A Pinch of Sage: 3P’s

 

As I was saying…The Three Principles…what are they and why should you care?  The Principles are Mind, Consciousness, and Thought, which if understood, have the potential to change your life dramatically for the better (disclaimer to follow).  Briefly, Mind is the formless energy and intelligence behind all life.  Some may refer to this energy as God, a physicist might describe it as the quantum field, Luke Skywalker knows it as The Force.  Whatever you choose to call this intelligence, it existed before time and beyond space and exists now as You.

Consciousness…what is it, why do we have it, and where does it come from?  Still baffles philosophers and scientists after millennia of reflection, research and debate.  Zombies don’t seem to need it. You’ve often driven to destinations, lost in thought, only to arrive safely and without incident with no memory of how you got there.  In the Principle’s sense consciousness means “awareness,” the experience of life. It supposes the changeable levels of our consciousness (awareness) will determine the quality of our experience.

Thought…Banks refers to Thought as the missing link, between the formless world of pure potentiality and the created world of form.  Sounds a bit esoteric but basically it means don’t believe everything you think. Thoughts are not reality, but they create the reality we live in, like an artist uses his brush to create her personal masterpiece.  We see the world not so much as it is, but as we are.  Higher levels of consciousness bring more clarity of thought.

Now for the disclaimer.  This is all deceptively simple. There is nothing really new here. No mysteries resolved, at least not yet.  When I first came upon The Principles I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, largely because it largely mirrored my own thinking and ideas, ideas which have been advanced quite literally for thousands of years.  Ask any Hindu holy man worth his salt about illusory thoughts and the unity of being and he’ll be happy to explain “Maya.” The Buddha may have wordlessly offered you a flower to explain the same principles. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy similarly focuses on the transformative power of thought, although Syd Banks would reject that approach as a mere technique. The Principles are  intellectually sound even though they cannot be apprehended through the intellect.  The Understanding he speaks of needs to be “understood,” not correctly identified on a multiple-choice quiz. There’s always a catch! I don’t know that you really even need three interdependent principles to explain what is essentially a single Truth. When Syd had his revelation, I’m pretty sure the words Mind, Consciousness and Thought did not leap to mind.  They are simply words not scripture, teaching tools, meant to reveal but not revere, so be careful not to mistake the menu for the meal.  Like the Buddhist admonition not to mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself, remember you are only being given the finger!

What I’m somewhat irreverently trying to point to, is that the Principles are not simply a description of how the mind works, or how thought creates our feelings and perceived reality.  We are much more than that, not so much bodies with a soul, as divine spirits within, at times, a cumbersome body. As Syd described it in the anthology Handbook for the Soul…

“The soul is the only true source of spiritual nourishment.  There are many ways to connect with and rekindle your relationship with your soul, but the most effective way is to rid yourself of the obstacles that come between you and your purity of thought.  You can begin the process of nourishing your soul by living in the present moment, in the now.  And if your mind wanders, don’t take theses thoughts too seriously.  Just let them go, realize that they are nothing more than fleeting thoughts, and you will soon be on your way to finding the peace of mind you seek, with loving thoughts for yourself and others bringing joy and contentment to your life.”  Like I said, always a catch!

With your permission, I’d like to share some ideas on what it means to “live in the moment,” but I’d prefer to explore them further next time.  Or maybe we should drill down further into each of the Three Principles separately.  I’m not sure.  I’d be grateful to hear your comments or recommendations.

In the meantime, let me leave you with the musings of another fellow traveler known for his deep thinking on the subject.

“Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it.  Match the frequency of the reality you want, and you cannot help but get that reality.  It can be no other way.  This is not philosophy.  This is physics!”

—Albert Einstein

 

Cheers!

