Thursday, August 29, 2013

Let's Celebrate!

How are you, NIP?

            I’m great. Today is my 38th birthday. Today I am celebrating being alive for 38 years, and I couldn’t be more happy and satisfied with my life at this point. Though demographics would indicate that I am approximately half way through my life at this point, I honestly hope to live until I’m 100, especially if Erin will be by my side the entire time. Yesterday was also an important day (perhaps more so than my birthday at this point) because it was the 8th anniversary of our first date. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to begin my third decade of life than with the woman who has given me so much in such a relatively short amount of time. I honestly cannot wait to see what the remaining years of our marriage will bring.

While one’s birthday is often seen as a time for celebration and reflection, I don’t think we should savor such riches only on special days. To be honest, I believe we should celebrate every day that we wake for the potential that it brings us. Each and every day is another chance to try to dig a little deeper, to become a little better, to learn another lesson, to love more openly—the possibilities are endless. The more we are able to focus on the abundance we have in our lives, the more each and every single day becomes a celebration. There will certainly be days and perhaps even stretches of weeks or months in which we are challenged, but we must remember that even our existence beneficially impacts others in ways that perhaps we do not completely understand. When challenges arise, it is then that we must especially look for things in our lives to celebrate, even if seemingly inconsequential in the big picture. If there’s anything I’ve learned so far in my life, it’s that every day matters—and every one I meet in each of those days matters, too.

I have a proposition for you, NIP. I want you to think about what’s worth celebrating in your life. And don’t be defeatist and say “nothing,” if you’re currently down and out. Trust me, there is always something to celebrate, but sometimes it takes marshaling one’s will to see so in the proper perspective. So, in ode to my celebration today, I would like to share with you what I celebrate on a daily basis. Typically I think about how grateful I am for these aspects of my life each morning after I’ve completed my mindfulness meditation, after which I close with what one might call “contemplative prayer.” I express my gratitude and appreciate the following people who have made an impact on my life and helped me get to where I am now. Here are the ones I celebrate each and every day:

I celebrate my family.

            I could not be who I am (or who I’m becoming) without such an amazing family. I come from what one might refer to as a “tribe” due to my family being so large, and I am grateful for every single member of it who has nurtured me in ways big and small. Each parent, brother, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, niece and nephew has made a contribution to my life, whether he or she realizes it or not. Though I don’t see or talk to them often enough—especially my immediate and extended family in Rhode Island, Texas, and Taiwan—I celebrate their presence and contributions to my life first and foremost. They instilled the values of family and love in me and gave me a solid framework to begin my own family. Luckily, I married into a great family, too, and they have sustained me in times when I cannot be close to those whom I have known the longest.

I celebrate my friends.

            Whether past or present, I am so happy to have the company of my friends. There have been times—most critically during my younger days—when I don’t think I would have made it through certain situations if it weren’t for my friends. As we all have experienced, there are moments in which we feel safer turning to our peers than to our family members. I have been blessed with both wise and foolish friends, and I learned something from them all. As counselors and guides, I know I wouldn’t have turned out the way that I have if it weren’t for the advice, sympathy, and encouragement from my friends. Some friendships were fleeting, some friendships have lasted for decades; either way, every single one of them played an important role in my life and I am deeply grateful for their presence in my life both then and now.

I celebrate being a teacher.

            Though I sort of fell into teaching, I can’t imagine doing anything else more than a decade into my career. I am fortunate to work at an incredible school where there is a palpable camaraderie among the entire staff. Some of these coworkers have become good friends, and I feel I make a significant contribution to this community on a daily basis. And while these people are important and make most of my working days gratifying, the relationships that have changed me even more are my students. I am so thankful for all of my students, former and current. I have been teaching long enough to have taught thousands of young people at this point, hopefully leaving many of them with lasting memories and improved lives. Though there are so many aspects of teaching that I find frustrating (bureaucracy, politics, poorly planned policy, etc), none of those things bother me between the bells. When I close my door after the passing period I come alive in a way that is hard to describe. I revel in the moment when I am teaching, and that may be an understatement. And I believe what I love best is that each day and from every student I learn something new. Every interaction, no matter how seemingly minute, makes an impact. The reciprocity between teacher and student is an enthralling dynamic that is difficult to put into words, but I cherish every second of it.

