Monday, May 30, 2016

Awesomeness, Inc.

I'm a cowboy - on a steel horse I ride...
How’ve you been, NIP?

            I hope that you’ve been awesome. Whenever someone asks my brother-in-law some derivation of the same question (how are you?, etc.), he always replies with “awesome.” I love that answer, even if he only means it in the more colloquial sense that the term has taken on in the last 30 years or so. But when I say that I hope you’ve been—and continue to be—awesome, I mean it in the literal, original sense of the word. I’ve been thinking about how awesome my life is as of late, especially this past Memorial Day weekend. Plus, reflecting on the previous letter about L.U.G., I don’t think I talked about the aspect of awesomeness that imbues much (if not all) of what makes L.U.G., L.U.G. So I wanted to rectify that by writing this short letter to you today after thinking about it yesterday while I was mowing my father-in-law’s lawn.

            I’m not going to lie, I love to mow lawns. Always have. Can’t quite put my finger on it, but the most prominent feature that I keep coming back to when I explain to others is the solitude. When you’re mowing the lawn, no one is going to disturb you for virtually any reason. Much like when I run, I can use that time to think or to just be, and usually it ends up being a combination of both—times when I slip into thinking and reflection, and then out of it into simply being and focusing on the various sensations within my field of consciousness. While I’m mowing the lawn, though, it tends to be more of the latter rather than the former, and I think it has a lot to do with the connection to nature (or L.U.G. more broadly). Whatever the reason is, it hit me big time when I was mowing yesterday.

It might not be Montana, but Plant City is definitely "Big Sky Country"
            When I first crossed the fence-line yesterday to the back parcel, I stopped to just take in the sky. The clouds were billowing outward yet pockets of sunshine spotted the ground from the light streaming through, and in the distance you could feel rain coming from the north behind me as the breeze blew to the southeast. I sat there on the mower for a long moment, taking it in, and I really didn’t have words. When these moments hit me when I am truly awestruck, I can feel them rising. It’s as if I become one with the very thrumming heartbeat of L.U.G. It left me after a moment once I began mowing in earnest, but after about three loops around the fencing and a solid border had been established, about a dozen cattle egret joined me in the grass. They took turns flying down from the fence posts and into the freshly mown grass to scarf up the insects whose habitats had been briefly disturbed by the grass being cut. I watched them for several moments as they ran about, swooping up and out of the way as the mower passed, until finally I just stopped altogether and sat there taking in this amazing sight. After a few moments they had made their way through the property and had moved on to the adjacent one, but the feeling of awe stayed with me for the rest of the time I mowed.

Cattle Egret. In case you've never seen one and were dying to know.
I felt so privileged and blessed to be alive in that moment. I still do right now.

            I think there is a direct connection between the capacity to cultivate awe in our daily lives and our overall life satisfaction. I hesitate to use the word happiness here because that might be too glib. There is something about awe when you are feeling it in the moment that doesn’t quite connote happiness, but the feeling itself is pleasurable. It’s definitely a reverential feeling, something that makes you feel truly grateful to be alive and bask in the “is-ness” of that specific moment. That’s not to say that awe can’t make you also feel something akin to fear and a certain recognition of smallness in terms of scale when contemplating one’s place in the cosmos, but most of the time when it does arise for me it tends to be of the more pleasurable variety. But this connection then begs the question: how do we cultivate our capacity for awe?

            For me, it has been mostly my mindfulness meditation practice. For nearly seven years now I have meditated every day, constantly calling myself back away from my auto-pilot brain mode to paying attention to what is happening to me in the present moment. That, coupled with a true recognition of my ignorance about the world and how it works, has instilled in me this capacity for recognizing awe when it arises. While I wish I could turn it on and off like a switch, I can’t. What I do know, though, is that these moments rise up to greet me in the present much more often than they did before, almost as if L.U.G. knows exactly when to blossom its petals outward and let me take a peek into its esoteric nature. We all can learn how to do this—or perhaps re-learn—because each and every one of us did it when we were young. The reason why we stop has a lot to do with our nature, and we have to learn to override this impulse by constantly being on the lookout for the awesomeness that is right in front of us in most moments.

