Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Careful on the Ice

A common saying in Minnesota during the winter, especially and perhaps particularly addressed to senior citizens, is “Careful on the ice, you don't want to slip and break a hip.”  It's good advice since winter in Minnesota lasts from November to April and often snow and ice cover the sidewalks and steps and make them incredibly slippery.  The advice also rhymes, and senior citizens often experience memory loss, so the rhyme helps them remember this important safety reminder that could save their lives.  Seriously.  A study I recently read in Tom Rath's fantastic book, Eat, Move, Sleep, stated that within a year of breaking a hip more senior citizens die from a hip fracture than any other injury or illness.

So I often say to myself, despite the fact that I'm only forty four years old and in excellent health with strong legs, “Careful on the ice, you don't want to slip and break a hip.”  I walk gingerly, taking tiny steps, and always assuming what deceptively looks like snow is deceitfully ice.  I continue the story in my head for a while and say, “If you slip and break a hip it's all downhill from there.  It's not a fun downhill either.  No, it's a slippery slope sliding full speed on a thin plastic toboggan with the cold Arctic air lashing at your face and your feet cold despite the fact that you're wearing wool socks and thermal insulated boots."

Then I give myself an optimistic pep talk because you need to do that often during this near Siberian and almost Dostoevskian winter.  I tell myself, “If I slip and fall, I will recover.  Better yet, I won't slip and fall!”  

Then I continue walking gingerly, taking tiny steps, and always assuming what deceptively looks like snow is deceitfully ice while I tell myself, “Careful on the ice, you don't want to slip and break a hip.”

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Lawrence Welk

I'm a forty-four year old man and often on Saturday nights I watch The Lawrence Welk Show.  My local PBS station airs it from six o'clock to seven o'clock.  Most people would say it's a show for senior citizens, but I thoroughly enjoy it.  I look forward to it.  Right before it starts, I usually open a bottle of wine and sip a glass as I watch and have a gay time. 

I love the 1950s and 60s jazz and musical numbers.  I love the visible orchestra seated in the background.  I love the smiling female singers with their perfectly curled up at the ends hair and the smiling male singers with their perfectly parted to the side hair.  I love their outfits and costumes. I love the choreographed dancing.  I love the sets suggesting a scene and the cyclorama lighting the back wall. I love Lawrence Welk's Norwegian American accent. I love the gayness of the men dancing in effeminate costumes.  I love the campy, cheesy, happy wholesomeness of the mid-century Hollywood production.   

The show beckons me to another era, another reality, both of them artificially constructed through the magical escape that is The Lawrence Welk Show. 

I watched the show as a boy on Saturday nights and so perhaps there is a nostalgic quality to it for me.  The happy theatricality Lawrence Welk created and shared with the world seemed glamorous compared to the small farming town in which I grew up.  The show made me realize that there are other realities out there, realities that people create for themselves, realities that I can create for myself. 

Too some extent, life is a performance.  As George Bernard Shaw wrote, “We create our lives.”   

Even now the show appeals to me for the same reason: shiny, happy people singing and dancing and acting and making their living through performance and I assume loving their living.  Maybe that's why I love it.  The Lawrence Welk Show is a reminder to me of people living joyfully because they have followed their passion.  I know it's an illusion.  They had their suffering just like we all do.  It wasn't all bubble and champagne and waltzes and colorful blinking lights.  But for the sake of their art, they set aside their discontent and faked it if they had to, because that is what performers often must do to create the illusion.

So if you're looking for a surprisingly good time, open a bottle of wine, kick back, relax, and get happy with The Lawrence Welk Show.  Or better yet, come on over, and we'll party together, Lawrence Welk Style!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Scooter the Buddha Cat

We first looked for a cat to adopt in the house of a middle aged woman in Iowa City who rescued cats.  Lots of cats.  At least twenty five cats lived in her house.  Cats were everywhere.  Cats laying on couches, cats curled up in chairs, cats lounging on rugs, cats snoozing on cat trees, cats looking out windows, cats sleeping on tables, cats walking on counters, cats darting across rooms, cats eating food, cats using litter boxes.  There were enough cats in that house to make it the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.  The house smelled like cats: cat fur, cat litter, cat pee.  We looked around for a while, not sure what cat or kitten we wanted, but certain the right cat would jump out at us, and in this house that was literally possible.  No matter where we walked there were a trail of cats following us and rubbing against our legs.  Every couple of feet a cat jumped off a chair or table or couch and startled us.  Most of the cats meowed as we passed them.  A few of them hissed at us.   

Then Adam, my partner at the time, saw the cat he wanted.  A white cat with brown spots who walked with a limp because he was missing his front left leg.  He also twitched every several seconds with what looked like a total body spasm.  Crazy Cat Lady told us that this cat had been hit by a car, and in addition to losing his leg, he also suffered brain damage which left him with the twitch.  Adam told me he thought we should get this cat because nobody else would take the three legged twitching cat.  It was just like Adam to do something kind like this.  

It's the reason he adopted Deke, that cat who had died six months ago and the reason we were adopting a cat.  Deke was deaf and Adam was certain no one would want the deaf cat.  It's one of the traits I loved most about Adam: he had a big heart for the less fortunate.    

But I had never had a cat before and I wanted an able bodied cat with no brain damage.  I wanted a kitten, a cute kitten with all its legs and nerves in tact.  Adam understood and we decided not to get the three-legged, brain damaged cat that twitched.  We left the pet rescue house without a cat.  

Our next stop was The Iowa City Humane Society.  We looked at several cats and then I saw a woman holding an orange and white kitten that looked absolutely cute and cuddly and soft and adorable.  I asked the woman if I could hold him and immediately fell in love with him.  I rubbed his soft fur against the skin of my face.  He purred loudly and happily.  

