Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Good tidings NIP,

            I can’t believe 2010 is almost over. This year flew by for me. Did it seem the same to you? Many of my friends say theirs passed quickly too. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older, or it could be that the pace of change seems to accelerate. Either way, I’ve gotten much better at taking it all in stride. I think I grew frustrated when I was younger because I didn’t want things to change; I had to have control. These last two years have taught me that I cannot control circumstances over which I have no influence. So I let them go. Now I choose to focus on what I know I can control—myself. In previous letters I mentioned how we are the sum of our choices and that if you want to change it is going to take effort. But the effort gets easier the more you learn to let go of the needless worries and focus on your mental self-discipline.

             To paraphrase Heraclitus, no person ever steps in the same river twice. It makes perfect sense. The water is never the same water you walked through the first time, but neither are you. We all change constantly, even on the cellular level. In fact, change is all we have. That’s Heraclitus’ point. By clinging to what we think we can control and preserve only harms us in the long run because we’ll never have the power to stop change. Though I can’t remember a specific epiphany two years ago, I’ve clearly experienced metanoia, as the ancient Greeks called it. Metanoia is literally “the changing of one’s mind,” but it has connotations of both spiritual awakening and repentance. I wish there had been some significant event like Jesus in the Jordan or Siddhartha under the Bodhi, but I don’t recall anything of the sort. I just remember a gut instinct that told me turning 33 was going to be a big year. Now it’s been more than 2 years and every day I feel that there’s just more work to be done. That I can become a better person than I am now. This began with that change of heart, that single decision to stop looking at the world so cynically. But from that moment on it has taken assiduous effort to nurture my personal development. By focusing on what is in our power to control—specifically our own perceptions and choices—we can harness the power of change and use it to better ourselves and the lives of others around us.
The realization of the need for change, however, is not enough. Many people want to change, but most of them never do. It all boils down to what the person gives: effort or excuses. As a seasoned teacher, it’s rather easy to discern someone’s level of effort. After a while, it becomes black and white. Some students give effort commensurate with their abilities whereas others have nothing to offer but excuses. It’s disheartening for me as a teacher because I am doing my best to lead by example, but I am satisfied in knowing that I am giving my all. That is how success should be measured; not dependent on a final result or whether a goal was surpassed or obtained, but how the result was achieved (i.e. was it done well?). Giving your personal best regardless of endeavor becomes a reward in and of itself. And if you have the good fortune to have your passion(s) and profession coincide, it is all that much easier to give your absolute best and fulfill your potential as a human being. We are all capable of great things, but it begins with believing in ourselves. That, I think, is the crux. We must possess self-confidence.

Prior to turning 30, I had plenty of self-doubt. I knew that I needed to change but hadn’t summoned the will to do so at that point. I had accrued the knowledge, not applied the wisdom. I certainly gave effort in areas of personal interest, but had nothing but excuses for entire areas of my life that I wasn’t willing to change. Erin then came into my life and her presence alone helped me change some of my more stubborn habits. But as these new changes came about in me, I began to realize that change wasn’t that hard to accomplish. Perhaps this is wrapped up in the way we view change initially. We often make change out to be more than it is. It’s not monumental and it doesn’t require herculean effort. While there will be times when these types of radical change do take place, they are often the collaborative effort of nearly imperceptible changes building up over time. Once we understand the nature of change as being continuous and infinitesimal, it is easier for us to let go and be a part of it. The duality we superimpose on life is a disservice because it only removes us from full participation with life. We live in a culture that prizes (and tries to cling to) youth, fame and wealth and yet each of these ideals is ephemeral. Why not work toward something meaningful? Why not change ourselves for the better and rely on our internal validation rather than transient external material signs of supposed success? My self-confidence has grown, ironically, by realizing I am not special. I may be an individual, but I am not that unique in a truly macrocosmic sense. Considering the insurmountable odds that went into me being here, thinking these thoughts and typing these words, the only way to be special is to honor this life, this precious gift we’ve all received. I don’t believe in much with any certainty, but I definitely feel we have a moral imperative to do justice to the life we have been given. We should not squander our time or effort in any way that does not promote the best of who we have the potential to become. Ultimately, though, we are the ones who must make the choice to see these changes through.

Whether we give effort or excuses is up to us and it is a matter of choice. In our lesser moments we may not see our excuses as choices, feeling instead that we are hemmed in by circumstance and compelled to choose them. But when you objectively take stock of the events, it was probably a lack of effort and/or bad choice in other areas that led to that conclusion. As you know, NIP, I am a big proponent of personal autonomy. I am a pragmatic existentialist, philosophically speaking, and to a certain extent I think we all are. We all recognize how our choices affect (and to a certain extent, effect) our lives, whether for good or bad. But I also think that I am a meliorist. Through our human endeavors, we can make the world a better place. Sure it may never be perfect, but the satisfaction is to be found in the pursuit of perfection, in the striving. In making excuses for lack of personal growth a person is literally missing out on what makes life so great. Excuses only put off the struggle, the striving. But it’s when we grapple, wrangle, and contend with life that we feel the most alive. The worst part of all is that by not wrestling with life we become stagnant and mired in our own mediocrity. This in turn creates more excuses, perpetuating a cycle of victimhood. All it takes, though, is that initial choice to accept change and the realization that the effort required will be incessant. You don’t have to undergo an instant metamorphosis, just begin with the single thing you feel needs to change the most. Start there and simply try to expand your comfort zone. Much like the life we are carving for ourselves, improvements come incrementally over long periods. In time your efforts will become automatic and you’ll realize that there is always some aspect that needs improving. And when you are focused on becoming the best of who you can be, NIP, you won’t have any time for excuses, that’s for sure.

