Embrace the Return

Embrace the return

On any particular day, if you looked at the minutes of my mind on a bar chart, you would be startled.

Much of the day, my mind is absorbed with meandering thoughts about tasks, details, to-do lists, whether to check email (again), and other minutia. When I stop to look, I see that a lot of my thoughts are a list of worries, real and imagined. My worry list creates a background radiation of low-grade anxiety that colors my day.

I don’t spend much time in the present.

I have moments of recognition when I pull my attention out of the chattering thought-stream and remember the larger context – remember that I started the day with an intention to remain conscious and open, or that my list of tasks is not as important as my state of being, or simply that I am connected to Spirit.

My attention oscillates back and forth throughout the day between attending to details and expanding into the larger context. We could call these two states worry mind and big mind. When I look at the daily bar chart of time spent in both, I can easily become aghast, but judging it as wrong is a mistake (it would just give my worry mind something new to worry about). My worry mind is only doing what it has been trained to do. I can train it to do something different, but not by scolding.

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Life Is Not a Problem to Be Hacked

Like everyone, I want things to be easy. There’s no need to make life hard if there’s a smarter way to do things.

I’m always looking for tips, like Hints from Heloise:  freeing a sticky zipper with a graphite pencil, or putting newspaper at the bottom of a trash bag to collect the drippings (do people still use pencils, or newspapers, or read Hints from Heloise?)

But modern life has made things so convenient, we’ve come to expect that every frustration must have a secret tip that would sweep it away. We’ve been trained to expect our lives to be frictionless, an expectation that magnifies each irritation as a surprising anomaly. So many things are so easy, we have become addicted to convenience, despite the fact that life is often inherently inconvenient.

A whole industry has dedicated itself to providing life hacks, those quick and easy steps that let us jump the line over the daily toils of living. Don’t want to eat healthy and move your body? Take this supplement that burns belly fat. Don’t want to discipline your spending habits? Download this easy plan for growing rich.

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Always Forgetting, Always Remembering

Maybe the world ends when I do.

(Go with me on this thought experiment.) Maybe it all evaporates at the instant of my death, the sun and all her sister stars spread across the eons snuffed out in a whisper.

Maybe my consciousness is the sum total of consciousness. All the events and people I have known or heard about, all history, literature, language, science, culture, were just props in my stageplay. Joan of Arc, Shakespeare, the Great War, quantum theory, Impressionism, migratory birds, interstate highways, ice cream cones, and all the rest were curated artifacts presented to me so I could craft this one life.  

And when my eyes close for the last time, the final curtain falls on everything. No more thoughts or fears, no symphonies or street crime, no conversations in coffee shops or late night bedrooms, no playing children, no morning sunlight. Maybe it was all a parade hung in the sky for this one small spark of light that was me.

Pause and consider for a moment; what is your reaction to this scenario? I have two thoughts.

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Living Life With an Open Window

I spend too much energy trying to curate my experience, as if I could choreograph my days to linger over the pleasures and hurry past the disappointments.

This is perfectly understandable. Our human tendency to shy away from discomfort and gravitate toward pleasure is universal. But blindly following this instinctual drive has a cost.

It lessens my contact with the world by building a shell between me and the throb and pulse of life. It decreases my sensitivity to the full reality of the objects, events and people that show up around me. It fosters a false belief that I can distance myself from what I don’t like and embrace only the sweetness of things.

Over time, it distorts my perception, stunting my perspective like a sapling bent by the wind. It programs my antennae to look for threats and predisposes me to judge each experience according to my preferences, directing me to approach or avoid.

There is a different way to be.

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Finding My Father

“Dad, I can’t understand what you’re saying.”

I strain to hear my father’s voice. He exerts himself to speak, wrinkling his forehead and the muscles of his face. He has something important he wants to convey, but his speech is garbled, a burble of feathery sounds with only an occasional word I can recognize. I move closer, listening to his whispers, scanning his face, searching his expression to garner some sense of what he’s trying to say.

My brother found dad on the floor of his apartment, incoherent and unable to get up. A CT scan at the ER showed that his brain was bleeding from a subdural hematoma, the blood pooling inside his skull, squeezing his brain to the side. Emergency surgery drained the fluid and relieved the pressure, but the damage has accelerated my father’s dementia. I flew into town to visit him and spell my brother, who lives nearby and handles the lion’s share of his care.

