Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Meaning of Life: A Personal Perspective

Salve, NIP!

            About six weeks ago, I stood in my brother’s kitchen as we were visiting his family in North Carolina. Brad and I were having a conversation about life in general when he said something that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since: “you are wasting your potential,” he told me. By that he meant that I am wasting my potential as a teacher. He thinks I should be doing bigger and better things; he tells me he could get me a job at Intel for my writing skills alone, and that I would make a lot more money doing so. I sincerely thank him for looking out for me in this way, but I could not disagree with him more about his statement. Sure, there are probably others numbered among my family and friends who think the very same thing, and though I respect their opinions I doubt I would ever not be a teacher. It speaks to me, especially my heart. I cannot put into words how much I love to learn and share my learning with others. It truly is my dharma, my duty, my vocation, my calling. I believe if I were to do anything else that did not involve learning and sharing what little wisdom I have, I would not be as fulfilled.

            School began this week. Though I wasn’t as excited to go back to school this year for reasons I could not quite put my finger on, by the end of the first week I realized that it was all of the peripheral aspects (i.e. all that teaching requires outside the classroom) that had made me feel that way. And while there is a great deal of that still lingering outside of my door, those 300 minutes per day I am standing in front of my students and discussing ideas with them is borderline blissful. Sure some of them might think I’m a weird guy/teacher, but regardless of what they or others think, deep within my heart I believe this is what I am meant to do. 

As with last year, I am teaching AP Human Geography, Philosophy Honors, and World Religions. Our school’s data processor (who creates the schedules) set mine up in a way so that I have all of my Philosophy Honors classes this fall, followed by World Religions in the spring. During this past week, then, we were covering the first chapter of the philosophy textbook, which is a general introduction to the academic study of philosophy, its aims, sub-disciplines, etc. On the second day of class, the students and I talked about how philosophy deals with “big” questions and I solicited the students for examples. Various classes brought up most of the same ones, and perhaps the one question that was repeated the most (in one guise or another) was “what is the meaning/purpose of life?” I have structured the class in a way that allows students to share their input with others as much as possible, as I feel a philosophy class should be driven primarily by dialogue. For our final activity on Friday, I returned to the meaning question and gave the students 5 minutes to write out their own personal meaning of life in their journals; when the time elapsed, I facilitated the sharing of their ideas by calling on students and letting them build off each other's responses. It was a great moment, to say the least. Though they’re only juniors and seniors in high school, they had some great answers. Everyone took the question seriously, wrestled with it, and wrote something beautiful in that whatever it was they had chosen to say was genuine and heartfelt. In two of the three classes, though, the timer went off and there was still two minutes or so and the students began demanding that I share my own “meaning of life.” I said a few words on the spot, but knew they had only skimmed the surface of what I felt in my own heart. So I’ve been thinking about this idea for the last two days, and now here I am on my couch in the early hours of Sunday morning writing this letter to you, NIP.

I will be 37 years old this coming Wednesday. Though I certainly don’t think of myself as “old,” I am undoubtedly getting older. Hopefully in this process I have also gotten wiser. I feel that I have, mainly because I have been grounded in philosophy and religion for the last 14 years or so (when I went back to college). And yet that is only partially true. People used to think it was surprising that I became a Religious Studies major; just as my brother Brad questions my choice of teaching now, some family and friends questioned my choice/field of study back then. Many told me it was a useless/worthless degree. I simply feel those people have the wrong view of education in general. I’ve always felt (and tell my students this all the time) that education is about improving oneself—gaining knowledge in order to become a wiser person—not simply to yield a particular career and a predetermined level of income. Even when these people broached their concerns with me, I didn’t have a satisfactory answer as to why I wanted to know more about religion (or philosophy). I now know that the reason I didn’t have a satisfactory answer is due to one simple fact that I didn’t comprehend at the time: I didn’t have an answer because all I had were questions.

Looking back on my life now, though, I have started to realize why I chose that field. It was something that I didn’t realize until a little over three years ago, around the time I began my yoga practice and, shortly after that, my meditation practice. Both of these disciplines have given me the mental space and quietude to search the depths of my heart with little interference from my ever-analytical mind. Because below that teeming sea of incessantly-churning thoughts, the ground of being has given me glimpses of what I believe to be the truth. One part of that truth that I recognize now is that studying religion was no simple whim. The fact is I have always been fascinated with the concept of the sacred. One of the first movies my mother ever took me to see in the theater was the original Clash of the Titans, after which I became enamored with all things related to Greek mythology. I even thought I was a distant cousin to Perseus, as ridiculous as that may seem now. Of course, this increasing fascination disturbed my mother and she did her best to inculcate me into Roman Catholicism, the family faith. She bought me an illustrated book of Bible stories, much of which was centered on Jesus and the New Testament, but also rife with central narratives from the Old Testament as well, such as Noah’s Ark, Moses and the Egyptian exodus, David and Goliath, etc. And I greedily gobbled those stories up and sought for more. This continued throughout much of my life, only the scope of the search continued to widen and brought me into contact with other faith traditions, other founders, other narratives.