I hope these words find you and your family sharing peace and prosperity during this holiday season, NIP. It’s not often we have the opportunity to gather with the most important people in our lives, so be sure to enjoy the time with yours. New Year’s Day is just around the corner and though I am not one for making resolutions, perhaps 2011 could be the beginning of a new you, NIP. If there is something in your life that you don’t like, change it. This is our one chance to become who we are. Let’s not live a life of regret when it is within our power to avoid it entirely. We are who we think we are. If you believe that you have something to offer this world, it is your duty to become that better person and show others who you are and what you are capable of. I was afraid to show that to people for far too long. Looking back on it now, I don’t know what I was ever worried about…

Be the change, NIP!

- Ryan

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tipping the Scales


            It’s been a while since I last had the time to write. I apologize about that but you know how life can be. Busy. We all probably have very busy lives, and as I mentioned in the previous letter we must pay attention to how we spend our most precious commodity, time. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that it’s not simply a matter of what we spend our time on, but how diverse and productive the activities are. It may be a platitude to say “all things in moderation,” but that doesn’t negate its validity. We must learn to balance our lives in order to find the best of ourselves, in order to become who we are. It took me a many years of tipping the scales before I ever realized what I had been doing. We all go through growing pains, but that’s part of the beauty of life—the perceived good and bad. As we move on, we try to cobble some wisdom from these experiences and move forward with our personal growth. Here’s a little bit I’ve put together so far…

            We all have a tendency to tip the scales, metaphorically speaking. Most of the time we’re not even aware we’re doing it. It could be our professional lives overrunning our personal lives, or vice versa. It could be eating too much unhealthful food and not enough exercise. It could be a whole lot of things. When this happens, it’s only natural that we begin to feel miserable and—at least for me—often try to rectify this disposition by tipping the scales in the other direction. A friend once told me that my greatest strength is that if I become interested in something, I’m all in. But—the downside is—once I feel I’ve mastered it, I’d move on to something else, thereby making me a sort of jack-of-all-trades. I still don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I’ve learned to temper this by trying to live a more balanced life in the here and now. That definitely wasn’t the case 12 years ago when I first arrived from Rhode Island.

When I moved to Florida, all I cared about was the physical aspect of my life. I had lost a good deal of the weight and was closing in on my high school weight, but then I became a gym rat. I just wanted to work out, all the time. And I don’t mean work out to lose more weight, I actually wanted to eat like a horse and see how big I could get. By January of 1999, I was back up to 240, although more muscular than before I weighed the same amount. Then came my Hapkido training. Within a month I had lost 20 pounds from not working out 6 days a week and eating like a maniac. Again the pendulum had swung. My training lasted for many years, but by the time I enrolled at USF in early 2001 I had really buckled down on my academics. Slowly, the physical gave way to the mental aspect of living and I found myself enamored by learning. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy what I learned while at HCC, but USF was the real deal, a university. Something clearly blossomed in me during those years, as they left an indelible impression on me by augmenting my hunger for knowledge and understanding. Learning became the all. I felt complete within the walls of Cooper Hall. Wanting to share my love for learning, I became a teacher but within the first 3 years or so I felt as if I was beginning to lose my bearings. I probably would have not carried on in the profession if it weren’t for Erin, because meeting her turned it all around.

The first seven years—or perhaps all of the years of my life up to that point—had been an exercise in tipping the scales. The more I think back on it now, this is true even of my earliest youth. I would become interested in this or that and chase it down until I got bored and moved on to something else, always paying too much attention to my current craze and not enough to anything else. Then, about two years ago, significant personal development began to happen. I realized that it was because I had finally learned to make time for everything that’s important to me and to strike a delicate balance. However, I ultimately learned it’s not the quantity of time one puts into all of one’s pursuits but the quality. Equally crucial is that there needs to be something for every aspect of your life, physical, mental, and spiritual. Over the past couple of years, I’ve felt most alive because I’ve tried to maximize my life’s potential in all areas. I know my well-being is undoubtedly derived from the synergistic effects of living such an integrated, balanced life. And the best part about it is that anyone can live this way too.

The physical is perhaps the easiest to deal with, which may be why we put it off on the back burner in our culture. Between the “food” most people eat and the sedentary lifestyle America engenders, combined with “our a-pill-will-solve-your-problems” culture, it’s easy to see why this usually goes to the wayside. Work, family, and other daily pressures must be handled accordingly before even thinking about exercise for most people. But as I learned, it’s all in what vines you’re willing to prune away from your life. Is it really necessary that I follow a certain television show? Does anything on TV really add to the meaning of my life? I’m probably enjoying my time in this moment sharing the silence of the room with Erin as we work more than watching anything on television. If you are willing to cut out what is truly unnecessary, you’ll find a lot more time to focus on the things that are important. Health is certainly one of them. But again, it’s about balance. Erin and I slowly weaned ourselves off of conventional food before going organic; and even if you don’t want to buy organic food, you can still make better food choices even with conventional foods. As far as exercise, start off light. Even just going for a walk works wonders. Great change comes incrementally. Just keep chipping away and you’ll start to notice how much better you feel.

The mental aspect is perhaps the one that’s always working out of necessity, but we still must make time to alternatively let it relax and push it to grow. Reading—as anyone who is reading these letters clearly knows—is great exercise for the mind, especially if you’re a literary explorer. I’ve been reading lots of philosophy lately because I enjoy having to really think through what I am reading. I think all good books, certainly our favorites, engage us in that way. Our imagination is ignited by the author’s words, which linger for days after we’re done yet still thinking about them. And while any mental task that focuses the mind for extended periods of time is undoubtedly good, I’ve become a staunch advocate of meditation. The reason I love meditation so much is due to my pragmatic nature. Having a limited amount of time, I need to do something that is both relaxing and stimulating. I know that it sounds paradoxical, but there is no other way to explain it. By choosing a single focus during meditation, you’re stimulating the mind, yet you’re also relaxing by blocking out the rest of your typical mental noise. What’s more, meditation’s effects tremendously enhance your focus in every other moment, making you more productive and ultimately saving you time in the long run. Time you can use for other important areas in your life.