I celebrate my wife.

            As I mentioned a few letters back, my wife is my foundation. Though it’s great to celebrate my birthday today, yesterday is perhaps a much more important date in my life now. Eight years ago yesterday we went on our first date, and though it took me until the end of our first week together for me to recognize that she would be the woman with whom I would spend the rest of my life, she claims that she knew the first time she saw me and “looked into those blue eyes.” I honestly cannot imagine being the person I am today without her. She has changed my life so much for the better in innumerable ways. She is thoughtful, kind, giving, inspiring…the list could go on forever. As cliché as it may be to say, she literally makes me want to be a better man. Much of the change in my health, positive attitude / perspective and everything else in between is a direct result of her being an integral part of my life. I feel as if I have so much love and life to give to others because of her presence and our marriage. There may not be words for me to explain how she makes me feel or how she has changed my life for the better, but just about every action and breath I take working toward being the best person I can be is a direct result of Erin and her love.

            Now that you’ve read about what I celebrate every day, what about you, NIP? Who or what is a part of your life that you celebrate on a daily basis? If you haven’t thought about it, take stock of your life and examine the aspects for which you are most grateful and would like to celebrate. While all of the above mentioned relationships and people who enrich my life have made major contributions to me personally, I believe the biggest reason I have to celebrate is simply being alive. Maybe people take being alive for granted, but I know that I most certainly do not. Each day when I wake the first thing I literally think is how grateful I am to have been given one more day to experience all of this wonder. If you ask me, every day should be a celebration for that fundamental fact. And so I try my best to live each day as if it were a celebration, because each one I get is another chance to enjoy my family, friends, coworkers, students, and wife. While my birthday may be important insofar as it brought me into this marvelous world, it is only one small part in the chain of existence that I have thus far forged with my daily living. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes, but I think I’ve learned from them and done a great deal of good, too. I hope to do a lot more by simply inspiring others to live their lives as a celebration as well.

Let’s celebrate together, NIP!

- Ryan    

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hold Fast

It’s been a minute, NIP…

            It goes without saying that I haven’t been writing much lately. To be completely honest, it’s been a summer of reading. Since the beginning of June, I’ve been plowing through books, trying to alternate between fiction and nonfiction. I’m currently on my 14th book this summer and so far have read over 4,000 pages of material. And while I’ve enjoyed being engrossed in a book with just about every spare moment I’ve had, it looks as if the summer will come to a close without me having read the one book I really wanted to reread this summer, Moby-Dick.

            I love Moby-Dick for lots of reasons: it’s rife with interesting characters and philosophical ruminations; Melville’s idyllic descriptions of the sea and the life contained therein; the subtle, ironic stabs and slashes he takes at the less desirable aspects of American culture; and—nearly most of all—his prognostications about what we are doomed to become if we cannot curb our insatiable megalomania. But as much as I love all of those aspects, I love the language perhaps most of all. There’s something about reading 19th century American literature that is like stepping back in time. We sadly don’t use adjectives such as swimmingly anymore, nor do we see the word stove and think of anything other than the noun that represents the cooking device in our kitchens. While this saddens me for nerdy reasons that I could probably never convey, I’ve had one phrase rattling around in my head for months now—hold fast. It doesn’t make much sense in today’s usage, and the closest idiom I can think of that nearly any native speaker of English today would use is “hang on.”

            Hold fast has become sort of a personal mantra for me during the last year, and I think this is why I wanted to reread Moby-Dick so badly. Not that I was necessarily worried about the fluke of a whale staving in a boat, but hold fast is a great metaphor for the moments (or in our lives recently, months) when our mettle is tested, when our will to carry on in the face of adversity is tried. Life, as beautiful and magnificent as it can be, reminds me of the vast vistas of the sea Melville paints with words in the novel: open, full of possibility and potential. And as incredible as the wide open ocean can be, we sometimes sail into storms head on and “hold fast” as best we can. The storm that Erin and I have been riding through over the last year has taken its toll in some ways, and made us stronger in others. It’s almost as if we’ve been lashed to the mast together and forced to undergo the ordeal from every possible angle.