Being steeped in religions from all parts of the world, I cannot choose one over another. There is too much wisdom from disparate cultures and epochs for me to personally elevate one above the rest. Whether one may or may not agree with my personal perspective is a choice I leave to you, NIP, but I respect all religions. In the same breath, however, I feel that I have transcended them in some way. I do not partake in any organized religion, yet I feel I worship every day through mindful meditation and prayer. I try my best to read at least a few chapters of the synoptic Gospels or slokas of the Bhagavad Gita every day. Though I am no fan of labels due to their limitations, I suppose I am functionally a Buddhist yet substantively a Jesusist. I will always feel grounded in Christianity as it was my first faith, but as a student of life and all religions I feel as if my own beliefs have become syncretistic, an amalgam of spiritual commonalities expressed by many different cultures throughout space and time.

So what have I learned thus far?

            I think the ground of being, the meaning of life, for me, is bearing witness. Bearing witness to what? The wonder. The wonder that perpetually surrounds us yet we continually crowd out with our human tendency toward pettiness and arrogance. We think we know everything but the truth is we know hardly anything at all (if it is even possible to “know” anything). Science is important and my love of learning has had me chasing down as much of that knowledge as possible, too, but as any quantum physicist will tell you, the very fabric of our materialist view of the universe is being undone. Even Einstein was aware that there is a great deal of mystery that we have not (and perhaps cannot) been able to penetrate with our finite comprehension of life and its workings. And this is precisely the point! Everywhere we train our senses we are surrounded by mystery, by the sublime, by sheer awe. But then in our intellectual hubris we label phenomena and somehow think we have understood it. As I said in the Honor Court Banquet presentation this past spring, the miraculous and mundane are one and the same. Don’t analyze the flowers, the trees, the clouds, the breeze, the small child smiling as s/he walks hand in hand with a parent, a shared hug with a loved one. None of these things have anything to do with the mind, but with the spirit, with the essence of what makes us human. As I’ve said in past letters like “Think Cosmically,” it doesn’t matter whether you approach the mystery of life from a theistic or scientific angle, either way we are left with one simple fact—it is a miracle to be alive and experiencing all of this wonder. To me, this is the starting point. We have to recognize that we are alive and never take that fact for granted. Every breath should be a celebration, a chance to revel in the mystery and wonder that surrounds us every single second. Do not be distracted by the siren song of things we prize in our society—money, fame, accomplishments, all of these things are transitory on a cosmic scale. At some point in the distant future it is very likely that humanity will not exist, whether through nuclear annihilation (let’s face it, if history has taught us anything it’s that we love to conquer and kill each other) or the sun’s life cycle getting to the Red Giant phase and consuming planet Earth (don’t worry, that’s about 4.5 billion years from now), so we have to do our best to appreciate the time we have been given with family and friends on this amazing planet pulsing with life and mystery.

            If bearing witness to the wonder is the first step, then appreciation of all life and its interconnected web is the second. I am human, as it says in the blog’s description, I’m just a regular guy trying to reach out to others and make a difference. This means that I make mistakes, I am not perfect, no one is. And yet it is precisely this realization that has allowed me to become a better teacher. I tell my students that the only difference between them and me is age. I am older and, hopefully, a little bit wiser. In an effort to become a better person I have been diligently working on cultivating five crucial qualities in my life over the last three years: love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience. Each day when I begin my yoga practice I reflect on these five along with my gratitude mantra (see “Gratitude for the Here and Now”), and then think about them again each time I sit or lie down to meditate. Having studied the sacred in many of its forms, these five qualities seem to be the cardinal virtues that all of them espouse. I was gladdened this past Friday to hear so many of my students in philosophy mention love as a central tenet in their own “meaning of life” responses. It is the first on my list as well, mainly because it is the fecund, nurturing soil from which the other characteristics sprout and grow. I do my personal best to love everyone because I intuit it is the right thing to do; I know it in my heart, not my head, if that makes sense. I feel I am a much better person than I was several years ago, but I still have so much work to do. I am still a work-in-progress, and perhaps will be for my entire life—but at least I recognize this fact and am consciously, actively trying to be a better person each and every day. More importantly, by realizing that I am imperfect with all of my idiosyncratic faults and foibles, it’s easier to love others freely because I know they have their own in turn.

            Because we are all struggling in our own right, the third aspect that gives my life so much meaning is service. Now we have come full circle. By witnessing wonder and appreciating life, I realize that love is my highest aim. And the way in which this is most easily expressed and purposefully shared is by focusing on “the other.” The positive changes I’ve managed to institute in my life over the last several years combined with all of the religion and philosophy I’ve studied and pondered over my entire life has left me with one overriding impulse—to help others. This is why it is my dharma to be a teacher, to write these letters, to help whoever is in need of a kind word or a good deed. I’ve come to a point in my life where I have truly learned to love and accept myself (admittedly, however, I don’t think I would be in said position if it weren’t for my wonderful wife, Erin, and our rewarding marriage), and it was only after I was grounded in my own self-love that I learned to love others openly. I firmly believe that we must love ourselves before we can love others. Not in a way that gratifies or aggrandizes the ego (in fact, I think much of what I have been trying to do for the last three years is efface the ego in order to let more love out), but in a way that allows for a calm acceptance of our individual strengths and an acknowledgement of personal shortcomings. We all have them after all. My mission, therefore, is to serve others by helping them realize they too are worthy of love. We are all witnesses to this wonderful life and I want to do my best to help people recognize that simple fact.

