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Fish Out Of Water...

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”   ALBERT EINSTEIN

When I was in fifth grade I learned how to draw. It wasn't in an art class, because the school I attended didn't really have them. I learned to draw after school, taught by one of my teachers who stayed late to teach me. I attended Blessed Sacrament school. You probably know it. The one in Kenmore. My teacher was Sister Martin. She ran a tough classroom, but then again she was Irish, like many of us claimed to be back then. The "Irish" had nothing to do with how she ran her classroom, but when the flag of Ireland is the biggest flag in the room, and you learn to sing Irish songs during free time, and you're ten years old, and you have a limited number of conclusions you can logically reach before it starts to hurt, you think, "Irish." But anyway, when she wasn't making us kneel on pencils, or teaching us about Irish politics, she loved us. And we loved her.

I remember that day. Not the date, nor the season even, but that moment. I remember it was late in the afternoon, after everyone else had gone home. There was only she, and me. We were in the big room that served as the cafeteria and the auditorium and the gymnasium and the playground and the chapel when the heat wasn't working in the temporary church that housed our parish for twenty years. The big room with the chocolate floors polished to a heavenly lustre. That afternoon Sister Martin showed me what I didn't know I knew. That I could draw.

I drew a robin, copied from an Audubon book, and shaded with color pencil. It was a thing of extraordinary marvelosity. It shone. Really. Shone. In my rapturous state I imagined I was channeling Michelangelo himself, and his spirit had surrounded me in a veil of holy robin-drawing light, but apparently I had merely pressed so hard with the color pencil I burnished the pigment into a thin veneer on the paper. But hey, shone is shone. When I had finished it, I showed it to Sister Martin. She smiled and patted me on the head. It was bliss. When I returned home I showed my drawing to every living member of the household, including Archie the cat whom, as a sidebar discussion, was never referred to as just Archie, but always as Archie the cat. "Rawr." he said. "Cool." From that point in my life, from that point forward, I would always be an artist.

I never forgot that kindness, that act of recognition.  I have no doubt that I left ample evidence of my love for drawing on the desk in the classroom, and perhaps she was just trying to find me a better canvas to work with.   But it changed me, that simple act, it forever altered my perception of self. From then on I was a 'something'. 

A few years ago I got to thank Sister Martin. It was at the memorial for my brother Skip, in Cincinnati Ohio. Skip died right before Christmas that year, and the family gathered just after for his service. Cincinnati is an eight hour drive from Jamestown, with way too much time to think. The service was what it was, which was a memorial. At the reception afterwards my mom pointed out an older woman talking to my brother Kevin. "Mark," she said, "That's Sister Martin." She was no longer a nun, and hadn't been for a long time, and lived now in Florida near where my parents live. I told her the story, and finished with "thank you." "You're welcome" was all she said.

So almost forty-five years after that drawing lesson, I find myself imbedded deep within a similar universe, with my role reversed. In high school everyone is a fish out of water, a fish up a tree. My job is to point that out. "Maybe you're not a fish at all," I tell them, "or maybe you are, and the tree isn't where you belong."  And together we look for home, for kin. Sometimes we find it, sometimes we don't. Sometimes we find others just like them. Lots of them. And sometimes I have to point them down a different path and explain that I can't go along.

"Because I'm not a fish," I say." I'm a bird."

A Robin.

mark

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Don't Stop Believing...

"Mama, cars don't behave. They are behaved upon...." BOOLIE WERTHEN Driving Miss Daisy

I used to love politics. It was one of my favorite sports, right up there with hockey and pitching pennies. But no more. Watching politics now reminds me why I turned the television off in the first place, and makes me question why I ever turned it back on. Too much too much. American politics, and maybe politics in general, almost requires a suspension of basic physical laws merely to exist, because politics seems to only function properly in a one-dimensional universe. Politics has become about dislike, and mistrust, and why the other guy sucks so much. It's one of the reasons we should never look to politics for change. It's just not about that. Maybe it used to be but those days are gone along with the forty-hour work week and the 16 ounce pound of coffee. Talking about politics is pointless, because politics will only change when its very survival demands it. The sad and basic fact is that politics, and by extension governance, does not act. It only reacts.

I have a new business card. On the old one I referred to myself as photographer, teacher, and "activist", though without the air-quotes. A profession of activism is not entirely untrue, but its not really accurate either. First of all I'm not completely comfortable with the idea of activism. The word connotes acts far too radical and anarchistic for my taste. And neck tats. So I changed the wording slightly and now refer to myself as an advocate. I like the sound of that. It rings entirely true. I am an advocate. And in some way so must we all be.

I believe that we should live a considered life. The mere fact of our sentience makes this obligatory. I believe that only through sharing ourselves with others do we give our life value. I believe in stewardship of our physical planet. I believe that still photography has a peculiar power to enable us to comprehend the beauty, and horror, or our modern existence. And I believe we have an obligation to advocate for the things we believe in. It is within advocacy that the conduit for change begins and the roots of leadership take hold.

It all begins with knowing what you believe. The very nature of belief, a really true, must tell the world belief, compels the believer to look for others to share it with. The group of equal believers finds a singular empowerment through the belief and the comity of their bond. Their beliefs become magnetic, pulling others closer, if only for look. But all magnets polarize, and outside every belief is an equal and opposite belief with is own believers. Which is where the magic happens.

When our beliefs are challenged, when we become forced to defend a core value, and can do so effectively, even without changing the mind of the challenger, we gain a confidence in our beliefs and a confidence in our self to share those beliefs. We become, for lack of a better word, leaders. No one asked us to lead, or looked to us for leadership, or knew leadership resided within us. We simply lead. Lech Walesa was an electrician in the Gdansk, Poland shipyards. He believed that the workers deserved a union. Communist Poland was not a place where unions found easy purchase. But Walesa believed, and enough of his workers believed in him that from a strike against the yard operator (enter activism) that he organized was born the Solidarność movement, ending in the downfall of the communist government. That's the thing about beliefs. No one becomes a leader who doesn't believe, and believing can make anyone a leader.

As often as possible I try to engage my students in debate. Its one of my charter responsibilities as a teacher, to foster critical thinking. Often we talk about how involvement drives decision, and uninvolvement indecision. I believe it is essential that they own a firm understanding that they have an obligation to be involved in, or at least aware of, the world they inhabit. Because from awareness is borne belief, from belief confidence, and only from a position of confidence can someone truly lead.

Practice leadership. Plant a seed. Lead by example. Love your life and share. Share your religion, your passion, your favorite team. Make a difference. Offer a ride, loan a buck, buy a cup of coffee. Stand in front of the tank, march, be noisy. Or work quietly and in the background. Never give up. Don't back down. Or give in. Be the better version of you. Believe.

peace,

mark

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the thirteen virtues...