“This one,” I said to Adam.  “This is the one.”  

I handed the kitten to Adam and Adam cradled him like a little baby.  “Ohhhh,” he said in a daddy talking to a baby voice, “you're so cute.”  

I looked at the lady who was holding him before me.  “Were you thinking of getting this kitten?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “if you're interested in getting him you can.  I'm just happy to see cats adopted.”

I was ready to cat fight her for this cute kitten if she said yes.  

So that Saturday in March of 2000 we adopted the kitten named “Kitten” by the vet at Human Society.  The name was so generic it made us laugh every time we said it and we knew we would  change it.  The woman who sold him to us told us he had been a stray cat for awhile because someone found him in an alley.  He also had a BB from gun in his lower back.  She told us where to touch the muscle of his back, and sure enough, through his orange fur and under his skin, we could feel the BB.  We got him vaccinated and his ears cleaned for mites and the BB removed from his back.  He had a large square of fur, about two inches wide and two inches deep, cut from where the BB had been. 

Adam and I brought “Kitten” home to our two story duplex on Market Street.  Adam had another cat, Zazu, who, in Adam's words, “might not take a keen likin' to another cat in the house, nonetheless a kitten gettin' all the attention because he's cute and adorable and playful.”  He insisted we separate the two cats and gradually expose them to each other.  We had a large walk in closet right off the living room so we kept “Kitten” in this temporary space.  We placed a chair, blanket, cat bed, litter box, water, and food bowl in there.  Zazu knew new kitten, probably cute and definitely competition, lived behind that door and in that closet.  She smelled him. She heard him. She saw his tiny paws poke out from under the door.  She batted them with her paws when she saw them like an uptight nun slapping the attention seeking student with the ruler.  

Adam's plan worked, however, because after letting still unnamed kitten out of the closet and free to roam around the living room while we kept Zazu in the upstairs bedroom with the door closed, and then placing unnamed kitten back into the closet and letting Zazu out of the bedroom and into the living room to smell his scent, Zazu acclimated to his presence.  After several days later, we introduced the two of them to each other without any hissing or posturing from either cat, and for the most part, Zazu liked the kitten.  

Adam named the kitten.  We were sitting in the living room on our couch, the gray one designed with black and white lines in the shape of spattered brushstrokes like a Jackson Pollack painting.  Unnamed kitten played in the living room, chasing a yarn ball, pulling a piece of red wrapping ribbon, bouncing in and out of a cardboard box.  I had spices on my mind for his name, all the color of his fur:  Ginger?  Curry?  Cinnamon?  Cardamom?  Coriander?  None seemed right to me and Adam agreed.  I played with Doctor Who character names: Turlough because Turlough had red hair and I thought he was cute.  Maybe Adric.  Ace?  I toyed with Buddhist nomenclature:  Karma?  Sutra?  Buddha? 

And then Adam said, “Scooter.  Like the muppet from The Muppets.  The one with the orange mop of hair on the top of his head.”  

Yes. He was right. It was perfect.  We named him Scooter that sweet spring evening.  

This isn't stated as pining or waxing nostalgic or longing for something that has long passed, but those days, those three years living with Adam and Scooter and Zazu were the happiest days of my life.  

It was for the best then that after Adam and I went our separate ways and I had taken care of Scooter and Zazu and lived alone with them for a year in Iowa City that I didn't take Zazu with me when I accepted my current teaching position and moved to Eagan.  Scooter had always felt like my cat; Zazu like Adam's.  Adam wasn't able to have pets in his apartment, however, so his friend Jeremy, who had lived with Adam when Adam had adopted Zazu as a kitten, took her.

So it was Scooter and me.  Well, Scooter and me and my friend and roommate Mike for two years in our two bedroom apartment, and then Scooter and me for five years in my one bedroom apartment, and then Scooter and me and my roommate and friend Janine for a year in the townhouse where I now live.  

My townhouse has a deck with a wooden fence about eight feet tall enclosing it.  Almost daily, in good weather, I let Scooter onto the deck.  He loved being outside: smelling the fresh air, hearing the birds, laying in the sun, chasing an occasional bug and once a mouse, which he caught and presented proudly to me.  He couldn't get out because he couldn't climb the fence and there were no spaces wide enough for him to exit.  Then one October night, around eight o'clock, I opened the deck door to call him in for bedtime and he didn't come running to the warmth of the house.  I stepped out, looked for him, called his name, and realized he wasn't on the deck.  I walked around the yard calling his name and extended my search into the neighborhood.  He didn't come to my my call and I couldn't find him.  

The next day I placed several signs on community mailboxes with his picture and name and my phone number.  I decided it was impossible for Scooter to leap over the fence and that a falcon from the nearby Minnesota River had swooped down from the sky, snatched Scooter into its talons, and flew away with him.  Scooter was terrified and then elated: he was in the air, he was flying!  Yes, he was in the death grip of a fierce falcon, but he was free! Free from the confines of house and deck.  Free to see the world from a bird's view, even if his life was going to end in a terrible, painful death.  How many cats can tell their cat friends in their next life that they got to fly because they were scooped up by a falcon?  My friend Dale, an animal and bird enthusiast, quickly disavowed me of my theory of what happened to Scooter, informing me that a falcon was not strong enough to carry a  twelve pound cat.

