A Key to Life

“Single men could die about 8 to 17 years earlier than their married male friends. Mortality risk is 20% higher for those who are socially isolated and 32% higher for people who live alone. We are pack animals, and mortality rates, especially among men, skyrocket when you’re not actively engaged in other people’s lives. Most studies on longevity across genders cite the strongest signal of a long life is how social (engaged) you are in other people’s lives, whether it’s marriage, friends, children, or colleagues. For a 50-year-old, the biggest predictor of your health at 80 isn’t your cholesterol level, but the quality of your relationships.” – Scott Galloway Continue reading

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” – from Mary Oliver’s poem titled The Summer Day

Mary died last week. It was too soon.

Mary’s poetry spoke to me. And to countless other people. In ways I can’t begin to describe. Such is the way with good poetry. With words arranged in ways that touch the soul.

One poem in particular, which I came upon at a time in my life when the words were most needed, connected. Deeply. The poem was titled The Journey.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary ended The Summer Day with this question:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

A question each of us answers. Over and over again.

Thank you, Mary, for allowing us to share your wild and precious life. Continue reading

Leaving the Desert with These Thoughts

I did not take home with me any new goals or resolutions. But I did leave the desert with some thoughts — “things I think” — some of which are new, some of which are simply clearer or less contingent than they were before my time alone in the desert. Here are a few:

  • It’s not enough. I’m not enough. Those are my demons. That’s not new; I knew that before going to the desert. I also knew, from what I see in the world around me, those demons are everywhere; they are not mine alone. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Demons can be defeated. But I’m realizing they cannot be defeated with knowledge or willpower. They can be defeated only by removing the false ideas that protect and nourish them. And by wresting control of thoughts from them. Through awareness. Acceptance. Truth (reality). Seizing control of my mind.
  • The meaning I sought does not exist. The meaning that is available is that which I create; or perhaps more accurately, allow to be created.
  • Nothing is dependent upon anything eternal; nothing and no one outside of me needs to change. The world cannot be fixed. But I can change. And with that change, the sun can be brighter; the sky, bluer. Yet I cannot seek change or try to will it because such efforts would fail; they always have. If change is to come, it will come with awareness and mindfulness. And perhaps from things and in ways I don’t and never will fully understand.
  • Removal of the things that distort the lens through which I see and experience life — the barriers and obstructions, the false ideas, illusions, delusions, and unrealistic expectations — is essential. Deconstruction. Removal. Awareness. This I can do.
  • Finding and being mindful of the root causes of suffering is essential. Suffering should be considered an alarm; it should alert me to distortions in my lens.
  • Cede power to no one. Nor to any idea, action, or delusion. Care not about what anyone else thinks. About anything. But care about the person.
  • Be totally truthful in all things. Don’t lie (not even little white lies or lies intended to spare someone else’s feelings). Similarly, welcome the truthfulness of others; take no offense or hurt. Take no offense at their lies either, for surely many will come. They know not what they do.
  • Do not complain. It distorts the lens and misleads me into thinking my well-being is dependent upon something or someone.
  • Do not think about what I don’t have or what I haven’t done or achieved. If I think it matters, look up (when the moon is new and where there is little or no light pollution).
  • Desire nothing. Expect nothing. Instead of asking, why me? Ask, why not me?
  • Relish the gifts and wonder. They are everywhere. If I fail to see them, it is not because they aren’t there; it is because my lens is cloudy.
  • Be still. My mind needs time without distractions — not only external ones, but also (and more especially) the internal ones. Meditate. Return to the desert if necessary. Or to other places of solitude.
  • Be mindful and present, no matter how trivial or insignificant the activity or interaction seems.
  • Observe myself, too. I am not my thoughts. Step outside of my mind. Refuse to be hostage to my thoughts.

In sum:

Peace, contentment, happiness, and meaning lie in wait within; our natural state is happiness and contentment. They are mine provided I do not allow any illusion, fear, or belief to hold them hostage. Free them. But seek not these things; rather, focus on ridding myself of the things that obscure and imprison them.

Those were some my thoughts. As I departed …

the desert.

(See these prior posts for more on my time in the desert. Leaving and Days One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, and Seven.)

Notes from the Desert Day Seven

Day Seven (Links to Days One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six)

This is my last full day in the desert. I look forward to returning home tomorrow. But I also look forward to returning to the desert someday, if it seems like the right thing to do at the time.