            Without boring you to death with the details, NIP, my brother-in-law moved in with us over a year ago. He is currently going through an acrimonious divorce and has experienced more downs than ups during his time with us. At one point he lost his then-new job because it was during the probationary period and was out of work for nearly 6 months. He only got to see his daughters every other weekend, and at one point the older of our two nieces didn’t come at all for about 3 months straight. This was all taking a toll on him emotionally and mentally, and all Erin and I could do was weather the storm with him the best that we could. As with all storms, though, there are sometimes moments of reprieve when the clouds pull back a bit and perhaps a few sunbeams break through. He landed a job as a waiter back in April, and by early July he was also reemployed as an engineer. On top of this, he also won full-time custody of his daughters in the beginning of May and we’ve been the default babysitters this summer while he grinds away working nearly 60 hours per week in order to save up a large enough nest egg to get back on his own feet. If all goes well, he and the girls will have their own place by the beginning of the school year.

            We all face such storms in our lives. There is not a single one of us who doesn’t have challenges to some degree or another. Life is not always going to be smooth sailing, as much as we’d like it to be. But it’s successfully sailing through storms such as these that steels our courage and fortitude for the future. It has been a rough ride at times for Erin and me, especially this summer when we’re used to doing whatever we please with our free time and enjoying our company together. Helping family has been its own reward, however. We’ve gotten to know our nieces much better (it’s sad to admit that though they only lived 20 minutes away we had been lucky to see them three times a year at most), and I’ve seen my brother-in-law make great strides in his own personal progress. I know we still have to help them all weather the storm for some time yet, but it seems as if the clouds will dissipate soon enough. I have faith that the sun will shine brightly again in our lives, and I am doing my best to take the positive experiences and moments out of this ordeal and learn from them.

            If you’re currently in the middle of your own tempest, Nobody in Particular, do your best to make the most of the situation. There are opportunities to grow in every moment, in every situation. I’ve learned a great deal about my own capacity to handle adversity and counsel others with what wisdom I have during the last 14 months, and what I wanted to relay to you is that we all can and must do this from time to time. It’s not always pleasant in the moment, but if we’re patient with the ordeal and ourselves we only grow stronger in the long run. This strength then allows us to be more confident when facing new storms, new challenges. So in the event that you are in the midst of such a squall, there is one looming on the horizon, or in the future if you find yourself in one, don’t give in or give up—just…

Hold fast, NIP.

- Ryan

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Foundation

What's new with you, NIP?

            I realize that I have not written to you much this year. The last 12 months or so have been difficult to find the time to write. Nearly every moment I came close to sitting at the computer to jot down my thoughts, life carried me away in its whirlwind to more important matters that needed my attention. Needless to say, I have a great deal backlogged and hope to write several letters addressing various topics over the remaining summer. Regardless of my inconsistency over the past few months, I hope that this short letter finds you and your loved ones well. I also hope that you don’t mind me blathering on about my wife and how much her love means to me in today’s letter.

            All of last week, I was a counselor at GAP II, an academic camp hosted at the University of South Florida for rising 11th and 12th grade AVID students from all over Hillsborough county. My role was a mixed affair in that it consisted of me teaching yoga classes a few nights, taking photographs of the students during various activities and organizing a slideshow, and teaching the students some overarching skills for success in AP and college classrooms. One night at dinner in the Bulls Den Café, one of the other teachers made the remark that I must be so in love with my wife based on the way I talk about her. And it’s true; I very much am and will tell just about anyone who will listen. I could neither be who I am in this moment nor in the process of becoming without Erin’s influence in my life. Then, during my presentation, one of the students asked what had made me want to live such a healthy lifestyle and turn my life around (I had shown them the picture of me from years ago where I am nearly 100 pounds heavier as seen here), and I replied with, “my wife.” If I only have a limited time in this life, I said, why would I not want to maximize my chances of living the longest I can thereby increasing my potential time shared with Erin.