New story then: Scooter's last hurrah.  He stood on the top of the deck table, eyed the top of the fence about eight feet away and told himself he was not just a cat, he was a leopard.  He could summon the strength and agility of his jungle cousins and launch himself from the table to the fence ledge, balancing with feline proclivity for a split second, and then leap to the ground..  He's seen life through windows for so long.  Once, a long time ago, when he was an abandoned kitten, he lived in that world.  There was the whole neighborhood to explore.  There were other cats.  Some of them were mean; some of them were nice.  He didn't have food and water provided to him on a daily basis, but he scrounged and scraped by and found scraps here and there, and caught mice, and survived.  Now he was going to do it again. What he discovered, however, was this life in the wild, on his own, without a shelter and no food or water and not a human friend to love him was really difficult.  There is ease in comfort.  There is contentment in security.  There is fulfillment in being loved and loving.  And yet, the outdoors, the wild, the unknown was exhilarating  Chasing and being chased, stalking and being stalked, hunting and being hunted, killing and almost  being killed—all those feline instincts, dormant but not dead, surfaced and took over his brain and his reason for being and he loved it.  

Five days had passed.  I assumed he was dead.  If not eaten by a falcon, then hit by a car.  I walked the streets of my neighborhood looking for his dead body splayed out on the pavement.  If not a falcon or a car, then attacked and killed by another cat, perhaps a pack of cats, a feline gang.  Or maybe a fox.  Eagan frequently alerted residents of fox sightings.  Once even a cougar.  

He went missing in action Monday and then late Friday night around nine o'clock, darkness enveloping the day, I came home from a friend's house, walked to my front door, and near the steps heard a meow, a meow that sounded like Scooter.  I had heard this meow often over the last five days.  I called it the phantom meow, like the missing leg the pirate still feels despite a wooden peg for a leg.  I called it wishful thinking.  I called it hearing his meow because I was so used to hearing it in my life that I still heard it.  But this meow came with a body, came with a cat, came with Scooter.  Scooter!  He was alive!  I scooped him up in my arms.

He looked fine.  No missing legs or twitches like that rescue cat in Iowa City.  No scratches from a feral cat with razor sharp claws.  Not even a burr stuck to his fur.  I gave him a bath, which usually he hated but this time he relished.  I think he was so happy and grateful to be home that he didn't care about his body being completely wet.  It had rained most of the week he had escaped so he was probably used to wet fur, although certainly the warmth of the bath I gave him in the comfort of his home was like a spa at a celebrity retreat.  He slept with me that night, as he did every night.  He cuddled up right next to me left side, against my stomach, and then later my left leg.  

About four days later, I was at work and my roommate Janine called me around seven in the morning.  Scooter wasn't doing well.  He was pulling his body along the carpet and meowing in pain.  She took him to my vet and the vet called me about an hour later.  Things weren't looking good, she said.  He wasn't breathing properly and she had him affixed to an oxygen mask and it looked like his lungs were filled with pneumonia-like fluids.  I explained to her that he was missing for five days, but had come home four days ago.  “It's possible,” she said, “that his time outside in the cold and rain placed too great a toll on his body and weakened his respiratory and immune system.”  She would keep me updated.  An hour later she called back.  His heart rate had significantly and seriously dropped.  He was barely breathing.  She believed he was dying and I should come immediately to the clinic.  I found other teachers to substitute for me for the rest of the day and drove to the cat clinic about thirty minutes away.  When I got to there, I went to a private room.  Scooter laid on a table, oxygen mask on his face, eyelids have closed, stomach showing no sign of expansion and contraction to indicate breathing.  

“He's not going to make it,” the vet said.  “I've seen this before in cats.  They never make it.  I'm sorry.”  She had white and gray hair pulled back into a long ponytail.  Wrinkles showed her age.  She seemed down to earth and wise.  Yes, I thought, she's been doing this for a long time.  She knows.  She's seen dying.  She's seen death.  “You could take him to The University of Minnesota if you wanted a second opinion,” she said, “but you should know that's expensive and I don't think there's anything they could do for him.”  I trusted her.  I believed her. I appreciated her honesty.  

“No, we don't have to do that,” I said.  

“He's not going to recover and he's in a lot of pain.  He's struggling to breathe. At this point, he's struggling to stay alive and that instinct is strong in cats, but not strong enough to make it happen in his case.”

It was if he was staying alive to see me one last time.  

“I recommend euthanasia," she said.  "It's a painless process for him.  A shot, a sedative, and then a toxin that kills him painlessly.”

“Yes.  Okay.”  The  words formed without the aid of the mind, the decision made without the thinking about the decision.  

“I'll let you say your goodbyes.  Just come out to the front when you're ready.”  

When you're ready.  When are you ever ready?  A goodbye to a life.  How long should that last?  What do you say?  

My goodbye with Scooter lasted for about ten minutes.  I held him in my arms and petted him. I told him all of the fond memories I had of him.  I told him he was lucky, because he was cat and he was going to have another life and I didn't know how many he's already had, but he's Scooter the Buddha, the Awakened Cat, and I suspect a Bodhisattva who has vowed not to enter nirvana until all sentient beings are awakened, and therefore, he has an infinite number of lives. 

I stepped out into the lobby and told the veterinarian I was ready.  “Do you want to be there with him when he dies?” she asked.  “Do you want to watch?”

“Yes,” I said.  We went back into the room. She injected a short needle into his skin.  He blinked his weary eyes several more times and then closed them.  He was dead. 

Scooter had lived twelve good years.  He exuded warm calm and kitten charm.  He possessed infinite patience.  He looked contently out the window for hours at a time.  He watched and appreciated the stillness.  Perhaps an autumn leaf rustled across the grass, perhaps a tree's branches waved in the wind, perhaps a squirrel scurried across the ground and up an Elm, and best of all, perhaps a sparrow lighted sprightly on the sidewalk, unaware of Scooter, watching attentively like a Zen monk, a peaceful warrior, ready to pounce on his unsuspecting prey, if only he could get beyond the confines of this house and the glass window that creates the illusion, and yet, the possibility of another world beyond this one he loves.  