Steve

 

 

 

A Pinch of Sage

Perhaps because it’s been on my mind and attention wavelength, I see more and more book titles that promise to explain “What Really Matters,” or “What Matters Most.” I wish someone would explain it to me.  I have my own ideas on the subject of course, but I’ve never really been quite certain and I’m not beyond accepting good advice. Or bad advice for that matter. So, when someone counsels “follow your bliss,” where do you go if you have no idea how to find it? What really, REALLY matters is a question with movable parts with answers that differ from person to person and that change over time. At 16 it might have been getting that driver’s license, launching a career and conquering the world at 21. And for many Boomers it’s meeting expenses on a fixed income, ageing in place, or re-evaluating life’s purpose. I’m 67, young enough to enjoy relatively good health but old enough to be impressed by my shrinking time horizon, and I’d like to use my remaining days wisely. So oddly enough, I’ve decided the best way to create a wise, and hence well lived life, is by cultivating wisdom, and then let it do the driving. Sort of a spiritual GPS system.
Did you know The University of Chicago has a “Center for Practical Wisdom?” Its mission is “to deepen our scientific understanding of wisdom and its role in the decisions and choices that affect everyday life. We want to understand how an individual develops wisdom and the circumstances and situations in which people are most likely to make wise decisions.” Me too!
One of the leading wisdom theorists, Monica Ardelt has created a Three Dimensional Wisdom Scale, the tool most widely used by researchers. (I scored 4.1, just over the 4 point threshold for high wisdom).
One last bit of “science” which a fellow traveler might find useful, or at least entertaining. The VIA Inventory of Strengths asks 240 item questions designed to measure 24 character strengths and rank them in order of importance. It was primarily constructed by Martin Seligman, past President of the American Psychological Association and father of applied Positive Psychology. The test can be accessed at www.viacharacter.org , but I would suggest going through Seligman’s University of Pennsylvania website www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu . The idea is to concentrate on building character strengths rather than redressing weaknesses. My number one strength by the way was “Love of Learning.” You might find it interesting to consider yours.
Speaking of non-sequiturs, when asked to define pornography, Justice Potter Stewart famously said, “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.” The same might be said for wisdom, although the definitions have been piling up for thousands of years. I found myself consulting the usual suspects…lessons from mythology, teachings of the major world religions, the Six pre Socratic Sages, musings by stoic Roman Emperors, even viewed all the movies in the Star Wars series and recorded all of Master Jedi Yoda’s aphorisms. Studied and found a great deal of merit in the research findings and application of Positive Psychology and Cognitive Behavior Therapy as I consulted contemporary resources in philosophy, neurology, psychology, psychiatry, coaching and consulting. I also came across a fellow by the name of Syd Banks.
In 1973, Sydney Banks was an average working man, a welder with a 9 thgrade education, not a seeker of truth or wisdom. But at the age of 43 he experienced a profound and spiritual revelation while attending a marriage group counseling/seminar. He was unimpressed by the seminar, but had occasion to speak informally with a therapist also attending the event. He described himself to the therapist as an insecure mess, and was told “I’ve never heard such nonsense in all my life.” There’s no such thing as insecurity, it’s only Thought. That advice might have compounded insecurity for some, but for Banks it was like a weight had been lifted. A seemingly simple insight upon which to launch a spiritual journey, Banks learned not to believe everything he thought, that reality was created from the inside out, and that such insights came from an innate wisdom that is accessible to everyone. Something like a Zen student of many years finding “instant” understanding and enlightenment after watching ripples in a shallow pond. That’s the thing about epiphanies…they typically arrive suddenly, almost incidentally from somewhere beyond the intellect…to be experienced, not explained.
  Syd was all in. He quit his job and began preaching his insight, by example and by word of mouth. Friends and neighbors noticed his remarkable transformation. A community began to gravitate around him as word spread of how people’s understanding made them better spouses, parents, friends, siblings and members of the human race . The accolades caught the attention of two prominent psychologists who eventually incorporated Syd’s Understanding into their private practice of psychotherapy and community programming.  Roughly 40 years later, this insight has been successfully shared in hospitals, correctional institutions, social services, juvenile justice programs, drug and alcohol prevention and treatment, schools and multinational corporations, spreading from the United States into Canada, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Israel, England, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Spain, and coming soon to a theater near you!
Hope this doesn’t sound too much like the breathless enthusiasm of an apostle. But The Three Principles espoused by Banks resonate with me as well, (and basically have been taught for thousands of years) and I’m inclined to think that perhaps hundreds of years from now future generations may be referring to Sid Banks as Siddhartha.   So with Your permission, I’d like to wade a bit deeper into these philosophical weeds of Mind, Consciousness and Thought, share my thoughts and invite your own.

