Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Inspiration from a 6-year old

This cute girl from Thailand is not the subject of this post. She is simply pictured here to help us recognize the power each of us has, including the children. I read the story below (from and was amazed at the selflessness, generosity, and wisdom demonstrated by a 6-year old. And for the media, I ask, why isn't this story on the nightly news?
Inspiration of the Day:

6-year-old Ryan Hreljac listened intently as his teacher talked about how without access to clean water, people become ill and sometimes even die. "Every penny helps," the teacher said, explaining that a penny buys a pencil, "and $70 pays for a well." Ryan ran home and begged his parents for $70. They told him to earn it through extra chores, and so while his brothers played, Ryan cleaned for two hours. He got $2. Instead of watching a movie with family, he washed windows. Another $2. Months later, he finally had $70, and his parents set up a meeting to donate the money. Ryan nervously handed over the cookie jar holding $70. "There's an extra $5 here," he said, lowering his voice. "You might want to buy some hot lunches for the people making the well." And Ryan hasn’t stopped there: now 14, he has helped raise over $1 million for wells! This inspiring profile is from 2001.

Read more about this story if you are interested. What would you give up, in time or money, to help those so much less fortunate than yourself have clean drinking water? A fair question I think, and one I am asking myself.

Addendum. Here is a more complete, and it appears accurate, story of Ryan's Well. interestingly, it is even more moving to me. Please read it and realize what impact any one of us can have on the world and humanity.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Reflection on Intention

Intentions can be good, and they can be bad (so what’s new?) Well, of course — they are neither good nor bad — they just are. It just depends on what you value at the moment as to how you will gauge their benefit or regret. Consider the following:

If I make the “intention” to do no harm to sentient beings, that can help guide me, and prevent “reactions” that would be contrary to that intention — for example, killing a mosquito, ant, or fly.

Also, if I make the “intention” to live in the Now, to be present to all possible experiences as they arise, I will see life and its beauty in a flowing stream, a blazing crimson sunset, a blustery cold November day that takes your breath away. Life will become the tree frog’s song as it crescendos above the orchestra of crickets, or the purple martin’s erratic flight as it scouts and snatches insects for its young.

That’s the good news, so to speak.

The bad news, so to speak, is if I make an “intention” to get all of the things on my “to do” list accomplished today (especially when there are many more than can reasonably be accomplished). What then happens to the free moments when I’m not actually working on my chosen task. I’m thinking of my other tasks, or rushing to get on with the next activity. In such a world, I might be curt with the receptionist (hey, I’m on a mission). I might not notice the box turtle about to cross the road, and rather than stop and enjoy his visit, and steer him toward safety, I might be simply oblivious and — worst case — run over the 40 year-old turtle. Oops.

Now don’t get me wrong here. Since there is no absolute “good” and “bad”, the more practical intention of getting things crossed off my to do list is not inherently “bad”. When you make a conscious (with full awareness) choice to get those things done, you are putting your mind under your control, and accomplishing what you set out to do. This is what time-management experts get paid to tell us to do. But many of us have unwittingly stepped onto a treadmill, which manages to simply produce more “to do’s” than you can ever accomplish. And so, we keep working harder, going faster, and in the process, mindlessly missing life.

Here’s another consideration. What “should” you be doing right now? I hope you should be reading this blog. But if not, then you are not fully present. Somewhere in the back of your mind, there is “something else” you should be doing. You realize it when that latent intention takes control of your mind, and you start thinking about something else while you are reading this blog. In that case, your mind just became the master, and you are now the servant. Thinking what it wants, rather than what you want. (BTW, this can also be “good” if it is a spontaneous new thought that was triggered by what you read.)

Take another example. Have you ever been working inside an office on a beautiful spring day, and decided that you would take a break to enjoy the outside. Once out there you breathe in the fresh air, perhaps revel in the sun’s warm rays. Maybe you notice some spring birds gathering nesting material. Just as you start to really get into the present moment, a nagging thought comes into the back of your mind -- “I really ‘should’ be working”. Doesn’t that rather spoil the experience you are having? Once again, your mind has commanded, and as the servant, your are now responding. You need to make sure you keep your mind as the faithful servant. So when you take that break, be fully present to enjoy the experience. It will be much more refreshing and rewarding.