The yang to his yin, Scooter exhibited playfulness.  Totally in the moment, he loved chasing Zazu or the red point of a laser pen or an imaginary critter running through the house.  Totally in the moment, he loved fetching and bringing back a small ball, more like a dog than a cat.  Totally in the moment, he loved playing with a string on a pole or a bouncy wire on a stick or his favorite, his two stuffed toy mouses, one pink, one gray, both filled with catnip.  He loved batting around those two rodents and showing them who's boss and then dropping them off with a satisfied plop into his white water bowl.  

Scooter exemplified love and appreciation and tenderness and cuddliness.  He preferred anybody's lamp, purring contentedly.  He loved being petted.  When I came home, usually within fifteen minutes, I found time to let him hop on my lap where I would pet him.  He calmed me.  He brought me love.  

He taught me how to stay calm.  He taught me how to be playful and to enjoy playing for the the simple and sacred reason that it keeps us young in mind and heart.  He taught me how to appreciate the moment, how to slow down and sit, and in that sitting, appreciate the stillness and the silence.   He taught me how to care, how to be kind, how to be compassionate.  
I am a better person because of Scooter. I am an enlightened individual because a wise soul in the guise of a cat taught me what I needed to know the most when he was in my life.  

His death saddened me at the time.  I wasn't ready for him to leave me.  And yet, are we ever ready for any sentient being—human or animal—to die when we love them and they love us?  When we have become used to and ideally appreciative of them in our lives—and us in theirs—and then, one day, that sentient being is dead?  Here today, gone today.  This is the reality of death.  This is the reality of life.  Life cannot exist without death and death cannot exist without death.  The one exists only because the other exists.  Death, like life, and life, like death, is an ever present reality.  The more we accept and understand and acknowledge death, the more we can accept and understand and acknowledge life.  

Thanks for all the memories, Scooter.  I hope in your life now you're chasing mice, both imaginary and real.  I hope you're giving all the love you gave me and getting all the love I gave you.  And I hope we meet again.  If not in this lifetime, then in the next.   

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Living Fully

One of the reasons I wanted to visit Boulder, Colorado is the vast and spiritually active Tibetan Buddhist community, or sangha, the Sanskrit word that means spiritual community. 

Brief history: Communist China invaded Tibet in 1949. The Chinese soldiers directly and indirectly killed 1.5 million Tibetan people.  The Chinese soldiers destroyed most of Tibet's monasteries and universities in an effort to obliterate Tibetan culture and religion.  Many Tibetans, especially religious leaders, fled the country, finding refuge in India, and eventually around the world.

One of those places was Boulder.  From Boulder, the Tibetan community has shared their religion and spirituality, inseparable from their culture, with the West.   In fact, the Western hemisphere's only Buddhist university, Naropa University, is located in Boulder.  Chogyam Trungpa, a prominent Tibetan Buddhist teacher who was one of the first people to bring Tibetan Buddhism to America through his teachings and books founded the university in 1974.  While in Boulder, my friend Waylon and I walked around the small campus of Naropa University.  It was satisfying for me, a dream come true, to be and breathe at the campus.

On our first evening in Boulder, Waylon and I also meditated at the Boulder Zen Center.  The Boulder Zen Center isn't affiliated with Tibetan Buddhism--Zen is Japanese--but both originate from the same seed, Indian Buddhism.    Zen is the branch of Buddhism I have studied and practiced the most.  We meditated sitting for thirty minutes, meditated walking for ten minutes, and meditated sitting for another thirty minutes.  It was an incredibly peaceful and enjoyable experience.  Meditation grounds us in the moment. Meditation makes us more aware of the moment.  Not only the moments while meditating, but perhaps more importantly, the moments when we aren't meditating.  Meditating fosters mindfulness in our everyday, ordinary activities.  While traveling isn't an everyday, ordinary activity, meditating at the Zen Center brought a mindfulness to the entire journey that made me more aware of and appreciative of the moments the entire time. 

After meditation, we ate at a small restaurant called Tibetan Kitchen.  I've not eaten Tibetan food before, so I was looking forward to this eating experience in Boulder.  The restaurant itself was nothing special, and yet, in its ordinariness, it was special.  The first room where we ordered our food from a menu on the wall had about three small square tables and warm lavender walls.  The one person working, a handsome Tibetan man with a sincerely happy smile, took our order, made our food, and brought it to us.  We ate in another small room behind the first room.  This room had sunshine orange walls, the color of orange you get when you close your eyes and look at the sun during the summer.  I call it Bliss.  I love the the vibrancy and warmth of colors used in Tibetan Buddhism—joyous oranges, yellows, and reds.  Japanese Zen prefers the simplicity and understated colors of black and white.  The meal I ate was delicious. It was an orange colored chicken curry.  The rice was presented in the center of the curry.  He had placed it in a large measuring cup, I assume, and then flipped it upside down, still in the shape of the cup. It looked like a stupa.  Waylon and I shared an appetizer called momo.  They were similar to a potsticker, but stuffed with veggies and potatoes like a samosa.  They are traditionally eaten when people have not seen each other in a long time and come together, which is certainly what Waylon and I had done.  We last saw each other when I visited him in Portland in July.  We  each other again in Boulder for this journey together. 

Enjoying Tibetan Buddhist culture a la Boulder, I've started reading a book, Living Fully: Finding Joy in Every Breath by a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Shyalga Tenzin Rinpoche.  I'd classify the wisdom as more positive psychology than Tibetan Buddhism.  Buddhist practice is the foundation of the teaching rather than scientific research,  but the end result is the same--self realization, self actualization, well being, and living life to the fullest.  My journey to Boulder felt like living fully, as travel often allows us to feel.  Travel is out of the ordinary and so we often feel more alive, as if we are doing something extraordinary.  Living Fully, however, emphasizes the majority of our lives is the daily, everyday ordinariness of living sprinkled in and sparkling with moments of  satisfaction and moments of dissatisfaction  By paying attention to the moment, whatever it is, and appreciating the moment, whatever it is, we can live fully.  We can find joy in every breath.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Question to Ask Ourselves

According to Nietzsche, the test of our lives is to ask ourselves the question do you love your life enough that you would repeat it an infinite number of times? He calls this existential question eternal recurrence. 