I took a long walk in the desert today, surrounded by saguaro cacti. It seemed like a fitting way to end my time here. Walking alone, especially in nature, away from the concrete and city sounds, is a good way to eliminate the distractions of an overactive mind. It’s hard not to think of the earth as our habitat when walking the land.

Sometimes I joke that if I am ever diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or some other similarly hideous disease, I may take a long walk in the Colorado Rockies and never return. To be honest, though, I’m not kidding. It strikes me as the most natural way of returning home.

I suppose the idea also has some appeal because it puts me in control. I like to have control. But it’s an illusion, of course. The fact of the matter is, I don’t control any of the really big stuff: whether I’ll come down with cancer tomorrow, or have a fatal heart attack or get mauled by a mountain lion on this hike, or get killed in an auto accident on my drive back, or etc., etc.

Yet it’s control I’m after. In fact, it’s a large part of the reason for this trip, namely, greater control over my mind and thoughts. I feel like I’ve made progress, but time will tell. I’m not even sure what “progress” might be. It might mean giving up all control. And relinquishing everything.

For now, I’m relishing being here, in this place, at this moment in time.

In the desert.

Notes from the Desert Day Six

Day Six (Links to Days One, Two, Three, Four, and Five)

I began my day early (before sunrise and before the tourists arrived) in meditation at Mission San Xavier del Bac, just south of Tucson. The mission was founded in 1692, and the current building was completed in 1797. The mission is located on the reservation of the Tohono O’odham Nation. The mission is a beautiful edifice with history and stories seeping from its walls and icons.

I thought of the natives who walked these lands and whose lives were transformed by undocumented (illegal?) immigrants conquerors from Europe, who allowed the natives to keep a small portion of the barren desert that had no value to the white men.

There is a lot of history in the desert. Much blood has been spilled here. But many celebrations have occurred here, too. Not just in the desert. But in this mission. It was a good place to start the day.

Later I checked out the photography portraits of the late Richard Avedon at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. I used to take a lot of photographs but stopped because I didn’t think I was very good at it and it had become a hassle. I might resume some day now that I have more free time.

Avedon was very good at his craft. Some people think the key to taking great portraits is being able to capture the essence of the subject. But that’s not how Avedon saw it.

Avedon said,

“My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph.”

It reminded me of the quote from Anaïs Nin I had read earlier in the week:

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”

Reality is objective, but it affects each of us differently; we interpret and react and respond to it differently. Of course, we’re not always mindful of this and, therefore, we tend to project onto others our expectations and demands, and sometimes react emotionally in self-harmful ways when reality collides with our illusions, delusions, and dreams. We delude ourselves into thinking our experiences and understandings are universal or objective. Or that things are either right or wrong, imposing judgments at every turn. When I do that, it creates angst and perhaps other problems or life-depleting conditions. For me. Only me. What is the purpose in that?

When we fail to handle situations well — and by well, I mean in a way that is life-enhancing — then we tend to blame others, criticize, complain, sulk, get angry, resentful, or depressed, or turn on ourselves with blame and self-hatred.

I am becoming convinced that one of the keys to well-being — to a sense of meaning and satisfaction — is seeing reality clearly and accepting it for what it is. In other words, seeing and experiencing life through a lens that isn’t distorted by expectations, desires, and a host of other ideas and forces that can lodge in our minds with counter-productive effects and cause us to pine for a reality that simply does not exist. Easier said than done!

The failure to do so, however, means my life is less than it can be, for seeing life through a distorted lens is not a pleasing experience. Indeed, disappointment and despair are inevitable.

So what does my view of reality tell me about myself?

How can I change that view so life may become more beautiful and satisfying?

How can I react and respond to reality in ways that enhance rather than undermine my well-being?

How can I seize control of my own thoughts?

These are some of the questions on my mind …

In the desert.

Notes from the Desert Day Five

Day Five (Links to Days One, Two, Three, and Four)

Last evening I broke my solitude and went to Kitt Peak National Observatory. I thought the perspective could be helpful. And the wonder.

A dear friend in Colorado once wrote to me, “Nature is my church.” I feel the same way. Yesterday, I went to church.

Along with my fellow nine space travelers and our observatory guide, looking through the telescope at far away suns and galaxies, it occurred to me:

  • The unknowns will always exceed the knowns.
  • It’s hard to imagine earthlings are the only beings in the universe capable of thinking about the future and planning.
  • The spaces are as much a part of the whole as the masses.
  • The request by one of the guests “to look at heaven” may not have been as silly and ridiculous as it sounded.
  • Things are often not as they appear.

