I ‘m Alive — And So Are You– That’s A Good Place To Start

I'm not quite sure why I am drawn to the deepest most profound of metaphysical questions.  Perhaps it would be easier if I wasn't.  But for whatever reason I just need to be there.

The ultimate truth is–we are alive.  This may be a variation on Descartes' classic "I think therefore I am".  But even more basic is the notion that being alive is an invaluable gift.  It is a gift we take so much for granted that when we become aware of the deep nature of this concept, we may actually feel foolish.

To be alive is to be subject to the full range of human experience.  It is to suffer.  It is to love.  It is to have opportunity.  It is about free will.  It is about the ability to choose how we react to what happens to us.  It is the chance to share our own experiences of joy and sadness with fellow travelers on life's journey.

It is such a powerful gift that I feel we inherently fear its grand implication. Perhaps that is why we hide from it.  Instead we become entangled in the day to day annoyances, aggravations, hassles of living.  We become so engrossed in the minutia of our own personal dramas that we lose site of the big picture.

We forget to be grateful for just being alive.  We forget to measure our blessings and instead feel sorry for ourselves for our failures. We forget to observe the magnificent beauty of nature.  We take for granted the small, kind gestures of others and fixate on the few annoying ones.

We forget that being alive is the opportunity to evolve. 

It is the soul's greatest challenge and greatest gift.  We have forgotten that we have chosen to be here, in this challenging experience of being human.   It is said that as long as we are alive we have not completed our learning here. 

So when all else seems to be falling apart around us, just recall that as long as we are alive there is hope for evolution and healing.  Take a deep breath and join the flow.

 

GENERATION “LESS” & “THE GOOD LIFE”

Over the past decade, there has been considerable concern in the media about the financial future of the next generation.

Labeled "generation less" there is much angst among their baby boomer parents that their adult children will be the first generation not to live "better" than they did. 

 Whether labeled generation, X, Y or "less" there is little debate that their economic status has been even more severely effected by the present financial debacle than that of their parents.

Now understand that the nationwide, no, worldwide economic meltdown has dire consequences for us all.  Clearly financial insecurity has devastating effects not only on an individual's mental and emotional state of being, but on the entire family structure. Families break apart, depression, anxiety and suicide attempts rise.  When the basic family unit is under seige, the entire social structure upon which society is based becomes imperiled.

The Occupy Movement is clearly one response to  a deep and unremitting angst and frustration which is all-pervasive.

This is even more devastating for the generation who are seeking to define themselves as independent, confident and competent adults.

But the consequence for all of us when we finally hit bottom and see the first glimmer of economic hope (and it will occur) may be a re-evaluation of what is meant by the "good life".

 For baby boomers the definition of 'the good life' meant money and material possessions.   It was also defined by a competitive drive to have more, show more, out shine your neighbors. The term "net worth" was always understood to be about money, not the inherent qualities of compassion, concern, kindness.

But whether by choice or circumstance perhaps we are all faced with the chance to re-evaluate what we mean by the "good life".

Perhaps not possessing their parent's life style may be more a blessing than a curse. 

 The rampant materialism that has so captured the popular definition of baby boomer success and achievement  has done little to make them "happy".  Witness the amount of anti-anxiety and anti-depression drugs prescribed today.  Self-help books continue to sell on print and on line in enormous numbers.

But the basic human needs of love, caring, security and respect are not dollar dependent.  The next generation will most likely not live up to their parent's level of material possessions and their obsession  about what is important in life.

When the first rays of economic hope rise over the horizon, Generation "less" will be focusing in on what is most pressing.  Beginning over.  The materialistic dreams of their parent's generation will be furthest from their minds. 

And that is not all  that bad. 

SANCTUARY OF THE PRESENT MOMENT —

Where do you go to find peace in your life? 

 Is it the gym, TV, the internet, the bar? the therapists couch? 

Perhaps the place of serenity, your sacred space, your inner sanctuary is to be found anytime, anyplace you choose.  It requires a closing out of the outside world and for a few moments to be with your breath.

