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Monday, July 18, 2011

The gift of impermanence


There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "Maybe," the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed. "Maybe," replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "Maybe," answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. "Maybe," said the farmer.
(adopted from users.rider.edu/~suler/zenstory/maybe.html)

Impermanence is a gift that we all received when we were born. We see it around us all the time: in our relationships, our jobs, careers, positions, and even in our own being: we are not the person we were a few years ago, or even yesterday. Tomorrow, we will not be the one we are today. Life is a constant process of change, and change entails impermanence. Anicca (Pali for impermanence) is understood by Buddhists as one of the three marks of existence. The marks are anicca (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) and anatta (non-selfhood). According to Buddhist philosophy everything consists of these three marks of existence.

While we may not necessarily be enamored by the thought of our own impermanence, we cannot avoid it, and that is a good thing. Imagine the overpopulation and confusion in the world if everyone were immortal! There are also many instances when we are happy about anicca, for instance, when we are involved in a dreadful situation – a lousy job, an abusive relationship, illness, etc. The gift of impermanence becomes more appreciated as our awareness increases – and it can become a major source of inner peace.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The gift of healthy detachment


Healthy detachment is a gift we not only overlook very often, but also grossly underestimate. What I mean with healthy detachment is freedom from (or minimization of) clinging to anything. But that's much easier said than done. Almost everyone clings to one or more things: a job, a position, status, another person, a habit, a place, a mindset, you name it. We popularly refer to the habit of clinging as "addiction," even though we don't like to think of ourselves as addicted to anything.

Not every addiction is obvious. You can see or tell when someone is addicted to alcohol or drugs, maybe, but there are so many other addictions that are not immediately visible. Therefore, we overlook them and don't see them as such. Some people are addicted to food, and not necessarily the ones that are overweight! Other people are addicted to sweets or coffee. Some are addicted to public approval. When Marilyn Monroe was married to Joe DiMaggio, the famous football player, he became aware of it. When the crowds call out your name and ask for your autograph everywhere, you may say that it's a nuisance and even believe it. But oftentimes, the real depression kicks in when the crowds stop recognizing you. That's why so many sports (and other) celebrities return to their activity after initial retirement. Mohammed Ali, Michael Jordan, Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman... the list goes on and on. It's actually rather sad, because many of our attachments are created involuntarily: you work hard on a career, people start praising you, and the clinging starts. Once they stop praising you, you fall into this dark hole that is difficult to get out of. In the vulnerable state you enter, another attachment may arise: drugs, alcohol, eating...

I wonder if the art of living – or at least one of the arts of living – is not to rise above our clinging disposition. In a Vipassana meditation retreat I attended some years ago, this issue was raised repeatedly: human beings are troubled by two major tendencies: attachment and aversion. Either we like something too much, or we hate it. The middle path is the healthiest way, but it is very difficult, because most of us – by character – gravitate toward some things with more passion than others. So passion, for that matter, is also a form of addiction, because when we are passionate about something, we walk, talk, dream, and give a lot of our time and attention to it. It's hard to detach ourselves from our addictions, and it's actually harder to admit them. Some addictions we don't even want to admit to ourselves let alone to others!

So, let's consider a gift that we have, but either don't care to, like to, want to, or can grant ourselves as often as we should: the gift of healthy detachment.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The gift of education

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
-William Butler Yeats


In 2009 there was an article in Businessweek that revealed a stunning discovery made by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America. This commission found that there is a direct relationship between people's physical and mental health and their level of education. Their research found that there are much larger groups of high school drop outs, for instance, who suffer from poor health than people with college degrees. Now, you may wonder what education would have to do with someone's health, and I will say: a lot!

Here's the thing: education doesn't only grant you a certificate or degree. That's the formal part, which many people focus on. But what many overlook is the fact that education also helps you to look at life more critically and creatively. You think things through in a more methodical, deeper way, and you learn to see opportunities where others don't. You stop taking things for granted and start questioning them more rigorously. You draw your own conclusions and don’t just go with the opinions of the masses. You verify and look for alternatives. You become more inventive and innovative. Steve jobs, the genial CEO of Apple, talks about it in a speech he gave at Stanford University in 2005. While Jobs is a college dropout, he did continue to take classes that he liked, and learned a lot this way about things that turned out to be extremely helpful to him when he started designing and developing his first Mackintosh computer. He gives the example of a caligraphy course he took, which helped him create the nice fonts for the first Mac, and basically determined the option of nice fonts for computer use overall!

A few months ago, President Obama made this point very clear again in a different light. He stressed that America needs highly educated people to increase its global position and competitiveness. Countries such as China and India have long realized the value of education and have been gaining tremendous ground in global performance. Educated people set trends. They think outside the box, no matter how cliché that may sound. When people engage in higher education they learn the things that cannot be taught: they learn to think for themselves. As a result, they understand better than others how important it is to become lifelong learners. Investment in education, says Obama, is critical for a nation's performance.

My endnote is that education is essential for you as an individual, as well as for the community in which you live and work. It is never wasted, and it will be up to you how well you choose to use your education. But you do have all the tools in your hands to make your life work out.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The gift of recognizing your gifts

Thomas Alva Edison, often praised as America's greatest inventor, developed deafness early on in his life, due to scarlet fever causing an untreated middle ear infection. He sold candy, newspapers and vegetables in his early years. When a school teacher referred to him as "addled", his mother decided to just educate him at home. Yet, before his death, Edison had 1,093 patents to his name, and earned credit for many inventions, among which the phonograph, the light bulb and motion pictures.