“Time lost is never found again.” – BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

I haven't really been a good boy lately. It's not like I've been purposely naughty or a meanie-gut to old ladies or anything, but I have been almost purposely inattentive to some important aspects of my life, and the net result is just as dissapointing. I'm behind on work, way behind on relationships, and hopelessly, hopelessly distracted. Maybe it's the change in the weather, but my monkey-mind is out of it's cage and is and is making a shambles of everything. I'm suffering from a profound loss of focus. I have a list of a dozen things that need my attention, some big, most small, but regardless, the list has sat unaltered for three days now. I'm fine when I leave the house, I have a clear grasp on my daily goals, but within thirty minutes of arriving at school I can't remember a thing I wanted to accomplish. I've tried lists, voice notes, but when you no longer remember what the underlying point is of the task you wish to accomplish, then its just a chore. It's like I have to remind myself to be mindful, to stay on task and proceed one step at a time.

It's proving to be one of my biggest weaknesses, especially because its so crucial to everything else. I think the problem lies in the fact that I have all these things I want to do, but I never want to do them at the time they need doing. So I do something else. Or I do nothing. I'm good at that. It may be my biggest weakness, but I end up setting the bar too low. It's not like I ever wanted to be super efficiency guy, but I'm beginning to hurt myself, personally and professionally, with my inability to simply follow through from start to finish.

--- --- ---

Benjamin Franklin, the only president of the United States who was never president of the United States, wrote copiously about living a thoughtful and considered life. Although his most famous collection of pithy quotes is found in his Poor Richard's Almanac, there is much great reading to be found in his autobiography. There is a fabulous online copy, called the Electric Ben Franklin. Early on Franklin mentions almost in passing of his decision to adopt a mindful approach to living. At page thirty-eight we read, "It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other."

It's certainly not an original thought- to be a better person, to have a more attentive and deliberate nature, but it is unusual to actually have devised a workable action plan for implementation. Known today as the thirteen virtues, his personal moral code is a laundry list of actions any true contemplative might employ. For the sake of brevity I've listed them without their attendant precepts, but they posess a simple clarity. No virtue recommends pure abstinence, and all demand an attentiveness to action, and a mindfulness of purpose, outcome, and effect.

The virtues

Temperance

Silence

Order

Resolution

Frugality

Industry

Sincerity

Justice

Moderation

Cleanliness

Tranquillity

Chastity

Humility

I've found on the interwebs several different iterations of the virtues, but strangely, none of the writers who promote them do so correctly. I've run across several planner-style virture checklists- each day of each week we can check off our virtues as we live them- cleanliness, check; moderation, check; chastity sincerity, check... taken as a whole its a formidable, if not unworkable, set of hurdles to to tackle every day. The real shame though is that the checklist dumbs it down to a- well, a checklist. It completely forgoes the point of Franklin's pursuit- to improve one's self. He himself said it wasn't possible to juggle the entire baker's dozen at once, although I think he said it more eloquently than that.

To quoth, "My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judged it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time, and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro' the thirteen; and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arranged them with that view..." It's so simple its stupid. And brilliant.

Be really good at one thing and grow from there.

--- --- ---

And therein lies the key to mine own studies in contemplative living and controlling the monkey-mind. Construct a ladder. Make the bottom rung the key to reaching all the other rungs. Do one thing. Get it right. Build on it. Yowsa. I've reread my list of contemplative precepts and picked one to be my commitment. To wit:

Be not distracted by meaningless activity; Be attentive to the tide of living.

That should keep me busy for a while.

peace,

mark

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PetSmart...

Okay, so yesterday I go in to PetSmart to buy a bag of cat food. No big deal, right? But when I get to the cat food aisle I turn the corner and am immediately stopped by an associate in the middle of training a dog owner. At PetSmart they will train dog owners how to be a dog owner while at the same time convincing them that they're training the dog. Like you have to train a a dog to be a dog.  But anyway the aisles at PetSmart are really long so I couldn't immediately find the food I was looking for.  And every time I moved I either stepped in front of the dog who was assisting in the training of his owner, or was standing between the associate and the owner being trained who were talking to one another from opposite ends of the aisle.

Now normally I wouldn't be put out by any of this but I was sensing this energy from them that was distinctly negative.  I was interfering with the dog owner training and my presence in the cat food aisle was not welcome. I sidled in, mumbling out loud at the inconvenience, barked at the associate when she asked if I needed assistance, stabbed at a bag of food, and took it to the register and checked out, fuming. Now honestly my agitation and confusion might have been compounded by the 5 Hour Energy shot I inexplicably purchased while checking out a few minutes earlier at Wegmans, but bottom line I ended up walking out with the wrong bag of food, and not even just a little wrong, but wrong by a mile. My mind was in a million places, none of them good. It took almost an hour for me to get beyond the whole stupid incident. It really, really got under my skin. But now, in the cool of the evening, things are different, and I'd like to make an apology to those two innocent souls.

I'm sorry I behaved so badly.

I don't know what it is that gets into me. At times I take on such a small-minded, egocentric view of my world. And in that frame of mind  it was easy to understand how these two people at either end of the aisle could create such an unworkable situation. Me- innocent guy trying to locate a simple bag of cat food, them- occupying and dominating an entire aisle of this otherwise sparsely populated store. I know their perspective was much different. Them- having a lovely, fun, and instructive afternoon, me- angry, agitated, and frankly, rude guy acting like someone just parked their car in his living room.

 I completely lost my self to anger. Over cat food.

I don't know where this anger comes from or what purpose it serves. Perhaps it is some sort of alarm, a warning that I'm out of balance, or tired, or hungry. But it seems so deeply rooted, and so quick to show itself. And that's what scares me. The fact that I'm capable of such irrationality. Looking back some hours later I can see that it came in reaction to being - embarrassed- not the word i'm looking for but-  I was caught off guard, I was surprised by walking into the middle of this dog owner training and -panicked. right word. I panicked. I could have so easily said, "I'm sorry, I don't mean to get in your way, but I need to look for cat food. I'll only be a couple minutes, don't let me interfere." But man did I not do that.  Not even close...

Thomas Merton, always helpful in a pinch, says that anger stems from a loss of connectedness, a separation of spirit, which allows for a polarization of humanity. It makes sense when I look at the way in which I wrote the original scenario, with the focus on the "Me / Them" conflict.  And although I will stop short of questioning Merton's insight into humanity, I have to put forth a different postulation of my own. Having had some time to think this through and develop a reasonable rationalization, I'm hoping that it really wasn't anger at all that I felt. I think I was, for lack of a better word, scared. A situation I was not prepared for presented itself and I acted like an animal does when it finds itself cornered and confused. I made myself as threatening as possible.  Yeah- that's the ticket- it was just animal Mark. But although that may be a reasonably argued explanation for my actions, I won't allow it to be an excuse.

Because I'm better than that.

At least that's what I tell myself . And then I keep proving myself wrong.  But I'm beginning to think that therein lies the point. That life gives us unending opportunity to test and retest our beliefs. I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon putting summer to bed- getting outdoor furniture packed into neat arrangements in the garage, getting the lawn mowed one last time, raising the porch swing to its winter position - and throughout it all I kept rewinding that five minutes of my life and doing it over and doing it better.

And eventually I did get it right. And then I put it to bed along with everything else .  It left me with a beautiful little gift to roll around over supper, knowing that I had it within me to do it better next time, and knowing that a next time will come. Because for one thing I still need to return the bag of cat food I did buy and buy the cat food I need. And if I happen upon the associate who was training the dog owner, or the dog owner, I'll have to accept whatever version of the afternoon they remember for good or ill, if they even remember it at all.