So consider your intentions. What behaviors do you wish to exhibit? Pick them very carefully, for they can help govern your existence. And that can be “good” or that might be “bad”.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Reflection on wholeness

There was a time when I was a manager at a medium size consulting company. I always saw the activity in my department as above average (or maybe even better than that ;-). Of course, to be above average, then at least half of the other departments, had to be below average. And so there was “us” and “those other guys” that didn’t quite get it, or get it as well.

Of course, management styles changed and people saw the need for better collaboration, working more like a “team”. I always thought we operated as a great team — it just depended where you drew the boundaries. There were always those who we wanted to have on our team, and “those other guys”.

Now you may think this was the sign of immaturity, or naiveté, or even egocentricity. But then ask yourselves the following questions:

Perhaps it was inappropriate to draw the boundaries around my department. So where should they be drawn? Upper management might say the Division (those are now gone, kinda), or the Center (we really should share across those boundaries). Well, then how about the entire company — yes, that’s it — let’s make sure that the company stays “above average” and not like “those other guys”.

OK, perhaps you are getting my drift. We need to think bigger. After all, my company is here to assist our Government, and we are all “one team” so we must include our civilian and military members of Government. After all, this is the United States. And we are certainly way above average, and not like “those other guys”.

Hmm, perhaps you are detecting a pattern. OK, our country is actually not that old, and we’ve seen some nation-states have their boundaries redrawn many times just in our own lifetimes. So maybe we should draw the boundaries on ethnic grounds. Or cultural grounds. Or religious grounds. Hmm, maybe you now see the problem.

There is no ‘us’, and there is no ‘them’. There isn’t even ‘you’ and ‘I’. It’s just One. And making these divisions, which I think you will agree are all conceptual (and inherently artificial by some yardstick — trust me — any boundary you create, I can find an example to show it isn’t absolute), is inherently harmful, because it reinforces a view of life which runs counter to reality. It breaks up our humanity (or the world, or the universe) into segments that artificially compete against one another, and thus brings suffering.

What we need, instead, are thought processes or paradigms that unite and integrate. That see life — Reality — as a whole. Everything interconnected and related to everything else. No absolutes, and nothing fixed. Nope, not even God (at least as distinct from us).

And all of this begins (and ends, really) with the self — with you, and your concept of “I”. If you are separate from the world, then we are all separate from the world and each other. If you are not distinct, but instead an integral part of the world, then so am I, and so are we together, ad infinitum.

It’s a very challenging concept. But I encourage you to examine your thoughts, beliefs, and their foundations. And to ask yourself if they scale. And if not, to ask yourself why, and if there are alternative paradigms that do scale. And I think you will be brought back to unity. Which will also bring you back to love. Give it a try and see.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Flow

We have created a pond, where previously there was only a seasonal swail. It's very nice, very relaxing, very meditative. Water flows in, and water flows out. The more it rains, the greater the flow. Is the pond the same before and after the flow?

Perhaps time is the wrong paradigm to apply to it. For as the Greek philospher Heraclitus (540 BC - 480 BC) once said:
"You could not step twice into the same river;
for other waters are ever flowing on to you."
This is the flow. This is life. Not static, segreagable "things" like 'ponds' and 'rivers'. Not set in time with 'befores' and 'afters'. Just the flow, at once the same and ever changing.

The same is true about you and me. We are not fixed entities with set personalities. This misperception is caused by the ego holding on so tightly to its own separate existence. However, "other waters are ever flowing on to you." We live within a universe which is nothing but flow. We are nothing but flow.

We haven't really created the pond. We adjusted the conditions surrounding seasonal springs, and have collected their waters into a holding area. We have manipulated the flow. That is what we do -- we stand in the river -- never twice the same -- and by being there -- affect the flow.

There is no way to say it when we search for the 'subject' and the 'object' in this new paradigm. We are both the subject and the object. There is no subject and no object. There is only the flow. Coming in and going out.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Do you have enough?

I was having an e-mail conversation with my good friend Daniel a while ago, pondering the question how to get more people to step off the treadmill and positively change our society:

"If the answer to propagate change is to summarily quit one's job, it will be reserved for the few that have the financial means to do so, or who wish to step back into poverty."
"Poverty?  Oh Steve.  Take a walk between two Sky Train stations in Bangkok.  There you will see real poverty.  But I suppose there are spots in Bangledesh that make that look like the Taj Ma Hal.  My point is that each of us has to define enough.  ... Only you can look at your own situation.  By the way on that walk between sky train stations you can see beauty that will make you cry it's so beautiful, and I know you are aware of that."
Thanks Daniel for getting me out of my head and back into the 'real' world.

