). Their biggest problem, however, is that the give suffering a handhold—a place to land. Virtually all of our suffering comes from wanting things to be other than they are. Regrets and desires cause depression and often lead to rash decision-making when coupled with debilitating ruminations. Some people live their entire lives litigating regrets and chasing desires. We have all known one or more of them. They are human wrecking balls. The better aim is contentment, which is a core element of grace—of practicing courteous goodwill.
  6. Play the inner game. Internal, not external. The inner game is one that is entirely within our control—where the outcome is certain. External is conditional, which means, by definition, is out of our control. Friends are conditional, and unfortunately spouses are too. Even the pledge of unconditional love is conditioned upon its pledge and honor of the pledger. Happiness can also be conditional if it depends on anything external. To quote William Ernest Henley’s poem, you can be the “master of my fate” and “captain of my soul” if you focus on the inner game. Mastering the inner game will make you stronger than any threat you face in life; the fiercest of warriors and most certain victor. Steel thyself. Be your own best friend. Engage with all the rest with a level of prudent circumspection. Trust others to do what they believe is in their best interest and you will seldom, if ever, feel betrayed. Finally, as the Stoics remind us: it is not what happens that matters, it is how you respond to what happens that matters.
  7. The only thing that is permanent is impermanence. Nothing lasts. A frustrated student of a Buddhist monk once asked him to define the philosophy of Buddhism in one sentence. The monk did it in two words: “everything changes.” Everything comes and everything goes. This reality affects both the desirable and the undesirable. Fighting change, as with regrets and desires (see #5, above) is a surefire pathway to suffering. This is one of the reasons why clinging, clutching, and grasping are futile. Let it be and let it go. Masochism is not a pathway to transcendence and peace. Reckless reaction and/or determined resistance will not defeat impermanence. Your willpower is better aimed at letting life be life. Your ego will fight you mightily on this, which is why you must redirect your will to achieve a sense of mindful equanimity.
  8. Simplify. Happiness is simple, it is simplicity that is hard. It is so easy to complicate our lives. The principal beneficiary of complexity is our ego. How many times have you spoken to a friend or family member and sat patiently while they rattled off how busy, complicated, and overwhelming their life is? They are seeking acknowledgment from you to accomplish one thing: feed their ego. Yes, life is busy and can be very hard. But the difficulty is largely of our own making. The vast majority of our responsibilities and burdens in the modern era are self-inflicted. All too often complexity is driven by regrets and desires (see #5, above). We feel we must expand our lives to find happiness. New toys, experiences, friends, and lovers. Want happiness? Seek simplicity. Learn to discard and learn to stop yourself before you reach for that next shiny object. That next Amazon box will not make you happy.
  9. Fear and anger are toxic. And, they are levers of manipulation—your manipulation. I know no person on the planet that understands this better than Donald Trump. It is how he became president and could be again. Fear and anger act to diminish our power in two ways. The good news is that both are in our control. First, clutching fear and anger cause us to act in ways that violate our fundamental values. Among other things, this creates internal conflict—cognitive dissonance—that is the foundation of mental illness, from simple depression to more disabling mental disorders. Second, if we are provoked by fear and anger our reaction only accomplishes one thing: the transfer of power from ourselves to the provocateur. Action? Good. Reaction? Bad. I am forever amazed at how people take offense and display anger—even hatred—over name calling. Being triggered (to invoke a fashionable term of victimhood) is the moment when the triggered transfers power to the offender. In a state of fear and anger, we can be made to do almost anything; seldom in our own best interest. Why would anyone do that? Keep your power for yourself.
  10. Leave things better than you found them. One of three key American cultural dispositions that truly made America great, which I wrote about more extensively in Saving America in the Age of Deceit, is the disposition of perfectibility. It is based in the simple belief that we can improve the world we live in and have an obligation—even patriotic duty—to do so. At the very minimum, we must not make things worse (as seems to be the current popular political modality for far too many of our leaders). Buddhism in particular sees this through the belief in connectedness of all living beings (sentient or not). Rejecting separatism (which is an unfortunate western tradition) means we have an obligation to fulfill ourselves and improve the welfare of other beings, each and every day. As the predominant actor on earth, we should accept the responsibility of taking on the greatest challenges for all living beings consistent with the proportional nature of equity. If we did, among other things, addressing climate change would be a no-brainer.
  11. Practice gratitude—focus your passion on the good. It starts with being aware enough in your life to occasionally pause and let the good land. Then, savor it. I have twelve sources of gratitude that I read back to myself every day; more than once a day if necessary to keep dark clouds away. It is amazing what an elixir gratitude can be. We live on one of the most amazing planets in the entire universe and on one of the most diverse and dynamic continents on that planet in a country that tries (at least historically) to respect our right of self-determination. Vitality and freedom. We are truly blessed. Things could be way worse. Besides being uplifting, gratitude is also empowering. Acting from a position of gratefulness conveys humility and garners instant credibility. The difference between manipulation and persuasion is whose interest is being served. Serving yourself is manipulation; serving others affects persuasion. The sincerely grateful one is the persuasive one.
  12. Love-and-respect, love-and-respect, repeat, repeat, repeat. Why live otherwise? It is what you want for yourself, so why not treat others in the same manner? This is the most fundamental tenet of all world religions. Pastors, priests, imams, monks, and rabbis may not practice it, but that does not excuse you. Many of our political and business leaders don’t practice it, which is why they must go. Love-and-respect is a grassroots revolution. It starts with each and every one of us. I don’t care if you are a woke Democrat, or a MAGA Republican—quit hating each other. You are only hurting yourself (see #9, above). Every being on the planet wants to be seen, heard, and appreciated. We all have good days and bad. We all have both anxieties and aspirations. Lighten someone’s load and yours will lighten too. If we are to have any chance of saving humanity, we must get this through our thick skulls, and soon. Mother Nature is losing her patience.

