Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The End of Procrastination

How do we decide what we do every day? For most of us, our job takes care of that. Especially teachers. You have a schedule, kids show up at your door, you do something with them until the class is over and here comes the next bunch. There’s a clarity and comfort in this kind of work, no room to think, “Hmm. Should I teach these group of kids or lock the door and practice piano?” I imagine the same holds true for plumbers or cooks or clerks in stores. Just show up and do your work.

But for retired folks, administrators in-between meetings and most people on weekends, the day yawns before you with its blank hours and says, “Here I am. What are you going to do with me?” Feels to me like there are maybe five types of activities:

1)    Things that feed your soul. Play piano, paint a picture, meditate, write a poem, walk in the forest. There’s a thousand dishes that Soul loves to eat, depending on your taste and interests.

2)    Things that feed your body. Cook, eat, exercise and occasionally make love.

3)    Things that feed practical necessities. Caretaking activities like water the plants, feed the cat, wash the dishes, put air in the bike tires, get groceries at the store.

4)    Things that feed your social life. E-mails, coffee with a friend, gatherings with friends, Facebook posts, board games, cards or charades.

5)    Things that feed your need to relax. Read a book, magazine or newspaper, watch videos, movies, Youtube clips, listen to that new CD, things that allow you to shut off your thinking/ doing self and plop down on the couch with one directive: “Distract or enlighten me as you will, just entertain me!”

I’ve had such a productive and pleasurable three months off from school this Fall (one more to go!), feeding the mind through my writing and reading, the soul with morning meditation, the heart with playing piano, the body with bike riding and walking around the city (and time to cook good meals!). Without the school schedule, I’ve had the chance to create my own rhythmic cycle of activities—meditate, write, play piano in the morning, bike, walk, do errands in the afternoon, read-movie-listen-to-music-go-to-concert at night and truth be told, I love it. A bit worried about waking up in the dark come January, driving the route hoping to make the right lights, teaching some seven classes a day, going to staff meetings, planning the next day’s classes and so on. I imagine sometime after lunch, the kids will keep showing up at my door and I’ll be thinking, “This is really cutting into my day!”

So yesterday I got to a thrilling place in my writing where I declared myself done with the second draft of my new book and went to Kinko’s to get a bound copy made. There was a long wait in line there and I browsed through what I had written and was thrilled to discover I liked it! I had written exactly the kind of book I like to read and it was feeling like music with the rhythm and cadences of the sentences and the evocative images and the surprising left turns as I took ideas out of their lane and passed a few cars and then got back to the main route. That felt good.

But then today, without the next chapter or sentence to write, I was confronted with the opening question: “How do we decide what to do each day?” And not happy with my answer: “Deal with that thing you keep putting on your list and never do!!” It has to do with going through my book sales and figuring out how much money I owe my two colleagues whose books I’ve published, a skill that is complex, confusing and not up my anti-accountant-personality alley. But one I’ve felt guilty about for the last nine months! This very blog post is another step in my procrastination strategy! But there’s no more excuses. I’m going to do it! At least, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…

What are the things we procrastinate with? I suspect the things that don’t automatically bring us pleasure and remind us of what we’re not good at. Yet still must be done. And let’s talk more about this… NO! Enough! Get going!!

Okay, I give up. Wish me luck!!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Room at the Inn

It’s time for my annual Holiday newsletter to send out to friends and to prepare, I re-read last year’s. I liked my ending paragraphs and find them still relevant today, with an added twist. My unfounded hopes from a year ago are on the cusp of being realized. The shift in political energy from the midterms, Mueller’s investigation rolling to a cadence and the taste of the possibility that the people who deserve their just desserts will finally get them—including a permanent Time-Out for the Toddler-in-Chief. How sweet that would be! And note my warning that if this indeed comes to pass, it’s not time to relax, but re-double our efforts to keep democracy alive and moving forward. Here’s the excerpt:

Can I get through this without mentioning the American political scene? Of course not! But you might be surprised to hear that I’m extremely hopeful. What happened last November revealed all the unresolved ugliness in American culture, but as the year went on, it also showed the beauty of the many who have been silent starting to speak up, the courage of those who have excused things starting to notice that it has gone too far, the long history of free speech helping to stem the tide of bad people in power trying to unravel democracy and our justice system keeping things together enough that the attempt to dismantle democracy is either halted or slowed and impeachment could become a reality. The big lesson is to not relax once these bad, bad people are gone, but to keep vigilant and most importantly, to educate, educate, educate. All ages, but particularly the young ones.

My world is populated with beautiful people from Iran, Turkey, Ghana, South Africa, Brazil, Colombia, China, Japan, India, Finland, Iceland, Spain, Austria and beyond and it warms my heart every moment I spend with them and hurts my heart that some of them can’t enter my country. The political scene at the moment is not only cruel and mean-spirited, but we have crippled ourselves by shooting ourselves in the foot every time we close the door and refuse hospitality and welcome. About to go to my annual Posada and sing the song where the innkeeper refuses a room to Mary and Joseph. When he finds out that she’s carrying “the Divine Spirit,” he smiles and says, “Oh, why didn’t you say so? Come on in!” If only we realized that every person who knocks at the door is carrying that Divine Spirit, we could finally be more generous and actually learn to love our neighbor the way someone suggested some 2,000 years ago. Wouldn’t that be a good idea?

