Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Reflection Is Only Possible In Tranquil Moments

“When I was young I would throw a rock into the water just to make a splash, now I am content to gaze into the calmness in order to gain some appreciation of what the reflection can show me.”
Stand at the edge of a dock or look out from the edge of a boat and you will see your reflection in the water. It will not be a perfect image, there are always distortions caused by waves or ripples, even on the calmest of water. Nevertheless, you will get a pretty good image of yourself and all that surrounds you.

Most of us are content with what we see on the surface, never bothering to question what may lie beneath. In fact, many of us are not interested in what the image in the water might have to show us. We buy the largest motors and boats we can afford in order to get from one side of the lake to the other as quickly as possible. In the process, we stir up the water so much we can see nothing in it at all. In our haste, we only see confusing flashes of light.

To see clearly, not only our own reflection but the reflection of our surroundings, we need tranquility. Calmness is not an easy skill to master, especially not in this age of ski boats. It requires bringing in the oars for a moment and seeking quietude. Ah, but what a picture can be seen if we remain silent and still. It is in such moments that we not only are able to see the world around us, we are able to get glimpses beneath the surface. For all we have known before is merely a reflection, a mirror image, an illusion. But if we stare, if we stay still, if we reflect, we leave ourselves open to glimpses of another reality, one that is deeper than any we have ever known. We have sensed it when diving into the water and feeling seaweed rub against our legs. We have sometimes felt the gentle nibbling or movement of small fish upon our skin, responded reflexively to the contact. But never before were we able to know what it was.

And once we train our eyes to see beyond the surface image we will always know, even at the most tempestuous of moments, that there is something deeper and more abiding than the surface turmoil.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Wisdom Perspective, and Love

You can be clever and intelligent, you can be shrewd and cunning, but you can never be wise until you are courageous to the point of being nearly fearless. You cannot be wise without courage because you will always shy away from looking honestly at life, and without an honest appreciation of what is real, you will never have anything truly meaningful to say. Martin Luther King Jr. was wise, Mahatma Gandhi was wise, and they were wise because they put no prize above their desire to see life as it is. In their pursuit of wisdom, they did not place the barriers so many of us do of personal safety or profit. Wisdom requires a transcendence of self, requires not seeing through your own eyes merely but through every possible set of eyes one can imagine: through the eyes of your family and friends, your neighbors, and strangers you pass on the street. You cannot restrict your viewpoint to those with whom you agree but also must seek to understand those who call themselves your enemy.

The courage that permits wisdom demands you relinquish all of your biases, which act as defenses. You must abandon not only self but your larger affiliations, which, after all, are merely larger sorts of self. You must attempt to see reality through God’s eyes. And in doing so, you must not limit God to what you believe him to be or what your larger group tells you God is. Again, you must see through the eyes of others. You must attempt to see God through the eyes of those who call him Allah, must see him through the eyes of those who call him Vishnu, those who do not call him by any name and yet seek him though they know it not.

You can only hope to achieve wisdom through humility. A man with one eye is a fool if he claims he has good perspective. A man with two eyes is a fool if he believes himself imparted with wisdom. Wisdom cannot begin to emerge until you have seen life from the perspective of a thousand eyes, from every corner of the globe, from various points of history, from various points along the economic ladder. A farmer has wisdom, but it is not Wisdom. A professor has wisdom, but if he has no dirt under his fingernails, it is not Wisdom.

Seek the wisdom of the young, who see life through unbiased eyes. Seek the wisdom of the old, who at last have seen through the many stages of life. Though their eyes be weak, their vision blurry, their knowledge of what to look for is unsurpassed.

Lastly, look through the eyes of animals. Perhaps they have more to tell us than any human. Certainly they are more free from human bias. Certainly they can teach us how to live in the moment. They can teach us too in their foibles, their inability to comprehend the things we do. Because though our brains may be more complex, our limitations—in the grand scale—are far closer to theirs than to the unlimited universe.

Look through the eyes of all of them and you might achieve the greatest wisdom achievable to man: love. After all, perhaps that’s what love is, the ability to see life through the eyes of another. When we love another, we seek to make them happy. To truly make another happy, we must first ask what it is that makes them happy. To do so, we must place ourselves in their situation, look through their eyes. It is only when we can do this that we can fully express love, only then will our actions be a blessing to those we love.