Regarding the latter point, even a middle or high schooler knows we’re not seeing what we think we are when we look into the telescope. Some of the distances are vast (billions of light years), and light travels only so fast. Hence, we are seeing what was, not what is.

Indeed, what was — what we perceive to be reality — may no longer even exist. And we may not be seeing that which has been born but whose existence has yet to be observable in far away places such as the planet earth. Again, light travels only so fast.

In sum, what we perceive as reality may be anything but.

Such is life. Not only in the realm of astronomy, but also in the realm of human perceptions, sight, hearing, and interactions.

It is when our human constructs, concepts, and ideas conflict with the unseen reality that trouble ensues. Sometimes, in the form of negative thoughts or angst. Sometimes, worse.

If we are to flourish, if we are to become ourselves and to be content with whom we are, perhaps it’s essential we connect with reality, unobstructed by all the crap that gets in the way. Perhaps it’s essential we become aware of and accept our place in the world. In the universe. And acknowledge and become comfortable with the spaces.

The stars, planets, and galaxies have something to tell us.

In the desert.

Notes from the Desert Day Four

Day Four (Links for Days One, Two, and Three)

I meditated this morning and completed my re-reading of Awareness (discussed in this week’s earlier posts). I wrote in my handwritten journal, too.

I wrote about something I am reticent to mention here. In fact, I’ve decided not to. I don’t feel comfortable sharing certain thoughts. But why? I ask myself. What does it matter?

Past experience has shown me, in harsh terms, the dangers of keeping things bottled up. Yet some things are really hard to share. Total honesty is extremely hard — perhaps, even impossible. The perceived risks are too great.

My reticence is a reminder of the hold others’ perceptions have over me. I don’t like it, but I’m too afraid to buck it, even when I suspect others could benefit from reading or hearing it.

Of course, nothing I could possibly share would be unique to me. The range of human experiences, thoughts, feelings, and emotions are not limitless; a certain commonality binds us together. It is why (together with my religious upbringing) I prefer to think of us as brothers and sisters, even though we live much of our lives as aliens, competitors, oppressors, and victims.

Perhaps some good would come to others (or myself) from sharing. But perhaps not. Perhaps I’d regret it. And that’s sufficient reason to hold back — the possible regret and hurt, that is.

I know I am too easily hurt. I’m endeavoring to better understand the reasons why. With such understanding, I may become immune to such hurt, which, of course, would make for a more contented life.

For so much of my life I had to keep so many of my thoughts and experiences private. Public disclosure is not an option in the corporate world, where everyone has to pretend they “have it together” and don’t harbor any unconventional or radical opinions, aspirations, or values. Conformity and compliance are valued above all else. The risks to one’s career in shattering those expectations can be severe. So everyone pretends. And holds their cards close to the vest. I can’t be the best way to live one’s life. But it’s our destiny, it seems.

The risks are much less if not nonexistent today, at this point in my life when I’m financially independent and, therefore, free from the threat of economic injury inflicted by employers or clients. Yet I am still not free it seems — free to share freely and fully, that is. I wonder where that fear is rooted. I think I should find out.

In the meantime, I am settling in. I’m getting more comfortable with the loneliness. The solitude. Indeed, it seems the loneliness is transforming into aloneness, which is essential for the purpose at hand. The lack of distractions — the space to focus, reflect, and meditate — is essential, at least for me.

For much of the first three days I was questioning whether coming here was such a good idea. Last night and today it seems clear it was.

In the desert.

Notes from the Desert Day Three

Day Three (Links for Days One and Two)

I spent more time with De Mello’s book last night (referenced in Day One’s post). There are many passages that hit home for me. At one place, he mentioned how we were invited by Jesus to become like children.

A child starts off life looking at reality with wonder. I see it in you, Vera. It’s a joyful experience, both for you and those of us who observe and are near to you. But then something happens as we travel into adulthood. De Mello sums it up this way:

“Then wonder dies and is replaced with boredom.”

One of the reasons I’m in the desert is because I was bored.

I understand it doesn’t have to be this way. And I’m coming to better understand why it is. And what the things are that are blocking me from becoming like a child. I’m understanding better what the distractions are and the harmful effects these distractions have on us individually, as well as on our society. I’m understanding that illusions and false beliefs are anything but benign.