            I know this is an inordinately long letter. I thank you if you’ve read all the way through it, NIP. The funny thing is this, though—none of these words have come close to expressing what I feel each day when I wake, each moment I share with other people, each breath I mindfully take. I guess my personal meaning of life is ineffable. It is meant to be experienced rather than explained. If you’re one of my students, I’m sure you have recognized this in our interactions. Sure some people might label me as “weird” but I don’t particularly care. Words will never capture the essence of what I feel or who I am. All I know is that I have much work to do to become a better person. This is the only life that I get (as far as I know with my extremely limited, finite understanding) so I will continue to cherish this incredible, miraculous gift by sharing what little wisdom I have gleaned from life thus far. I hope that these letters have brought you some measure of solace and hope with whatever challenges you face in your individual life.

What’s the meaning of your life, NIP?

- Ryan    

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Message, Not the Man

How’s your life, NIP?

            When I first thought of writing this letter, I intended it to be the 50th and possibly the last one. I don’t think that I’m ready to throw in the towel yet, and anyone who knows me in the flesh can tell you I can talk. A lot. I think the biggest reason that I contemplated leaving this letter writing business behind is two-fold: 1) let’s be honest, reading in general is a bit passé for a culture that loves inane reality television and Schadenfreude, and reading one thousand word letters without pictures is perhaps too much to ask for most attention spans; 2) a lingering question in the back of my mind—if hardly anyone is reading them, why do I keep writing? I certainly don’t do it for myself. I’ve managed to turn my life completely around and it only continues to get better the more I learn to let go of what I can’t control and focus on what I can. Sometimes I think that these letters might come across as “look at what I’ve managed to do” or “look what I accomplished” and perhaps seem like some kind of ego trip, but they’re not. I really like to write because I do believe that if they make an impression or help even one person then they’ve been worth it.

            I want to let you in on a little secret, NIP. I don’t think very much of myself. That’s not to say these letters of encouragement / attempts to make a difference in the lives of others has been a lost cause or a meaningless endeavor. I think they have been worthwhile and therapeutic for me. What I mean is that I am not anything special. I am a regular person, same as you. I don’t have superpowers and I’m not a genius. What I have realized is that these letters have been worth it because it’s about the message, not about the man. I am an empty vessel that I keep trying to fill with intelligence and wisdom, but the more I attempt to do so the more I realize I am nothing. I am no one. I am a “nobody,” just like the rest of you. This isn’t to say that I don’t count for anything or that I don’t make a difference, just that I’ve come to realize that I am but one small speck of cosmic dust that is self-aware of its insignificance. But the message, that’s important, that’s crucial. The message is what gives us hope and vitality. It’s what fills us up so that when we overflow with love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience—the very best of what we as human beings have to offer one another—it spills over into the next container, the next person who is a little low in his/her well.

            If I can break the message down to its simplest form, if I can condense what I’ve tried to say in the last 50 letters it is this: if you want to fix anything in your life, no matter what it is, you are capable of doing so. But you have to believe in yourself and your capacity to do so. You must begin by loving yourself and telling yourself that you are worthy of happiness. I don’t care if you want to lose weight, curb a destructive addiction or appetite, begin a new career, or whatever, the first thing you have to do is take a good long look in the mirror. The message begins with self-reflection, self-assessment and brutal honesty. You have to strip yourself bare and take stock of all of your faults and foibles. You have to tear yourself down to build yourself up. You can accomplish whatever dream you may have, but it will take persistence and patience. And it all begins and ends with the choices you make, NIP. Far too many people want to play the victim card again and again, as if it’s the only one in their deck. The longer you do this, the longer you’ll spin your wheels and get nowhere. Believe me, I know because I let far too many of my own years and potential languish from having always pointed the finger at everything else but myself. You control your own destiny by making good choices and steering your life in your own way. And when circumstances prevent you from having total control (and there will be moments like this, perhaps more than you’d ever expect), you always have the choice to control your own attitude in that moment. You are more powerful than you can imagine, NIP, don’t ever forget that…

            I hope you’ve found meaning and hope in some of the previous letters. I will continue to write them for the foreseeable future, but I’m not sure how long that will last. Just as I said in my radio interview when I won the award for Healthiest Person in Tampa Bay, if I can do it, anyone can. I am just a regular person who learned to cultivate my will power and make the best choices to affect the one chance I have at this miraculous life. I am grateful for any and all people who read this and in turn begin to make the needed change in his or her life. It’s not impossible to turn your life around, no matter what position you find yourself in, NIP. While it may take more work for one person compared to another depending on what type of transformation is sought, anything is possible. The naysayers and detractors who tell you otherwise are only people who have given up on themselves. You don’t have to be that way just because they want to drag you down to their level. You are the final arbiter of your own choices and attitudes, NIP, so take the reins of your life and make something of it.

Stay strong; stay positive…

- Ryan