So that’s it. As we turn with the year to 365 more chances to get it right, let’s collectively renew our vows to stay awake, be involved, speak out, listen, grant ourselves some stillness and silence. The happiest of holidays to you and yours!  

Sunday, December 9, 2018

A Note to My Readers

I’ve mentioned before that there seems to me some kind of glitch in the Comment Section and there’s not really any back and forth between me and my readers. Sometimes I think it’s too bad, but mostly I’m realistic about it—don’t think I could sustain ongoing dialogues without quitting all my jobs.

Occasionally, a comment gets through that makes sense and makes me happy to read it. But lately, all the comments, by different people (or robots?), tend to be like this:

Buy Manforce 100mg Online Tablet relaxes the smooth muscles present in the wall of blood vessels and helps in increasing the flow of blood in certain specific areas of the body. Manforce 100mg Tablet is a phosphodiesterase type 5 inhibitor that helps to relax as well as dilate the blood vessels in the body. It helps to increase the flow of blood in certain parts of the body.

Now I’ve confessed a lot in these blog posts, but don’t believe I’ve openly discussed this as an issue I have. What’s going on? Are they reading between some lines that I haven’t even written? Are they suggesting that after reading my blog, they’d like to meet me, but first I might consider this product? Or is just plain old American capitalism sticking its nose in every nook and cranny trying to make a buck?

Not exactly the level of discourse I hoped for when starting this blog. But hey, if I ever run a spelling bee, I definitely will put the word “phosphodiesterase” on the list.

Any comments, anyone?

Gone Without Goodbye

He was my friend for almost 20 years.

Every day he welcomed me, announcing
             how others in the world cared enough to get in touch.

He was with me wherever I went, on this continent or that.

Sometimes I’d be embarrassed by him, when he talked too loud in the library
           or occasionally at the dinner table.

Some friends were amazed by his loyalty, others
        had trouble believing I would choose to still hang out with him.

And then suddenly,

                        He was gone.

Just disappeared one day without a word of goodbye
         and never came back.

Do I miss him?
Well, yes and no.

I do notice the silence where his voice once spoke.

Mostly, I wonder where he went and why and sometimes
       think about how I never really knew who he was.

So, goodbye, old friend.  Thanks for all the years and I wish you well.

You voice who every day for two decades told me:

Welcome! You’ve got mail.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Be a Light

My first daughter was born at home and immediately after that miraculous event, while the mid-wives were attending to my wife, I took her in my arms, intoned a Buddhist chant and whispered in her ear these words from the Buddha:

“In this body is birth and death and the key to liberation from birth and death. Be a light unto yourself.“

Today is Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, the day Buddha arose from his meditation under the Bo Tree with the insight that would give birth to one of the world’s major religions. The insight itself defies language, but is described as an awakening, as a parting of the veils of ignorance, as a removal of the impediments that obscure our original, true, Buddha nature.

I liked this story enough to become a lifetime practitioner of Zen Buddhism, the active branch of the religion that is not content with worship, belief, mere rituals and rites, but seeks to recreate Buddha’s experience under the Bo Tree by an intentional, disciplined practice. The idea of being born with a pure, true Buddha nature that gets clouded over by our own ignorance was much more appealing to me than the idea of being born into Original Sin and being saved simply by believing in Jesus and giving lots of money to the church. And the idea of active practice and first-hand experience made much more sense than blind faith and belief in someone else’s story.
Zen is like the Orff of religion—you have learn by actively doing.

Buddhism is the only major religion without a god at the center. When the Buddha was teaching, someone asked:

“Are you a god?”
“Are you a spirit?”
“Are you a saint?”
“What are you then?”
“I am awake.”

“The Buddha” means “an awakened one” and it was the name Prince Siddartha took on after his enlightenment.

The idea that everyone equally is graced with Buddha nature was quite radical in the caste system of Hinduism that was prevalent when Siddartha was born. It implies a move towards social justice millennia before the Constitution. And the idea that all sentient beings share something of this nature was a radical vote for ecology and sustainability, humbling humans to a more co-participatory rank alongside the plants and animals. The monasteries themselves are places where traditionally the head Zen Master worked alongside the monks and all of them choosing a simple life quite different from the lavish jewels and large cathedrals and big money of say, the Catholic Church. Finally, Buddhism has never endorsed cajoling or forcing others to join in a ravaging, colonial kind of mission work based on subjugation and conquering (pay attention here, Christians and Muslims!). All of this and more made Buddhism an attractive place to park my own spiritual yearnings. And still does. Alongside jazz and Orff and just plain decent living.

But none of this is intended to cajole or convince you to join the team. And when it comes to the actual way human beings live who call themselves Buddhists, I can’t say the track record is that much better than any other religious group. Witness the Japanese invasions around World War II (Pearl Harbor was the day before Buddha’s Enlightenment Day!) or the Chinese decimation of the land, water and air. And even Zen Masters get caught in sex scandals or money issues.

But for those who feel exiled from that childhood wonder of their original nature and don’t feel at home with the other major religions, consider spending some time sitting on cushions. Read the story of a privileged Prince shielded from suffering from an over-protective father who then renounced it all, went to various extremes before settling on “the Middle Way,” and achieved an awakening from his own efforts and the grace of a Dharma truth looking for a voice in the world.

And now to go sit zazen. Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day!