When we love our lives then we can say yes, I would live this life over and over again.  When we live with no regrets, then we can say yes, I would live this life over and over again..  Most of us are apt to say, however, I would repeat some, but not all.  I would take the good choices, but not the bad choices, the the happiness but not the sadness, the satisfaction but not the dissatisfaction, the health but not the pain, the well being but not the suffering. 

But life doesn't work like that.  First of all, life is all of this—good choices, bad choices, happiness, sadness, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, health, pain, well being, suffering.  To expect only the good choices and positive aspects is to live in delusion as to what life is.  Furthermore, we learn from those poor choices and negative aspects of life; we appreciate the positive aspects when we contrast them with the negative because we have the comparison.  We are who we are today because of everything that has happened to us and every choice we have made in the past.  Many of the choices we make teach us and help us to live better lives. 

It's important to remember, however, the interconnectedness of our life circumstances and choices.  For example, we were born into A, B, and C, and because of this choose D.  D makes us happy. We like that choice.  It takes us to E and F.  G, however, is a choice we wish we didn't make because it takes us to H and I, which are circumstances we don't like.  However, choice J provides us with something we really like, and it only happened because of G, H, and I, and before them A-F.  We see how difficult it becomes to separate one circumstance or choice from the interconnected strand of choices.  Nonetheless, Nietzsche's question is a philosophical one that asks us to look at our life in the past, present, and future with critical, creative, and contemplative thinking.  In the end, this will make our lives more meaningful.  We may decide we would not live this life again.  That's okay.  That means we have looked at our lives and are not satisfied with all of the choices.  Learn from this.  We may decide based on our past choices that we need to make different choices for ourselves.  That's good too. It means we striving toward a fulfilling life. 

Wisdom is the accumulation of choices and experiences and the contemplation of those choices and experiences. 

The choices we  have now and make now are because of the choices we have had and have made in the past.  Likewise, who we will become in the future is determined by the choices we have now and the choices we will make now.   Bottom line: choose wisely always.  Our lives depend upon this.  This emphasize on our lives as determined by our choices should not become the onus of our ontology, the burden of our sense of being.  Rather, this choice should become our freedom, our responsibility, our escape from the prisons of delusion we create for ourselves. 

Keeping this question--do you love your life enough that you would repeat it an infinite number of times?--at the forefront of our actions throughout our lives can help us decide how we live our lives by the choices we make for ourselves.  It is not a question we only ask at the end of our lives. It is a question we ask now.  It is a question we ask ourselves over and over again.  Why?  Because we are who we are because of who we have been.  We will become who we will become because of who we are now.  Past shapes present.  Present shapes future. 

One of the ways we can help ourselves to live without regrets and to say yes to our  lives is to live passionately.  Life is passion.  Passionately throwing ourselves into life makes us appreciate life.  Love is absolutely essential:  love of ideas and ideals, love of possibility, love of the present moment, love of self creation and creativity, love of others, love of ourselves, love of life.  Passions are forms of insight and ways of understanding the world.  Passions are compasses for orienting ourselves through the currents of life.  Passions are the vehicle that take us to the promised land of our happiness, our satisfaction, our peace—our well being. 

Therefore, we should always gravitate toward life enhancing passions like love, perhaps the greatest of all the passions.  The highest virtue is accepting our lives as our lives and loving our lives. When we love our lives then we can say yes to our lives.  When we love our lives, then we create our lives into, as Voltaire called it, “the best of all possible worlds.”  And when we have created the best of all possible worlds, then we can answer yes to Nietzsche's great life-guiding question of eternal recurrence: Do you love your life enough that you would repeat it an infinite number of times?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Become Who We Are

What we do with our lives is up to us.  We should not just accept who we are but make something of ourselves despite contingencies of birth or circumstances.  Self realization is to become aware of our disposition and talents and passionately cultivate them into something that brings meaning to our lives.   Nietzsche said, “Become who you are.” 

How do we do this?  By the choices we make.  By what we think, say, and do. 

How do we choose wisely to become who we are?  By self reflection and realization  By awakening.

We choose who we will become.  Fate is the world into which  are thrown and the disposition with which we are born, but it is by choice that that we use our fate to our advantage and make meaningful lives for ourselves.  Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher said, “Fate is the person we become and the person we were born to be.”  In order to become the person we are meant to be we must look inward, shine the light on ourselves, and in this illumination, transform ourselves into something important to ourselves.   We create ourselves and we create our lives.  Essentially, we make something of our lives.  Nietzsche also said, “Give style to your character; it is a great art.”

How do we do this?  By believing we will and then doing it.  Will is the push to empowerment.  Empowerment is knowing we always have choices.  Choices are creation.  We create our selves.  We create our lives.  The two are the same.  We are always free.  Freedom is basic to existence.  Legend has it that the Buddha's last words were, “Every person is his or her own prison, but every person has the freedom to escape. Make this the journey and destination of your life.” (translation mine)

Therefore, despite the contingencies and character of our birth and despite our circumstances, we can shape and create ourselves and our lives according to our fashion and our sense of freedom.  We must do this always and again, over and over, until our last dying breath.  Freedom is basic to our existence and responsibility is the essence of freedom. We should, therefore, become passionately aware of ourselves, our potential, and our possibility, pick ourselves up by our choices, and determine who will be will become and who we will be.   

