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At least three to four times a month I make it a habit to go a day or two without consuming anything on social media. While I check and reply to messages, I make the effort not to scroll the feed. I do this because I firmly believe it to be healthy to take a break from the digital world and really focus on my actual world. Many of my friends and family do this and we all agree that it’s so refreshing to do so. I am taking a break this weekend and I can’t wait for the peace of mind that it will bring.

Right now we are saturated with news about the border and children being separated from their families. It’s heartbreaking and what’s worse, in my opinion, is to see the posts, memes and snarky comments all over social media regarding this issue. Must be awfully nice to sit in a comfortable home with your family with no perceived threat of your children being taken away from you and post comments and share memes that make fun of what is going on in the world today. Where there should be dialogue and an effort to understand each side of any issue, there is immaturity, political posturing and forced fed ideology. If we continue on this course we will no longer be Americans. We will become further divided into groups of “liberals” “Conservatives” “Snowflakes” and “Truthers” Don’t call me any of these things, please. I can promise my reply will be swift and unfeeling and you won’t like it one bit. I believe in doing the deep work in the world. I believe in getting out there and listening to people to better understand their views especially when they clash with my own. Perhaps, with enough information my ideas can change as a result of their thinking. Being open to such possibilities is where real growth occurs. Clinging to ideas because you’re afraid of change only perpetuates the problem.

I leave this blog with an allegory from an ancient voice. Copy the link below and spend some time with Plato and Socrates as they share their allegory of the cave. Read carefully and then read it again. Come back to it when you’re ready to break your own chains.

 

https://web.stanford.edu/class/ihum40/cave.pdf

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To Inspire

Inspiration means to be ” in spirit.” When we are inspired, we can be said to be in the spirit of a thing, an idea, a story or a person. If you have a social media account, no doubt you see countless pictures, memes and quotes from friends and acquaintances who sharing what inspires them. From folks trying to lose weight or embarking on a new career, everyone wants to feel in spirit about and for something.

You don’t have to move mountains and make a radical change in your life to inspire others. Even the small steps become giant leaps when you take those steps with consistent frequency. For the last few years I talked myself into trying not to exercise on Sundays. It’s not for religious or spiritual purposes mind you. It was just the idea that I wanted to rest body and mind before the start of another week.  This evening I decided to break that tradition, suit up in heavy gear and go run 6 miles. It was hot, humid and raining a bit. I loved each foot fall as I ran down back streets and across field roads. I was quickly sweating as I ran but I delighted in the feeling of my clothes becoming heavy from my energy expenditure. No doubt like many people, I struggle with personal image. I loathe having my picture taken. Seeing my image is not always pleasurable for me as the photo looks nothing like how I see myself in the mirror or in my own head. I had the pleasure of attending a dear friend’s wedding this weekend and when I saw photos of myself, for the first time in a very long time, I didn’t mind the image in the pictures. Men don’t often talk about these matters among each other or certainly not in a format such as this blog. However, as a man, I would encourage other men to have the courage to be open and discuss the areas in their lives where they feel vulnerable. There is strength in humility and weakness or perceived lack of “manliness” can become an incredible opportunity for self growth and dare I say it, inspiration for others.

Are you in spirit?

 

Teraforming

Taking on a new way of life is the process of reshaping who you are. Teraforming, is a hypothetical process of shaping a planet into an earth like atmosphere. Imagine taking a celestial body that is unable to support any form of life and with the process of science and mechanized effort, that same planet suddenly can support life and resembles earth in every way. That would be amazing.

Personal study, growth and the forging of excellence are very similar. From my own experience, in my early years of martial arts training, my soft New England demeanor and body were suddenly becoming more hardened due to the heavy training I received. The heat of summer coupled with the intense nature of my instructor and his students served as a laboratory for me to dive deep and find parts of myself that I never knew existed. I was never a good fighter in those classes. When I had partners, they were often older than me, experienced far beyond my imagination and were not always open to giving me quarter despite my youth. Even though I had my share of bumps, bruises and blood, I was always picked up off the mats with a hug and a word of encouragement. This would go on for several years.  Why do this? As a young man I was enamored with the warrior/seeker/sage triad of life and learning. I consumed books and articles and documentaries on famous warriors, scholars and adventure seekers. I wanted more for my life and more from myself. If you are a frequent reader of this blog you are familiar with my stories of being employed in lumber yards. Rough men, angry, drunk contractors, hot days and cold nights in the rain, wind or gusts of furnace like heat would rip through you in the mid afternoon. When my schedule allowed, I loved to frequent a used bookstore in town owned by a retired composition professor from George Washington University. We became fast friends and remain so to this day. I would sit with him and we dialogue about history, poetry, writing, life. I would often select a few books to purchase and sit with him longer. He later gave me the bookstore and I ran it for three years until the building was sold and I had to remove and close the business. That was a sad time for me and I still miss that little shop terribly.

