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