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Choice, Passion, Freedom

That we are unique may seem like a cliché, but it's true.  Because of our individual circumstances, contingencies, and choices we make, we are individuals.  Although at birth we had no choice as to our situation, as we mature and obtain the ability to decide, we make ourselves and we create our lives through our choices.  At some point, we cannot blame anyone else for our lives.  We cannot hope for anyone else to change our lives.  Only we, as individuals, can do this.  We are responsible for ourselves.  Furthermore, we are always making individual choices.  It doesn't matter if the whole world is making them at the same time; ours is still an individual choice.  Responsibility is always responsibility of our individual choices and acceptance of the consequences that result from those choices.

Our choices, therefore, become our lives, and through our choices, we must passionately commit ourselves to a way of life.   Soren Kierkegaard said, “Existence is passionate commitment to life.”  His concept of passion, however, is not the passion erupting on stage like a Greek tragedy or exploding on TV like a modern reality show; rather, he advocated for an avocation of passion that is inwardly contained, a quiet intensity that emerges from our being and doing.  Passion motivates us.  Passion gives meaning to life.  When we allow our passion to guide us through life, then our choices matter because we align our choices with our passion. 

Because we can make choices, we are free.  Freedom, in this context, means personal freedom: how we think of ourselves, how we behave, and how we think of our behavior.  This personal freedom ties back to each of us an individual smaking choices, deciding how to live our lives, and accepting the consequences and taking responsibility once we've made our choices.  Being alive is taking hold or our lives, realizing our talents and virtues, loving ourselves in a very important way, and understanding that what our lives are about is manifesting those talents, revealing those virtues, throwing ourselves into the work we do, and becoming the people we really are. 

We are what we are and we become what we become because of the personal commitments and choices we make.   Absolute freedom is absence of ultimate constraints because there are always choices.  Freedom isn't the freedom to do whatever we want; freedom is to do what we want with full individual responsibility for what we have done.

Our freedom—that is, our choices—may take us to a situation or a life we may find difficult, unfulfilling, or absurd.  We may find ourselves asking, as David Byrne does in the Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime, “Well, how did I get here?”  These moments are opportunities for spiritual practice.  They allows us to discover who we are and what we're supposed to do, taking us back to the two essential and existential questions we should frequently ask ourselves: Who am I? What am I doing?  We find  out who we are by doing and looking at what we have done.  Therefore, do.  As Jean Paul Sartre said, “To be is to do.” 

Ultimately, it's up to us, each of us as an individual.  So gear up the passions and live a passionate life.  Make a commitment to choice and responsibility for that choice.  Live with no excuses.  Practice self reliance, self realization, and self responsibility no matter how fast, how superficial, how stupid, or how furious the world. 

Expanding Awareness Meditation Practice

In his book Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment Ezra Bayda offers an expanding awareness meditation practice for quelling the anxious quiver of being.  I've used it several times to quiet, accept, and understand the stress I create for myself.  I find it very effective.   

The first step is to mindfully stop and sit for a few minutes and begin noticing only your breath.  You don't have to sit in a formal meditation position.  Anywhere is fine: your couch, your office chair, your seat on the plane, your car before you start it or stop it and move on to the next moment.  You become aware of your body.  You notice how you've placed your hands and legs.  You notice any tightness, soreness, or pain or the absence of them.  You pay attention to your breathing, the air filling your lungs, and the air released through your nose.  You count your breath and once you reach fifty breaths you begin the second step.

The second step takes you outside of yourself and into your immediate surroundings.  You mindfully notice where you are without any judgments.  You become aware of what you see and what you hear.  You place your emphasis on the senses rather than the mind.  You do this for several minutes.  If your mind wanders to whatever you are worrying or wondering about, as it is apt to do, you take a breath, notice your breath again, and the environment you hear and see.    

Once you've done this for a minute or so, you move on to the third step.  You move outside yourself and your surroundings and become aware of this tiny moment in the vast expanse of moments that have existed and will exist in  eternity.  You envision yourself sitting in this moment in the universe and eternity.  Here and now: this moment, right now: universe, eternity.  This is a good reminder that whatever worries you is small in the grand scheme of things.  You are grain of sand on a million mile beach existing for millennium.  This awareness isn't about the insignificance or meaningless of your life.  Quite the opposite: your life is significant and meaningful.  What is happening shall pass and you can continue with the ordinary and everyday importance of living a significant and meaningful life. 

These three awareness are expanding circles of awareness that create a sense of perspective and peace. 

Allowing ourselves to become mindful throughout the day and giving ourselves this short opportunity several times a day or week to calm our minds and to ground us in the present moment with more acceptance and ease and less anxiousness and unease allows us to appreciate the present moment and let go of our frustration and fear, solve our frustration and fear, and move forward confidently and calmly despite our frustration and fear.  

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

My Journey to Oregon: Day Eleven

Domestic Josh is in the kitchen and asks me what I'd like for breakfast.  “Eggs and toast,” I say and he prepares them as I read a picture book to Finn who is still in his pajamas.  Stacy and Nathan are already working on their laptops.  Ezra is playing with his tech deck.  Jenny comes out in her pajamas which look like a kimono to me.  Right before we leave, I remember that I wanted to get a picture taken with each of the families, and so we stand outside, and Jenny takes one of Josh, Stacy, Ezra and me and Stacy takes one of Nathan, Jenny, Finn, and me.  Jenny comments that she hasn't put on her day face, combed her hair, or changed out of her pajamas, but she looks great in the picture. 

Josh, Ezra, and I drive into Eugene.  Sun sturdily risen for the day, majestic buttes glowing blue in the distant horizon, the sky cerulean, the fields a mixture of green and gold.  Josh drops Ezra off at his parents' house.  Betty will watch her grandson for they day.  Ezra gives me one of his tech decks, which is a sweet gesture of friendship.  He wants to give me the coolest looking one with an elaborate spiral design, but I convince him to keep it. 