It's so refreshing to smell the wetness of morning grass, to see the tadpoles scurrying to and fro, to look again and find the Iris blossom when only yesterday there was nothing, to relax with a friend upon the lily pad, and to hear the water flow into and out of the pond, endlessly, ceaselessly, always the same, and yet always different. I certainly do have enough.

Here's a story that also makes the point that we all must answer the question "Do I have Enough?" Take a moment and read it. Yes, you have enough time ;-)

Something to Make Me Happy
By Sharon Palmer

     I was doing some last-minute Christmas shopping in a toy store and decided to look at Barbie dolls for my nieces.
     A nicely dressed little girl was excitedly looking through the Barbie dolls as well, with a roll of money clamped tightly in her little hand.
     When she came upon a Barbie she liked, she would turn and ask her father if she had enough money to buy it.  He usually said "yes," but she would keep looking and keep going through their ritual of "Do I have enough?"
     As she was looking, a little boy wandered in across the aisle and started sorting through the Pokémon toys.
     He was dressed neatly, but in clothes that were obviously rather worn, and wearing a jacket that was probably a couple of sizes too small.  He, too, had money in his hand, but it looked to be no more than five dollars or so, at the most.
     He was with his father as well, and kept picking up the Pokémon video games.  Each time he picked one up and looked at his father, his father shook his head, "no."
     The little girl had apparently chosen her Barbie, a beautifully dressed, glamorous doll that would have been the envy of every little girl on the block.
     However, she had stopped and was watching the interchange between the little boy and his father.  Rather dejectedly, the boy had given up on the video games and had chosen what looked like a book of stickers instead.  He and his father then started walking through another aisle of the store.
     The little girl put her Barbie back on the shelf, and ran over to the Pokémon games.  She excitedly picked up one that was lying on top of the other toys, and raced toward the check-out, after speaking with her father.
     I picked up my purchases and got in line behind them.
     Then, much to the little girl's obvious delight, the little boy and his father got in line behind me.
     After the toy was paid for and bagged, the little girl handed it back to the cashier and whispered something in her ear.  The cashier smiled and put the package under the counter.
     I paid for my purchases and was rearranging things in my purse when the little boy came up to the cashier.  The cashier rang up his purchases and then said, "Congratulations, you are my hundredth customer today, and you win a prize!"
     With that, she handed the little boy the Pokémon game, and he could only stare in disbelief.
     It was, he said, exactly what he had wanted!
     The little girl and her father had been standing at the doorway during all of this, and I saw the biggest, prettiest grin on that little girl that I have ever seen in my life.  Then they walked out the door, and I followed, close behind them.
     As I walked back to my car, in amazement over what I had just witnessed, I heard the father ask his daughter why she had done that.  I'll never forget what she said to him.
     "Daddy, didn't Nana and Paw Paw want me to buy something that would make me happy?"
     He said, "Of course they did, Honey."
     To which the little girl replied, "Well, I just did!"
     With that, she giggled and started skipping toward their car.  Apparently, she had decided on the answer to her own question of, "Do I have enough?"

Friday, June 09, 2006

Doctor, heal thyself

Here’s an interesting little story as told by Michael Josephson:
Doctoring With a Heart 456.4

When you visit a medical specialist, an emergency room or a patient in the hospital, are you ever struck by a sense that many doctors are so focused on the scientific aspects of diagnosis and treatment of illness or injury that they ignore, maybe even become annoyed by, things like pain, fear or anxiety?

In her book "Medicine as Ministry," Dr. Margaret Mohrmann, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia , proposes a dramatically different perspective. If accepted, it could drastically change the nature of medical training and treatment.

She contends that doctors tend to view their roles and responsibilities too narrowly. The ultimate object of medicine, she says, is not just to diagnose and cure disease, but to alleviate suffering. In other words, doctors should see themselves as healers, not merely scientists.

"The practice of the ministry of medicine," she adds, "is the practice of paying attention." Being attentive means sensing, treating seriously and responding appropriately to the myriad feelings that inevitably accompany illness and injury.