And this got me thinking…

            About two weeks ago, my beautiful best friend and I recently returned from our short getaway in the Dominican Republic. It was the first vacation Erin and I had taken by ourselves in four years. Typically, our vacations coincide with visiting other family members, which is nice, too. After the year we’ve had, though, we needed time to ourselves in which we could focus just on us and nothing else. And that’s pretty much what we did. For five days and four nights, we spent just about every moment together doing not much of anything at all—and it was wonderful. We would wake up with the sun and walk down to breakfast, then spend much of our day lying on the beach listening to waves, watching the birds, or reading our books. We’d only spend a short amount of time in the sun, the majority of it we retreated to our thatched umbrella shades or under a thicket of palms that generated plenty of shade. When we got too hot we would take a dip in the Caribbean or pool, and otherwise only took breaks to eat our other meals. In a very real sense, I think we slept, ate, read, and listened.

            The highpoint of our vacation—for me, at least—came each night after dinner. Erin and I would stroll along the beach in the darkness, and after a while come to rest on a pair of pool-style chaise lounges along the shore. We would spend great stretches of time sitting in silence, holding hands, and listening to the surf as it rolled and crashed into the sand. One of the nights was particularly clear, and we found ourselves alternately taking in the sea in front of us and the brilliant heavenly bodies above. In the midst of one of our stretches of comfortable silence, Erin put her head against my shoulder and I began to tell her how much she means to me. The phrase that struck me as soon as I said it was “the foundation.” To me, Erin has been the foundation of all that I have managed to accomplish in the last few years. While I do think my life in many ways has been a constant progression overall, the last 8 years that we have been together have been when I experienced the most growth. And I sat there and confessed all of this to her. I am sure that she knew it before that moment we shared, but I wanted to be specific and express what my heart was telling my head right then and there.

            It was difficult to put into words—and it seemed more natural than me trying to recall it for you, NIP—but in the most basic way I don’t think this version of me could possibly exist without my wife’s constant love, support, and encouragement. She is my complement and my confidante. I feel that her presence in my life has been the greatest gift ever given to me, and it is the one for which I am most grateful every single day. She is the primary reason I feel duty-bound to give back to others. Looking into her eyes is like staring directly into the sacred essence I now see in all of life, something that would have been impossible for me to do had I not seen it there first in her eyes. Though I have made a ton of progress toward becoming a better person—especially in the last several years of our time together—I know I have so much more work to do. She is my inspiration in all things and helps me persevere during moments when my will is waning. Even if indirectly, she taught me that I was worthy of love and that not only helped me to learn to love myself with all of my foibles and idiosyncrasies, but it taught me to love others as well. After all, no one is perfect and everyone has them. But most crucially, her presence in my life became the solid foundation upon which to engineer the edifice of my personal growth. She gave me the stability to be and become the best of who I am.

            No matter what you want to accomplish, NIP, we all need such a foundation. It might not necessarily be another person in your life, but there must be some sort of impetus that motivates you to pursue the best of who you know you can be. Sometimes we must hit our own personal “rock bottom” for us to recognize the need for change in our lives, and the answer to these dilemmas in our lives impels us to make sweeping changes to the way we live. Whether it is a passion for creating art, playing music, helping others, or trying to be the best spouse we can be, we all need a center to stabilize ourselves and begin building the best life we possibly can. The foundation becomes strong over time through the reciprocal exchange between the intrinsic motivation and the outward expression of that about which we are most passionate. For me, it is my wonderful wife, Erin, and the love our relationship has fostered. Without it I would not and could not be the person who is typing these words. And while I hope that they at least convey some semblance of what I genuinely feel in my heart, I know there is a sense in which they are an abject failure. But that doesn’t keep me from trying to show her / others with my actions how much she/they mean to me and how much her/their love and presence in my life sustains me.

            Who or what is your foundation? How has it helped you up to this point in your life? If you feel that your foundation is unstable or nonexistent, what/who can you focus on to help you lay a new one? We all have the capacity to foster change for the better in ourselves, but we need something or someone to undergird our efforts. Without a proper foundation from which to erect our dreams and ambitions, the structure eventually crumbles and we have to begin anew. Though it may be cliché, with a strong foundation, the sky’s the limit. Anyone is capable of doing great things with his or her life, I firmly believe and fully comprehend that now. But it begins by believing in ourselves first and foremost, and I couldn’t completely do that until I had Erin in my life.