The greatest courage we can attain is to step out of our own little shells, to leave self and ego behind and float, selfless and vulnerable, through all the life we encounter. In leaving our home, we find everywhere to be home. In leaving ourselves, we find everybody and everything to be us.

Once wisdom is attained, courage is no longer required.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Some Thoughts On Depression

When I was young, perhaps in my early teenage years, I experienced a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness I had never felt before. The feeling passed after a while, then occurred again some time later. I experienced it on and off for years until I first heard of SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, and realized that my depression seemed to occur at the same time of year every year. And that knowledge alone was enough to make me realize that this change of mood had an explanation and could be dealt with.

When I began to feel this sense of depression coming on—it usually began after Thanksgiving and lasted up until Christmas—I had a name to call it, recognized it as a transient phase rather than some unknowable darkness that had descended upon me and might never leave. In this way I could manage my depression. One, by telling myself it was something I only had to endure for a limited span of time, and two, by making sure I stayed occupied and didn’t allow myself to dwell in it too much. For years I coped with feelings of hopelessness at this time of the year, but each year seemed to get easier as I got better at dealing with it.

But something has happened in the last few years, so that now a third stage of what I once called depression and later called SAD has emerged: I have come to view this change of seasons not as a bad thing at all but merely something to be accepted and embraced for what it is. In short, I no longer view it as a condition or a disease, but merely a necessary change. I have come to appreciate the change of seasons, come to realize there is a need deep within me to change inwardly as my external environment changes. Winter has become a time to rest, recuperate, plan, and work towards an impending spring.

For years my internal processes were at odds with external patterns. In my youth and without the background to see it properly, I named that discord depression. Later, having something upon which to base my experience and emotional transformation, I called it SAD. Still later, having an outlook that makes me seek balance between external reality and my inner workings, I have come to see a need for me to change with the seasons. While the suffering I felt was real, the process I went through was a necessary and helpful one. Progress comes through pain because discomfort is an incentive to change. Through it all, never did I feel the need to be prescribed drugs. I did, however, suffer; I don’t want to make light of that.

Now let me stop my story for a moment in order to address an argument many have expressed to me: “You were able to work through whatever was wrong and that’s good. But there are others who require drugs in order to help their depression, and you shouldn’t judge.”

Fine, I accept that argument. Some people need drugs in order to cope with their mental or biological deficiencies. There is something lacking in them that requires help from an external source, something wrong with their internal chemistry that requires added chemicals.

Nevertheless, I did not require drugs prescribed to me and it turns out there was nothing fundamentally wrong with me that I could not fix on my own. I’m sure there are those who would have been willing to provide me with medication to solve my problem had I sought help. As a matter of fact, my general practitioner once asked me if I wanted some kind of psychoactive drug even though I never made the slightest indication that I had a problem. I believe that not one of us would be turned away from being given prescription drugs to deal with emotional or psychological issues should we seek it out (and have the money to pay for it).

Again, drugs may be necessary or at least useful in some circumstances, but that does not mean that in other circumstances we are not better off figuring our own way to deal with problems that cause us emotional pain or psychological discomfort. If this is true, then some individuals are being hurt by unnecessary drug prescriptions rather than being encouraged to seek out natural, moral and spiritual paths to answers. And the harm done to individuals by unnecessarily medicating pales in comparison to the damage caused to society. When we visit a doctor—be it one for the body or the mind—we are never told that the fault lies in society. We are never told that we feel bad because injustice exists or that institutions are corrupt or inefficient. In short, we are never encouraged to work together to solve the problems that are causing our physical or psychological ailments. It is the job of the medical professional to fix the individual so that he/she can function in the society in which he/she lives rather than considering it is the existing systems and society that are the problem. Medicine cannot address the problems of a society, it can only help the individual adapt to his society, be it a healthy or a sick one. If society itself is sick, molding individuals to function within its framework will only make society that much worse.