And then there are the matters of the spirit. While this word is typically confined to the realm of religion, I have a much broader, humanistic conception of spirit in the context of daily living. Essentially, it’s whatever makes us tick that we can’t explain. There is something within all of us that makes us unique, the stone at the base of the pillar upon which we are built. It drives us in ways that on some levels we probably aren’t even aware. It defines us and it needs to be nourished regularly. I can’t tell you what does this for you, NIP, only you know what it is. My writing is certainly one outlet for my spirit. It’s an exercise in trying to express the ineffable. It may appear to be a fool’s errand, but as I’m sure you know by now it’s about striving. I think all forms of art do this, whether music, painting, sculpting, etc. Whatever your creative outlet is, you need to set aside some time for it. By giving life to our most foundational truths in ways that we ourselves can barely comprehend, we become alive in a way that even the word alive fails at describing.
 It may be difficult to juggle all of these demands initially, but the more you learn to incorporate your physical, mental, and spiritual needs into your daily routine, the easier the balancing act becomes. I probably only devote an hour a day to the physical and spiritual, as work and everything else in between keeps me mentally engaged, but that time spent pursuing those ends is well worth every second. It may not be a true balance in the sense of time spent quantitatively, but the integration of all aspects makes me feel whole in a way that I’ve never experienced before. It enhances my enjoyment of life in ways that I cannot even begin to describe. All I can suggest, NIP, is that you try to bring harmony to your life and see how much it improves. And if it does, be sure to teach others what you’ve learned.

Stay balanced, NIP!

- Ryan

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Our Most Precious Commodity

Dear NIP,

            Americans are such busy people. We pride ourselves on it, I think, because of our industriousness. It’s part of our ethos, what makes us unique. Over the last half century or so, modern technological innovations were supposed to give us more leisure time. Time that would ideally be spent wisely by pursuing that which matters most in our lives: being with our family and friends and hopefully pursuing a passion that brings fulfillment and meaning to our lives. But the American work ethic won’t let us do this. The more free time we’ve managed to create through said technological innovation, the more that innovation allows us to slave away outside the confines of our proper workplace. What’s worse, in our restlessness to stay busy or feel productive we often waste our most precious commodity by engaging in pursuits that do not help us grow as people.

            While we often think of economics in terms of money, perhaps we should take a step back and examine our own personal economies, especially our time. The term economy comes from the ancient Greek word οiκoς, which means “house” and nomoς, which means “order” (derived from the verb “to manage”). Therefore, the term economy literally means to manage one’s house or household. In our busy lives, we have a tendency to let the vicissitudes of daily life get in the way of properly managing our limited commodity. Think about how we even phrase the language of time. We “spend” time on something, or if we don’t want to it’s because “we can’t afford” the time. We have to learn to find the time for what is most important in our lives; if we don’t, we run the risk of wasting time because of lack of will, focus, or both. By dedicating our most precious resource toward something that will bring meaning and fulfillment in our lives, it is actually an investment in your remaining time as well.

            The biggest complaint I often hear from people—either from adult friends or my students—is that they are “too” busy to find any additional time in their schedules. That from the moment they wake until the moment they sleep, their days are an incessantly grueling hodge-podge of activities that constantly demand their attentions. I ask them to write it down. Write all of it down, no matter how trivial the action may be. I’ve done this with my students and I’ll start pointing out gaps in their timelines. What did you do from 3-3:30? Oh. Hung out with friends and texted people waiting for band practice to start? Why not do some of your homework then? When people start writing out their lists, they often find that there are plenty of moments that could have been directed toward something more productive. 