Find your foundation, NIP.

- Ryan

P.S. - Want to see some pictures of our vacation? Click here!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What I've Learned

It’s been a while, NIP…

            I apologize for the two month hiatus. Life has been rather hectic lately, and I will be sure to write about it in my next letter. What you will find below is more of a speech for the 2013 graduates of DHS, the school at which I work. For the last several years, we have held an Honor Court Banquet for the top students and they usually chose a special guest speaker. I had been anticipating being selected again and had for some time thought about what I would have liked to say, only to discover that they were changing the format and there would no longer be a special guest speaker as part of the program. Needless to say, I was rather bummed by this news. I had hoped to try something new by just speaking from my heart, but I never got that chance. So, in an effort to reach out and still say what has been on my mind for some time, I decided to write a speech and record it for my students or anyone else who would like to watch it (hint, hint, that’s you, NIP!).

Congrats 2013 Durant Seniors…you will be missed more than you know.
      - H.  

Dear 2013 DHS Grad / NIP,

     I have heard that the first step on the road to recovery is admitting one has a problem. If that is true, then I guess I should begin by saying, “Hello, my name is Ryan, and I am an addict.” My addiction is rather severe, and I have been hooked for as long as I can remember. Though some people might think I have a rather innocuous compulsion, others may believe that my condition is serious and leads to complications with living. I happen to rather enjoy my habit and view it as falling between the two extremes—harmless overall with occasional bouts of bewilderment. So what is my addiction? Learning. And in an effort to offer some insight to the drug that is inquiry in all its forms, I hope to share with you what I’ve learned.

     I am nearly 38 years old at this point, and have lived a sufficient amount of time to have gleaned a modicum of wisdom from my obsession. And though it may be true that I am a learner in the universal sense, I will confine myself to two areas of special interest—religion and science. While many people consider these two topics completely incongruent, I hope to illustrate that they are not only similar, but in fact two methods of inquiry that inevitably arrive at the same fundamental conclusion if one delves deeply enough into each.

     I first became fascinated with the concept of the Sacred when I was five years old after my mother took me to see the original Clash of the Titans. Though I was raised Catholic and found my first foray into religion fascinating, I also greedily gobbled up books of magnificent mythological tales, attended occasional Eckankar meetings with my grandmother, and generally felt at home in any house of worship.

     Disillusionment set in when my parents got divorced, however, and I spent my teens and early twenties looking for logical, coherent explanations in the realms of science and philosophy. It came as a surprise to many, then, when I abruptly switched my majors from Philosophy and Mathematics to Religious Studies and Classics. Though I did not understand at the time, I have come to realize that the initial impulse I felt during my youth had never left, that the Sacred acted upon me with some strange gravity that I could not, cannot, and will not ever fully comprehend nor be able to accurately portray in words. The nature of the ineffable transcends terms and defies description, but that does not make it any less real when intuitively apprehended by our hearts and minds.

     Seeking answers to my questions, I spent more than a decade studying humanity’s various expressions of religiosity and they have moved me deeply. My students sometimes ask what my religion is and I have no honest answer. In one sense I feel I have crossed the boundaries of traditional religion and don’t necessarily believe in any of them in an orthodox manner, yet in the same breath I will admit that in some way I believe in all of the major faith traditions of the world. If anything, my religion is a complex pastiche of pragmatic beliefs that have concerted to effect a change in me for the better, which one could claim is the purpose of all religions.

     Hinduism taught me about the symbiotic unity of the pantheistic presence and pulchritude pulsing through all life. Hinduism also gave me yoga, which has not only allowed me to reunite my mind and body, but brought about the recognition of my existence as an integral part of the oneness in this web of wonder we call life. Through the practice of meditation and the dharma, Siddhartha showed me how to be an agent in my own awakening, giving me the clarity to cut through the clouds of suffering and delusion known as dukkha. Jainism instructed me to alleviate and prevent suffering by being non-violent not only physically, but verbally and emotionally as well. Lao-Tzu’s sagacious advice allowed me to constantly commune with nature and seek out the Tao’s wisdom of wu-wei whispered in the winds. Confucian ideals instilled in me the importance of serving and educating others, in addition to seeking harmony in all social relationships. Judaism tutored me in the art of asking questions, constantly grappling with one’s faith, and having chutzpah to stand up for oneself and others in the face of injustice. Jesus counseled me in the ways of patience, persistence, passion, and—perhaps most importantly—doing my best to love everyone openly and freely. Islam’s lessons fostered honesty, modesty, and integrity, while its focus on charity for those less fortunate helped me realize the importance of aligning one’s life with the numinous reality rather than the mindless materialism that consumes so many others.