            Do you remember what it was like to be young, NIP? I don’t mean in your teens or even twenties, I mean younger than ten years old. I’m sure you do, and I am sure you have fond memories from that phase of your life. Or, even better, if you have children of your own, you’ve seen their natural capacity for awe in them when they interact with just about everything in life. I used to call it “innocence” when I was younger, always lamenting the loss of it because for the first ten years or so of our lives nearly everything is wonderful. Do you remember that? That constant need to explore? To try out new and different things? Everything was so novel, so new. We lived in a state of amazement precisely because we hadn’t experienced it, or at least not in that particular way in that moment we remember so much. Now that I’m 40 and have learned a lot more about life—especially the human brain—I realize that it is not innocence that we lose as we grow older, it’s that we become habituated.

            Habituation is good insofar as it keeps our species (and perhaps all animals) safe. But there is a real sense in which becoming habituated to life within a certain context can deaden our spirits and strip away what makes us truly feel alive. After all, the way the field of psychology defines habituation is the lessening of a physiological or emotional response to repeated stimuli. We come to accept a certain routine to our daily lives, a familiar pattern. But in so doing we also start to take it all for granted. Ultimately, what these last few years have taught me is that by fighting to see the newness and uniqueness in those moments when I am willing to actively search for them in a given moment, we not only become more grateful as we take less for granted, but we also build up a reservoir of awe that we can tap into more frequently, reinvigorating the childhood exuberance we once felt for living life to the fullest and being a part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Though it's difficult to tell, this Tree frog looked like a small Bull frog.

            I spent the better part of the afternoon thinking about these things as I took in the view from the back porch of my father-in-law’s house. I watched two baby doves land on the lip of the birdbath to clean themselves before flying away. I watched a long black snake wind through the grass out into the shade of the Plumbago bush before finally being chased out of there by a protective mockingbird. A bright red cardinal next landed on the birdfeeder and ate his fill, dropping small bits of seed in the process. In between these sights I shared stories and smiles with family…and I felt awesome. I felt great to be alive, to enjoy these simple moments and to recognize them for the gifts that they are. On the drive home, a quote that I stumbled upon while re-reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations came to me, and I will leave it here for you to further contemplate as you try to incorporate more awesomeness into your own daily life, NIP.

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive—
to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

Stay awesome,

- Ryan

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Faith in L.U.G.

How’s life, NIP?

            Mine’s been spectacular as of late. The last few months have been a lot of fun for Erin and me: we celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary just over a month ago, I was extended an offer for the newer version of the job I am currently working a few weeks ago, and Erin had her birthday this past Tuesday and we’ve been enjoying a long weekend to honor her special day. Lots of other events have transpired since the beginning of the year, and one of them in particular has had me thinking a great deal about faith.

            After a decade long hiatus, one of my all-time favorite hip-hop groups, Blackalicious, finally released a new album titled Imani Vol. 1, which happens to be the Swahili word for “faith.” Having spent the better part of the last six months reflecting on faith since I began writing letters again once a month, it was interesting that the first track on the disc is “Faith.” It’s really only an intro of sorts to the entire album, but faith is a theme that runs throughout the songs, a thread the binds together the entire tapestry of lyrics and beats. Here are the lyrics to the intro (click here if you want to hear it):

Never let life’s troubles block your flow
Have faith and get where you’re trying to go
Like a winding river in search of the ocean
You must keep your faith in motion
Never let doubt block faith’s flow
If you want to get where you’re trying to go
Up and down or spinning around
You gotta keep faith flowing if you want to be around
Crying and whining won’t get you through
Your greatest power in all you see, say, and do
Is deep, deep faith

            I have deep, deep faith. Faith in what, you might ask, NIP? Faith in L.U.G. I realize that what I am about to say may be considered blasphemous by some, but this is my “satya,” my truth. It certainly explains my core principles and convictions at this point in life now that I’m 40 years old and have spent at least the last half of this incredible gift contemplating L.U.G., which is the acronym for that which really has no name from my personal perspective—LIFE/UNIVERSE/GOD. I am deeply reverent of L.U.G., and while those who know me well might consider me “non-religious” at this point in my life, I firmly believe that I am more religious than most. After all, to be religious from an etymological point of view is to be tied to something, whether a community of people who share similar beliefs, perform similar practices, or some version of the idea of the sacred. Typically it comes in the guise of an amalgamation of all of these elements but, either way, in my heart-of-hearts, I know that I am deeply religious, even if that religiosity doesn’t conform to most social norms as we currently understand the cultural phenomenon.