I know there is a lot here. Sweet peace does not happen overnight. If you pursue a personal reset, do so with quiet determination. Persevere. You will not achieve perfection—nobody does. Treat your reset as a journey rather than a destination. Your new world awaits. And, it needs you now more than ever.

By |2023-12-01T15:44:20+00:00September 4th, 2022|General, Recent, Spiritual|0 Comments

Our Time Has Come

The splitting of the chrysalis is underway; soon enough our wings will wriggle free and demand flight.

We now have permission to ask the question, “Now what?”

It is time to put our drama of trauma away. Set our claims of victimhood aside. Straighten our backs and turn our faces, once again, into the wind. From this point forward, if we are feeling oppressed or depressed it is no one’s fault but our own. The urgency of suffering and pining for “normal” has slipped from fashionable to just boring.

Two years into the pandemic we have learned a great deal about ourselves as Americans. While we can point to failures of political leadership, our scientists and healthcare providers—doctors, nurses, technicians, and public health officials—performed extraordinarily well; arguably the best in the world. Our failure to successfully quash the pandemic resides within ourselves as individuals. We neither trust each other, nor can be trusted to do the right things. Ignorance is no excuse; it is our uniquely American character that failed us—individually and collectively. The responsible independence that launched an empire of freedom, creating the greatest superpower in the history of the world, morphed into a toxic narcissism that directly resulted in extraordinary suffering and thousands of avoidable deaths.

But, at some time, all the analyses and debates—political, epidemiological, and cultural—do little, if anything, to advance our lives in a meaningful manner. That time is now.

Regardless of our age, race, gender, or ethnicity we are now emerging into our new post-pandemic selves. We have all struggled and experienced loss in different ways and to different degrees. In the same manner as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” pain flows through hearts without a predictable trajectory or outcome. Scar tissue is a certainty, but it is our burden as humans to reconcile these events in our own time and fashion—largely on our own. The best we can do now is to allow space and time and be there for each other when our wings wriggle free.

As many of you know, for me, Nature is god. I never took to the rituals and parables and especially not to the judgments and condemnations of organized religions. While many weep at the sanctity of the divine as sunlight streams through stained glass on the glowing altar of devotion accompanied by the harmony of hymns, my tears are shed with joy in my heart as I rest on a fallen log deep within the forest that shelters its inhabitants under a canopy of life. My sweet peace is found in the eyes of a fox who carefully studies me with the intention of a brother in the realm equanimity. We aren’t just of one world; we are of one heart.

Unlike traditional religions, my Nature-as-god contemplation of spirituality actually has a scientific basis. Quantum Field Theory holds that we are all inescapably linked to one another. As the electromagnetic field and electron field interact, all manner of energy and influence are conveyed by and between all of us, whether animals or plants. Albert Einstein called this “spooky action.” Physicists call it quantum entanglement. I accept it as life. Among other things, it provides the foundation for a concept I first put forward in a graduate school seminar in international relations now more than a dozen years ago: coopetition—competing to cooperate. Win-win rather than win-lose.

Like many of you, I grew up schooled in the ethic of win-lose. It took most of my life to unwind my mind from the needless perniciousness of this paradigm. Unfortunately, the pandemic was addressed principally by old white men like me who can’t let go of this win-lose ethic.  The results speak for themselves. And, until and when we can get past this, we have little, if any, hope of succeeding in addressing the more profoundly existential threat of climate change.