            A personal example for me would be video games. A little more than a year ago, I still played them. Sure I didn’t play them that much, but I bet 2-3 hours a week were devoted to keeping up with a season of basketball on my Xbox 360. It may not seem like much then, but that’s 100 plus hours over the course of a year. That’s over 4 days! Extrapolate that over my lifetime and I bet I’ve wasted months (if not years up to this point) on something that will never help me grow as a person nor appreciate life for its innate beauty. Lately, my most current hang up has been the internet. I don’t spend much time “surfing” and there are probably fewer than a dozen sites in my browsing history, but I’m making a concerted effort to stay away from it as much as possible because it is another place where time just seems wasted. I’ve even gone so far as to put sticky notes all over my computer monitor at work to help me stay focused. The questions ask things like “Are you being productive?”; “Are you focused on school?”; “Is your desk clean?” While I may not have more than a few spare minutes throughout the day, if I am spending those thriftlessly by reading the news when I have papers to grade, I am ultimately reducing the amount of time that I have for more important things in life like giving Erin the undivided attention she deserves.
            The first step to becoming more productive and making the most of your best commodity is to make time for your passion(s). If that means something else has got to give, then it’s got to give. Begin with writing out everything that is part of your normal routine. If you don’t see anything that can be cut out of that routine (be honest with yourself!), then start to think about the time spent between those “necessary” activities. You’ll probably find moments when you are just filling gaps of time by doing nothing important (surfing the internet aimlessly rather than deepening your passion for something, for instance). The reason you’re better off devoting a certain amount of time to your passion(s) is due to the fact that your interests will ultimately pay dividends. For someone like me who has varied interests, it becomes a balancing act. In some ways, you have to prioritize your passions in order of importance by recognizing which one will have the most benefits. While writing these letters and trying to help others is certainly one passion of mine, I cannot devote endless amounts of time to it. I try my best to make sure I write at least one letter every two weeks, and if my schedule allows such accommodations (like this week), I try to write more. Additionally, this particular passion doesn’t require constant application. I think about a topic during the two week interlude, sit down for about two hours and type, and voila! A new letter.
            My real passion—besides my love for Erin, of course—is for yoga and meditation. This is something that I need every day. Moreover, this is something that I must find the time for every day. Over the last year, I have been meditating every day. Yoga didn’t happen every day until the current school year began. At first I would try to fit in my half hour of meditation whenever I could, but I was getting up at about 5:30 and trying to fit that in along with the rest of the morning routine such as walking the dogs, eating breakfast, getting ready for work and everything in between. It was difficult and I was getting to school on some mornings right when the bell rang. The other issue at hand was that it was difficult to meditate early in the morning when I was still half asleep. So, as an experiment,  I began getting up an hour earlier—essentially finding the time that so many complain doesn’t exist—to perform a short, 30 minute yoga routine prior to my meditation. I cannot begin to explain the difference that it has made nor properly extol the benefits that this has had on not only me personally, but for my overall productivity as well. I feel so much more awake and alive by the time I get to school, mainly because of the yoga. Though 30 minutes may not sound like much, just stretching out my stiff muscles, beginning my day by breathing deeply, and getting my blood flowing before heading upstairs to meditate makes that activity all the more enjoyable and fruitful. This initial hour that I have to clear my mind and focus on a specific objective (breathing during yoga, the object of my thoughts during meditation, etc) translates to an unparalleled awareness of my thoughts and overall productivity throughout the workday. By having the ability to stay focused, I am consciously responsive to those moments that I know are being wasted and rectify my actions in order to make the most out of my most precious commodity.
            As Winifred Gallagher notes in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, it is our ability to focus that determines how productive we are (and a whole lot else too). By spending time on passions that will help us develop a sense of the good life, of a life filled with meaning, we are making an investment in our future happiness. While yoga and meditation are passionate pursuits for me, for you, NIP, it could be playing music, gardening, running, or some other activity. If it’s something that you feel you “get lost in,” as the saying goes, then you are giving that activity such undivided attention that it is actually improving your ability to focus. In many ways, strengthening your ability to focus will make you more productive in other areas of your life. It’s a reciprocal process. By focusing on your passion(s), you gain more “focus”; because your focus has become stronger, you finish projects more efficiently and quickly, which leaves you with more free time to pursue your passion, which improves your focus…you get the idea.
            As your focus improves and you spend more of your time on your passions, you’ll probably come to realize not only how truly important time is, but how little we have. The more I mulled this letter over in my mind this past week, the more I kept conjuring up an image in my mind during meditation: me, clambering up and down a pile of skulls, looking for mine. I’d pick one up, scrutinize it, and throw it back on the pile, dissatisfied that it wasn’t mine. I didn’t try to conjure up this image, it just came to me (the mind is funny like that). It has stuck with me all this week, even after I have completed my meditation. I believe I could never find my skull because I am still alive, but I’m not sure. It may sound morbid or even macabre to most, but in meditating on death we have the ability to rise above it and live life with a sense of excitement and urgency. Moreover, it helps us preserve that which is important and crucial to our lives by not taking life and all that it has to offer for granted. Living in the moment with the knowledge that death could take this incredible gift away at any second helps us stay focused on our passions. We never know how much time we’ve been allotted; seems like we should make the most of every second of it.

Be sure to spend yours wisely, NIP.

- Ryan  

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Worry Not

Hello NIP,

            Are you a worrier? I used to be. And it seems the more I talk to others about this topic, the more I discover that we are all worriers in some capacity or another. Over time, however, I’ve learned to not worry—especially about the things over which I have not one iota of control. The title of this letter comes from a song of the same name by Sage Francis. In it, he cautions others to “worry not/keep your stress in check/anxiety’s a disease/you gotta learn to live with it.” While I tend to agree with this sagacious advice—particularly the first two lines—I do think anxiety can be cured, or at least lessened to the extent that it doesn’t occupy the forefront of your mind and affect your life in a negative way. I have learned over the last couple of years that the more control one is able to exert over the mind, the capacity to worry-by-default diminishes. As I tamed my mind, I also wrangled the seemingly out of control circumstances around me by deliberate choices. As I mentioned in the “Decisions, Decisions” letter, our ability to choose—even in how we react to certain situations—is perhaps our most powerful faculty. Without mental discipline, we allow ourselves to be subjected to the negative thoughts that not only stifle our personal development, but in time mount up into a pile of needless worries.

            Let me give you an example of a needless worry. I used to be plagued with them. One of my long standing needless worries was about how others thought of me. Initially, this manifested itself as a weight issue. I lacked confidence in myself and my abilities because I was so concerned with my appearance (i.e. people will judge me for being “fat”). The most absurd part of this thought process wasn’t that I was overweight—that bothered me somewhat, but I was clearly okay with it because it took me years to make that initial change—the most absurd part was that I let my perceptions of other people’s thoughts keep me and my ambitions, dreams, and hopes in check. How did I know what other people were thinking? I didn’t then and still don’t now! The only difference is that in reality, it doesn’t matter. I can’t control how other people view me, whether good, bad, or indifferent. What I can control is my own mind and, subsequently, my own choices. The more I learned to accept that which I cannot control, the less I started to worry in general.

            We all have needless worries, NIP, but for you they may be different. The key to putting a stop to them is realizing that they are products of your own mind. And much like any other product of your mind, they can have all the importance or insignificance you want. The dangerous aspect of this is that for a mind that lacks discipline or focus, we have a tendency to play down our dreams and play up our worries. Those worries begin to pile up and loom larger and larger, and eventually they will become anxiety, a dreadful cloud that dampens the spirit. To combat this, I would suggest you be honest with yourself and write down a list of your worries. Try to begin with the most insignificant ones, too. Something like mine is good, if you too worry about what others think of you. I should perhaps temper my statement by stating the obvious: not worrying what others think about you is not the same as saying not to respect what others think of you. There are people who genuinely have our best interest in mind when they try to steer us in the right direction. Parents, teachers, and bosses may be trying to help you with constructive criticism. Don’t disregard them, especially if they are saying something that deep down you know to be true but are unwilling to admit out of sense of defiance.

            The other hallmark of needless worries is that 99% of them will never come true. What’s ludicrous about them, though, is that we make them our reality by letting them run amok in our mind. Last year, in my letter to my AP Human Geography students before they took the culminating exam I told them this:

If I had any final words to prepare you for the test, they would be these—don’t worry about the test. It’s just a test. But you know what else is? Life. Life is a test. The most important one you’ll ever take and the one you least worry or even think about… To put it as succinctly as possible, most of the things you think that matter and worry you, don’t; most of the things you take for granted and that never worry you, do.

