Friday, September 30, 2011

Year of the Mantra

Greetings NIP,

            I just recently finished another inspirational read: Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. I still haven’t gotten around to actually watching the lecture, but I’d imagine it’s excellent. The premise of the book is that Carnegie-Mellon professors whose careers/contributions been have particularly noteworthy are asked to give a “last lecture,” a chance to answer the hypothetical question “if you were to give a last lecture, what would it be about?” Pausch—a computer science guy with terminal pancreatic cancer—certainly pulled no punches with his. The book is a detailed account of what went into making the speech, his family life, the lessons learned through his illness, and the values he holds dear among other topics. And while there were many memorable lines in the book, the one that has stuck out the most in my mind is both simple and profound:

Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.

As I’ve mentioned in previous letters, I believe that the battle for becoming the best of who we are—of maximizing our individual potential—is won in the mind. By taming the undisciplined mind, we become the architects of our dreams. We learn that we might not be able to control all of the external circumstances of our lives, but we do have much control over how we react to them. There are lots of ways to accomplish this acceptance, from meditation to cognitive behavioral therapy. But one way that most people often overlook is repetition.

Whether you’re talking about lifting weights, memorizing definitions, playing a musical instrument it takes practice, practice, practice. And what happens through practice, through repetition? We get better at whatever it is we are trying to improve. So why don’t we try to improve the way that we think? It’s easier than you’d suspect, NIP. All you need to do is create a mantra. In the traditional sense, a mantra is a short prayer that is repeated over and over until it becomes engrained in the fabric of one’s spirit. In a contemporary, slightly more secular sense, a mantra can be a short, affirmative statement that is repeated over and over until it becomes automatic in the mind. If you recall the letter “Gratitude for the Here and Now,” you may remember my gratitude mantra that I created around the time of my 35th birthday: I am grateful for this life, I am grateful for this day, I am grateful for this moment, I am grateful for this breath, I am grateful. Well, after repeating this to myself several times per day for more than a year, I can attest firsthand that it works. This mantra is usually the first thoughts to enter my mind when I wake in the morning. Then, when I get to my mat for yoga in the morning, I repeat it again during the first five dirgha breaths I take while standing in tadasana. And now that I’ve taught my students the dirgha breathing technique, I find myself repeating the mantra as each class starts. And the more I say it, the more I feel it inside and show it outside.

There’s lots of great research being done in the fields of cognitive science, neurology, and contemplative studies currently, and as our knowledge of the mind increases I think humanity will be able to unlock even further untapped potential. The mind is our most powerful ally in how we perceive ourselves and our world, but it can also be our greatest enemy if we let it run amok. By beginning with a mantra, we start small. But through the repetitive practice, we literally change our minds over time. Little by little, the thought makes itself manifest in our actions. These actions only reinforce the thought in a reciprocal process and before you know it becomes a part of you. So what will be your mantra, NIP? It doesn’t have to be 5 lines like mine, it can be just one if you’d like. What’s more important is that you choose something personal, perhaps a quality you want to cultivate or an affirmation of a goal you hope to accomplish. Whatever you choose you must then tell yourself with conviction, several times a day. If you are beginning or currently have a meditation practice, perhaps you could repeat your mantra as a focal point. It may take time before it becomes routine, but once it does it begins to take on a life of its own and before you know it you'll think and feel like a new person.

The benefits await, NIP!

- Ryan

P.S. – I would just like to make a blanket statement of “thank you” to all who read the previous letter and either emailed to express their condolences or wrote letters to family members. Life certainly has been crazy lately and I wish I could write more, but I needed to write this brief letter today to share my gratitude for all of you—my readers—for making this a worthy endeavor. As one of my students recently pointed out in an essay, “to help even one, single, solitary person” would be fulfilling—so I really appreciate the few who continue to find a source of strength in these letters. We are all ultimately in this life together—I’m just trying to do my part to pass on the little wisdom I have gained thus far in this incredible experience. Thanks again everyone…Namasté!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

An Epistolary Request

Dearest Nobody in Particular,

            If you’ve been reading these letters for a while, you know how I feel about life—it’s amazing. Every day after waking, I begin with my gratitude mantra and am so thankful to engage in this miraculous experience once again. As incredible as all of this beauty may be, we all know that life is also precarious. This is precisely the reason I began cultivating this disposition toward life and the world a few years ago, because we have no guarantee of how much time we have. While it may seem rather macabre to reflect on our mortality in this way, it is freeing in the sense that by grappling and facing our finitude we learn to revel in the present moment more and more. We learn to love life in its entirety. Yes, there will be both good and bad times, but I personally believe we need to experience the entire emotional spectrum in order to be fully human. But it is also how we put life’s challenges into perspective that gives us the humility to understand our place in this world, grow as a person from these setbacks, and carry on in the aftermath of tragedy.