            The other day when I was shopping for Erin’s birthday present, I was approached and proselytized by an older gentleman. I typically enjoy these exchanges because I feel that—if the person is a willing participant in an engaging and authentic dialogue—we both walk away having gained something from the talk. He began by asking me if I was a Christian, to which I replied “sort of”; this left him perplexed and he then followed up with “how can you ‘sort of’ be a Christian?” I told him how I was raised in the Catholic Church and very much respected and admired many aspects of my original tradition, but that I also happened to be a Religious Studies major during my time studying at the university and that it had profoundly altered and shaped my subsequent views on religion, most importantly on a personal level. I then went on to tell him how Jesus is a personal hero and spiritual sage to me, but that I have a difficult time accepting most, if not nearly all, of the claims put forth by the organized religion as it changed and grew over the last two millennia. I understand that they arose in a particular historic and cultural context, and to divorce the religion of that is to do it a disservice and lessen one’s comprehension of it. Though I didn’t wade into those depths with him in the moment, I kept our conversation pleasant and informative. I appreciated and thanked him for his time, and shook hands as we parted.

            For me, the biggest reason I can’t profess a single religion has to do with feeling at home among them all. As a Religious Studies major, I have visited nearly all variations of houses of worship, have had profound and friendly discussions with adherents from numerous traditions, and learned something about the specific tradition in question from all of these encounters. I can’t say that any of them are right, but I recognize that within a certain set of parameters the traditions are right for those who belong to them. But for me, that’s far too limiting. I’ve learned equally from the history of human progress, scientific understanding, and just experiential relationships that I have had with many family members and friends along the way. To deny these learning experiences over others, or to assert prominence of one belief over another is to create an unnecessary hierarchy when, in my mind at least, there is none.

            At this point in my journey, all I can say that's there for sure is L.U.G. Not one for labels and considering myself a mystic who has transcended traditional labels and boundaries, I have a deep and abiding faith in L.U.G. I don’t need to believe in L.U.G., because it is everywhere I look, with me in everything I do; ultimately, I am part of L.U.G. as well. Labels only limit (and often do psychological harm) and I have no use for them; L.U.G., then, is nothing more than a shorthand abstraction for all that I feel in my heart and mind that I could never express with words. Personally, I think that it is something much more than what we understand when it comes to any of the individual words that comprise the acronym itself (Life/Universe/God). It is clearly responsible for me being here, but not in some neat, linear causal line. Without it, I wouldn’t exist, or at least I can’t discern otherwise. And this is precisely why my faith runs so deeply…

            If you noticed, NIP, I keep coming back to the word faith, not belief. I believe in a lot of things, many of which are ideals that I strive to live out. I believe, for instance, that it is necessary for me to continuously cultivate love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience in my life so that I may be the best person I can be for myself and others in equal measure. Others may disagree. That’s the nature of belief. I can accept an idea without needing proof of said claim. As I used to tell my students in Philosophy Honors, the dictionary definition of belief is “the subjective mental acceptance of a claim.” Just because I believe those aforementioned virtues are central to my life and should be emulated by all people doesn’t mean that you have to believe that. For all I know you could believe the exact opposite and want to create sheer anomie in the world, but I somehow doubt that. The most important thing to realize is that beliefs are ideas, nothing more. I can’t deny that beliefs have a pragmatic value and can help you live your life as you best see it, but in the end they are just positions we take as we build our personal worldviews.

            Faith is not a belief, though these two are often intertwined. Faith, in its simplest form, is trust. Therefore when I say that I have faith in L.U.G., I mean that in a way that I trust it to take care of me. Up to this point, it certainly has. I haven’t wanted air and not had it, or water, or any number of other necessities that sustain life as we know it. If belief is a mental proposition, faith is a gut-feeling. It’s intuitive. I can’t prove anything with faith, yet nor would I attempt to. For the same reason that I refuse to employ labels because what I feel is truly ineffable, I can’t really define faith other than a complete surrender to that which is far greater than I. I am but the tiniest of specks in an ocean of L.U.G., and all I can feel for being a part of it is gratitude and humility. In retrospect, I have done so little to bring me to where I am today; it has been the work of millions of untold, unknown others who have helped me get to where I am and shaped me into who I have become, and all of these are a part of L.U.G., too, whether they realize it or not. Even in my worst moments during the journey, I always trusted that everything would turn out okay, that better days were ahead. And that faith always carried me through.