5 Questions and Answers About Grief

You will reach your destination in 300 yards

If you’re in a significant relationship, there’s a 50/50 chance you will eventually grieve the loss of your partner. Grief over a significant loss is a natural, human response, and neither you nor your response needs to be “fixed.”  But knowing grief is normal does not make it less debilitating and knowing that millions of souls have and will have survived the experience does not diminish the pain. The worst kind of grief is YOURS

I remember driving to the hospice center to be with my wife Mary twice each day.  I knew the way but relied on GPS to spare me the effort of concentrating.  Each time I approached the facility, I was reminded that I would reach my “destination in 300 yards.” I wondered what Mary’s thoughts were of her final destination as I considered my own.

I thought I was prepared.  It wasn’t until Mary died that I discovered how wrong I was. Her breast cancer had been diagnosed 7 years earlier, followed by multiple reoccurrences, two more primary carcinoma diagnoses, endless ER visits and a gauntlet of surgeries, radiation and chemotherapies.  In the end, on the eve of our 24th wedding anniversary, it was her wish to forgo food and water to hasten a comfortable death.  She was keep under terminal sedation for six days before the lack of fluids and the accumulation of toxins stopped her heart from beating…the longest, most agonizing week of my life.

I found myself unable to work and lost the company I founded 20 years earlier as a consequence.  I was bereft of my soul mate, my career and my identity, wanting nothing more than to escape from the suffocating pain but lacking the energy and insight to do so.

 If you’re going through hell, keep going.

When you lose someone special from your life, you are going to grieve. There is no easy way around it, no timetable, no neat package of stages to journey through to the other side. But just as life is not something that “happens” to us, like passive spectators, grieving is something we DO, not something that it done TO us.  We have choices. We may not have a choice in what has happened, but what we DO about it is optional. The key is making the right choices to work through the process and find healing.  You can’t just decide to stop grieving, nor should you. But there ARE scientifically tested tools and techniques that have been proven to ease the pain and shorten the journey. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Positive Psychology offer a “cope chest” of promising examples.

(1)  Why Bother?

Why? Because you are not a helpless victim, although you may feel like one at the moment.  Because it is not what you’ve lost that matters now, but what you do with what remains. Because you want to lead a life well lived, not passively endured.

An optimist is said to be a person who believes this is the best of all possible worlds, while a pessimist is someone who fears the optimist may be right!  Same world, different perspectives. You have choices in creating your future, but remember not to make them based on your mood. Recognize the difference between “I don’t feel like it” and “I don’t want to.”  In the depths of despair you quite possibly won’t “feel” like doing much of anything, even things that you once enjoyed. But grappling with fatigue and hopelessness is not the way you “want” to live your life.

Half full or half empty? Our thinking styles color our viewpoint and encourage patterns of behavior that are often self-defeating.  We see the world not so much as it is but as WE are. Less like a camera recording the objective world and more like a projector creating images from an emotional script.  Our thoughts frame our picture of the world, and much of that thought is automatic, operating below our awareness, shaping our attitudes and behaviors. What stories do you tell yourself about the world and your place in it, and based on what evidence?  Do you think in extremes with no in-betweens or shades of gray?  Maybe blame yourself for what goes wrong and assume it can never go right? Or perhaps you are given to mind reading and often jump to conclusions based on what you presume others are thinking? We see what we expect and our expectations tend to be self-fulfilling prophesies, for better or for worse. Your mental filters may or may not be correct, but to start influencing the way you feel you need to uncover and challenge “unhelpful” thoughts” critically examine them, and consider the merits of alternative explanations.  One of the ways to do that is ABC analysisSome people have a thinking style that leads them to believe problems are insurmountable. That is only a thought, not a fact.  Channel your energy into solving problems you can control, learn to identify and build upon your strengths, reach out, and through small steps and incremental, successful changes, you can achieve amazing results

(2) Are there stages to grief, how long will this last?