The past hold little peace for us.  Our minds are filled with memories, thoughts, feelings.  Similarly the future becomes an open field of wishes, fears and doubts. 

 Only the moment between the inhalation and exhalation is real.  It is now.  We are safe there.  It is the only time that exists.  We need to remember it.  We need to reclaim it. 

 It is no further from us than our next breath.

TAKE SMALL BITES OUT OF REALITY — They’re Easier to Digest

"I teach suffering and the end of suffering.".  The Buddha's motto resonates with most of us.  We understand what suffering is and clearly seek to end it.  But if suffering is part and parcel of the human experience then we might be better served in accepting its reality and learning to deal with it. 

If we can truly comes to terms with its inevitability then our attitude towards adversity will allow us to understand that it is not necessarily a result of our personal failures or mistakes.  Of course our choices can exacerbate suffering or greatly reduce it.  But disappointment, loss, grief and fear will never disappear.  Just accepting that truth will allow us to return to a baseline serenity that we deserve.

Part of our problem arises because we become overwhelmed by the enormity of suffering that occurs around us.  The 24 hour news cycle, and instantaneous awareness of much horror and tragedy around the world brings all suffering into our circle of awareness.

In past times we might only become aware of those most close to us who were in trouble.  Now the entire world's chaos becomes our own.

I don't believe it is being selfish or uncaring to release our worry about the entire universe.  It doesn't truly help anyway.  Of course we should meditate or pray for the release of suffering of all beings.  But we need to release our obsession with universal suffering. 

Even our own worries which become projected into some unknown and unknowable future need to be reduced to small  bites or quanta of concern.  There is just too much uncertainty to become distraught in the present moment over an unknown and unknowable future.

Even when real tragedy strikes us we must resist the impulse to see a horrific future.  Stress is best handled by focusing in on the "next step".  I recently diagnoses a pancreatic and biliary tumor in a patient.  Although panic is a first response I tried to have the family focus on what they can do the the next moment.  They will seek the opinion of a professor in NYC.  That focus will allow them to maintain some semblance of control.  They need to just be aware of the present moment and the next moment.  The future will unfold regardless. 

Taking small bites out of the reality we face will allow us to digest even the most distressing meal. 

WHY MEDITATION IS SO DIFFICULT — An Evolutionary Perspective

For those  who meditate or who have tried to meditate there is no need to explain the challenge it presents.

As the ancients knew only two well, our minds resemble the chaotic frenzy of monkey chatter.  Our thoughts and emotions constantly intrude upon our attempts at single minded awareness which is the basis of meditation.  Whether our focus of attention is a mantra or the breath itself, in short time we find ourselves thinking/feeling about the past, the future—-anything but what we have attempted to do, namely meditate.

Meditation traditions have wisely advised us not to get angry at ourselves or frustrated to the point of giving up.  We are told to be gentle with our efforts to meditate.  We are advised to persistently return to the focus of our attention.  We are also guided to observe our thoughts/feelings as if we are the witness of what traverses the window of our mind.  It sounds great.  But it is not easy.    Perseverance will pay off, we are told.

So why should we even attempt something so difficult.  The evidence is overwhelming.  Meditation is a healing practice.  I am referring to physical as well as emotional and spiritual healing.  And there are innumerable scientific studies to confirm it.  Those who meditate on a regular basis are reportedly healthier, have reduced symptoms of stress, improved immune symptoms and are over all more serene.

But why is this so difficult?  Why are we unable to do something so simple as to retain focus and awareness of our breath?

Perhaps the answer is simply the following:  we have evolved to be scanning beings.

Survival is best served by constantly shifting our focus to any potential threats in our environment.  To homo sapiens, this includes the inner landscape of our minds as well as the external world that threatens us.

Is it any wonder that we have difficulty meditating?  Couple that with a life time of habitual behavior and thinking and voila!  Meditation is tough.

But, I believe, because we are scanning creatures, constantly on edge, awaiting the next threat or attack, we need meditation more than ever.