            No matter where you are in the journey, NIP, faith in L.U.G. can and will sustain you, whether you consciously acknowledge it or otherwise feel it in your bones. There’s nothing that I can say in this letter that will convince you, because only you can accept L.U.G.’s guiding influence. But what I have come to discover in the first half of my life is that when you are willing to put your best out there in every aspect of your life, L.U.G. repays the favor multiple times over. All this “is-ness” that is L.U.G., seen and unseen, known and unknown, all feeds into this amazing system of which we are all apart. We all have a critical role to play in this giant sea of symbiosis, and the choices we make each and every day are small ripples in that sea. It has been my experience that the more I let go and let L.U.G., to borrow a common yet slightly modified phrase, the more amazing the sojourn has become. I can’t explain it, and even if I could I don’t think I’d want to. Like a Zen master who has achieved satori, I at least have learned that L.U.G. most fully emerges when we stop doing and start being. In some of my quietest, stillest moments I have found the deepest connection to L.U.G. when my thoughts cease and all I feel is my breath and all I hear is my heartbeat. And it is in those moments when I feel my faith runs deepest…

Keep the faith, NIP.

- Ryan

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Intersection

Just like Stevie Wonder sang, "Isn't she lovely?"
What’s going on, NIP?

            I don’t know about you, but my life has been rather chaotic and hectic over the last month. And yet even in the midst of all this craziness, I still find plenty of time to reflect upon how lucky I am. In fact, I may go so far as to say that I am the luckiest person alive. I know that is simply my opinion and nothing that can be quantified, yet that doesn’t detract from the way I feel and perceive myself in relation to life at this point. And while there may be a ton of reasons for why I feel this way, chief among them is my beautiful wife Erin who is pictured above.

            This past Tuesday Erin and I decided to take the day off from work at the last moment and celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary. We enjoyed a leisurely morning of reading and drinking coffee, then—dressed in our “Just”/”Married” matching T-shirts from our Sandals wedding in the Bahamas—headed out to Flatwoods Park to walk the seven mile loop trail that is situated in the middle of the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve, a gorgeous tract of land that sprawls over 5,600 acres. It was a perfect day in terms of weather, and after our two hour hike we went to a local eatery that we have wanted to try for some time now. Even while there, we took nearly two hours to enjoy our lunch as we sat outside on the patio in the shade. We came home in the middle of the afternoon to watch Netflix, and before bed I wrote about my five favorite moments from the day in my gratitude journal.

            The gratitude journal is an idea that I got from a book I read not long ago, The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year of Lookingon the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life by Janice Kaplan (I highly recommend it). The gist of the book is that Kaplan makes a New Year’s resolution to try and become more grateful for all that she has rather than focusing on what she didn’t have. Written over the course of a year, each chapter takes place over the duration of a single month with a specific focus on how to incorporate gratitude into her daily life. She has interesting conversations with many learned people in various fields, often citing data from their research on how being more grateful is linked to better well-being and other physical and mental health outcomes. The first step she begins with is the gratitude journal, which I have been keeping since the day before I wrote the last letter on humility. Though this isn’t something new to me (I kept a running log for about a year of a similar journal called “What Went Well,” which is reflective strategy promoted in Martin Seligman’s excellent book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being), I have enjoyed the exercise because it has me savoring the experiences for which I have been grateful each day; not only do I enjoy them in the moment—something I have been prone to doing for the last couple of years—but a second time upon reflection at the end of the day prior to going to bed. It’s a great way to end the day on a positive note, and cultivating gratitude certainly makes inroads to building a more positive outlook in general over the long run.

            And yet all this conscious reflecting on gratitude has brought about an unintended conundrum of sorts, a real chicken-or-the-egg type question: namely, am I a becoming more humble because I am cultivating gratitude, or am I becoming more grateful because I am cultivating humility? I’ve thought about it a lot since writing the last letter, and all I can say for sure at this point is that these two are intricately linked through a virtuous cycle of reciprocity. One leads to the other, for sure, and so I don’t think it matters in the end, but I know for me personally it began with gratitude. However one comes to this intersection between gratitude and humility, each of us will have been altered for the better by the time we get here. The best part is that there is really no need to focus on one over the other because the symbiotic nature of the two promotes a flowering of both virtues.