Our failure has been literally baked into our future thanks to everything from religions that espouse their particular God as the only legitimate god, to political parties that spend all their time shaming and condemning the other side. We deserve our fate. In the next era (if we are granted one) perhaps we will realize that “spooky action” holds that hurting one another only hurts ourselves resulting in a spiral of collapse. I acknowledge that Jesus Christ would agree with me, but am perplexed and saddened to observe self-proclaimed committed Christians in America acting otherwise every day.

At this point, finding our way (Now what?) is more important than a destination we may never—likely will never—reach. Sweet peace is not the prize at the end of the rainbow, it is the rainbow. Rest assured, in the fog of deceit, given time, truth will prevail. We must remember that life is full of both success and failure, but our learnings come principally from failure. We must keep our hearts and minds open to revelation; add patience and deliberation and the answers will reveal themselves.

Grasping at easy answers and forcing fruition is a fool’s game. Let life reveal itself in a manner that assures durable enhancements to our lives. Likes, clicks, and memes are trash that clutters the gutters of our souls. To know something “by heart” means more than memorization; it means we have learned from the heart, with our hearts, which provide the great mitigators to calm our frenetic minds. Knowledge emanating from our minds and beliefs from our hearts must be carefully balanced; curated with our eyes set on a distant horizon.

Our time has come to live in silent jubilation for being spared during the worst of the pandemic.  We must accept what we owe ourselves and each other: an acknowledgment of our obligations and dependencies to the spiritual realm of being that does not differentiate humans from other animals, or even other organisms. This is the only path forward. The destination may not be within our control, but our intentions and direction of travel are. As Mary Oliver wrote in her poem, “The Journey”:

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do—

determined to save

the only life you could save.

Welcome back, everyone. Your life is yours again.

Please express it with due humility and care.

By |2023-12-01T15:47:35+00:00February 7th, 2022|General, Spiritual, The New Realities|0 Comments

Sweet Peace: the Strength of Equanimity

Neither you, nor I, nor anybody knows what the future holds. In the last two years we have all learned this lesson. It seems like the uncertainty of the future, which heretofore lay comfortably beyond the next month or year, came crashing back to the present. Today, let alone tomorrow, has become very difficult to predict. At times, it feels like the flames are lapping at our feet. This immediacy of uncertainty has caused tremendous anxiety that has manifested as depression and pain compromising both our mental and physical health. When we add isolation to the mix, necessary to protect ourselves from Covid-19, we have, in effect, created a pressure cooker with no apparent relief valve.

Yet, by most headline measures Americans are doing well today. The stock market is up, jobs are plentiful, wages are increasing, vaccines are working (if only everyone participated), American’s savings accounts are at historical highs, our military is not involved in any hot wars, and billions of dollars in infrastructure development are being deployed to improve our communities and lives. But, anger, violence, and suicide are at epidemic levels. Despair is at an all-time high. The surgeon general is sounding the alarm about anxiety, depression, and suicide among our children and adolescents. The truth is adults are faring no better. Forget the American Dream, the American experience—our daily interactions that comprise all of those things we do to make our lives work—are, at best, strained and unreliable.

In my now six decades of being an American, I have never seen so many things that just don’t work. The simple things in life can no longer be taken for granted. It is both frustrating and exhausting. Pre-pandemic, if a water main broke there were both the workers and the pipe available to fix it. Christmas shopping did not require an advanced degree in supply chain logistics, not to mention less gift for more money. When a flight attendant accidentally bumped a passenger’s arm while performing their duties they didn’t get punched in the face. People didn’t scream at you at the Post Office for wearing a mask. And, the mail you went to pick up showed up when it was supposed to—undamaged!

The painful paradox of the American experience today is that it is counter to a culture based on striving. As Americans, we believe we cannot only perform the simple things; we can accomplish the unimaginable. We strive to pursue success and happiness on whatever terms we choose. In the midst of all the striving we eventually realize—after both victories and tribulations—that life is more about thriving than striving. At the core of thriving lies sweet peace, which is that strength of equanimity that enables each of us to thwart the effects of people and events that may harm us with a calm sense of resolve. It is also that metaphorical soft pillow we lay our soul upon when we grab a moment to express a sigh of contentment—if only to ourselves—for the blessings of our life.

Sweet peace is, however, by no means a given. Although it is foundational to thriving and resides at the center of it, it is both an essential and fragile asset. For those of us with other issues—who have been dealt an additional blow to their mental or physical health—it can result in catastrophic consequences for the individual and their family. Instability and fragility are now the norm. At times, it seems the only available coping strategies are apathy and resignation: giving up. Meanwhile, there is a large segment of America who are cheering on the destruction of our democratic institutions and reveling in the suffering of their fellow Americans to gain power for themselves, or to just satisfy their sadistic impulses. These are the demons among us.

So, what do we do?