Fortunately, our personal existence is not threatened on a moment to moment basis.  The biology of our brains, however, may see even normal stress and adversity as life threatening.  We are hyper-vigilant when we don't need to be.  And we know that this level of persistent, unremitting stress is absolutely injurious to our physical and mental health.

So while the evolutionary drive for survival makes meditation difficult, the need to pursue it is more essential than ever for our over all  well-being.

So, don't give up.  They promise us it will be worth the effort.

SUFFERING— The Sandpaper that Shapes Us

Suffering is the sandpaper of our incarnation.  It does the work of shaping us.–Ram Dass

We all suffer.  It is in the nature of being human.  We suffer because we feel pain–physical, emotional, mental or combinations and permutations of all three. We suffer because we care about other people and about ourselves.

 The Buddhists would state that we are "attached" to the content of our lives, the ideas, dreams, aspirations, pain and suffering of those we love–and since they are all transitory and mortal we are bound to suffer.

Therefore we can never expect to eliminate suffering.  But we can help ourselves reduce suffering if we keep in mind certain concepts: 

1) Pain and suffering are not identical.  Pain is a negative thought or event which occurs to us or a loved-one.  Pain is universal by virtue of our attachments, our mortality and the ephemeral nature of existence. Suffering is how our mind deals with the pain.  If we are prepared for adversity then it is not quite so shocking when it occurs.  If we understand the nature of reality, that death and loss is inevitable, then we can move on with greater acceptance.

 (2) Suffering is not punishment for wrong-doing.  Even karmic influences from pror lives do not doom us to suffering. 

(3) We possess free will.  We can choose how we respond to adversity.

(4)  Suffering itself, like all things, is temporary.  "This too shall pass".

(5) Facing life in general with a clear-headed positive optimistic outlook produces a sense of confidence that attracts other like minded individuals.  We may be better at getting up after we have fallen down. But there are times when caution and concern are needed to protect ourselves and our loved-ones.  The challenge is to balance the light and dark of our emotional landscape. 

(6) Our own suffering awakens us to what is important in life.  When we become obsessed with material objects, money, prestige or praise we lose sight of the deeper values of existence. Suffering clarifies all of that–in an instant.  We realize our legacy in life depends on how we treat other people–when no one else is looking.

(7)  Suffering must have its limits.  When we emotionally attach too deeply to any other living soul we become vulnerable to physical and emotional collapse.  We need to balance compassion for others with compassion for ourselves.

(8) The serenity prayer teaches us to accept what we cannot change.  Easier said than done but essential.

(9)  Suffering is the mark of being alive and because we understand suffering, are able to offer empathy and compassion towards others.  This is a karmic gift for us.

(10)  If we see ourselves as essentially spiritual beings having a human experience than this perspective gives us strength to overcome the adversity which is a necessary part of our being alive.

(11)  We will, therefore, understand what Ram Dass means when he states that suffering is the sandpaper that shapes us in this incarnation.

 

 

T H O U G H T S & F E E L I N G S– The Content of Our Minds

Thoughts and feelings.  They are the content of our minds.  They allow us to navigate through the chaos of daily existence.  They allow us to plan for the future and ponder our past.  They cheer us up with memories and bring us crashing down with fear and worry.

We usually consider them to be opposing concepts–almost the Yin and Yang of our mind's activity.  But in truth they are the variations on the same theme.  And as with the concept of Yin and Yang they are interconnected aspects of one whole.

All mental concepts are thoughts which may have more or less of an emotional content.  Some thoughts have virtually no discernible emotional content– "what's for lunch ?", for example.  But perhaps something on your lunch menu touches some distant memory about being with someone or having a powerful experience from your past–then emotion will accompany that thought as well. 

Other contents of our mind are predominantly emotional.  But even these feelings are tied to some thing, some person, some context which are thoughts.

In fact we may truly be driven more by emotions than thoughts.  The poet Theodore Rothke wrote "We think by feeling, what is there to know?"