We are all composed of many parts. As we seek to draw those parts together and form a better understanding of ourselves I think its important to look carefully at each aspect of who we are. We are all a bit complicated. It’s in the complexity that we must strive to locate a simplicity. Seize the quiet moments that allow you to carefully examine yourself. The art of shaping yourself won’t be easy. Try to enjoy the process and see what comes!

Opportunity

My wooden sword clashed violently with the head instructor in the training hall. My hakama, a loose fitting Japanese garment snapped and swished as we moved across the polished hard wood floor. We exchanged several strikes, moved back from each other, placed our swords at our left hips and bowed to one another.

“Let’s sit a moment.” The teacher was an older gentleman and I was a guest student while visiting friends in Boston some years ago.

“What do you feel is the most important aspect of swordsmanship at this point in your training career?” The teacher handed me a cup of ice cold water and took a seat beside me. I took a deep breath and let my fingers slightly drum the handle of my wooden sword. I pondered his question for a moment.

“Your answer should be rapid and without thought….mushin…..no mind.” He said.

“May I ask how you would answer this question?” I was curious about his thoughts and what led him into a martial life.

“I’m not sure yet…” He drank his water slowly and we sat in silence, hoping the stillness of his training space could answer this question. At that moment I realized that any opportunity to learn and grow must be seized with vigor.

Those who speak do not know.

Those who know do not speak.

Tao Te Ching

Be open to experience. The present, the now is the space between what was and what shall be. Like the space between breaths, this is the stillness that is pregnant with meaning. Do not seek it, let it come on its own time. May your mind be pacified so that you can hear the gentle whispers.  That, dear reader, is opportunity. That is the now.

Onward….

I firmly believe everyone should take an opportunity in their lives and travel alone. There is something majestic about the open road, no set schedule and a desire to see and experience things that are fresh and new. Even if something you see or a place you visit isn’t new, the sense of being alone with your thoughts as you take in the vistas can still be so healing. I drove home to Northern Maine last fall for a hunting trip with family. The great Mount Katadhin rose up from the horizon in all its glory. Driving up the scenic ramp, I stopped and got out and sat for a long while pondering its glory, its stories and history. That mountain has been part of my life for all of my life. It has welcomed me home and bid me farewell on many a trip. While I was anxious to see family and friends, it felt great to be in no real hurry as I made my trek north. Last summer was particularly challenging and the scenic woods of Maine were a welcoming salve to ease my spirit.

“The space between each breath….that’s where you want to meditate. That’s where you’ll find a personal truth.” The meditation hall smelled of incense, the brass Buddha statue loomed large at the head of the room. Twelve other people sat around me on cushions or blankets.  I sat crossed legged, eyes shut, hands resting on my thighs, breathing through my nose and then out through my mouth. My mind raced a million miles a minute. It showed me pictures of lost love, anger, bitter feelings, fond memories and the challenges behind forgiveness. Later in the evening among the stands of Pine and Birch, I took up a staff and began to push myself through several kata. Kata- a Japanese word that loosely translates to “form” is the basis of many Japanese arts. My staff struck, parried and sliced the air. My hands now slick with sweat molded nicely along the length of the four foot oak that was my weapon. A personal peace that was so elusive suddenly began to develop within me. Moments later, it was gone. The anger returned and my body stiffened from the emotion. I held up my staff in the fading light, this simple stick that I had shaped, sanded and wood burned to give it character was suddenly flung deep into the woods. I threw it. Hard. I watched it bounce off a tree and then plummet to the ground. Maybe a hiker in distant years will come across it? Maybe it will just sink in and become part of the earth? “What a waste of time….” I muttered as I walked back to the meditation hall. I was full of anger and sadness at that particular time in my life. In spite of my youth, I honestly had no idea of how long those emotions would stay with me. I was in the dark and I had no idea of how to climb out. Dear readers, anger is a thief. It can rob you of all your right thoughts and action. Be wary of such things.

