Monday, January 16, 2012
Como estas, NIP?
One of my goals this year is to make these letters more accessible by coming straight to the point. I promise to do my best by keeping them under 1,000 words, which will hopefully translate into at least two letters a month. Even though school is back in session I’ve managed to keep up the momentum in my reading, especially in the area of spiritual/wisdom writings. One passage in particular from Merton has been haunting my memory for weeks now, which deals directly with today’s letter:
If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn.
In homage to the chapter of New Seeds of Contemplation from which this brief passage hails, I have decided to break from the standard letter format and instead compose a list, a statement of beliefs, along with a terse explanation of said beliefs. You may or may not agree with them, NIP, but I feel it will help explain me as a person in the fewest words possible.
I believe in myself and my dreams—while this isn’t necessarily the most important belief, it’s the first one. We must learn to believe in ourselves if we ever want to accomplish any dream and/or goal. By believing in yourself with earnestness, NIP, you can foster incredible change in your life. And once you begin to realize these changes, you’ll find it much easier to believe in other aspects of your life/dreams.
I believe in holistic health—to be healthy means not only physically fit, but mentally and spiritually fit as well. For the physical, eat healthfully and get regular exercise (yoga, anyone?); for the mental, engage in an activity that focuses the mind (meditation works wonders and is simpler than most make it out to be); for the spirit, pursue what you’re most passionate about, whether it be creating works of art, making music, rigorous philosophical questioning, or contemplation of religious mysteries. To some degree, once the mind and body become healthy, the spirit expands naturally. This life is the only one you get, NIP; why not do your best to care for it?
I believe in helping others—once we take care of ourselves and our individual lives become ordered and streamlined, the real work begins. The most important thing we can do in this life is help other people. We all struggle from time to time, and I’m sure you can recall a time when that helping hand was not only invaluable but made all the difference in the world. I try my best to always help others in any way I can, whether it’s as a teacher at school, as a neighbor around our home, or as a faceless writer putting words to a screen in the hopes that it helps you, NIP. Helping is the highest calling.
I believe in establishing meaningful human relationships—human beings are social creatures by nature and the best connections we make in this life are genuine, heartfelt relationships we create between one another. Some of them will last forever, others will be ephemeral. Regardless of duration, we must do our best to be authentic in the relationships while they are vital. Life is too short to be disingenuous or, worse yet, duplicitous. We must enter into relationships with other people with love, compassion, gratitude, generosity and patience if we are ever to foster a meaningful relationship between ourselves and others.
I believe God is Life/Life is God—I try not to get wrapped up in labels. I feel that they’re limiting and only muddle intuitive wisdom. I’ve studied enough religion and science to know that to exclude one worldview in preference for the other is foolish. Both are legitimate though limited attempts to make this miraculous gift of life comprehensible to the human mind—which is a massive mistake. To attempt to crystallize the experience of living by putting it into an intelligible string of words cannot come close to experience itself. Moreover, once we’re dealing with words rather than raw experience, we are stuck in the realm of semantics, which is where I’d leave both labels (Life/God) behind. Who knows? Perhaps I am becoming a mystic, seeking a direct encounter with the sacred in each and every moment. I’m certainly not religious in the conventional sense, but I secretly feel that I’m more religious than most conventionally religious people. The false dichotomy fostered by the Western religious paradigm is only a barrier to our spiritual growth. There is so much that we simply don’t know and to stick to conventional explanations—whether religious or scientific—is not only intellectual hubris, but it puts limits on our experiences while living this incredible life as a human being.
Belief is crucial to being human. To not believe in anything is a serious mistake and will only undercut our potential and progress. William James, the American philosopher of whom I spoke a few letters ago, was also America’s first great psychologist. He insisted that the “will to believe” is perhaps the most crucial part of our psychological make-up. In order to be mentally healthy, we must subscribe to beliefs that motivate us to become better people. Your beliefs may not be the same as mine, NIP, but so long as they foster positivity and an authentic life they are worthwhile. As someone who constantly doubted himself for the first 30 years of life, I can attest that the power of belief has the ability to fundamentally alter us for the better. It won’t happen overnight, but with patience and persistence you will start to feel more confident in your thoughts, words and actions. And once you have changed your life for the better, how will you use it to help others do the same?