And I'll do better this time, and maybe the time after this.

till' next time...

mark

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Unity Band

I went to a concert Tuesday night with Paula; Pat Metheny's Unity Band. The show was at Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA. Mercyhurst is a great venue. The theatre is small and comfortable, with good acoustics. It was a great show, but in general, any Metheny show is.  But all the way home we both kept remarking to one another how special the night was, and how much fun we had together. And honestly it was one of the best evenings we've had in recent memory. Now keep in mind that P and I spend most of our free time together. Of everyone we know we like each others company the best. Which is how it should be, right? But really, we do everything together. We're really big on day trips. As long as the cats have food enough we're good to go. So this particular evening was nothing out of the ordinary.

Erie is less than an hour away. We left early and took the slower back roads like we like to do. We discussed the fall colors, the Amish way of living, New York State's approach to highway repair. When we topped the ridge that is part of the Niagara Escarpment and allows a one hundred fifty degree view of Lake Erie and glimpses of the Ontario shoreline far away through the crisp autumn air, we both quieted and took it in for as long as it lasted. Then we talked about trains, and what flowers we would plant in the spring, and what specials the restaurant might have tonight. Hopefully, lasagna.

And so it went...

We met friends for dinner before the show, and chatted the way friends chat, everyone talking over one another while stabbing at each others plates for a taste of their meals. We drove to the venue, remarking on how much we loved Erie and how easy the traffic was this night. I dropped her at the door so she could pick up our tickets at will call, parked the Bitch Kitty, and joined her inside.

It was P who first introduced me to Metheny's music, when we were dating. Letter from Home had just been released. P immerses herself in her music and was Radio Metheny when we met. I owned his New Chautauqua album, though I don't know why, but I loved his music from the beginning and was schooled pretty quickly. It made Pat Metheny part of our core foundation as a couple. This night was our first live Metheny performance in at least five years, so neither of us had any real expectations. We were both going in cold, so to speak. Not surprisingly it was an amazing show. With a couple exceptions all new music. P remarked that it reminded her of the Parallel Realities tour with Herbie Hancock and Jack DeJohnette we saw at Art Park the summer we were married. She was right.

The show ended way too soon, as shows of this type do, though in real time it was two hours. We left the theatre, got on the road, and enjoyed another easy ride. We talked about the music, Erie, the light traffic on I-86. We saw the Aurora Borealis. It was a school night so there wasn't time to linger when we got home. Wrangle the cats, get them fed, hop into bed. A goodnight kiss and then sleep.

Morning broke as mornings do. Get up, feed the cats, make breakfast. dress for school. But this morning was different. It had an aura of the night before lingering over it, an aura of being happy and talking all night and laughing. An aura of connectedness. It spoke simple sounds. It said, "Yes, last night was special.  And I'm glad I spent it with you..."

peace,

mark

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An Un-whole Whole

I ain't happy but, I'm feeling glad I got sunshine, in a bag I'm useless, but not for long The future is coming on...

GORILLAZ  Clint Eastwood

 

I read an interesting blog post recently that focused on the idea of some people having near completeness but missing a critical element either socially or professionally, so as to remain somehow un-whole. And although I agree with the point of the article I think the picture is fundamentally flawed. I've come to believe that if we develop empty areas in our whole, they become filled with other elements of character with similar shapes. Nature abhors a vacuum. We become driven professionals, or passionate lovers of some thing, to the create a sense of wholeness. Outwardly we look and act whole, but we remain essentially un-whole.  Reestablishing a balance, then is not just a matter of filling a void, but requires a more base level reorganization of self, which is much harder work.

Last summer I became familiar with the twelve-step program of recovery used by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Its used by numerous others as well because it has such a simple philosophy. Healing begins with a simple admission; I am powerless over my transgression, and I cannot fix this alone. It is a beautiful and elegant solution. It's also what makes healing so hard. Most of us are not good at self-reflection. We project our psychological duck face to the mirror, take a quick look, and move on. We don't want to admit to powerlessness. Yet it remains the key to change. But an admission of powerlessness is not a admission of weakness. Rather it is an admission of connectedness, and acknowledgement that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It is an acknowledgement that we have responsibilities to others beside ourself.

But it also means much more...

We live in a world of unprecedented technological connectedness. Email, texts, Twitter, Facebook. We have this amazing conduit for connectivity. But for it to have a full measure of usefulness we have a responsibility to use it to create a lasting dialogue. Otherwise we are just electronic soapbox preachers, shouting to a crowd of disinterested bystanders.

What constitutes connectedness?

Connectedness is awareness. An awareness that we all are, that we all exist. That as we pass among one another we exchange between us small bits of understanding, bits of cosmos itself, bits of ourself. The bits fill the voids within us, within our whole. Thomas Merton once spoke of standing on a street corner in Louisville Kentucky and watching the people walk by. In a moment of personal epiphany he saw in the chaos a delicate dance of connectedness as bodies slipped past one another in a silent recognition of each other. He saw also his own connectedness, which had been the very thing he fought against as a contemplative monk. For years Merton had wanted only solitude, from the world, from fellow monks. He wished only to write, to examine his own singular relationship with God. Now here he was, on a busy downtown street corner, observing this magical dance, and seeing the the people "shining like the sun". In a moment he understood the deeper meaning of connectedness, and that it was within this congress with others that God resides.

Connectedness is courage. Mohandas K Gandhi spoke of the non-violent movement as being founded in the principle of connectedness.  To Gandhi connectedness demanded stewardship, of the poor, the sick, the needy. From this stewardship came the courage to protect, and from this the courage to act. The action, or non-action as it were, was borne from the courage of connectedness.

And so it goes...

So, as for the point I seem to be not making in all of this, is that from connectedness comes wholeness. The little slices that enter our whole, the ones we fill with misguided actions and activities, are really symptoms of a disconnect. Fortunately its easy to heal. Admit that you are not alone, that you need your family, you need your friends. Tell your loved ones that you love them. Then show them.

And be whole.

namaste'

Mark

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Chameleon

"Leonard Zelig's problem is that he has absolutely no identity he can call his own. He is a cipher, as close to the theoretical concept of zero as Bertrand Russell could define. He is so pathologically nil that, over the years, he has developed the unconscious ability to transform himself, physically and mentally, into the image of whatever strong personality he's with."  VINCENT CANBY  New York Times

I remember when I first saw Woody Allen's Zelig. It was 1984, on HBO. I fell in love with it from the first viewing. It's such an odd piece of cinema. Zelig is a mock documentary which focuses on Arthur Zelig, also know as "the human chameleon". Zelig, it was discovered, could seemingly change his physical appearance at will.  As the film explains, Zelig would appear spontaneously around the globe, altered in height, gender, or color, having become a likeness of the people around him. Grainy news footage shows Zelig standing at the Vatican with Pope Pius XII, as a flapper in a Harlem nightclub, as a New York Yankee, a Chicago gangster, a black jazz musician. When he becomes the focus of a medical study, he adopts the appearance of his physicians.

And so it goes...