A child doesn’t feel irrelevant. Insignificant. Bored (sans school-induced boredom). Existential questions don’t steal the wonder from the child’s life. A child experiences wonder all the time. A child lives in the moment.

Yet an adult’s thoughts, often lodged in either the past or future (more likely, both), make that hard — or perhaps even impossible on a sustained basis.

But “I am not my thoughts,” said De Mello.

Then who am I?

For now, I’m someone …

In the desert.

Notes from the Desert Day Two

Day Two (Link to Day One)

I awoke early. Very early. I gave a shot at meditation this morning. It’s been quite a few years, 20 or so, since I managed to meditate with some regularity. Since then, I haven’t managed to consciously still my mind for anything more than passing moments. This time I decided to try the technique outlined by Andy Puddicombe in his book The Headspace Guide to Meditation & Mindfulness. Time will tell.

Thoughts have a mind of their own. They are incessant. And random — or at least seemingly so. It is as if I’m hostage to them. It’s easy to think we are our thoughts, yet nothing could be further from the truth. We should never allow our thoughts to define us. Or control us. Or sap the beauty from life.

It would be nice if I had more control over my thoughts and the feelings they elicit — the negative ones, that is. The ones from which feelings of worry, loneliness, irrelevancy, insignificance, emptiness, and discontent emerge. These things, after all, are not part of reality; rather, they are merely my mind’s reaction and response, rooted in fear, false beliefs, and human-designed concepts. There is nothing inherently true or of value in many of these concepts and, indeed, there is much harmful. They distort reality.

As Anaïs Nin put it,

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”

That’s the crux of the matter: changing whom I am. Not by force. Nor by will. Rather, by awareness. Insight. And identifying and removing all the things that stand in the way.

So that life can be even better than it is.

In the desert.

Notes from the Desert Day One

For the next week, I will be posting a portion of my journal entries from my time in the desert. Perhaps you will find something of value in my journey. Perhaps my questions, struggles, and desires are not unlike your own.

Day One

Waiting for my flight this morning, having first secured a doppio espresso (yes, I’m a coffee addict), I cracked open a new book I’d brought along, Red Notice by Bill Browder. It bills itself as “a true story of high finance, murder, and one man’s fight for justice.” It’s all of that and more.

On one hand, it was a really page turner; on the other hand, it was a disturbing, forced read, mainly because it was a stark reminder of the unjust and cruel ways us humans treat each other.

As Anthony de Mello remarked, “You thought people were nice. They’re not!” I think he was referring to all of us. (The quote was taken from Anthony de Mello’s Awarenessa wonderful little book I brought with me to the desert.)

The events related in Browder’s book also was an in-my-face reminder that the gurus are right: humans — all humans — act in their perceived self-interest, either all or almost all of the time, whether or not we are aware of it. Even when we’re engaged in acts of charity. Or justice. Possibly (although I’m not sure), we are capable of acting without regard to self-interest when pure love takes over. Not the kind of love that expects something in return; rather, the kind of love that has no expectations or conditions of any kind and is satisfying no psychological need. (I’m assuming — perhaps even believing and hoping — such a love exists.)

Our cruel and selfish ways as humans often trouble me. You’d think by now I would have done a better job of coming to terms with all of this. You’d think I would have become more aware and accepting of reality given all the time I’ve spent awake, and would not cling to the illusion that such behavior (as well as less lethal action) is an exception to the norm. But I’m learning that consciousness should never be equated with awakeness.

An understand of reality — the way things truly are as opposed to the way we see and interpret them — is blocked by many human constructs, ideas, and false beliefs, some of which may, at heart, be defense mechanisms, while others, upon close examination, are nothing more than blatant, manipulative stories designed to subjugate and pacify. Hence, I find I need to unlearn much of what’s been crammed down my throat since birth.

It’s time to deprogram. Deconstruct. Expose the illusions. Identify the false beliefs as well as the obstructions. Become more aware. Of reality. I was motivated to come to the desert, in part, by an awareness that deprogramming takes some concentrated effort.

Why do any of this?

So that I won’t be perpetually disappointed. So my illusions will not keep clashing with reality. So I won’t be held hostage by my thoughts.

Most importantly, so I may be free. So I can be content to be nobody. So I can stop expecting to find a meaning that does not exist. So I can be more aware of and contented with reality.

In the desert.