“How long?” The most accurate answer is probably, as long as it takes.  It’s a little bit like asking “How high is up?” except more complicated.  Was your partner’s death unexpected? Were you a caregiver or perhaps receiving care? What are your coping skills?  The professional literature attempts to offer structure to the process by describing “stage theories” or phases of grief. Parkes defines four phases of mourning as (1) numbness, (2) yearning, (3) disorganization and despair, leading to (4) reorganized behavior.(p.38) Other researchers (Sanders)  describe five phases: (1) shock, (2) awareness of loss, (3) conservation withdrawal, (4) healing and (5) renewal. The most famous is Kubler-Ross’ misinterpreted five stages (“On Death and Dying.”), denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.  But in her posthumously published “On Grief and Grieving” she notes these stages inform the dying not the grieving process, and further explains the stages were “never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages.  Grieving is very much an individual and long term process that does not proceed in a straight line and does not result in “back to normal.”  A sentiment commonly reported by those in the process of bereavement is that grief ebbs and flows. One moment there may be laughter, and the next a casual comment may evoke unexpected waves of despair. As a widow in her mid-sixties describes it, “Mourning never ends.  Only as time goes by, it erupts less frequently.” But this is seldom an indeterminate sentence Acceptance is the universal experience, and an emotional space is reserved for the loved one, but not to the exclusion of loving others and life. More specifically and less anecdotally, Shuchter and Zisook found the period around two years is the time when a great majority of widows and widowers found a “modicum of stability…establishing a new identity and finding a direction in their lives.”

(The many faces of depression following spousal bereavement. Journal of Affective Disorders, 1997, 45, 85-94). But there is no universal time table for recovery. And while there’s truth to the adage “time heals all wounds,” time combined with action is a far more effective course.  So what do you need to do to get there from here??

 (3) What do I do now?

 When someone you love dies, even if it’s expected, there is always a sense that it hasn’t happened. Joan Didion wrote of this experience in “The Year of Magical Thinking” when she explains her reluctance to post her husband’s obituary because it would give the outside world the impression her husband was dead. It is tempting to believe your partner is still away on a business trip or has gone to the hospital, but while short term denial may provide a therapeutic respite, it’s a harmful long term strategy. So the first task is to accept the reality of the loss, both intellectually and emotionally.

Next, examine your thinking style, the mental filters and internal dialogue discussed above (Why Bother). Believe that good things are within reach and are worth pursuing, while remembering the pursuit will require self-discipline, perseverance, and timely doses of positive reinforcement. The proven science of Positive Psychology emphasizes building upon personal strengths rather than attempting to cure weaknesses as the best approach (How many of your New Year Resolutions were to overcome a flaw, and how is that working for you?  Developing the strengths you already have is naturally more rewarding, energizing and more likely to succeed. How do we identify our “strongest strengths” and how exactly do we find opportunities to employ them strengths rather than curing your weaknesses.  Well, given that change is hard, I recommend you begin flexing your muscles by…

  • Make it so easy you can’t say no. (Babuta, “The Four Habits that Form Habits” )
  • Take small steps, don’t overreach or expect overnight success TinyHabits.com
  • Design your environment.  What does the space around you prompt you to do?
  • Use already established routines to trigger new, positive habits
  • Write it down, when, where and how!  Not only does it help focus the mind, research shows it makes follow-through more likely
  • Expect to fail, it’s the only way to succeed.  Recognize that failure is part of the process but must not be allowed to become part of the pattern.
  • Work with a trusted partner/coach LifeWellLived.life

(4) Are there coping strategies?