Natasha and I leave for coffee and conversation before I depart on the shuttle back to Portland for my flight home.  Caffeinated, I  realize that I've left my cell phone at Betty's house, and at the same time, Betty calls Natasha to let her know.  So we head back, I get my cell phone, and we say our goodbyes one more time.  Natasha and I  stop at the bookstore downtown.  I buy a book, Being Zen by Ezra Bayda, which Waylon said he had read and liked. 

It's what this entire journey has been about: being Zen.  Where ever you go and what ever you do, you can do it with a Zen approach, you can be Zen.  What does that mean?  Mindful.  What does mindful mean?  Cultivating a sense of awareness, attentiveness, appreciation, and acceptance.  Having a plan and changing your plan.  Navigating the boat in the river of life and at the same time going with the flow of the current of reality.  Smiling.  Laughing.  Feeling adventurous.  Feeling content.  Feeling the fear and doing it anyway.  Feeling happy. 

Natasha drives me to my pick up location.  I take a picture of the two of us.  We say and hug our good bye.  We tell each other we love each other and then she tells me to chop wood, carry water, which are good last words to part on and so we do. 

The wisdom of Zen is also about love. Loving people, loving yourself, loving your life, loving what you're doing.  Traveling brings out love.  We love being somewhere else.  We love seeing new cities and new elements of nature.  We love tasting new foods and drinking new wines and teas and coffees.  We love learning new things about this wonderful world.  We love the friends and family we visit.  It was an amazing journey for me.  A journey of love.  I didn't expect that.  It is, however, the emotion that emerges most readily when I remember and reflect upon my Oregon Journey. 

My Journey To Oregon: Day Ten

Sunday morning.  It's coffee outside.  Josh is reading the newspaper, Nathan is doing a Sudoku puzzle, and I'm just sitting.  It's a morning to relax, a morning to slow down.  Ezra comes out and shows me around the yard.  They have goats and chickens and a  small pond they've cleared of weeds so they can swim in it.  It's the afternoon plan.  We have breakfast together.  Eggs from their chickens, organic kale, sausage, more coffee.  It's slow breakfast with a lot of talking and laughing.  Jenny, Nathan, Stacy, and Joshua have taught Finn and Ezra to not interrupt and they do a great job of this.  After breakfast the two of them run off and build a space ship out of cardboard boxes.  It's wonderful how they use their imaginations to create objects.  They call me into the other room where they've built it and we play it in for a while, pretending Finn and Ezra are the captains and we're defending ourselves from aliens. 

Later, Ezra asks Joshua if they can get the tech deck, the small skateboards mostly elementary boys collect.  He had mentioned it yesterday and Joshua said we didn't have time but would get one today.  Children never forget when they've been told they can get a new toy.  It's probably what he's been thinking about all morning.  Savor it, Stacy and Josh, soon it will be girls.  Or boys.  But probably girls.  I get that vibe from him.  Now that Ezra gets one Finn also wants one, so Josh, Ezra, Finn and I are off on a mission to find tech decks.  We stop at a the local department store in Venetta.  No luck.  We go to another one in Venetta, which in addition to the basic things you would expect from a department store also has a large selection of kitsch Northwestern items and high end art and ceramics.  It's not what I was expecting from the little store in the country.  No tech decks.  If all else fails, Target!  We step into the Eugene Target and it looks exactly like the Eagan Target.  There's an odd corporate comfort in this.  I typically don't eat at chain restaurants or shop at chain stores when I'm traveling, but sometimes it's nice to know what you're going to get, and if you're craving a sub sandwich, you can get a Subway and know what you're getting.  We head to the toy section and score! There's a huge selection of tech decks.  You can buy one of them or a package of them.  Josh thoroughly explains why purchasing the packet of five is the best deal, and why they significantly more expensive one with a glow in the dark tech deck seems cool but is a bit of gimmick for how much more Ezra would have to spend for it.  This is, after all, Ezra's money.  He chooses the package of five he wants.  Finn's been listening and learning the entire time and so he also chooses a package of five.  Children's needs satisfied, the two boys pay for it from the tiny wallets they keep in their pockets and then Josh and I tend to adult needs: coffee.  There's a Starbucks in Target and we get  a  coffee slushie with loads of chocolate shavings and whipped cream on top. 

Back home, Stacy and Josh take a run while I play with Ezra and Finn and then Jenny and Nathan take a run while I again play with Ezra and Finn. They are imaginative and fun kids and mature boys for their age which makes playing with them enjoyable.  Then Stacy says, “Josh is at the pond if you all want to go swimming.”  Quicker than you can say Josh iswearing a square cut black Speedo, the three of us are out there in our swimsuits.  Josh is floating on a giant round tube.  He looks immersed in the moment, entirely enjoying the leisure, completely relaxed, and one hundred percent sexy.  This is something I've noticed about Joshua while I've been with him.  Yes, he's sexy, and whatever he's doing he seems to just do it.  As he cooked meals and cleaned up the kitchen, swept the sidewalks and mowed the lawn, he did it with ease and effortlessness, a naturalness that showed him in the moment.  As he spke to other people—his wife, his adult housemates, Ezra and Finn, me, his friends--he exuded a calmness, contentedness, and confidence that I found inspiring.  It is what I do as a person of mindfulness.   It is what he is doing either knowingly or unknowingly as a part of his spiritual practice.  It is the Chinese Zen aphorism Natasha, his sister, said to me twice on this journey: chop wood, carry water.  Well done, Josh.