It is a funny and entertaining film, but it spins a dark and unsettling psychological tale. Zelig was a shape-shifter fully and wholly, but a shape-shifter without purpose. He possessed no true identity of his own.

I thought it was a film about me, a story about my own chameleon days;

  • My Punk period
  • My Cowboy period
  • My Weightlifter period
  • My Blue collar guy period
  • My Flamboyant artist period

Its a strange feeling not knowing who you are. Its strange because you know that who you are is not who you are, but at the same time you can't define who you're supposed to be either. So you become who your friends are or who you think your boss wants you to be. And none of those people you become are never you. It took me until my early thirties to find a self that fit comfortably, and most of my forties to iron all the wrinkles out. And now, well into my fifties, i'm more my self, for good or ill, than I've ever been. I've even allowed some of my edges to fray a bit, you know, just for looks. After more than half a lifetime, when I look in the mirror, I finally see Me.

Freud says that during the first few years of our life we are a universe all unto ourself. Its the period of Id. We understand only need. Then comes the introduction of the world view with the development of the Ego, the conscience. By the time we're nine or ten years old we have begun to choose interests and plan futures. We join communities, and act accordingly within them. We grow further still, developing a Super-ego awareness of our world. We say please and thank you. We operate for the greater good when it is in our best interest to do so.  And for the rest of our life we mostly exist in this paradigm. We define who we are through our interactions with each other, or interactions with the world. But none of this addresses the Self. It doesn't explain how I recognize when I am really, truly Me, or why it sometimes it all goes so badly off the boil. What I mean is- why do some of us get so lost? What happens that makes us see a stranger in the mirror? How can life not make sense, and leave us feeling that we possess no identity of our own? What makes us become chameleons, and what happens that snaps us back to center? Does this happen to everyone? Or was it just Leonard and me?

How it was...

I spent my twenties searching. I thought I was searching for love, for companionship, for a group who loved me for me. But I was really just trying to find out who the hell I was. My high school career preference test indicated I was Gumby-like; moldable into any form, but without form of my own. My SAT scores only confirmed this. No particular aptitude for math, english, or science, but no real deficiencies either. Right in the meaty part of the bell curve. So I went were I was told, and where I thought I might discover an answer to that question I hadn't yet learned to ask; "Who am I?"  I tried junior college and engineering. Ha. It took me two days of study to figure out one my science teacher's jokes. Shortly after I was invited to not come back for a second semester. I moved on to work and punk. Work was easy. Punk on the other hand, was hard.

I was the stupidest looking punk you'd ever seen. I would have been a cool, nerdy kind of punk if I was really punk, but in actuality I was more like Richie Cunningham in Fonzie's jacket. (the pre-shark Fonzie) I looked like a poser, because I was a poser. An alter boy in a black Schott Perfecto. That lasted two years. In truth I was ready to quit earlier, but I stuck it out until the Roots Reggae Cafe closed and reopened as a coffee bar. It was time. Next was cowboy. Cowboy was for love. Like all things done for love, it was a mistake. Weightlifting was great, and twenty years later I still carry the lingering benefits of good muscle tone and physical fitness. But weightlifter guy was show a showoff- all bicepey and mal-proportioned.

And so it went...

Eventually I did 'find' myself when I became a teacher. It is who I am. Its how I define myself. The word makes me feel whole. Teacher...

But the fundamental question remains. Why does it take a decade to discover who you are? Why isn't it all more immediately self-evident? Is it because it takes life experience to know? If that's true, then why are some of us "called" and others not? Or are we all called and some of just don't hear? Teaching is my calling. I can't imagine my life without it. But I fell ass-backwards into teaching. Swear to God, it was an accident.

I wonder too if maybe, like Leonard Zelig, I'm confusing personality and persona? Im wondering now if the problem is that we all do? That we overlook our conscience will and desire, we pummel into submission the voice inside telling us what it knows to be true, and instead listen for a call we like the sound of, a tribe to we wish belong to. Rather we should be embracing our own call and letting the tribe find us.  Because surely their call, and our call are the same.

In the end that was Leonard Zelig's salvation. He found within himself a voice that was his alone. A skin that fit. A Me. I found my Me as well, and when I look back on it now I think it happened when I finally stopped looking.

Could it possibly be that easy?

 'till then...

mark

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Everyone I love is Here...

"What does it mean when you promise someone?  That no matter how hard or whatever may come..."

The Finn Brothers WON'T GIVE IN

We live in a time of great anxiety, a time marked by global financial uncertainty and domestic political polarization. Any middle ground of reason is quickly deteriorating and little commonality of voice is to be found in any topic outside of how poorly the NFL substitute referees performed last month. It has become a great paradox that our technological interconnectedness has done little if anything to strengthen our spiritual connectedness to one another. Our relentless forward thrust for more and better has had the effect of insulating us from the present and dulling our ability, in a abstruse way, to feel. Rather, we move continually onward without a clear destination or purpose other than to keep moving. For many it has created a spiritual dead zone in which they find themselves surrounded by scores of people they barely know, profoundly alone, forsaking any true fellowship, and seeking validation through the quality and number of their possessions.

But let's not worry about that today.

Recently I've reading a lot of, and about, Thomas Merton. Merton was a Trappist monk in a Kentucky monastery during the 1950's and 60's. He wrote copiously about living a quiet and contemplative life, and the importance of compassion for and understanding of the needs of others in fulfilling our purpose here on earth. Our capacity to live contemplatively was a gift, said Merton, the outward sign of a spiritual awareness that we are alive, and all that all potential that exists in this world exists within us. Merton maintained that we can not fully express our potential as spiritual beings if what we strive for is to exist alone. That it is only within the umbrella of relationships with others that we are fully alive. Our true self is  not what we perceive, but rather that which is reflected back toward us by others. To Merton, the increasing societal ill he saw was the reflection of an increasing alienation of people from each other at a fundamental spiritual level.

The modern definition of the phrase "Contemplative Living" is an outgrowth of the Merton philosophy. Contemplatives seek a mindful awareness of their actions. They seek a slower, more determined approach to living, a life unfettered by needless distractions and activities.  They actively seek to deepen their understanding of self and their relationships with others. Contemplatives accept that we all are different, that we all are fragile and flawed.  Contemplatives endeavor to live with a genuine appreciation for the successes of others, and act with open compassion when others suffer. Contemplative living is compassionate living. When we live contemplatively, our everyday life becomes our spiritual life. Each and every day we consciously attend to our relationships. The outcome is a deepened awareness of our connectedness to one another and to the earth on which we live.  It demands from us a deeper communion with others. Contemplative living is a powerful catalyst for change that leads us to a sense of increased well-being, gratitude, and a keener respect for life.