Here's the heart of the matter: Edison had something far more valuable than all his patents and inventions: an extraordinarily positive perception of life. It was this positive mindset that greatly enhanced his abilities. Edison failed thousands of times in his efforts to develop electric light, but he simply chose to view each unsuccessful experiment as the elimination of a way that was not working. When he finally arrived at the solution that forever changed the world, electric light, he managed to forever secure his place in history. Hence, one of his famous quotes is, "If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."

History presents us the story of looking beyond challenges to recognize your gifts in many eras, shapes, and forms. Here's an entirely different example: Carl Brashear, who passed on in 2006, became the first African American Navy Master Diver. Those of us who have seen the movie Men of Honor know that there's more to the story. Discriminated against throughout his training, Carl earned his diver's certificate in spite of very mean spirited obstructions all geared to ensure that he would not pass his diver's exam! Later, when he lost the lower portion of his left leg on the job, he was told that he could no long be a diver. It was pure believe in himself, and defiance of all odds, that pushed Brashear toward exceeding all expectations, and re-earning his diver's certificate, thus becoming the first amputee to earn a diver's certificate as well! Upon retirement, Brashear only chose to remember the good things and understand that the challenges had a purpose as well: "I can honestly say that I reached my goal in the Navy. It was an exciting career, but then it wasn't a bed of roses either. I had my ups and downs in the Navy, but I would do it over if I could".

Last example: Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996. The prognosis was grim, as doctors found a tumor that had metastasized to his brain and lungs. His cancer treatments included brain and testicular surgery and extensive chemotherapy. Yet, Lance won the Tour de France each year from 1999 to 2005, and even broke the record, which was previously set on five wins. Lance became the only person so far to win seven times. One of his famous quotes also reveals his positive outlook on life: "Anything is possible. You can be told that you have a 90-percent chance or a 50-percent chance or a 1-percent chance, but you have to believe, and you have to fight."

I could write a book, just on this topic and the many examples there are, but the message is hopefully clear by now: gifts don't always present themselves in clear ways. Some gifts take on an appearance of challenges, and it's up to us to realize that these challenges are just the enfolding, placed there to see whether you are brave enough to unwrap your gifts.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The gift of nothing

Nothing might be the most overlooked gift of all. Nothing is generally seen as having no substance: empty, void, hollow, without something. However, nothing can have substance of its own: it can actually be a blessing, especially in these days where our schedules are jam-packed, our closets are filled with wardrobes for various opportunities, and our time is scarce. Life has become so crowded, so full, so… overwhelming, and subconsciously, we keep filling it, because that’s what we have become accustomed to.

Daniel Quinn, in his book Ishmael, refers to Takers and Leavers as the two main cultures of humanity. Takers are those like you and me, who keep gathering and storing tangible and intangible things to no end: as large as houses, cars, careers and status, and as small as groceries, books, clothes, and tokens of appreciation such as awards, degrees, and certificates. Takers are always out for something. They cannot appreciate or understand the value of no-thing. Leavers are exactly the opposite. They take life as it comes, and accept every day as it manifests itself. They appreciate something and nothing, because they are aware that both are equally right. Leavers are a minority in our world today. They usually live in Natural Reservations - placed there by the Takers - or in other secluded areas such as interiors, near rivers, in forests, or mountains. Leavers appreciate good and bad, life and death, night and day: come what may. The major advantage Leavers have over Takers is greater peace of mind, because they understand the concept of yin and yang: their preferences are not as skewed as those of the Takers.

Fortunately, we all have the ability to contemplate, and change our perspectives where we realize their error. We can start applying moderation as a result of understanding our impermanence and the impermanence of everything else. And if we do it massively, it may even help restore some of the lost balance in the world! The awareness of impermanence can help us to realize that something is nice, but nothing is nice too. Nothing is just as much needed as something. Moments of doing nothing, getting nothing, chasing nothing, and desiring nothing are moments of sacred peace, which we will feel deep inside, if we care to go there. It's up to us. So, here's to the gift of nothing!

Friday, July 1, 2011

The gift of love

Even after all this time, the sun never says to the earth, "You owe me." Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.
- Hafiz of Persia

There are so many dimensions to the word "love" that it is almost impossible to withstand with just a brief statement. The most astounding fact about love is that, while we all are aware of its importance - because most of us are the result of the love between two people - there is a dreadfully amazing deficiency of this gift in the world. The lack of love is not only a problem among human beings, but can also be found between human beings and other living creatures. Abuse, war, hate, and discrimination are just a few of the many ways in which we display our inability to love as often and as freely as we should.

I often see advertisements that solicit donations to keep animal shelters open, or to help a small kid in a poor country to have a chance on a decent life. The very fact that there are animal shelters is evidence of our tendency to abuse those who love us unconditionally, our pets. The very fact that there are orphanages and homes for abandoned and abused children, and that there are chanceless children in the world who lack basics such as food and shelter, proves that we have seriously gone astray somewhere. In almost every part of the world we have become so immersed in our careers and self-realization efforts that we often fail to prioritize those who need our affection and attention until it is too late. Older parents, who once did everything to make us succeed, are simply placed in homes for the elderly and then very rarely visited or simply forgotten.

It is oftentimes only through a shocking experience – a loss that deeply touches us - that we realize the greatness of the gift of love. And until we experience that loss, we seem to remain oblivious of the immense love-famine in our world. Love can be expressed in many simple ways to many people: in fairness, through respect, by listening, with a smile, in a kind word, an unexpected gesture, and by paying attention to those we really care for. Love and happiness are each other's complements: love creates happiness, and happy people are more willing to show love. If, therefore, we share our love more freely and unconditionally, we will have happier families, neighborhoods, towns, cities, counties, countries, continents, and ultimately, a happier world.