What I mean by those two lines is that we have a tendency to fixate on the microcosm of our lives (which tend to be filled with needless worrying) rather than the macrocosm of life. The minor worries that we play up in our minds are truly insignificant when compared to the gift of life we have all received. We don’t worry about getting into a car accident as we drive to work, something that has the potential to deprive us of life itself; we will fret endlessly, however, over silly thoughts that have no real bearing on our lives. I can’t control what others think of me. I know that now. All I can do is consistently and continually give my best and hope that my actions speak for themselves. Others around me may be inspired by my initiative, whereas other people may grumble and call me an overachiever. Either way, I can’t let it affect or define me. Nor should you. I am who I am because of my unwavering mental discipline, which takes time to nourish but is not impossible to do.

            As we shift our focus away from worries and self-doubt, we become more confident. All it takes is inching out of your comfort zone. One of the most effective methods for me has been to invert my needless worries. I was never one to take my shirt off, for instance, when I was younger. Obviously embarrassed by my weight, I was plagued by thoughts about how others viewed me due to my heft. In some ways, this stigma has stayed with me. While I have no qualms about taking my shirt off around others for the most part, there are moments when I have an inexplicable apprehension to do so. I think this is because there will always be that part of my psyche, some lingering part of me will always be that “fat kid.” In moments like those, I usually snap out of it and end up taking my shirt off after realizing that: 1) it doesn’t matter what others think of me, they can accept me for who I am or not—either way, I have no control over the thoughts and feelings of others; 2) the control I do have is over my choices, including allowing my worries to shape me as a person. By making a conscious decision to not let needless worries take root in my mind, I have found that they spring up less and less.

            As I mentioned earlier, most of our worries will never come true. Usually if they do, it’s because they’ve become a self-fulfilling prophecy for that person. The worries literally manifest in that person’s life because they are constantly being mulled over. Eventually, we all project into our lives what is in our minds. If it is personal development and excellence, it will come to fruition; if it is personal devolution and mediocrity, that outcome shall be so. By training our minds to focus on our dreams, our strengths, and our principles, we have the ability to transcend worry. It’s not to say that they don’t exist, but our (or at least my) worries don’t ever phase us when we maintain our focus. In many ways, I feel worrying is the byproduct of an unfocused mind. If we learn to focus with laser-like precision on our priorities—especially becoming a better person—we have no time for worries. Worries are part of a past we can longer alter or a future that is not even our reality. But we treat them as if they are real. They are not. They are just as insubstantial as any of the other thoughts flying around up there in your head. But I would be remiss not to say that they don’t have the potential to be real. The thoughts I choose to make manifest are the ones I know will aid me in my ceaseless quest to become who I am capable of being—a better person. While some people argue that change is difficult or worse yet, impossible, I would parry with “it’s necessary.” Moreover, if you really think about it, change is all we have. So if you’re looking for change I would start with being honest with yourself. Think about or perhaps even write out some of the things you constantly worry about. Are they worth your time? Your mental energy? You’ll probably find that most of them are not. There is no point in worrying about anything if it’s not part of your immediate, physical reality. If it’s not happening now, it’s not happening period. In time you’ll find that as your mind becomes more resilient, your productivity will increase and you’ll be chasing down that better version of you that you know exists. And once that starts happening, you’ll just be too busy and focused on personal growth to even have time to worry about anything else…

There’s really nothing to worry about, NIP!

All the best,

- Ryan

Monday, October 25, 2010

Messages on a Mirror

Hello NIP,

            I hope you are doing well and that you are working diligently toward making the necessary changes in your life. If you’ve found it difficult for you to initiate that change, I’d like to share a strategy that has helped me tremendously: messages on your mirror. Just simple little sticky notes with a motivational message that will keep you hungry. I am really fortunate to have two excellent role models in my life, both of whom are some of my very best friends. These individuals are driven to chase the best within themselves, which has led to amazing results in their lives. Damon, whom I have known for about 25 years, has always impressed me with his persistence. Even as young boys, I felt he was so different from the rest of my friends because of his drive. He knew what his passion was from an early age and pursued it relentlessly. My other friend, Jason, is similar in a lot of ways, and it is to him this letter is dedicated. His birthday was this past Friday, and Erin and I went out with him, his fiancée Andrea, and his parents on their boat yesterday to celebrate. While this is reason enough to dedicate the letter to him, the original idea for this letter actually comes from him, only slightly modified.

            A couple of years ago, Erin and I were at Jason’s house. With the main bathroom having an issue, I had to use Jason’s bathroom in his bedroom. There, on the mirror, were several sticky notes with statements written on them. I could tell that they were visions of his future. Goals that Jason wanted to accomplish during his life. I asked him about them when I came back out. He explained that he kept those goals on his mirror to motivate him. To keep him moving in the right direction. I liked the idea a lot, but I modified it to suit me. Rather than focus on certain goals—which is laudable in its own right—I decided to write a few blanket statements that I could apply to all areas of my life. In doing so, the broader vision of who I want to become would make itself manifest by keeping these dictums in my mind, constantly trying to live them out. The reason I chose these maxims is equally important. I selected them in an effort to correct some of my worst habits (or at least one in particular). I currently have four messages on my bathroom mirror, and each has a specific purpose.