For many of us its hard enough just getting along in this world without having to be responsible for everyone else at the same time. Its a busy place out there. There just isn't time to slow down. But therein lies the beautiful subtlety of contemplative life. For it asks not that we slow down, it asks only that we act deliberately, thoughtfully. It asks that we forego the meaningless activities in our lives and focus on the meaningful. For many of us this is a simple matter of prioritizing our days. For others it requires a bit more introspection than we want. For some the contemplating part- the thinking of thoughts, is a scary proposition. Contemplation requires an openness, a simple honesty that sometimes brings to the fore situations and memories that we find too tough to deal with. It also requires a simple acknowledgement that we are not alone in this world- that we have debts owed and debts owed to us. In our society we like to think of ourselves in the singular but more often than not a plural is more appropriate. In truth I find great comfort in knowing that everyone I love is here. It has led me to realize that I need to drop my pretense and be more honest in my dealings with friends. It has also led me to understand that I need to further foster a couple relationships with some old friends that I've let lapse. But mostly it has allowed me to realize how many beautiful people I have in my life and how truly grateful I am that they consider me a friend. And it has freed me to focus on the things that are truly important in my life and drop the meaningless activities that were nothing more than time wasters. Each day becomes a joyous occasion, a chance to celebrate.

I've said previously  that I do not believe in God, which is true. But I believe very strongly in the existence of spirit and the connectedness of all living things. It is my belief in this connectedness that has brought me to this place.  And if that is true, then our relationship with other human beings is the single most important aspect of living there is. I'm convinced that this communion of spirit is what makes us human, what gives purpose to our sentience. For without it we are truly alone in this world. And to be alone on such a big planet, for so long a time seems, well- humanly impossible...

namaste,

mark

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The Junk Drawer

There were several interesting responses to Monday's post regarding fear, enough so that I'm going to continue with that theme for today's entry.  Its a little more more light-hearted and a bit tongue in cheek, but it's from the heart. Okay. A couple days ago a friend and former student (thank you, Sarah) wrote a facebook post expressing her joy at having cleaned out her junk drawer, and it struck me as a powerful metaphor. I too have a junk drawer, both in a literal and figurative definition of the phrase, and usually I wait far too long to clean either of them out. So this past weekend I took a good look at the physical junk drawer, the one in the kitchen, cleaned it real good, and in the process mused over my organizational methodology.

It goes like this...

My junk drawer contains three distinct classifications of items, based loosely on the Stephen Covey important/urgent matrix; "Important / must be dealt with", "Important / too scary to deal with right now", and "Junk i'm not prepared to let go of yet".

Almost everything that goes into the junk drawer enters under a larger umbrella classification; "Please Make It Go Away", and is disseminated from there to its final sub-catagory. One of the more frustrating things for me is my inability to accurately determine at the outset on which pile the object in question will ultimately reside.  The "must be dealt with" pile is usually bills to be paid or statements and business documents in need of filing, and the "junk" is usually bulk mail I've inexplicably kept, broken things, and things I might have a use for someday if I lived a different life from the one I have now. But it's the "too scary to deal with right now" is special, because its contents are always so surprising.

I pay most of my bills online; all my utilities except for electricity, home and auto insurance, credit cards; I either receive electronic reminders and statements, or have scheduled payment arrangements in place. Very little paper in the form of requests for payment ever cross the threshold anymore. Most of my financial transactions are made in the virtual realm, so nothing truly ever comes in or goes out- instead a mutually agreed upon token is sent which acknowledges that a transaction has taken place and all accounts are in agreement. Its clean with no messy details. It just goes away, and and my laptop glows with a happy blue-white light and says "Thank you for your payment." Neither fear nor trepidation ever taint the process.

But the bills that arrive in envelopes are cold, stark reminders of a debt owed- and that scares me. It means writing a check (which means first finding the checkbook) and although it is still allegorical, it represents a harder form of currency that I must physically part with. It means sitting in the harsh light of the kitchen, and having to write out the word "hundred". And it means having that much less hard currency until next payday, which seems perpetually fourteen more days away. "Too scary," it growls. And so it goes away for another day.

But the "scary" pile isn't just about money. That's what makes it so fascinating. Because within it lurks other things like reminders of social contracts not of my own making, or of my own making which I now regret. It contains requests that trigger my chicken-shit gland, which is already hyperactive to begin with. It contains things that challenge my belief system, which is based on the principle that I'm an inferior human being.  Some of the things that go into the "scary" pile are nice things, like letters from former students, requests for speaking engagements, museum 'calls for work'. Sometimes it just seems like too much bear. So in the drawer it goes until i can screw up enough courage to pull the drawer out- all the way out, set it on the kitchen counter, and address my fears with a big glass of wine.

Sadly, the biggest, and most unruly pile is not the "scary" pile but rather the "junk" pile. The "junk" pile is a sad and constant reminder of lost interests, of various successes and failures. Among it we find bills which have been replaced by more recent reminders, calls for work with expired deadlines, broken things for which I have to finally admit I have no real interest in fixing, and things I can't remember why they ever found the drawer in the first place. But it also contains odd reminders of things I've long since accomplished and moved on from, receipts, stubs, souvenirs of happy events long passed.

In addressing the junk drawer the procedure is always the same. I always start with the "must deal with" pile and all its attendant obligation, and usually nothing there ever seems as intimidating as it appeared to be when it first went in. Because, honestly, when you absolutely have to face it, you do. Next is the  "junk" pile, mostly because it requires purging before it can accept more, and also because it's my reward for slogging through the "must deal" pile and addressing the drawer in the first place. Lastly comes the "too scary" pile, to be recycled for another time and glass of wine. But it's always smaller than I thought it would be, and it never recycles more than once. It has to do, i suppose, with the pain/pleasure principle- when the pain of not doing finally supersedes the pain of doing it, the 'it' gets done. Or maybe it's because it is just so horribly embarrassing to have to look at it more than once. With that the cycle is complete, the purged items are tossed, and the drawer returns to its happy home.

From the outside it appears an endlessly amusing exercise, and I only wish it held some kind of grand parable or lesson to be learned- like "face your fears" or "take care of things now"- but honestly I only come away with a clearer understanding of my quirks. Plus, it kind of works. Mostly. For better or worse it has been my way for well over twenty-five years. It has gone from action to habit to trusted old friend and at this point I see no urgent need to abandon it for something different.

I only wish I could remember how to order more checks...

namaste-

mark

 

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Fear of Falling

When we fear  things I think that we wish for them ... every fear hides a wish.
DAVID MAMET, Edmond

 

Back when I was clever I had a favorite joke. No, not the penguin joke. I used to say that I didn't have a fear of falling, I had a fear of landing. It was supposed to show my grasp of semantics, and my wry, subtle, ironic side. Except that the joke wasn't ironic, or particularly subtle. Or funny. Truth is though that I have a genuine fear of heights. And I've spent a good portion of my life trying to prove myself wrong.

The house I grew up in had a second floor bedroom with a door to a porch with no railings. It was at best an eight foot drop to the lawn below, and more than once I had watched my younger brother take a flyer off the back of the house with nary a thought. I used to stand on the edge looking down, and I could feel my hands cramping- it was the strangest feeling- my hands would tingle and curl into a cramped fist until I went back inside. I can recreate the feeling to this day just by thinking about it, it was that powerful. Looking back I like to think that I was standing hard in the face of my fear with fists clenched so tight as to cause me pain. But it wasn't like that at all. It was some lower level recognition of all the possible consequences of purposefully standing at the edge. It was more like, "I'm going to puke now."