Sunday, January 1, 2012
Happy New Year, NIP!
Hope your holidays were filled with family, friends, and fun. Mine have been brimming with all of those to some degree, but more than anything Erin and I took time this winter break to catch our breath and get prepared for the spring semester at school. For me personally, it’s been a time for lots of yoga, meditation, reflection, and reading. Since the break began I made it a point to spend a few hours each day with my face in a book, mainly because I had little (if any) time to read during the fall semester with the tumult of life these past four months. These last two weeks, then, have been luxurious: I’ve been reading several different non-fiction pieces, picking up quantum mechanics and cosmology one day (Hidden Reality) and spiritual sustenance and wisdom the next (Seeds, Shambhala). I actually wanted to see if I could finish four books in that time, but it looks like Meister Eckhart will have to wait.
All of this reading—in conjunction with it being the New Year—has had me thinking about something one of my Religious Studies professors used to say about human beings: we are storytellers. It probably doesn’t take much thought on your part, NIP, to recognize this and see yourself in this light, because we all are. We relate ourselves to the world and others through a personal narrative arc, telling other people (and often ourselves in our own minds) our perceptions of how any given event in our lives has transpired and shaped us as individuals. Though being storytellers as a species might not be groundbreaking news, Dr. Fasching also asserted something else: not only are we storytellers, we are storydwellers. While just about everyone agrees that we do in fact tell stories, many people might not necessarily see how we live within them. To a certain degree, the narratives that we compose are inextricably linked to who we will become as people. If we tell others and ourselves that we are victims of circumstance, fate or any other external influence, our personal story will play out that way. It will always be someone or something holding you back because that’s the story you live out through your choices and perceptions. If we see ourselves as the authors of our own destinies, though, we get to write the narrative. Does this mean there won’t be setbacks? Challenges? Struggles? Of course not! Who would want to read that story? We want stories populated with heroes who accomplish amazing feats...and that can always be you, NIP, if you’re willing to turn the page.
We often view New Year’s as a time to pause and reflect on the past year in its totality, celebrating our successes, understanding our failures, and recognizing the areas in which we need to improve. As the author of our destinies, this moment in time metaphorically represents a new chapter in our lives. But to some degree, this view is a mistake. New Year’s, in some respect, fools us into thinking that this is the only time to do this. While it is a convenient psychological bridge between the year that’s been completed and the one that is beginning, I think we miss the point because we get hung up on the artificial reference point. We treat New Year’s as if it had some special significance in relation to turning the page in our own personal narratives, as if it were the only moment pregnant with potential to begin anew. But that’s simply not true...
If I were to ask you what time it is, NIP, what would you say? Would you glance at the clock on the computer screen, look up at a watch or some other time piece in the vicinity? Maybe come up with a generic answer such as morning, afternoon, evening, or night? The answer to the question is simple, and there is only one answer any time someone asks. It is now. Now might not seem so special to you. In fact, now is not too special to anyone. We do our best to avoid now by getting unduly attached to a past we cannot alter or fretting over a future that we have yet to create, all in our minds. We also do our best to avoid now by diverting our attentions to endeavors that have no practical value or meaning for the narrative we are weaving. Worse yet, when we avoid now we are passive participants in our own story, often allowing circumstances to dictate our actions. But to acknowledge now and use it for your benefit is to become the active author, the one who realizes that so long as she or he continues to scribe that every moment is pregnant with potential, not just New Year’s.
By learning to pay attention to now we begin to witness the blossoming of life that is constantly happening all around us. Any writer who is worth his or her salt also has an observant eye. Be watchful in all that you do, NIP. Start paying more attention to now and see how much easier it is to write/live your story. There is no reason to wait for New Year’s or any other specific fictionally demarcated moment in time to begin. All that does is force us to feel stuck and/or powerless in our situation and further delay the positive changes that are most necessary for our personal growth as human beings. But in learning to be present, to pay attention to the moment we are experiencing rather than trying to escape to some other in our minds, allows the potential in that moment to become palpable. We no longer feel inextricably bound to any given page of our personal narrative; instead, we realize that at any moment is ripe for rebirth. Why wait for New Year’s or any other time to begin turning your life around? We only have so much time in life, NIP, and the amount allotted to each of us is unknown. Why wait any longer to turn the page?
Now is—and forever will be—the time to begin...