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 na├»ve 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  

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Yoga Anyone?

Namaste NIP,
            Considering that September is National Yoga Month, I decided it was time to revisit the physical aspects of one’s well being. As I’m sure you know, America is in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Although most people wouldn’t consider themselves obese—I certainly didn’t even at my heaviest weight of nearly 260 pounds—the truth is that obesity is when a person is 25% overweight, technically speaking. This means that many more Americans are obese than one might initially surmise. An average adult male who is 6 feet tall and roughly 180 lbs would be considered obese if he were 225. The statistics are even more alarming when you peruse the data: as of 2008, the CDC’s FastFacts website states that 34% of Americans are obese, and an additional 34% of Americans are overweight (20% rather than 25%). This means that over 2/3 of ALL Americans are overweight or obese…and people still don’t see the correlation between this epidemic and food that comes from our industrial agriculture system.
            Additionally, more and more people have become sedentary. While this fact alone is cause for concern, inactivity coupled with all of the highly processed, laboratory concocted “food” (whether empty calories from the supermarket shelves or fast food from the Golden Arches) is having a devastating impact on the American landscape of health. The worst part about all of this is our children are inheriting our sugar saturated/lipid loving legacy—1 in 3 children born post 2000 will not only be obese, but will have juvenile onset diabetes; for children of minorities, the ratio rises to 1 in 2. While I’ve devoted previous letters to the discussion of food and the industrial system that produces said victuals in the United States, I’d like to discuss one of my favorite forms of exercise—something that anyone can do regardless of age, height, weight, or size—and that is yoga.
            Erin and I have been practicing yoga for nearly a year and a half now. Words cannot describe the kind of impact yoga has had on both of our lives, but it will forever be a part of them from now on. This coming January, in fact, she and I will begin our training to become certified yoga instructors. Although this may open up some alternative career paths or even part time job opportunities, we both are primarily interested in the training for ourselves. We’re both looking to deepen our practice and knowledge, and hopefully share our love of yoga with others. This could be you, Nobody in Particular; all it takes is that initial lesson. I know there are many who may read this and feel skeptical—there are certainly many doubters out there when it comes to the transformational power of yoga—but you have to try it once before you knock it. Here’s why:
1)      Yoga is typically derided by men who see it as a feminine activity. Believe me, it can be as gentle or as grueling as you want. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit term for “yoke,” which is obviously for beasts of burden. Certainly the connotation of work then readily applies. Ultimately, when given an earnest effort, most men realize that yoga is no joke. It’s a fantastic workout, but is unlike anything physical I’ve ever done. It’s certainly a much more isometric workout, rather than isotonic exercise such as lifting weights or doing calisthenics. I still like doing P90X and Insanity routines, but I always make time for yoga. Since school started, Erin and I have been waking at 4:45 every morning so that we can begin our daily routine with 30 minutes of yoga.

2)     It’s literally for everyone. No matter how old or young, level of physical fitness, or any other perceived hindrance, yoga can be tailored to your specific needs. Erin and I sort of jumped into the fire when we first started doing yoga—our introduction was through the P90X program, which is a challenging vinyasa flow style of yoga that is meant to be physically formidable (probably for even seasoned yogis and yoginis). It’s funny, too, because when many of the juniors and seniors at school began doing P90X upon my recommendation last year, they all complained that the yoga was “too hard.” But even without any yoga experience, you could begin by researching a local school/YMCA and checking into beginners classes, purchase a beginner DVD online, or check your on-demand television channels through your cable provider (BrightHouse has one if  you’re in the Tampa Bay area). No matter when you start, the important thing is that you are willing to give it a try. Just remember that all you have to do is what your body allows. In time you’ll find great improvements in your overall flexibility, balance, coordination, athleticism, and muscle tone. In conjunction with eating healthfully, I guarantee you’ll see results and physically feel much better.

3)     The “other” benefits. In addition to the physical changes that will occur over time as you deepen your yoga practice, the best perk is mental. I know this is the reason I love yoga now more than any other form of exercise—the symbiotic relationship that exists between the body and mind is nurtured and cultivated. Not only are you getting an immense workout with yoga in the physical sense, but the focused, single-minded attention that is paid to the breath and drishti help develop our minds much like meditation does. Heck, yoga is meditation in motion. The more that I practice my yoga, there’s a proportional increase in my energy and productivity. I’m not kidding, either. Though I am completely spent by 8:30 on any given night, I am constantly on the go throughout the day. But this newfound effervescence would not be possible without yoga being an important part of my life.
It took me years to realize I needed to get back to my Asian roots, if that even makes sense. After studying martial arts for many years during the course of my youth and up until about the time I began my career in teaching at age 28, I had a much better mind-body relationship. As that influence slowly drifted out of my life, I was changing slightly—probably for the worse, to be honest. The advent of Erin in my life was the initial big change I needed to get me out of my rut, and as you know the changes that have taken place since I turned 33 have been monumental. Above all else, my willingness to overcome my own skepticism has helped me grow infinitely as a human being. Making that first choice to hit the mat was one that altered me forever…and I’m so glad I made it.
If you get a chance during this month, please try some yoga. I think it is something that everyone can benefit from regardless of where you are in life. Plus, you may come to find that you actually love it—and if you do make sure you share that love of yoga with someone else.
- Ryan