Now, there are some things that scare other people that I'm not so afraid of. Speaking in public. Being first in line. Day-old bagels. And yet so many of things that I am afraid of- making small talk at parties, being noticed, making phone calls, seem comparatively silly. Over time I've come to understand that often what I perceive as fear is really simple anxiety, including my fear of heights. My fear of making phone calls is honestly an anxiety over having to pay attention to what the other party is saying. I'm am a visual learner. Show me a picture of food and I can easily surmise how it was made and what it will taste like. But describe a recipe to me and I'm lost by the time I hear, "First you..." I'm the same on the phone.  My mind wanders like a monkey. I try to take notes. I try making mental pictures. Nothing works. Its frustrating. So I tend to avoid the phone. I use email and messaging copiously. At parties, where I am equally likely to be expected to converse, I park near the food. Or a door. Problem solved.

Last spring I stood at the rim of the Letchworth gorge. My entire body vibrated and tingled, my hands curled and cramped. And in an instant I understood my anxiety. It is an anxiety over trust. Do I trust the two inch thick tempered glass viewing platform on the Kinzua bridge to not let go beneath my feet? Do I trust the one hundred thirty year old iron railing at the edge of the Thirty Mile Point lighthouse to not snap when I lean on it? Do I trust the rocky ledge at Letchworth to not give way and plunge me three hundred feet down the side of the precipice? And do I trust myself to want turn and walk away from the edge? But bottom line it is still just an anxiety, and it is based entirely on an uncertainty of outcome. And to a degree, so is fear.

But even though they share kindred traits, fear and anxiety are not siblings but rather cousins, with entirely different family dynamics. Anxiety can range from annoying to crippling in its intensity. The same anxiety might slow one person but stop another in their tracks. Anxiety is situational and transient. It waxes and wanes. I understand, or at least acknowledge, my most of my anxieties and try when I can to stretch their limits. But Fear is different. Fear is bigger and more profound. Fear is, well, fear. Because fear, for all its ferocity, hides within its roar a siren's call.  Fear is a challenge, a call to action. Fear is the ego whispering, "You don't dare." Fears are the wishes we dare not make. Fears are risks we dare not take.

For instance, I believe that I have a genuine fear of success. It would explain a lot. It would explain why I haven't had a solo show of my photographs in over fifteen years. Or why I don't book more, and more profitable, photo gigs. It would explain why the photographic triptych that won Best in Show at a prestigious regional art competition last fall is packed away in my attic right now. It would explain why I've sabotaged almost every one of my opportunities toward professional advancement. (Ego) "You don't dare."

(NOTE: I AM NOT ABOUT TO BLAME THE CATHOLIC CHURCH FOR MY FEARS AND ANXIETIES.)

Fear as a wish deferred explains the what, but not the why. Why don't I dare? Okay, I was born and raised in the Catholic church.  And although i'm no longer a practicing member, I'm still imbued with its doctrine and principles. And If there is any one thing the Catholics teach better than anything else it's humility, wrapped in a cloak of eternal guilt. My entire adult life is an example of that creed. Catholicism doesn't by any means discourage success, but as for personal recognition the party line is quite different. Do well, and do good, just don't make a fuss. So it could be the legacy of growing up Catholic that keeps my ego in check. But it is also quite possible that it is simply the way my parents (who are also Catholic) raised their clan; "That's nice dear and I'm proud of you, but no one likes a braggart." Regardless of its source, it's an issue with which I have always struggled, and one with which I will never be comfortable in attempting to change.

But back to my main point. If every fear hides a wish, then suddenly fear isn't so big. Or bad. Fear becomes manageable. I get that now. So finally, I'm learning to dare. Baby steps. The first thing I did was to start a blog so I can think out loud, and then I invited people I know, and people I don't know, to read it. I even contacted a couple galleries about show possibilities. Solo shows. Of my work. And honestly it hasn't been (very) scary, even though it did involve having to make phone calls. In fact, its been a somewhat liberating experience. I've challenged some admittedly basic fears, and found hidden inside them, a wish. And nothing bad happened. Huh. Weird.

I'd love to know what fears you've conquered, and how you managed to conquer them. Just in case. Because I'm thinking, maybe I'll finally try a spin on a ferris wheel. Or wearing orange...

until then,

mark

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What Do You Think About When You (Run)?

Years ago I used to be a runner. At least I thought of myself as a runner. I once asked a good friend and fellow runner, "What do you think about when you run?" She looked sort of puzzled, and her answer was a simple, "Running." She said she monitored her pace, was mindful of her cadence and stride. She thought about her running technique. She ran to run and to be a better runner. As runners we were worlds apart. My approach to running was much different. When I ran I never thought about running, except to hastily check my time at each mile. I thought about my day, my week, my past, present, future. I made plans, conducted conversations, crafted great and incisive arguments on a myriad of subjects. And through it all I remained a lousy runner. I never improved past a ten minute mile, and never ran more than five miles in any run. Eventually I quit running because I disliked the physical punishment it inflicted on a body with forty-plus years behind it. But the truth is I just never really understood running.

It was soon after that I was introduced to yoga. Now yoga had been a part of my family life since the early Sixties. My mother practiced yoga, and still does at the age of 87. And although it was a strange and complicated thing to witness as a teen, it was part of the fabric of my youth. So it felt normal when I became a yogi myself. I loved it from the start. Yoga practice forced a mindfulness in me that I never experienced in running. Each pose required an exacting sequence of movements, it demanded an awareness of posture and position, and as a beginner I was encouraged to count my breaths through each pose. Together everything had the effect of focusing my attention on the present throughout the entire routine- no inner conversations took place for almost an hour. Nothing but blissful quiet and the sound of my breathing. My mind benefitted as much from yoga as my body did.

It was through yoga that I reentered the world of cycling. I loved the mental and physical calmness of yoga, but I was in need of a good sweat. In my teens and twenties I used to ride my bike everywhere. Even when I owned a really cool Camaro Z-28, I used to ride about eight miles each way to my factory job. Cycling was transportation and it was recreation. One of my lingering memories is pedaling home from work through the Buffalo city streets from the east side to the northern border with the suburbs at 2 am on a warm summer night. No traffic, no people. No noise save for tic, tic, tic of the freewheel, and the rhythmic cycle of the light and shadow marking my passage along the route. But a new job in a new town meant a different approach to transit, and the bike took a long, long nap. But my yoga practice coaxed the bicycle back out. And the result has been truly transformational.

There are many similarities between yoga and cycling; the length of time each pursuit requires, the warm-up and cool-down, the constant, precise mechanical flow, the inner quiet. Both are transcendent experiences. On my bike I find it easy to unhook my thoughts and focus on the mechanics of riding; cadence, pace, speed, distance. Things that escaped me running. And when I ride I begin to open up to the world around me, and feel connected to it. Connected to the road as it traces the contours of the farm, to the hilly ridges and broad valleys of this beautiful area I live in. I can watch the pattern of the wind as it moves across acres of corn. I can feel the sun, the pockets of cool morning air, and breathe in the pungent aroma of the warm asphalt. And throughout I remain attentive to basic mechanics of my cycling. I could never find that with running.