Perhaps we should just keep our heads down and have faith in the old maxim “this too shall pass.” That feels to me, however, like the 2017 hope that the office of the presidency would change the man who held it. How do we keep our chins up and marshal on while our sweet peace shrivels like a raisin in the sun? This is a challenge many Americans wrestle with every day. Demons of despondency seem to lurk in the shadowy vestibules of the house of despair that aim to destroy sweet peace.

Here are a dozen suggestions to preserve our sweet peace; some are mine and others from people smarter than I. To build and maintain what the Stoics called our “inner citadel.” To harness the intensity of today’s pressure cooker to make us stronger.

  1. Hold fast to the memories of better days. Find comfort in the historical fact that we have faced worse and prevailed; that we know how to do things well—to make them work again. My maternal grandfather survived World War I in France and the Spanish flu of 1918-20, then persevered through the Great Depression and World War II to have a family, build many businesses and become a leader in his community. Yes, we can prevail.
  2. Practice self-care and self-love. If you don’t sincerely love yourself—first and always—who will? In an age of isolation, your own love may be the only love available to you. If that fails, it is a slippery slope into despondency. Give yourself permission to be selfish in this manner. You first.
  3. For this moment in time, mental health is more important than physical health. I am fortunate to have the skills and discipline (instilled through competitive athletics) to capably maintain my physical well-being. But, I don’t know diddly-squat about maintaining my mental health. Based on emerging data, few of us do. Making this a new priority has been essential to securing my sweet peace—to preserving my sanity and my life.
  4. As the Stoics (and later Viktor Frankl) argued, we may not be able to control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it. And, don’t forget, sometimes the best response is no response, especially when dealing with bullies—the aforementioned demons.
  5. Honor your purpose; your reason for being. Do not give up on who you are and, more importantly, why you are. Friedrich Nietzsche claimed: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how [or what, or where, or who].”
  6. Let those close to you who are struggling know you are there for them. David Brooks wrote in the New York Times recently that a pastor advised him to support those who are suffering with the personal commitment that “I want more for you.” Then, strive to make the “more” happen. Words are nice; deeds are better.
  7. Practice gratitude. As the Dalai Lama suggested, “Let us try to recognize the precious nature of each day.” Express gratitude for what is right with our life; embrace the blessings of the good. Another meditation instructor I follow, Jeff Warren, suggested to take a moment when things go right, or when you see something beautiful to “let the good land.” Savor the good things rather than just letting them pass.
  8. Know that in the long run honesty and virtue are more durable than deceit and iniquity. Selfish cowards and evil-doers tend to meet their demise sooner rather than later. Those who have hurt you will, in the end, hurt themselves such that they can no longer harm you. Karma, baby, karma.
  9. Learn to identify toxic individuals and shun them from your life. It is easy to identify and avoid obvious scoundrels, but the lighter versions—the ones who are all take and no give and who criticize you behind your back—can be obsequious in disguise, but can suck the sweet peace right out of you. They are also those who are often wrong but never uncertain. These are the parasites who find little value in their own lives so they attempt to diminish you to inflate their own fragile egos.
  10. Seek truth and live in concert with Nature. One of Stoicism’s most basic subscriptions is the pursuit of reason and truth, which also means practicing the corollary: rejecting magical thinking and deceit in all of its forms. Do not tolerate bullshit; it is poison and will afflict you both mentally and physically. Live in concert with Nature; it never lies.
  11. Learn, learn, learn. Knowledge is power and lights the path to a better life and a better world. Take care to vet your sources of knowledge. Question the givens. Similarly, avoid or discard those in your life who suffer from close-minded intellectual sclerosis. They are a close cousin of the toxic individuals in #9, above.
  12. Know your own particular deceits and blindspots and work to subdue them. Self-deception is the greatest source of pain and suffering I have endured in my life. Knowing thyself is a prerequisite to steeling thyself. These self-deceptions come in many forms, but the most dangerous one for me has been believing someone else has my best interests at heart. I have learned (the hard way) to trust others to do what they believe is in their best interest (rather than mine) to avoid what can be excruciating anguish.

The most celebrated and followed historical figures in our world are those like Jesus Christ and the Buddha who are believed to have been divinely inspired and bestowed with an inviolable sweet peace. In the face of extraordinary threats (even death) equanimity never left them. They met every circumstance, however grave, with supernatural calm.

Oh, to be like them.

In the modern era, we have witnessed similar strength from people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama. Unlike Christ and the Buddha, we know the humanity of these three; they had no special access to the divine or other resources that are not also available to us. It is our challenge, in light of the immediacy of uncertainty and threats we face today, to summon all of our perseverance and love to protect our sweet peace.

I wish sweet peace for each and every one of you during this holiday season.

By |2023-12-01T15:48:13+00:00December 16th, 2021|General, Spiritual, The New Realities|0 Comments
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