     And while all of these contributions are integral to my spiritual life and worldview, they could just as easily be summed up by the common threads that tie all of the world’s major religions together: to do our best to lead ethical lives through the cultivation of virtues such as love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience; to welcome and treat others—even total strangers—with the same dignity and respect one would have for family and friends; to help, support, encourage, and serve others in whatever capacity we can, whenever assistance is needed.

     Religion has certainly taught me much over the years, but so has the pursuit of scientific knowledge. As a sophomore in high school I was instantly enamored with Chemistry, even going so far as to contemplate becoming a chemical engineer. What I especially loved about science 20 years ago was the certainty with which it espoused its claims. I came to discover, though, that on the grandest and most miniscule of scales, science is much like the minds of human beings in that it is fallible and prone to revision in the wake of new discoveries. Beyond my traditional scientific training, I have continued to read heavily in the areas of cosmology and quantum physics, ever fascinated by the mysteries of the potential multiverse in which we live.

     Then again, the area of science that has had me spellbound the last several years is neuroscience. Humanity has made incredible progress toward understanding the brain, and I have done my best to harness the benefits of these discoveries to help myself and others, especially my students. Out of all the knowledge I’ve cultivated from the cognitive sciences in recent years, one fact towers above others in its ramifications for how we shape and view our lives—neuroplasticity.

     The human brain is rather malleable as it turns out, which directly contradicts the older views that one’s capabilities, dispositions and the like became fixed and rigid by a certain age. In reality, we are very much what we constantly reinforce in our minds. Almost every single book I have read on the subject repeats the troupe of “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This is why I believe mindfulness meditation practices can help so many people. If we are willing to develop the power and focus of our minds to choose the thoughts that are most beneficial to ourselves and others, we become architects of our destinies. Why be passive recipients of circumstance when we can become active agents who work to sculpt our own magnum opus out of life’s beauty and bounty? By selecting and strengthening thoughts that foster positive habits of mind, we all have the potential to fundamentally alter our lives for the better.

     Perhaps what is most intriguing about probing the depths and expanse of space or the sub-atomic realms is that these ruminations have instilled in me the same sense of awe and majesty that I feel in moments when the Sacred is present and palpable. Many people may make the mistake of thinking science is the opposite of religion, but the truth is that they are actually complementary modes of human inquiry and understanding. Albert Einstein once remarked that “religion without science is blind; science without religion is lame” and I concur completely. Essentially, I think they are two sides of the same coin, both of which point to the paradoxical nature of the only single absolute truth that I have been able to discern in what I’ve learned thus far—that we are alive. One does not have to choose a correct side of the coin to comprehend or appreciate this ultimate fact. To demand one worldview over the other invariably leads to dogmatism and intransigence, which stifles open dialogue and impedes understanding. When taken as a whole, however, these would-be diametrically divergent views of life and our place in it only reinforce one another. To be alive is the greatest gift we have all received, and any trifling quarrels between science and religion should be shelved in the recognition that neither one of them has a monopoly on the capacity to inspire our imaginations and fill our spirits with the sublime. Both of them may serve different purposes, but they both begin from the same premise—trying to contemplate the nature of life and our place within it.

     Once I recognized and fully grasped this paradoxical truth, I unearthed another fundamental irony that eluded me all along, one which has only heightened the sense of the Sacred in my life. While it is true that being alive is the most important of all gifts we will ever receive, it made me ponder all the more what exactly constitutes “life.” At its bare essence, the foundation of life is consciousness itself. The simple fact that there is sentience in the universe and that it alone is the engine for all of our human understanding is both plain and perplexing. Religion might call this awareness a soul, science may claim it as an emergent property of the brain—something that not been proven, as there are no apparent physical, measurable correlates for consciousness—but neither of these suppositions change the fact that consciousness exists. Quite simply, consciousness is responsible for everything we think we know.