Nearly all challenges can be overcome through a resolute imposition of the will.
             This first quote is something that I made up. Will power is perhaps the single most crucial ingredient for personal development. Though many people desire change, most cannot adhere to new ideas and/or regimens because of a lack of will. In my classroom, for instance, I have three words written above my “Top Ten Secrets” on one of the two the bulletin boards: Decide. Commit. Succeed. These are not my words; they represent the slogan/philosophy of Beachbody, Inc., the makers of programs such as P90X and Insanity. While these words do apply to taking better care of one’s physical health, they also readily translate to life’s bigger picture. Any change you want to make in your life is possible, but it will take will power (sometimes tremendous amounts) to see it through to fruition. I have told my students the exact same thing—the first step, the decision, is easy. Recognizing that a change is needed is the initial stride toward lasting results; it’s the second portion, however, that proves to be the biggest stumbling block for most people. Committing yourself to change is difficult, especially when the results you are seeking (such as personal development) are long term. How I was able to be successful with it, though, was by overcoming small obstacles first. All it takes is imposing your will in tiny increments. In time, you’ll find your will power becomes steeled. The more you train your will, the easier it is to focus it and make it work for you. The most important aspect to keep in mind is that you are training to impose your will primarily on yourself, not on others. Over time, you will start to notice how easily it is to say no to things you once said yes to, whether that be the extra piece of cake or the bad habit that had been stunting your own maturation as a human being.

Never put off to tomorrow that which can be done today.

            This quote is attributed to two people, both of whom are oddly similar in their thoughts, views, historical context, et cetera. One is Thomas Jefferson, the other is Benjamin Franklin. Either way, it is extremely important advice for someone like me. And who am I? A procrastinator. Well, at least I was. I had always been a HUGE procrastinator when I was younger (i.e. up until about the time I was 33). I think this stemmed from my own confidence in the knowledge that I could get the task in question done in time, but I never realized what I was giving up in doing so: more productivity. Had I performed the task(s) right away, it would have allowed me to not only have more free time if I wanted, but to tackle other responsibilities right away. Both Jason and Damon are the antithesis of procrastinators. They have always been driven, and it was something that I aspired to be. And while they are partly responsible for the changes I’ve made, no one is more directly so than my beautiful wife Erin. I’ve often said in prior letters that the person I am today could not have been possible without Erin and her influence. Out of anyone, she has been the best role model for me because of our being married. Every day I witness one of (if not the) hardest working people I’ve ever known. It was only a matter of time before I realized that I needed to be more like her. And while we have undoubtedly affected each other in myriad positive ways, I think this has been her greatest contribution to me (besides her love, obviously). By constantly being around people who display an abundance of a quality you want to cultivate, in time it will reveal itself within you. In some ways I am still a procrastinator, but in a healthy way. Now, my procrastination stems from there not being enough time in the day. I often tell others I wish the day were 30 hours long so I could accomplish all that I want to get done. I routinely have to put off things intentionally due to how I prioritize them. If it is something way down on “the list,” then it must come in due time. The most important thing to realize is that by constantly applying your will power, you will find the energy to conquer those tasks that you were putting off, which in turn helps put an end to a cycle of procrastination and, more importantly, personal dissatisfaction.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

            While this is certainly one of the most famous quotes by Gandhi, it isn’t my favorite by him (“Learn as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die tomorrow.”). The reason I have the former quote on our bathroom mirror rather than the latter is two-fold: 1) for the most part, I try my best already to live by that quote; 2) I need this quote to counteract my prior cynical paradigm. Before I started to make these sweeping changes in my life, I stared at the world in a way that prevented me from taking any action. My cynicism almost left me paralyzed because I was always wondering what the point was. “Why should I change? It’s the world that has it wrong.” Or, “The world is a crappy place and there’s nothing I can do about it,” which would inevitably cause me to retreat into my shell. Once I learned to reorient myself to life and the world, I realized how important Gandhi’s quote is. As with everything else, your disposition is a choice, a product of the sum of your choices in fact. By facing the world head on and trying to make a positive change, in time you will see these small changes start to pay dividends. By being inspired we inspire others. So think about all the things you want to change in your world, whether micro- or macro-cosmically, and use your will power to fashion your world to how you see fit. In time, you’ll find that the world will begin to change for the better as you continue to make your impact.

Is that ALL you got?

            I won’t contest that this one is cliché (and, yes, that’s exactly how it’s written). But you know what else it does? It works. Usually I think about this while I’m brushing my teeth. Even on my best day, I can typically find something that I could have done better. As I’ve told my students many times, we’re all human, we’re all fallible, we all make mistakes. But it’s knowing what to do with those opportunities and using them to fuel personal growth. As much as I’ve progressed, a great deal of it has been realizing that I can always be better in every aspect of my life, whether that be a better husband, brother, son, teacher, friend…The reason I think this is due to how I see the minute improvements in my life every day. If I am trying to give my best—a process that undoubtedly makes me better, even if only in slight increments—then that means there is always room to develop further. It’s a cyclical process, if you think about it. Those slight increments in your development translate into further potential by increasing your previous “best,” which leads right back to where you started.

            During my reading of Sharma’s The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, he discusses this idea but with a different name: kaizen. In its simplest translation, kaizen would mean “improvement”; Sharma’s application of the word is more expansive, as he says kaizen is “the act of continual self-refinement.” I immediately felt a connection to his definition because it reminded me of the final two maxims of my own “Top Ten Secrets”: “there’s always room for improvement” and “keep chipping away.” I see kaizen, then, as an amalgam of these two ideas. By striving to better ourselves in the here and now, we will see incredible changes in ourselves over time. Each day when we work to become better individuals, we are shaping our future in a way that doesn’t require too much thought, planning, or effort. With the application of kaizen, the work of art that is your life becomes clearer. You’ll begin to see the statue taking shape, emerging from the stone. Just be sure to be true to yourself and follow your passion while bearing in mind that the next day will always bring something better—an improved you.

            While these messages on my mirror have worked for me, it may take others for you. If you don’t like quotes, try Jason’s straightforward approach and use goals. The crucial part is to look at them every day. Morning, evening, whenever you happen to be in that bathroom, just make sure to look at them, think about them, and visualize them. In no time at all you’ll probably be looking back like me and wondering why you waited so long. I’m not a man of many regrets, but I do wish I had been more motivated when I was younger. Considering how I can’t change that now, all I can do is get up each day for the rest of my life and try to give my best in every moment. It may be tiring physically and mentally, but it’s worth every second.