In her view, the most needed remedy for the kinds of suffering doctors face daily is not more or better painkilling drugs, but more genuine caring. She says doctors should listen more even if it makes them weep. She believes true compassion and empathy are healing agents for pain and anxiety. Genuine gestures of concern -- from a comforting squeeze of the hand to a follow-up phone call or visit -- can be as important as prescriptions and surgical procedures.

I think she's right. It takes a kind of moral courage for a doctor to keep an open heart. But what a huge difference it would make.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts
I find this interesting, because (although I haven’t read her book) she seems to be referring to some basic Buddhist concepts here (or perhaps they are simply inherent human concepts) such as to “alleviate suffering”, show loving compassion, etc. Also interesting because she recommends doctors treat their patients with “genuine caring” and “an open heart”. Most doctors are trained, either explicitly or through practical defense mechanisms, to do quite the opposite, so as to protect them from the vicissitudes of life (and death). I imagine the break room conversation for the new intern to be something like: “Don’t get to close to your patient”. “You need to remain independent and detached, or this job will eat you up inside”. “You can’t save everyone, so don’t kill yourself trying.”

Yet I have come to believe that they can in fact detach themselves from this movie of life and death, tragedy and victimhood, and terminal illnesses that can just as likely grab hold of the saint as the sinner. By seeing life for what it really is — its nondual nature, doctors (and the rest of us) can both operate in this world (excuse the pun) and remain somewhat detached from its drama. They (and we) can express loving kindness, incredible presence, and complete compassion without being consumed by the emotion, or mental constructs such as “the unfairness of it all”.

So what I find interesting, is that such practices which I relate to the Buddha (that's his hand in the picture above -- yes, a tenuous connection I know) would also help someone on the Western scientific cutting edge like our medical doctors do their jobs better (which should indeed be about healing rather than treatment, and where possible, healing as much of the whole person as he or she is ready for).

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Missing my flight

I arrived at the Santa Barbara airport after a short visit on a work trip, that had been marred by bad weather. But today, as I was departing, it was sunny outside. When I got to the ticket counter, I was informed that my short flight into San Francisco was delayed due to fog there, and I would miss my connection home, so they would have to re-route me. Have you felt that immediate reaction when things don't go as you planned -- don't meet your expectations, and you are attached to the outcome (I wanted to be home)? Yes, I was upset. I tried calling my travel agent, but there were no good alternatives. Finally, I accepted the rerouted itinerary that the ticket agent cheerfully and helpfully provided; but I was sullen.

So I went outside to kill time, bemoaning the fact that I would now be getting home later than planned, and probably with not as good seats as I had worked out previously (yes, I know how trivial it sounds -- what can I say -- it's how my mind was making me feel).

Then as I sat outside in the beautiful sunshine, listening to some music, I had this incredible wave of beauty just envelope me. This was not a conscious act on my part. I didn't "will myself" to start taking a different perspective. Something just clicked, and I was "spiritually forced" to get out my camera and start taking pictures (the one above is a building at the Santa Barbara airport). And then another stage, and I put away my camera and let my own eyes become the lens — the witness. I detached from my own thoughts and petty concerns, and everyone and everything I saw was so beautiful, so peaceful. I watched a little child, maybe 2 years old, holding on to a dandelion walking around on the grass, checking out all the flowers. She looked over to me and smiled. Later on, her father was out with her on the lawn with a tennis ball, teaching her to play catch (more like fetch ;-) and to throw it back. So gentle. Such love and compassion. Indeed, everyone I saw, all their interactions were nothing but friendly and peaceable.

I don’t know, I must have looked like a crazy man, just leaning against a tree smiling at everyone and everything I saw. Yes, it was a beautiful day, but what came over me was something very unique, and I've felt it only a few times in my life. It is a detachment from your thought process, and a detachment from your future expectations. You are able to just witness. And from that detached perspective -- not judging, not calculating, not thinking -- what you experience is the inherent beauty that exists in the world. I don't think this is something you can "strive" for, as I think it really is a stepping back from desire and expectation. It is "un-doing" all of your planning and preconceived notions.
A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.
-- Lao Tzu
Oh yeah, and the re-routed flight? Got me home earlier than I was originally scheduled, and the seats were excellent. Seems to me I just need to chill out more often and take each "detour" (aka, life as it is) as a blessing. Which I did that entire day. What a really nice experience.