When Leo Tolstoy reached the age of 50, he underwent a profound disillusionment with his life. He was unable to find contentment in his success or his place in the world. Had he lived in the present age he most surely would have sought help and been given medication in order to make him once again content with the role he played in society. As it was, after thorough soul-searching and a great deal of personal unpleasantness, he underwent a spiritual transformation that altered the course of his life. Not only did it change his own life, it went on to influence Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Tolstoy’s conversion to the principles of non-violence have literally reshaped the 20th Century, and the full reverberations of his final thirty years have yet to be felt.

One last time, let me reiterate that I do not say drugs are never necessary. What I am saying is that they are not the answer for every instance where an individual feels anxious, uneasy, or depressed. Quite often there are legitimate reasons for their psychological anguish. But to administer drugs without ruling out every other possibility is akin to prescribing oxycontin to a patient who has a pain in his foot without first checking to see if he may have a piece of glass lodged in it. It is generally better for the individual—and much better for society at large—to experience emotions, even unpleasant ones, rather than automatically drown them out by altering the chemistry of the individual. The human being is a tremendous creation (of God or nature, I care not which you choose). We are capable of far more than science has yet begun to realize, more complex in our relationship to others than perhaps our conscious minds can ever understand. To tamper lightly with God’s or nature’s creation is not wisdom but foolishness.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

I Am Blessed

A nun once paid a visit to my elderly mother and my mother told the sister how lucky she felt. The sister corrected her and said, “You're not lucky, you’re blessed.” Afterwards, my mother would always correct others who would say they were lucky. Often it would be herself she would correct, as the habit of saying how lucky she was wasn’t easy to break.

I am reminded of that when I look back at memories of my mother, when I look for ways to embrace the past and keep in contact with those I've loved who are no longer with me. I look back at the many lessons I learned from my mom and consider myself blessed by them.

I have heard some point out the misuse of such a phrase “I’m blessed.” I’ve heard people compare it to considering yourself more loved by God or being so deluded in your religious beliefs that you justify your own wealth while others are permitted to suffer and die. I recognize the potential for misuse of the concept of being blessed, but I believe what I'm talking about is wholly a good thing. Allow me to explain.

At the time my mother first came to use the phrase “I’m blessed”, she was already quite elderly. She was a widow who did not drive a car and was at the mercy of others to get groceries, get to doctor’s appointments, or get a haircut. For the most part, she was at the mercy of others as to whether she had any company at all or whether she would be home all by herself all day. When she spoke of being blessed, she was saying that her needs were being provided for. Her catchphrase would be triggered by the smallest of kindnesses or the most commonplace gifts from nature: a call from a child to see if she needed anything or a neighbor stopping by with a fresh tomato from her garden. I can’t imagine the term blessing used for anything more ostentatious.

The realization of the joy my mother felt in the phrase “I’m blessed” struck home last summer when, while walking my dog, I came across a little outdoor workout area near my house. Along the lakeshore, free for anyone to use, were six exercise machines.

It became my practice over the summer to visit it several times a week. Riding a bicycle given to me by my brother, I would pedal my way through glorious sunlight and summer weather to my little spot on the lake, one which I almost always had to myself.

It was while sitting at one of the machines, taking a breather, that the memory of my mom came to me. Across the street from the little workout area was Lake Michigan, glistening in the sun. Even on the hottest of days, the cold it retained kept me from ever getting too hot. And on the other side was an offshoot of the Manitowoc River.

On any given day I would see a variety of bird species there, most notably redwing blackbirds and ducks. From time to I would see a heron or egret. Sitting here amongst the beauty of nature I could not help appreciating the feeling of being blessed. The bike I rode was gifted to me, the place I sat at was open to all, and the beauty nature provides is a right gifted to every living being.

At such moments—and there were many throughout the summer—the awareness of being blessed would overcome me and I was not concerned with other matters. I was not thinking about having to go to work in a few hours nor any other responsibilities I might have. I was not worried about what I was lacking because I was intensely aware that the most important and most rewarding things were also the simplest  and that which we all share in common.

This is what being blessed means to me and the meaning which I would like everyone else to experience. I understand those who hate the term because of those who use it to justify having great wealth while others are lacking the basic necessities. But I would like to point out to those who are justly turned off by such an attitude that they are losing out by not realizing the true beauty to be found in the feeling of being blessed. Between the misuse and dislike of the word is a wonderful and profound experience to be had, one that will stay with you and guide you into a way of life that will provide lifelong contentment and a sustainable future for all.