     But what do we know? Yet again another fundamental irony emerges when we realize that our knowledge is something generated within. All understanding of ourselves and the phenomena external to us is predicated on language, and at best words are clumsy conventions that we attach to ourselves, others, and objects in an effort to communicate and comprehend. Far too often, though, we misguidedly take these empty abstractions to be more substantial and solid than the reality of which we are directly aware through the interplay of consciousness and its interpretive sensory inputs. What’s worse, we are often apt to use words as weapons, labeling and denigrating those with whom we disagree. Words are helpful, to be sure, but when we allow them to distract us from the totality of a person or our experience of life they only act as impediments to our intuitive wisdom.

     Ultimately, we must be careful not to let ourselves become full of intellectual hubris. By recognizing that all of humanity’s knowledge and wisdom arises within our individual and collective consciousnesses, it frees us from the confines of the need to be right and focuses us squarely on the simple fact that we are. And what are we? Living, breathing, sentient beings who have been given a discerning intellect that allows us to probe, to wonder, to inquire, to communicate, to love. As philosophy taught me a long time ago, it is not the answers at which we arrive but the questions we ask. And the more questions I ask, the deeper I sink into the marvel of what it means to be alive, to be human, to have been given this incredible gift of life. It stands to reason that if we have all been given this gift, it imbues us all with a certain sense of dignity as individuals along with an inherent measure of respect for and responsibility to each other.

     What I’ve learned is that—like Socrates famously quipped—“I know nothing.” True, I have my personal beliefs, but beliefs and knowledge are two concepts that are separated by a vast ocean of difference. I will admit that I have learned a great deal in my first 38 years of existence, but no matter how many thousands of books I will have read by the time this corporeal consciousness vehicle expires not one iota of those abstractions could ever be more real or valuable than the direct perception of phenomena through the lens of sentience. This, I think, is the strange gravity I felt as a child. In moments when the mind is completely still, consciousness arrives at a place where there are no words, no explanations, only ephemeral, ecstatic experience. Call it the Sacred, call it God, call it Life, call it what you will, all those labels fail precisely because in the flashing, fleeting instances we feel most alive there is only consciousness arriving at the ground of being. In those placid points of intersection between becoming and being, perceiver and perceived, consciousness rests in a state of wholeness in which all subject-object duality falls away and we come into direct contact with all that is.

     What more does one really need to know other than this? There can be nothing more amazing than simply being alive, a fact that far too many people take for granted due to a misguided view that they “know” everything and that life makes perfect, logical sense. It is an easy enough mistake to make, mainly because I did it too for the middle third of my life. The truth is that the miraculous and the mundane are one and the same, and it is only a matter of how an individual chooses to see this truth. Some people are more impressed by the latest material goods, but I find all of our technological innovations largely a distraction from what matters most—the other sentient beings who have been given the same gift that we all have.

     My passion for learning has taught me innumerable things, but none as elemental or important as appreciating the fact that I am alive. To me, this is where all learning should be grounded, and I would encourage you to learn as much as possible because it ultimately leads to a sense of radical humility. It is difficult not to be humbled by the mysterious, marvelous life of which we are all playing an important part. And if you are not addicted to learning, then I would hope you pursue your personal passion the best of your ability.

     This life that you have been given is your one shot to make the most of yourself and your dreams. Pursuing your passion, however, is only one half of the equation. In order to truly gain something of substance from it, you must share it with as many others as possible. Though I had not originally planned on being a teacher, it makes perfect sense that I embarked on that path because it has allowed me to share my love of learning and hopefully instill it in my students. By sharing what we love with others I believe we become fully human and are well on our way to achieving what Aristotle called eudaemonia, which is often translated as “happiness” yet is more accurately described as “human flourishing.” Whatever word you choose to describe this process, be rest assured that you will “feel” it happening in your life more than you will “know” it through any intellection. But it all begins and ends with the simple, powerful fact that you are alive. This is a fact not to be dismissed nor ever taken for granted. Ideally, you will wake from this day forward grateful to have been given another day, another chance to work at becoming a better person. What you have done with this most incredible gift up to this point may have been extraordinary or less than so, but that does not matter. It doesn’t matter because every new day—each new moment, in fact—is pregnant with potential for us to begin our life’s great work, and I wish you all the best in transforming your dearest dreams into your living reality.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Good Old-Fashioned Pep Talk

Hello, Nobody in Particular...