I'm not a great cyclist by any definition of the word. I'm pretty good, but its not a goal of mine to get 'better'. Its not a desire. I have a nimble, serviceable bike. I have a regular routine. A weekly Tuesday ride with the group, one or two solo rides through farm country on the weekend. Cycling keeps me in reasonable physical condition, it allows me a cheat meal or two each week. But the single reason I love to ride is that cycling produces a calm awareness- a pure, meditative, in-the-moment clarity that does not manifest itself at any other time outside of my yoga practice.

Clarity is what seems to escape me most often, and any source of improved focus and presence is beneficial to my continued peace of mind. Cycling is regenerative. It promotes, if even for only a brief time, purposeful and energized Mark. It promotes a true sense of equanimity. I do my best writing and have my most cogent thoughts in the afterglow of cycling. It opens a door to focus that I find far too often closed. Its the reason I'm so obsessive about it.

But cycling, like any other pursuit of this type, isn't for everyone. Mountain bikers like to chastise we 'road-weenies' for our silly spandex kit, and runners see the entire thing as superfluous. Hikers wonder why anyone would run when there is so much beauty to look at. Ultimately though, its about finding the avocation that 'clicks' within each of us. It's about finding that thing that makes it all make sense, and makes us feel centered. Everyone needs some element of that in their life. A catalyst to engage the mind/body bridge and focus the inner and outer self. Because for that hour or two hours during our practice, nothing else matters.

And truly, in a larger sense, nothing else does.

namaste,

mark

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You Can't Always Want What You Get

"The world is made for people who aren't cursed with self-awareness."
ANNIE SAVOY Bull Durham
 

My parents are both well into their eighties. But its only been in the last four years that they've begun to lose the  momentum of living. In 2009 they made their last cross country road trip. Two years ago my dad began planning his day so he only had to make right hand turns when they ventured out around town. A year ago he stopped driving all together. In this last year their aging has started to accelerate along a geriatric Moore's Law. My dad is falling. My mom is fading. Literally. She's tough as a bear but you can almost see through her when the light is strong. My mom's big concern is that they can't leave the house whenever they want, but have to wait for the days when their health care aide is there. But they make do. Its not the life they had, but its the life they have now.

My wife's parents are going through similar changes. We live close to them, within a mile actually, and in the last two years we've become their de facto caretakers. We wouldn't have asked for this, but its what we've been given. I'm not saying its bad, because honestly its not so bad. Its hard for Paula to be reminded on an almost daily basis of the changes in her parents, and between shopping trips and doctor and hospital visits it has spoken for a lot of our free time of late. But in other ways its been a gratifying and enriching experience for both of us. But, again, it wasn't a choice. It just is what it is. The underlying elements I want to pull from the stories are that we have no real control over what happens to us in our lives, and that we live in an active push/pull relationship with life. Life acts, we react. Finally, I understand the central truth of Buddhist belief.

  • Rule #1: Shit Happens

Buddhist's have a kinder phraseology for this first Noble Truth, that 'suffering exists,' but the sentiment is the same. At face value the idea that living means suffering is a bit of a downer, and it is really antithetical to Buddhism itself. I'd like to offer an alternate definition of that truth to use. It follows as; "challenges exist." And it is our acceptance of, and response to these challenges, both short-term and long, that determines whether or not suffering exists in our lives.

  • Rule #2: You Can't Always Get What You Want

Its a simple matter of living. There is always more to want if wanting is what you do. I remember just a couple years ago seeing a pair of boots in my latest GQ magazine. Up to that point my life was pretty perfect, but in an instant everything changed. Suddenly my life was incomplete, and not only that, I had the realization that it had always been incomplete, and would continue to be so until I owned those boots. I was devastated. It took until the next month's issue and the ad for the orange watch for me to get over it. But when I was over it, it was over for good. Its the second Noble Truth; "attachment creates suffering."

  • Rule #3: Learn to Let Go

The third Noble Truth states that "Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional." It reinforces this idea that between stimulus and response lies choice. Choice is our one true power. It is our single wieldable weapon in the struggle between living a life of suffering or a life liberated from suffering.

Our modern first-world view conflicts with this concept, as it allows that we alone determine the circumstances of our life. But its a narrow and ego-centric view, and at odds with the basic principles of nature. For as much as we believe that we can control what occurs around us, the simple truth is that we can only control what lies within us. Cause and effect aside though, the result is the same, as we still maintain ultimate responsibility for any measure of our satisfaction with our life.

I suppose at some time then we need to measurably define the meaning of suffering. My parents, for all the limits their circumstance has put on them, do not suffer, nor do my wife and I from ours. Perhaps it is because societally we put so much emphasis on getting what we want that have such a difficult time with simply accepting what we have. As a society we've set the bar pretty low as to what constitutes suffering. We focus on the accumulation of of things as the purpose of living. We define any want/need as equal in importance and urgency. But true suffering is more than the mere endurance of an unpleasantness or the desire for things we do not own. Suffering is the experience of a genuine life quality change. When we begin to feel physically or spiritually diminished by our condition, or feel helpless to change our circumstance, at this point we can say that suffering is taking place. And acceptance or acknowledgement of the cause of suffering is the key to ending suffering. Acceptance is not the same as giving up, its giving over. And only then can you harness the power that lies within you.

  • Rule #4: Walk the Line

So how do we end suffering? In short, we don't. (see rule #1) Our mission therefore, should we choose to accept it, is to endeavor to minimize suffering; for ourselves, and when possible, for others. Yeah, but how? Currently we leave most of the heavy lifting for the pharmaceutical industry and our friends at Grey Goose, but there is another option. Buddhists call it the eightfold path or the middle way. Redefined, it simply means first accepting the existence of a circumstance, and then crafting a balanced response to it. Its not a "when life gives you lemons..." approach, because sometimes life can hand you a bucket of nails instead. It comes from exercising our one true power; choice, and empowering ourselves to make change. Once you acknowledge the existence of a circumstance, you have the power to control your interaction with it. Denying it merely prolongs our suffering, and enables us to disguise it as something else.

And when it comes to healing, a balanced approach is always the best. Extreme measures rarely work.  The Buddhist parable is the story of the music teacher. He tells his student that when stringing a sitar, "If you stretch the string too tight it will break, and if there is too much slack it won't play". "You must find the middle to make the music." Its a delightful and magical solution to life. Measure your response, look for the good, let go, and make music.

peace and love,

mark

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Martin Luther and The 95 Theses

In 1517, Martin Luther, frustrated with Pope Leo X's selling of indulgences for absolution from sin, nailed to the door of the Castle Church his "Disputation on the Power and the Efficacy of Indulgences", which became the basis of the Protestant Reformation. Luther believed that his opinions were right and just. He posted them in public where he was sure they would be read. He wasn't looking for validation of his opinions. For Luther it was a conviction of faith.

I am not in any way comparing myself to Luther, but I understand the significance of his gesture. It is not enough to have strong opinion or incontrovertible conviction. You must also be committed to take action based upon those beliefs, and be equally willing to endure the the repercussions of public expression. And since we've been addressing conviction, here, with all due apologies to Luther conveyed, are a few of my own.