Take care, NIP

- Ryan    

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Make Your Dreams Your Reality

Greetings NIP,

            I would like to remind you about something that is undoubtedly important to you and the quality of your life: your dreams. I’m a big proponent of dreams, especially how they guide and give shape to our experiences. Much like that statue we are consistently chipping away at to sculpt our lives, the dream itself lay within the stone. We must free it from the rock, but it takes patience and persistence to do so. And if we align our passion and purpose each day with our dreams, it won’t be long before you see your dreams start to become your reality. One of my favorite quotes by Thoreau sums this up nicely:

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

Although Thoreau’s words are poignant and powerful, they should not be misconstrued. One of the easiest mistakes to make, especially in our youth, is to chase what we think are worthy dreams, but in essence are nothing more than vestigial fantasies. But how do we know the difference between dreams and fantasies? Bill Strickland has an interesting answer that I would like to share with you.

            Though I didn’t have time to mention it in my last letter, I recently read Bill Strickland’s exquisite book—and personal mission—Make the Impossible Possible. If you are looking for some inspiration and a guide for how to make your dreams your reality, order this book now. It’s a short read that I couldn’t put down and finished in two sittings. The book is essentially Strickland’s life story, a man born and raised in the severely depressed socioeconomic neighborhood of Manchester, which was once an all-but-forgotten area within Pittsburgh. As a young man, Strickland never saw his life going beyond the ghetto. He felt trapped within his impoverished (literally) paradigm, but his mother gave him the skills he needed to keep his head up and apply himself assiduously. In his senior year of high school, his entire life changed when he discovered an art classroom and a teacher who took an interest in him as a person rather than seeing him as another future statistic. Frank Ross, the teacher in question, introduced Strickland to the potential that we all have inside each of us. For Strickland, it was art. When he began to make pottery in Mr. Ross’ classroom, it was the opening of the floodgates. Strickland knew that the feeling that art gave him could empower others, and he set out on an amazing lifelong quest to fulfill that potential and hopefully show others the way as well.

            Strickland begins with the premise that poverty is what stands in the way of a fully actualized, genuine life. Because we have a tendency to get bogged down in the daily grind, we let our circumstances define us. For people of extremely low socioeconomic status like Bill or anyone else growing up in Manchester as it devolved from a middle class neighborhood into a first rate slum, their circumstances dictated a poverty of hope. That’s what so insidious about poverty, according to Strickland; it's not the lack of financial means to extract oneself from a debilitating situation, but the lack of belief that the capability to do so exists. In his words, “[poverty] diminishes you, it starves you of hope and vision, it forces you to define yourself in terms of what you cannot do or cannot have or cannot be.” So poverty is not simply a matter of lacking wealth, but the lack of a defining characteristic. Strickland illustrates how this poverty could manifest itself in other ways in various lives. For me, someone who had been filled with such self-doubt for so long, it was poverty of courage. I desperately wanted to change myself, but lacked the courage to do so. Once I began to realize that my self-doubt was generated by my own mind and undertook steps to correct it, my life started to blossom in extraordinary (and yet simple) ways. Whether it is poverty of courage, imagination, hope, or vision, there is something that we are lacking but that can be corrected. To move forward with our personal growth in spite of our fears and doubts is the first step to rectifying whatever lack we may have. In doing so, we are then free to build our dreams.

             Toward the end of the book, Strickland painstakingly takes time to differentiate between “dreams” and “fantasies.” This is perhaps worth noting because most people use the words interchangeably at times. To Strickland the difference is one of orientation: dreams are about building something, whereas fantasies are about having something. Dreams are intangible; fantasies are material. Building your dreams into your reality takes courage and conviction, something that is often stripped from us by society as we grow older. We are constantly counseled to take the path of least resistance, to do what “common sense” would dictate. In doing so, we cast aside our dreams for something more “realistic.” What Strickland’s story/book illuminates, though, is that we need to discover what it is that makes us feel most alive or most whole. Our passions are what supply the foundation to the dreams we want to build, but more often than not we don’t pursue our passions for fear of failure. What Strickland did throughout his life—whether it was in the beginning at the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild or later on at Manchester Bidwell—is show people how we are all capable of great things when we follow through with our passions and build our dreams. Anyone can do this. With a broad vision and positive attitude, all it takes is the will to relentlessly pursue that dream and in time it will become your reality.

            It has taken me a long time to truly figure out what my passion is. I know now that it is learning. When I went to college, I didn’t have an endgame in mind, such as completing a certain degree to attain a particular career. Instead, I went in with the attitude that I wanted to improve myself. To become a better person through learning. This aspiration led me through all walks of disciplines, especially in the liberal arts, and I feel this certainly contributed to the person I am trying to become. Once you discover your passion, you must then define your purpose. Over the last few days I’ve been reading The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari and one of the quotes that stuck with me has been, “the purpose of life is a life of purpose.” My purpose then is to teach. If I have become a vessel of learning, it is my ardent hope that I can use this learning to teach others. Whether it is in front of my class discussing AP Human Geography or leading a group in a yoga class, I want to help improve the lives of others. This is my mission, my dharma. “Live to give,” as another line Sharma’s book simply states. Learning and teaching are my passion and purpose, the hammer and chisel with which I carve the meaning from my statue, my life. And all it took was a few simple choices to reorient myself and my life in the right direction. The last two years have been an amazing ride because I have learned to disregard my self-doubt and move forward confidently in the direction of my dreams. By building a life of purpose from those dreams I am making a difference in the lives of others.

            Though you may have different passions, NIP, don’t be afraid to chase them down and use them to your advantage. All it takes is the commitment to becoming that better person you want to be. Don’t waste any more time talking about how you’ll change one day. Discover your passions and let them guide your purpose now. I’m sure it won’t be long before you start to see those dreams take shape, and you’ll probably be adding something positive to the world at the same time. That’s the funny thing about dreams, the more you see them come to fruition, the more you can’t help smiling at the difference you know you’re making not only in yourself, but the world too.