May you live a blessed life.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

A Trip To Walmart

If you ever find yourself feeling overweight, unattractive, or lacking self-awareness or a fashion sense, take a trip to your local Walmart and you will soon feel better about yourself. You’ll feel worse about humanity, but better about yourself. Wearing your pajama bottoms to go shopping? Seriously? I take greater care dressing even when I’m staying at home, for fear my dog might judge me.

I no longer go to Walmart to shop so much as to observe the shoppers and merchandise in order to get insight into the country I now live in. It is while wandering around Walmart that I really appreciate just how far on the fringes of society I have become. The movies, the music, the food, and the clothing are all alien to me. It’s like walking around a toy store as a grown up: everything that was once out of reach is now affordable, but you wonder what you ever saw in all that cheap plastic crap.

I wonder what those making such merchandise on the other side of the world think about us. I wonder what they think about a people and a country that don’t make their own patriotic merchandise but rely on foreigners to provide. And there is plenty of patriotic merchandise on display, from clothing to paper plates and plastic cups, to actual American flags. Can a nation incapable of or unwilling to make its own flags long endure? What would Betsy Ross think if she were alive today?

The food aisles are a testament to American obesity. Our forefathers would not recognize anything on the racks as “food”. Those rugged explorers who founded this country knew how to live off the land, eating roots and berries in a pinch to survive. I can envision them starving to death if they became trapped in a Walmart for any length of time. God knows how the rest of us survive.

What is exactly “wholesome goodness”, anyhow? A bag of crackers advertised it was full of it but I could find no mention of it in the list of ingredients. I sometimes wonder about the people who are paid to create packaging like this. Does it feel good to go home after a day at work, knowing you’ve degraded speech and meaning to the point where the words “wholesome” and “goodness” have lost all their value? Is there some joy to be found in wasting your education in such a manner? I have to imagine it would be equivalent to getting paid to masturbate and that it would ultimately lead you feeling just as empty and cheap. “What did you do today?” “I made it seem fun and healthy for people to eat processed sugar and genetically modified food.” It has to be especially soul-crushing as these are the kind of jobs open to those who studied art and literature in college.

Have I mentioned the customers yet? If you ever want a totally immersive television viewing experience, pop in a zombie movie into the wall of display TVs there and you will feel like you are truly in the movie, as Walmartians shuffle past you in the electronics section. Scary.

Not all the food there is unhealthy. They had a bunch of grapefruit in the fruit and vegetable aisle. Funny, I remember grapefruit when it came in the yellow packaging. I believe it was called a rind. Now it comes in clear plastic. I don’t see why this was necessary. Nature was quite good at providing a protective cover, it’s been around forever and it’s 100% bio-degradable. Do we really need to involve plastic in every purchase we make?

It seems like people are going out of their way to create excess waste. I saw cases of water in plastic bottles, wrapped in plastic no less.

I brought my own reusable bag to the checkout, a fact the cashier ignored, as he started stuffing a plastic bag with my groceries. I told him I had my own bag and if it didn’t all fit, I’d carry it rather than use plastic. He asked, “Are you sure?” Like he was trying to save me from committing a grave error, from something I’d regret doing. It’s funny, when you try to do something to save the planet from being drowned in plastic, people look at you like there’s something wrong with you. If you’re not consuming diabetes-inducing foods in mass quantities, if you don’t have a nose ring or aren’t pawing at a smart phone, you’re viewed as suspect. If you don’t want to use the self-checkout because you don’t want to make people lose their jobs, the people who stand to lose their jobs make it seem like you’re inconveniencing them.

My trip to Walmart today has reminded me why it has been so long since the last one. But still I can’t remove myself from it all together. There is a realness to it in its very unreality. It is who we are, what we have become. I need to check in every once in a while just to stay informed on how far along the evolutionary scale we have fallen, how near the inevitable collapse is. And besides, I need to know that my 55” Ultra Hi-Def Smart TV is still keeping up with the Joneses.