            This past week I lost my maternal grandmother; “Mémère” as our French-Canadian side of the family called her. It was tough to keep it together at school for the two days before I left. I chose not to tell my students because I didn’t want them to be distracted, but I think some of them could tell that I wasn’t quite right even though I did my best to conceal the sadness that weighed heavily upon my heart. On Thursday after school, I penned a rather long request on my whiteboard to fulfill as an assignment on Friday while I was away in Rhode Island at the funeral. As you know by now, NIP, I am a fan of letters. In our hurried lifestyle of incessant information and terse communication, I lament that fact that this form of dialogue has been lost. Though I try to “tweet” at least a small positive statement each day, it is difficult to convey something meaningful through such a medium. Letters, however, allow us to express ourselves deeply and in a way that is personal and heartfelt, which is why I left my students an assignment to write an important missive.

            While I set no specific parameters on length, I did narrow their focus by asking the students to write to one person. And not just any one person, a family member. As I mentioned in my Mémère’s eulogy, the most sacred aspects of life for me are family and love, which are obviously complementary. My grandmother and her home were a safe haven for me during many tumultuous times, especially in childhood. She was an archetypal grandmother, a nurturing soul who was the embodiment of love. She meant a great deal to me and I will miss her always, so the opportunity to write and read the eulogy was not only an honor but a personal goodbye from me to her in some sense. When I asked my students to write a letter to a family member, then, I had many of these ideas in mind. Life is sacred yet ephemeral. I told my students that they should not just write a letter to a family member, but one with whom they are close but perhaps don’t often have the chance to see or speak with. Additionally I asked each of them to not only tell this person how much s/he means to him or her, but to express how the letter recipient had impacted the student’s life in a positive way. The last part of the request involved the students actually mailing the letter the old fashioned way to the family member they had chosen. Even if it were addressed to a parent (or parents), I stipulated that they must acquire postage and drop it in the mail. It seems like the only mail I get nowadays is junk mail and bills, so to be greeted by a heartfelt letter with a full expression of gratitude for that person’s guidance, wisdom and love would be something special for the recipient. Plus, it is better than simply saying it to someone as that person can keep the letter if s/he so desired.

            So now it’s your turn, NIP. I am passing along this small epistolary request to you. Who is it in your life that deserves a letter? The people who come to mind will undoubtedly be older than you and come from a generation that remembers and appreciates letters. To receive something like that unexpectedly in the mail would not only brighten his/her day, but give that person a treasured keepsake as well. And you don’t necessarily have to stop at just one letter. If there are several people with whom you need to communicate, take the time to pen notes to all of them. We never know how long these people will be in our lives, so don’t let this opportunity pass by you and your loved one. Think about how the person in question made a difference in your life and thank him or her for it. Your gratitude and love may even surprise someone who is in need of an emotional pick-me-up and make a larger impact than you can imagine. As I told my students on my whiteboard, I have no way of checking on them to see if they fulfilled my request—just as I have no idea of how many people may read this letter and not bother. But I urge anyone who is reading this now, take the time to tell someone not only how much you love that person but why you do. As unpredictable as life can be, you never know when this opportunity will have passed you by until it is too late. Please fulfill this request, NIP; perhaps that person will do it for someone else in turn.

Keep expressing your love, NIP…

- Ryan

P.S. – If any of the Ward family members read this, I would just like to thank each and every one of you for the opportunity you gave me this Friday. Mémère meant a great deal to us all, and I know we shall treasure her memory forever. As I told Mémère in a letter when Rose passed away, by keeping our memories alive in our hearts, the loved ones who pass on before us will forever remain alive and, in some sense, immortal.