Within the last few months, I’ve worked hard to take a lighter look at life. To be serious when needed, responsible and consistent as being an adult navigating life would have us be. Yet, at heart, I’ve always been a bit of a clown. I love to laugh, to smile and make others do the same.  I am in the sixth month of being 40 years old. My mother tells me that life begins at 40 and I have begun to see what she means by this. To some people, my lighter steps may seem out of character. I’ve brooded for far too long in my life. Coming into being demands that we reflect. Sometimes looking back is looking ahead. Seeing where you have been can often show you where you are going.

Smile. Laugh. Repeat.  I know I am!

Onward……

The founder of the Soto sect of Japanese Zen, Dogen Zenji was said to have been travelling throughout Japan upon his return from China. As a young man, he grew dissatisfied with his religious training and went to China to seek out a more authentic education in Buddhism. Dogen’s writing collection,  titled, Shobogenzo is a classic in Buddhist literature. A famous story of Dogen finds him sitting in the courtyard of a monastery observing two monks arguing over a flag billowing in the wind. One monk insisted that the wind moved the flag while the other monk insisted that it was the flag that caused the winds. Dogen sat quietly and observed this dialogue.

“Gentleman, may I offer a thought?” Dogen spoke up as the monks took a pause to sip tea.

“It is neither the flag nor the wind that moves. It is merely your mind that is in motion.”

It is said that the two monks bowed down before Dogen and became his students. To our western minds, such a dialogue seems to border on the ridiculous. To an Eastern mind steeped in rich tradition, such contemplation serves a higher purpose of personal enlightenment. I have always been drawn to such philosophy and can tell you without exaggeration that I have read over 150 books on Zen and Eastern wisdom. I still have half that number in my personal library. I’ve spent time in a Zen monastery with friends for an immersion experience while in college. A Tibetan monk, His Holiness Grudrag Rinpoche reads this blog and requested to meet me in person some years ago at my martial arts school.  By the way, what’s up your Holiness, hope all is well!! I’ve studied with Buddhist groups, sat with ministers and priests to discuss salvation, heaven, hell and my place in this world. I’ve shared plenty of time and stories with Native American Shaman and story tellers. Am I educated and enlightened? Nope. Not one bit. Thankfully, I recognize my mind is in constant motion. Thanks to the help of some stellar mentors and teachers, I’ve learned to recognize the motion and bring some sense of purpose to the movement.

When your mind is in motion,watch it carefully. It may be leading you to a destination that is hidden from your eyes but only visible with your feelings.

Stepping Stones

“Where are you………where will you go? Look behind you……….no….look up……..”  I swore the voice I heard was real. I was in the woods, alone, deep, nobody around for miles. I had gotten lost in my head and now I was lost in the woods. Common for a kid playing in the woods in Northern Maine, trouble was, I was no kid- I was almost 22 years old. I had gone for a run and purposely gotten off the marked trail to explore the area. I was daydreaming as I ran, trying to solve problems that I was facing and hoping that a good run and a good sweat and a small adventure would be the cure. I wanted to be able to see myself more clearly except now all I could see was lush forest. Beautiful, certainly but that’s not what goes through your mind when you are lost. Deep breath. Sit down. Listen. Wait. I took a seat as my mind ordered me to do. I closed my eyes, focused on my breathing and began to listen to the sounds around me. In the distance, I could hear traffic, I could the sounds of town and the distant drumming of horns from large trucks. Taking a moment to focus, I stood up and began to follow the distant sounds. There was no sun to navigate with, only gray clouds promising more rain. Walk, pause, listen, repeat.

In Japanese gardens, stones are placed at various levels as a guide for the people taking in the splendor. Low placed stones would have you step low and deep to admire a display of flowers or greenery on the ground level. Higher placed stones have you step up and take in a view of higher placed vistas of statuary or more flowers. Stones that are wet down with water remind you to tread slowly, carefully.

I came out of the woods that day and ran back home along the back streets and sidewalks of my childhood. I laughed to myself thinking that you can go home and still get lost.

Getting lost is often the most perfect way of getting found.

Tread softly folks, but step with vigor!