            Last Saturday Erin and I had the good fortune to have lunch with my parents and my cousin Erin. She was down visiting Florida on a mini-vacation from her home in Maine, and my wife and I hadn’t seen her because we had just returned from visiting my youngest brother, wife and son in Texas. It was a casual affair full of laughter and good food, and toward the end of our lunch the discussion turned toward dieting. I’m not one to typically discuss “dieting” because I’m an advocate of healthier living, plain and simple. To pick a target weight number can be misleading and destructive because often people end up going to great lengths to lose weight only to find it come back when they try to resume an otherwise normal eating routine. As I’ve mentioned in previous letters, a person is far better off by trying to make wholesale lifestyle changes a little at a time and let weight loss occur naturally, rather than starve him/herself and workout too much only to be right back to square one a few months later. It may be cliché, but slow and steady wins the race is a truism when it comes to any sort of personal progress, health-related or otherwise.

            It is with this in mind that I dedicate this letter to any and all people who read it and are trying to institute changes for the better in their lives. It pains me to see people languish and become mired in their own mediocrity. Often I find it’s that these people have lost the will to try and get better. I’m sure many of them think they face insurmountable odds or obstacles—and I am sure a small number of them actually do—but for most of us it’s a mental block. It’s something in our own heads that tends to get in the way. Whether it’s fear of failure or rejection or whatever, we have a tendency to be our own worst enemies in our minds. It took me years to realize that I was sabotaging my own success, and I’m sure it will take me many years still to truly reach my full potential. At least a few years ago I recognized that there was something that needed to be fixed, and since that time my mission in life has been to try and get better. Maybe it’s from reading too much philosophy or studying too much religion, but all I know now is that the best of me is trying to bust out of the fortress I had built and in which I had imprisoned myself simply because I did not believe that I was worthy of many things, love in particular.

So the rest of this letter will be a good old-fashioned pep talk. If you like it, NIP, print out that part of the letter and keep it somewhere you can read it daily and remind yourself what I am about to tell you. But before you read any further, I want you to stop, close your eyes, take a long slow deep breath, and really try to pay attention to the sensation of breath coming in and out of your body. Did you do it? Feel free to pause here and take several more, especially if you’ve had a hectic day. Whenever you’re ready, open your eyes and read what I’m about to tell you:

You are alive. The life you have been given is a precious gift, yours to do with whatever you can envision provided you give consistent effort toward accomplishing those dreams. Whether you believe the life you have has been given to you by God or is simply the culmination of some cosmic accident matters not, because neither belief changes the simple fact that YOU ARE ALIVE. You have been given something so rare, so fleeting, why would you ever squander one second? Take a moment to contemplate the odds of your particular existence: the fact that your parents met and conceived you, and your grandparents before them, and on and on throughout all of human history this confluence of unseen forces has brought you to wherever you were born and to this moment in time. The odds of being you are infinitesimal when you think about it, and that’s what makes you special. That’s what makes you unlike anyone else in the universe. And that’s also what makes it so necessary for you to make the most of yourself and the gift you’ve been given, don’t squander it by taking it for granted or deluding yourself into thinking that your existence is mundane. There will never be another you, could never be another you. You owe it to yourself to be your best and live your life to the fullest, which means taking care of yourself to the best of your ability in every respect, physically, mentally, and spiritually. You have nothing to fear and everything to gain. You can do this! I know because I am doing it now. For nearly 30 years I thought these ideas but never put them into practice. And if someone like me can turn his life around, anyone can do it—including you. What will you do with the rest of your time in this marvelous life? How will you become the best of who you are? Don’t wait a single second longer. Every breath you take is a reminder that you…are…alive. With each breath you should try to remind yourself what an incredible gift has been bestowed upon you. Get out there and make the most of yours!

Get busy living life to the fullest, NIP.

- Ryan