Like grief itself, coping styles vary from person to person, and even between genders. For instance, grieving women are more likely to express their feeling to others, known as Active Emotional Coping (Derlega. 1993. Self-Disclosure.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage) whereas men often tend toward Avoidance Coping strategies. Avoidance include blame (both of self and others), social withdrawal, and distraction (drugs and alcohol would be a negative example). Active coping involves finding something positive and establishing new roles and identities. At the top of the active list are redefinition, reframing and/or restorative strategies, recognized more commonly as “growth through grief. Coping research identifies multiple models, but experts find Problem Solving skills to be the most useful. Those with the poorest skills overuse ineffective strategies, or they try one thing to solve the problem and then give up when that doesn’t work. Humor is another therapeutic skill.  Just as it’s okay and even recommended to cry, it’s also okay to laugh.  Venting emotions rather than bottling up feelings is usually a good idea, except when the display blows people out of the door, contributing to isolation. The ability to accept support is a related dimension of active emotional coping.  Passive strategies (there is nothing I can do about it) are among the least effective, as is rumination, a persistent and repetitive focus on painful emotions without taking action to relieve them.

Practical coping tips include:

  • Postpone major decisions. Grief makes it difficult to see beyond the pain, and impulsive decisions, selling the house for example, may make a bad situation worse.

Express yourself creatively. Try keeping a journal or write letters, whether you send them or not.

  •  Painting, sculpting, dancing, scrapbooking, all can be creative outlets for grief.
  • Get fresh air. When even the slightest activity is too burdensome, just stepping outside on the patio or front steps can help relax body and mind.
  • Nutrition, exercise and sleep. Motivation to exercise may be in short supply, but a brief walk or bike ride every now and then can lift your spirits and help you to sleep at night. Counteract a poor appetite by eating small amounts of healthy foods rather than large meals.
  • Personally, meditation and sleep were my primary respites.  You’ll find a variety of easily accessible teachers and styles on the internet
  • Be prepared for grief triggers. Anniversaries, birthdays and holidays are among the special situations that can trigger strong memories. Plan ahead, talk with family members, and create a commemorative ritual to acknowledge the loss.
  • Share your knowledge and experiences to help others and yourself. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”  Mahatma Gandhi
  •   (5) Where can I get help?

    Grieving has historically been facilitated through the family, religious organizations, funeral rituals, and other social customs. But these traditional resources are now complemented by a host of programs and services, support groups and grief counselors.

  • All hospice and palliative care organizations provide bereavement support for up to 13 months following the death of a loved, regardless of prior enrollment in their program.
  • Associations such as the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) and the Alzheimer’s Association provide a wealth of information on aging and grief recovery. Most hospital also facilitate support groups for family caregivers and the recently widowed, many of them disease specific.
  • Learn from fellow travelers. If support groups aren’t right for you, you can still reach out, learn, and hopefully find inspiration by hearing the stories of others. Insights and inspiration can be found in DVD/films such as “The Gifts of Grief” by Nancee Sobonya, and absorbing books of personal challenge and growth like Barbara Wheeler’s “When a Spouse Dies: What I Didn’t know” or “The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.  For a more inclusive list, check out the Resources tab of my website, LifeWellLived.Life.
  • Not everyone needs the help or support of others to overcome their grief.  I didn’t. Nor did I want it. But I could have used it. I’m now convinced the most effective grief work is not done alone. 

But Then Again…

I visited a place called Theatero Zanzini several thousand years ago, just outside San Francisco…part circus, part cabaret, part comedy club.  A Master of Ceremonies/Ringmaster kept the chaos in order. I recognized him from television, maybe The Carson Show sometime after the infamous Ed Ames tomahawk era.  I was impressed.  He paused the levity momentarily for a serious soliloquy on life’s struggles.  “So much of life is a struggle” he shared, “full of suffering and loss.”  But you never fail until you stop trying. “So let them do their worst. Let them take away my possessions, my sacred honor, even my life.  But there is always one thing they can never take from me…my regrets.”

He may not have been kidding. The web offers insights into the “Top 5 Regrets of the Dying,” “The top Five Regrets of the Living,” “5 Common (senior) Regrets,” “13 Regrets about Retirement,” “25 Biggest Regrets,” and last and far from least, “50 Regrets That Will Haunt You On Your Deathbed.” Something for everyone and every occasion.