But back to the beginning of my letter…I feel like the luckiest guy alive, and it definitely begins and ends with Erin. Radiating outward from that spoke of love, though, are innumerable simple things and moments for which I am grateful each day. And the more time has passed, the more I contemplate how fortunate I am to experience even any single one of them, let alone a plurality of phenomena. Thinking about this, I believe, brought me to my knees in a metaphorical sense because it helped me realize that all of this is conferred without being asked. It is just there. Or, more precisely, just here. It’s right now. It’s everything within your field of senses in this very moment. It is the awareness itself. And whatever term we’d like to attach to this consciousness, sentience, or what have you, it is the act of bearing witness to life that brings us to this intersection of gratitude and humility. By being thankful and appreciative for all that we have been given, this also brings with it a sense of abundance, generosity, and humility. It would only make sense that if we have been given so much that we have a duty to share with others. As far as I can figure out, I haven’t done anything special to earn the air that I breathe, the colors I see, the birdsong I hear, the flowers I smell, the warmth I detect, or anything else that arises in this most essential awareness. But I know others have something to do with it, of that much I am certain.

I know I am getting a bit abstract at this point, NIP, and I can’t help but be philosophical about this because of all the reading and thinking in which I’ve been engaged as of late. So, let me provide you with some real life examples from my journal. I’ve read through them before writing this letter in the hopes a few examples would get to the heart of what I am trying to convey with this letter—that at the intersection of gratitude and humility, at the nexus of exchange between the self and the other, is the heart of what it means to be human, to be alive. Here are just a few of the lines from my log that I think made me feel that way the most in the moment when they happened:

Grateful for the light rain and feeling of mist hitting my skin during my morning run.

Grateful to go for a walk after school and feel the breeze and sunshine.

Grateful for the orange-pink hue on the clouds early this morning.

Grateful for the sight of a mockingbird landing on the stop sign in the cold winds.

Grateful to watch “sky television” for several minutes and enjoy passing clouds.

Grateful to support my mentees and help them through difficult times.

Grateful to connect with a student and have a meaningful conversation about life.

Grateful to take a stand for something because it’s the right thing to do.

Grateful to meet new people and deepen relationships with others.

Grateful for the support of so many others in my life—from Erin to fellow mentors.

Grateful to have made a delicious meal for my beautiful wife Erin.

Grateful for a wonderful wife who makes me pancakes breakfasts upon request.

Grateful to have the time to share simple moments with Erin today.

Grateful to be married to an incredible woman for nine years today!

Grateful to have been given another day, especially to spend with my wife.

            Though that’s only a small sampling of what I have written over the past month—I jot down at least 5 every night—I noticed that these entries revolve largely around three areas of my life: my solo interactions with the natural world; the moments that pertain to giving help to, or receiving it from, others; my interactions with the love of my life. I cannot say that I gravitate toward these moments/memories each night consciously, but they clearly cropped up when I reviewed what I have written over the last 35 days. Regardless of subconscious bias or intent, when I looked back over them they only made me smile again, many of them reproducing not only the moment in my mind, but the feelings of happiness, contentment, and awe that I felt then too.

But now it’s your turn, NIP. 

If you’ve read this far, then I hope you take up this challenge…write your own gratitude journal. To be consciously and constantly aware of even some of people, moments, or things for whom or which you have to be grateful, you’ll quickly find yourself heading toward that intersection that I find myself at now. Who knows? Perhaps you’re already there or have even moved beyond it at this point in your life. All that I have figured out up to this moment is that gratitude and humility are inextricably bound. I don’t think the question about which comes first really matters so long as we arrive at this juncture while we sojourn in this life. Because when we arrive at this intersection, we see that the near limitless possibilities only expand toward the horizon in every direction. I don’t know where to go from here, but so long as I keep these two complementary virtues in my head and heart at all times, I have faith that I’ll never get lost.

As always, NIP, I am grateful for and humbled by your taking an interest in my journey.

Thanks for walking the path with me,

-        - Ryan