Ezra runs into the water first.  He's got a paddle board and has put Daisy, his dog, on the board and she's floating around, a bit scared but also thrilled at the adventure.  Ezra loves his dog.  He told me that when he got Daisy—Natasha got him from a humane society and then gave him to Ezra when she moved to Salt Lake City—it was “the best day of my life.”  I told  Stacy and Joshua this the night we drove home from the winery and they said he tells them this often.  You would think it would be their trip to Disney,  but it's the day he got Daisy, which I appreciate even more than Disney, because Daisy is a living creature he loves and who loves Ezra back and that says a lot about Ezra's values. 

I follow next.  Josh says, “Careful, the mud is slippery,” and sure enough, I step onto the bank and slip on the mud, fall on my butt and slide into the pond.  It's chilly and a bit muddy on the bottom, but these are simply observations and not complaints because in the pond I'm happy. 

Nathan cannonballs into the water, a huge splat and splash.  Finn, who's been swimming around doing the dog paddle and then the back float when he gets tired, sees his father enter the water via the infamous cannonball and so he's getting out of the water and then running back into the water again, knees to his chest, arms around his knees, and kaboom! keplunk! cannonball!  

We have another delicious meal together.  The whole house sits around the table, holds hands, and says their prayer, the Waldorf prayer before meals. It's a beautiful community building moment.  We have a bottle of exquisite rose with our our meal, to which everyone should now say, it's the year of the rose. 

Parents put the children to bed, and once they have, Nathan lights a fire in their large urn, and we adults sit in deck chairs in a circle.  The stars above us are so bright because the sky is so dark.  I live in a suburb near the airport and so for the most part light fills the nighttime sky and it never gets dark enough to see other than the few brightest stars.  But here in Venetta, in the country, I see millions of them, and several times shooting stars.  I look at the others as I talk, but often when I'm listening, I look up, and each time I'm amazed at how beautiful the night sky is with its pure black background and its glistening diamond stars.  

As we talk, I mention that I'm using a dating website and one of the questions asked in the user's profile is “What are six things you couldn't live without?”  I explain how guys, myself included, list things like family, friends, hope, my smart phone, my i-pod, books, etc.  Recently, however, I've been thinking about this question a lot.  What are six thingsI really couldn't live without?  To maintain my current life?  If so, then things like my job, a car, electricity, running water, a house take precedence.  But what if it meant not to maintain my current lifestyle and status?  Could I live without electricity, for example?  My first thought was no, but then I thought, okay, up until the 1920's most people lived without electricity, so certainly it's possible, although it would  be incredibly difficult. But yes, if I had to, for some reason, I could live without electricity.  It wouldn't make a necessarily enjoyable or easy experience given how used to electricity I am but I could do it.  And books?  Books were on my list.  Really?  I couldn't live without them?  Surely, I could still live if I didn't read books.  Looked at deeply, the question becomes quite interesting.  Josh commented that he could live without electricity and running water.  He, Stacy, and Ezra often go camping and for the most part rough it: tents, fires for food, water in jugs. 

“So it's just like camping,” Josh says. 

“Speaking of which,” Stacy replies, “could you remember to bring a colander the next time we go camping?  I hate trying to hold the lid on the kettle and pour out the water when we make pasta.  Half the pasta lands on the ground.” 

To which I say, “So you couldn't live without a colander.”  We all laugh. 

“Yes, I couldn't live without a colander,” Stacy says.

“What about you, Jenny?” I ask.  “What couldn't you live without?”

Without a second's hesitation she says, “Cashmere.” 

We all laugh.  I've not laughed so often and so hard with a group of friends in a long time.  It feels really good.

“Seriously,” Jenny says, “ I don't think I could live without coffee.  I just need it in the morning or I can't get going. I'm useless.”

“Well, you know of course, that means you also need electricity and water, so your one thing you couldn't live without requires two other things,” I say.

“I am willing to make that sacrifice for coffee,” Jenny says.

“Now what are talking about here?” Stacy asks.  “Things you couldn't live without because you're trying to simplify your life or have less of a carbon footprint or your doing a experiment in what's truly necessary to live?  Or are we talking the Zombie Apocalypse?” 

“Zombie Apocalypse,” Josh says.

“And what kind of zombies?” Stacy asks.  “The fast moving zombies or the slow moving zombies? Because the type of zombies change everything.  If it's fast moving zombies then I definitely want a good pair of running shoes, maybe several pairs. Because I don't want to run around barefoot and I certainly don't want to be chased by zombies in bare feet.”

“This is really nerdy,” I say, “and I'm sure if I listed this in my profile I wouldn't get a single date, but I don't think I could live without my glasses.  I'm not blind, but everything is a bit fuzzy without them, and especially in the case of the Zombie Apocalypse, I would want my glasses.”

Stacy, a glasses wearer herself, says,  “Me too.  Because I don't want to see some large object ahead of me and think is that a tree or a zombie and it's not until you get up to it and can feel it that you realize, 'Oh shit! This a zombie!'”

“Exactly,” I say, “because in that case, you better have said you can't live without a good pair of running shoes, because you are going to have run!”

“Especially if it's a fast moving zombie,” Stacy says.

“A knife,” Josh says.  “I couldn't live without a knife.  I'd need it to kill zombie and to cut the food I hunt.  Which means I also need a gun.”

This absurd conversation about the Zombie Apocalypse carries on for a quite a long time, with a lot of laughter.  It's what I love about this group of friends: conversation always goes into the fun and funny as well as serious and spiritual directions. The group tires.  Nathan, Josh, and Stacy all need to work in the morning so they head inside to go to bed. 

Jenny and I stay up, outside, as the fire fades to glowing embers, and talk for several more hours.  I'm glad we got the chance again, without her needing to be there for Finn.  She's a dear friend.  We too tire, however, and call it a night.  I valued my time with her outside under the brilliant stars in the pitch black sky with the sound of silence surrounding us and love connecting us to each other.