There may be times, however, when we can step out of the thought/feeling mode of being. 

 In mindfulness meditation we attempt to just "be" with the breath.  We place our awareness there without thinking or feeling.  We observe it.  In that state of pure awareness our minds are at rest.   In this mental state, there are  no thoughts/feelings. 

Of course that doesn't last very long.  Without realizing it we are soon thinking/feeling about something or someone.  Then we can return to the state of witnessing our breath.  In that pure state we can escape the constant scanning of our mind.

It is a fascinating demonstration of the ability to rest our minds.  We can learn to be "mindful" of what is happening to us.  It is not easy because we evolved to be constantly aware of our environment–the external world as well as the internal content of our mind.

But by training ourselves to seek this state of awareness we can then begin to witness our thoughts and feelings without being swept away by them.  This is known as nonattachment. It affords those practitioners who have developed it the ability to observe and even analyze the contents of their own minds.

This allows us to understand ourselves from a better perspective and to aquire a state of serenity which is all too rare.

SMOKING IN THE DELIVERY ROOM ? — AN ADC & A Confirmation

A bright young woman I'll call Rose who has been working in my surgicenter shared her own personal spiritual story with me. 

 It involves four generations of women in her family.  Her mother who is deceased, herself, her daughter and her granddaughter.

She described her mother as a life-long heavy smoker.  In fact she was rarely seen without a cigarette in her hand. It ultimately contributed to her death.  When Rose's daughter was giving birth to her daughter, she smelled cigarette smoke in the delivery room.  Of course she knew it could not actually be happening.  She immediately thought of her mother and felt her presence.

Months later she visited medium Lynn Milano with her sister who was struggling with her own bereavement.  They each had separate private readings.  Lynn began by describing a scene from the TV shore Laverne and Shirley.  "Wait, she's showing me the skirt with the big letter 'S'.  Was her name Shirley?"  Of course Rose confirmed that it was indeed her mother's name.  Then Lynn immediately identified their mother as a heavy smoker.  She then told Rose something even more remarkable:

"Remember when you smelled smoke in the delivery room?" Lynn asked.  "Your mom is telling me that she was there!"

Rose had no doubt about the reality of her own ADC but to hear this message from someone else, granted a talented medium, was even better. 

Her sister, Rose noted,  received an entirely different reading but one which supplied the confirmation she needed of her mother's continued existence on the spiritual plane.

Both sister's received what they needed to hear.

SEEKING THE SACRED SPACE BEFORE YOU RESPOND —

In between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space lies our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.  Viktor Frankl

I hope my readers are familiar with Viktor Frankl.  If not don't hesitate to Google him now.  As someone who survived the Nazi death camps with the courage to survive and embrace the meaning of existence, he is someone derserving of our attention.

Another psychiatrist Rollo May also wrote of the pause between the stimulus and the response, all too familiar with our instinctive behavior which is to react to perceived threats with strong, often exaggerated responses.

How often we have found ourselves involved with an angry response to another on the road, or a discourteous clerk, or snapping back at a loved-one whose tone of voice suddenly offends us.

What would happen if we literally paused before we responded?  How often would we find a less belligerent, less antagonistic response?  Is if even possible to respond out of a gentle compassion for a perceived wrong?

Mindfulness meditation may assist us in finding that sacred pause.  We practice examining thoughts and feelings from a perspective of the observer.  This allows us to develop a patience we may ordinarily find missing in our usual responses to life's challenges.

I recall an amusing episode from my days studying Kabbalah in NYC.  Here, too, we discussed learning to avoid reactivity.  One of the students was a NYC truck driver who was used to the typical yelling and cursing of daily city driving.  Trying hard to change in his daily life he found himself slipping back into his usual reactive behavior.  Feeling remorse for "flipping the bird" to a cabbie, he decided to apologize.  He sped up to get near the cabbie who frantically bolted around the corner, probably expecting a raised fist as much as a humble apology. 

Clearly we are all far from enlightened beings but we can still try our best to find that sacred space.