  • God is what you believe God is. I don't believe in God. Or heaven and hell. Or reincarnation. I don't know why we were all put on this earth in this form. Or if we were put here.  I but I do know that what we do while we're here, and how we affect our world around us, is what makes a life.  Accumulation of physical things is a conceit. It accomplishes nothing. That's not to say I don't like nice things or have a favorite pair of shoes, but a ten dollar timex tells time as well as a five thousand dollar Rolex. All physical things return to the dust from whence they sprang. And all energy returns to the cosmos from whence it sprang.  So while I will never see another sunrise once my days on earth have ended and my body turns to dust, I am not afraid. I see God as every bit of energy in the cosmos, from the tumult that births the stars to the imperceptible hum of atoms. It means I am part of something big and glorious. It means my soul or essence can be a sunrise, or be a cool breeze on a warm summer's eve. Or a gentle snowfall. Or something so massively wonderful that my puny human brain could never imagine or comprehend its exisrtance. Over and over, infinitum. And some day some form of 'me' could inhabit some other physical form for all it's days on its planet. That's ok by me.
  • Spirituality can exist outside the realm of religion.  Thirty-five years ago I left the Catholic church. There was no one compelling reason, it just wasn't for me. But that doesn't mean that I don't pray, or don't feel a connection to life greater than my own energy.  I've been a practicing Buddhist for nearly twenty years, and embrace the four noble truths and eightfold path as right and proper. But I also don't think of myself as particularly religious because Buddhism doesn't center on God, but rather personal responsibility. I also practice yoga, which is distinctly Hindu, but practiced my scores of Buddhists, particularly American Buddhists. And that seems to be simply because yoga reinforces the quality of mindfulness. The long poses and metered breathing keep the mind focused on the present moment and quiet the inner conversations. Yoga teaches discipline and ritual, it enhances mental clarity. And it produces a level of self-acceptance among yogis that takes it outside the realm of exercise.  It creates a sense of spiritual awareness in the same manner as does mindful meditation or prayer. It was yoga that led me to explore Buddhism in the first place. To deepen my spiritual growth. And I think both together have made me a better person, both physically and emotionally.
  • You are what you eat. I've always had a fractious relationship with food. Food used to make me angry. Seriously. Angry. I remember once being at a picnic and having the choice of hot dogs, hamburgers, and Italian sausage. And I was angry because I was going to be forced to make a choice, because eating all three was out of the question. Now, I love Italian sausage, but I really love burgers. And I never overlook an opportunity for a charbroiled dog. I can still remember standing there in front of all this food thinking "its not fair to make me choose." Soon after I went into food rehab. At first I stopped eating wheat products, and it helped some. Then I gave up everything that came in a box, or had an ingredient list. Better still. Now I try to eat only meat, fish, leafy vegetables, some fruit, and occasionally some sweet potato. And gone are the internal food fights, the bloated belly, the monstrous cravings. Gone is the anger over having not eaten something that was there to be eaten. I love food now. And I love shopping for food. There is so much good food in the world, and I love finding something I've never had before. I'm now the type of shopper most grocers hate- produce, meat/fish, eggs, checkout. I'm not an aisle shopper or a coupon clipper. There are no coupons for broccoli. But I buy quality foods, organic when possible, local in season. It really wasn't a difficult switch, and it has made me feel healed.

Maybe its not much, or earth shattering in its disclosure, but Its an honest expression of some things I believe, and I wanted it to be public. I'm not trying to start an argument, or begin a paleo/secular reformation movement. Maybe its enough if it merely starts a conversation. If you feel so inclined, I would love to know what some of your core beliefs are- leave something in the comments box or email me.

 

Thanks / namaste

Mark

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Launch Day

rocketLaunch Day. It's been a long time coming. It was back in April of this year that I first posted to Bodhicyclist. I don't have the post anymore, and I don't remember what I was going to write about. I do remember that I liked the name though. There is a good chance that it would have been about my observations whilst cycling. That is if I had ever followed through on it then. Instead I preface this new iteration by making an admission.

I am flawed. When I first conceived to start this project I imagined it would offer to readers insight, advice, and humor. But in truth, I have no advice to give, no insight to offer. Rather, I have a lot to learn. I live a life full of inconsistencies. I'm essentially insecure, and never really certain that I'm doing the right thing. What I used to perceive as the long, beautiful fan in my wake is actually a twisted trail of disappointment dotted with former lovers, friends, and students; I'm an equal opportunity disabuser.

How I came to this conclusion. Over the last year I've completed some wonderful accomplishments and suffered some terrible failures. On one hand I managed to organize and host a hugely successful charity event almost entirely on my own. It was awesome. I run a profitable small business and have done so for years. But I also managed to alienate a couple close friends and damage those relationships in a way that I'm not sure is repairable.

Everyone I know seems to be a better version of themselves than I am of me. Maybe you know what I mean. I have a few friends who are far more dedicated to their photography than I am to mine. To them its religion. Nothing can dissuade them from spending their free time photographing. And they are really good. My wife knows every actor and director from every motion picture made before 1934, and has an appreciation for these films like no one else I know. I photograph all the time but the last time I picked up a camera and just went "walkabout" was well before Christmas. I claim to eat a paleo diet, but if I'm buying organic ground beef from Uruguay, is it really paleo? Is pizza? I call myself a Buddhist but if I can't describe the difference between Mahayana and Theravada traditions, and what I follow personally is the philosophic core wrapped in a jacket of my own design, am I still Buddhist or just something akin to Buddhist?

Taming the beast. Too often I treat my convictions more like suggestions because it all just seems too hard. I like to speak romantically of battling 'inner demons', but honestly- I'm not plagued by demons, I'm plagued by bullshit. I know when I start to cut myself slack its a signal that things are out of balance, and that I'm skimming along just fast enough to stay above the water. And I let conviction lapse.  So every few months I screw up the strength to clean up my diet, or make the time to read my 'holy cards'. And I can feel whole again. For a while at least.

Revelations. Clearly, I have much to learn from my family and friends. Most people aren't afraid to ask for what they want. or to stand up for what they believe in, or to pursue their passions undeterred by convention or circumstance.  I need me some of that. I need to learn the secret of stamina. I need to understand the true meaning of the word "conviction." I also acknowledge that I need the assistance of my friends, and am helpless without them. And this is where you come in. I will be seeking your advice, both in public and private, and sharing your insights here. And what was once to be a blog about my insight will instead be a blog about personal growth and the wisdom of others.

And so it goes. How this plays out over the next several months I don't really know- this is all new to me. But to quote Russell Kirsch, the inventor of the first internally programmable computer, "Nothing is withheld from us what we have conceived to do." Translation? Do, because you have conceived to do, and trust that the answers will come. He said God told him that.

The answers will come. Who am I not to believe that. This blog is proof. This first post is proof. What I initially envisioned for Bodhi, with its outward looking form, seems inconsistent with what is unfolding now. The answer to a question it never occurred to me to ask made itself apparent only because I was advised by a friend to push Bodhi's launch date back by a month. That Bodhi should now be about the inner journey is a direct result of sitting at my desk and simply writing whilst waiting for the new launch date to arrive. And now a very inward, very personal blog is what I have conceived to do. And we shall see where it leads, and from it what answers will come. But through it all I will continue to rely on my friends and loved ones for guidance and reassurance, because I know, fully, that they are the better part of me.

Until then.

namaste,

Mark

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