Dad’s dementia journey has been an up-and-down biplane ride through the clouds of the wild blue yonder. Synaptic waves climb and descend through different altitudes of lucidity. Sometimes he recognizes us, other times not. When he is occasionally clear enough to realize where he is, what is happening, that his wife of seven decades died three months ago, he demands to return to his old apartment, forcing us into heart-crushing arguments with him about why that can’t happen.

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This Poor Gray Ember of Creation

From where I’m standing, the slope of the land falls away in waves, the silver tops and knotted trunks of olive trees growing smaller. At the bottom of the drop, the ground rises again and then curves out of sight into a second shallow valley before angling steeply to a ridge in the distance, where I see the ruins of a temple, its columns, frieze, and pediment crisp against the sky. The Greeks built a line of temples here to honor their gods twenty-five hundred years ago.

Today, we call this ridge the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only one temple and the bones of a few others still stand, the rest have been tumbled to the ground by earthquakes, plundering, and the erosion of time.

I take in this wide vista from the doorway of my cottage at the Villa San Marco, a slice of heaven Linda and I have fallen into by pure chance.

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Cultivate a Calm and Healing Presence

I know people who can walk into a room and bring a sense of calm. Others might be nervous or upset, but these people seem to bring a peaceful presence just by showing up. 

I want to be more like them.

If I’m agitated, other people pick can up on my emotions and become agitated too. We humans tend to do that because we are socially attuned to each other’s moods. Likewise, if I can center myself, others can sense that and become more grounded.

When I’m open enough to listen deeply to someone without agenda or needing to counterpoint or defend, I create a space where they can feel heard, and they are more able to release their need for agenda or counterpoint or defense. Creating a space of deep listening brings the healing quality of connection, but it is not easy to do in stressful conversations.

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Momentary Awakenings

I have momentary awakenings throughout the day. These are not dramatic bolts of enlightenment; they are small moments of expanded awareness when I lift my head from the daily details that absorb my attention and see the world from a broader perspective. I become a witness to my experience as well as the actor in my experience.

These awakenings happen in planned and unplanned ways. When I sit to meditate or pray, I am intentional about settling into my body and opening to my inner and outer surroundings. At other times, the expansion happens spontaneously, when my attention is pulled from the fog of ordinary consciousness by something I hear or notice or remember.

The shift to expanded consciousness brings me into a more intimate contact with the juice, texture, and vibrancy of life. Things feel more intensely real, an intensity that is dimmed when I operate in the fog of ordinary consciousness. This intimacy can be peaceful, a sensation of breathing and merging with direct experience in an exquisite beauty of stillness. But it can also be uncomfortable, bringing up the urge to flee.

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Wise Words – The World Is Full of Magic Things

“The world is full of magic things waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

William Butler Yeats


I can’t be sure this quote belongs to W.B. Yeats, but it certainly fits with how he saw the world, as a place of enchantment.

It places the source of wonder not in our powers of vision, but in the things around us. It is the world that is alive and we who are the dullards. If we can look up from the mental whirlwinds that absorb us and drop the preconceived packaging we use to keep the world safely in place, we can awaken our senses and see where magic is afoot.

For most of us, our perceptions are dimmed because we look at life through the same old, tired filters. These filters fog our perception like glasses made from Coke bottle bottoms. But we can revive our senses by dropping our filters, even briefly.

I will make you a promise. Try this experiment of attention and attitude for 30 seconds, and your senses will awaken to things you have been ignoring.

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I’m Not a Very Good Mystic

I’m not a very good mystic.

I spend most of my time absorbed by the tasks and routines of the day. I would call this my ordinary state of consciousness, where I am focused on my perspective as an individual, moving through the world as a separate being. Periodically, something shifts my state. It could be a passage I read, even a single word, like “grace” or “love.” It could be a comment I overhear about someone’s troubles, or a patch of color that catches my eye from a flower bed or a shaft of light.

In these small moments, I shift into an expanded consciousness. My senses widen and I drop into a more vibrant world. I feel the current of life pass through me as everything becomes unreasonably simple and clear, and I remember I am part of something larger. The shift sometimes feels abrupt, leaving me amazed at how I could have been satisfied with the shallow perception that filled my attention just a moment ago. I wonder, “How could I ever leave this more expanded, peaceful, connected space?”

But leave it I do. I am usually pulled back into ordinary reality fairly quickly.

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