Keep building your dreams, NIP…

- Ryan

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Think Cosmically!

Good day to you, NIP

            Are you a stargazer? I am. I’ve always been fascinated with the sky. Not in the sense that called me to be a pilot or skydive, but just the innate majesty and mystery that it holds always speaks to my soul. I was reminded of this the other morning when I first woke up and took the dogs outside. It was still pitch black outside and the moon was bright and full. Venus was sharing that same blueblack canvas and I couldn’t help but stop, take a deep breath, and soak it all in. The beauty, the moment, the promise of that new day, all of it. Since then I keep coming back to a thought—we should think cosmically more often.

            I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “Think Globally, Act Locally,” which is great advice to live by, to be sure. But why stop there? Why not think “Cosmically?” Take the entire universe into your perspective and see what it does for you. I guess I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot over the last 6 months or so because of what I wrote in the speech to the seniors at the banquet:

There isn’t much that religion and science agree on, but I think there is one fact upon which both the theologian and astrophysicist would concur—life is a miracle. A miracle that almost all of us don’t even bother to acknowledge in our daily lives.

I really believe that. As much as people often think that the two paradigms of science and religion are incongruent, the reality is that no matter how you interpret the life we have, the point is that we are alive. Why is this not a gift in and of itself? When you really stop to ponder the infinitesimal odds of the existence of life in general, you realize how truly staggering it is to be alive. On the broadest scale, we are but specks of cosmic dust. The more I focus on this idea the more I’ve been able to appreciate life for all that it has to offer. The small gifts and blessings that I get to reengage each day are that much more meaningful when I really keep that sense of the miraculous alive in my mind. I can’t tell you how much more I smile now over simple things. I’m sure to some people it may sound naïve to “cultivate my garden,” as Candide would say, but I would counter by asking them to try it. Even for just a week. You may want to try after reading this letter. All I know is that the more I pay attention to my immediate surroundings and realize how truly miraculous even that moment is, the better I feel.

            Not that long ago—an hour perhaps—Erin and I went for our weekend walk with our dogs, Cleo and Brit. I was about to write this letter, in fact, but I chose to go with her and the girls.  It’s as if my body craved that walk. I knew I would enjoy it because I would have the chance to get some fresh air, stretch my legs, talk to Erin about whatever, and just enjoy what life had to offer. Walking out the door oriented toward the present moment made the walk incredible rather than ordinary. As I took my first steps I filled my lungs with a semi-cool air and felt that same air rush over my arms as they swayed back and forth. I’m sure these intense physical sensations are no doubt a by-product of my yoga and meditation practices, which have both helped me learn to stay in the present moment. Before I knew it, I was smiling and had recited my gratitude mantra with the first five breaths, which really helped me focus on my experience. The walk was both relaxing yet invigorating. We saw several people along the way and bid them all good morning. One woman at a bus stop, in fact, gave us a pamphlet about Jesus and my mind turned to a specific line from the Gospels.

            As you may or may not know, I was a Religious Studies major while I was in college. Though I would not call myself religious in any conventional sense of the term, I have an immense respect and curiosity about the religious expression of humanity in all its forms. That said, when I saw the pamphlet about Jesus I acknowledged her with a “God Bless” and a smile; more importantly, though, it made me reflect on the passage in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus says “the Kingdom of God is within you” (in some translations of the Koine Greek it becomes among the people ). I think that’s what I notice more and more each day. We have everything we could ever want. This life literally is heaven on Earth if we really see it that way. I’m not trying to downplay the violence, apathy, and other corrosive forces in this life/world, but I also see how those are the negative effects of bad choices. Perhaps if we all tried to reorient ourselves to the magic of everyday life we’d find a lot more reasons to be not only grateful, but happy as well.

            Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian novelist, is typically remembered for his classics such as War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilych. What many people don’t realize, however, is that late in life Tolstoy became a Christian mystic who disavowed the Russian Orthodox Church in favor of a more personal vision of Jesus and his social ministry. He disagreed with the combination of state and religion, and thought war was an affront to true Christian values. In response to his detractors, he wrote his spiritual magnum opus—aptly named after Luke 17:21—The Kingdom of God Is within You. This book, which focuses on Jesus’ main love ethic and egalitarianism, later inspired Mohandas Gandhi who read it as a young man while still living in South Africa. The two great minds eventually began correspondence with each other with the last letter being written by Tolstoy to the Mahatma in 1910 before his (Tolstoy’s) death. I read the book a decade ago and it left an impression upon me then, but I should perhaps re-read it to see how it would impact my thinking currently. I’m sure it would have even more relevance now as strong as my convictions have become about creating the meaning within our own lives. And the easiest way to do so is by acknowledging the miraculous on a daily basis.

            I know this may sound difficult—and to a certain extent it is. We all face the “daily grind” and have a tendency to concentrate on other concerns that have no bearing on the present moment. I think this is why it is so strenuous to sustain our focus on the present. Even with a disciplined mind, it takes patience and practice to reorient oneself to a new perspective consistently. But by constantly reminding myself what an incredible miracle it is to be alive, I find it becomes easier and easier to do so. Well, at least for short bursts like our walk this morning. As you learn to expand your worldview to a true macrocosmic scale, you’ll probably find yourself with a lot more joy in your life and a lot less anxiety. After all, how can one awkward moment, social gaffe, or minor worry distract you for long when it’s immediately in the past if you’re willing to leave it there? By focusing on the present and the genuine miracle that is life, what discontent you may have had will eventually fade in time. Just think of each new day as another chance to try and be that better person you want to be, to keep striving, and to give it your best effort regardless of the endeavor. After all, you never know how many new days you’re going to get. May as well take advantage of each and every one with the same zest that you had for the one before it. Some people say miracles don’t happen every day; I say one begins every time I wake up.

Keep focusing on the miraculous, NIP!

Pax vobiscum,

- Ryan