Cornell University made its own contribution with The Legacy Project. The study collected information, or more precisely advice from over 1200 older Americans, harkening back to a time when tribal elders were revered for their experience rather than reviled for slow driving.  Lead researcher Karl Pillemer refers to this cohort as life “experts,” and he published their observations in a book titled “30 Lessons for Living.” The chapter “Lessons for Living a Life without Regrets” offers 5 (of course) case study lessons: Always be honest, Say yes to opportunities, Travel more, Choose a mate with extreme care, and Say it now (before it’s too late).

Not bad advice, I can relate to at least a couple.  But having lived long enough to make the requisite number of mistakes to claim my own expert status, I can’t say I regret a thing.  Sure, there are things I would have done differently. My first marriage ended in divorce for multiple reasons, not the least of which because I was growing old at 29 and getting married was easier than breaking up (don’t do that).  But prophecy is a lost art, and who’s to say the path not traveled would have proved more agreeable? Some lessons may be painful, but is learning to be regretted? As Nelson Mandela observed, “I never lose.  I either win or I learn.” Might sound a bit trite if not coming from a man who served 27 years in prison for his beliefs.  It’s a matter of choice.

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”  Me and Mart Twain, and at least one other elder expert who says… “Turn yourself from frittering away the day worrying about what comes next and let everything else that you love and enjoy move in.” Like worrying too much, regrets are a distracting waste of time, unless used as learning experiences which  help us to choose wisely down the road.

Following graduation from a pre-law curriculum as an undergrad, I spent two weeks in law school (I don’t regret that either),  and I found myself all dressed up with no place to go.  From my pre-law perspective I thought studying literature a bit too frivolous, but ran out of more “practical” options my senior year.  First course was 20th Century American Literature, first assignment was “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.”  Absolutely knocked my socks off.  I loved it so much I was the only one of my contemporaries who wasn’t enthralled with the (excellent) movie, because it fell so short of the novel.  So following my truncated law school experiment I ALMOST embarked on a writing career. Considered moving back to Urbana, Illinois with some modest savings and the intention to eclipse Ernest Hemingway.

I found the perfect opportunity to live rent free, a useful windfall for a bohemian with more pretensions than assets. A very inviting fixer-upper that had an even more inspiring ambiance than it had code violations.  The owner offered it to me rent free in exchange for some sweat equity.  I knew absolutely nothing about carpentry or plumbing, but I had once almost electrocuted myself cutting live wires thinking the power was off, so I had that learning experience going for me.  Hell, assuming I survived I could write an adventure novel based on my elongated learning curve. How hard could it be?  Too hard apparently, or maybe too intimidatingly real.  Relieved of the time required to meet my most significant expense, I would have nothing to fear but fear itself. I would have to confront my lack of confidence,  make mistakes, endure failure with no guarantee of success.  I would have to write!

Not saying yes to opportunities you may remember, was on of the regret hit parade.  I never made the commitment and if I had any regrets, that probably would have been one of them.  But who knows how it would have turned out, for better or for worse?  I went on to have a a rewarding career, a loving (second) marriage, and a life well lived by most reasonable standards.  And so here I am today, essentially relieved of the time constraints of making a living, AND having once successfully installed a dimmer switch, I have nothing to fear but fear itself.  I just may try my hand at writing.  It’s never too late to lose your regrets.

The Glass Is Always Full

An optimist is someone who believes this is the best of all possible worlds. A pessimist is someone who fears the optimist may be right…
————-
Do you see the glass as half empty of half full?

It’s been around a long time, but the glass analogy is still instructive. It underscores the phenomena that the same facts can yield entirely different interpretations. We bring our internal dialogue and world view to every situation (or it brings us) and we typically see the world not as IT IS, but as WE ARE. So, from the perspective of a practicing optimist I would like to suggest that the glass is always full.

Consider the water. Makes up not only 50% of the content of the glass, but close to 70% of the human body, and is absolutely essential to life. Without water, how could we make coffee! We can go about three weeks without food (Mahatma Gandhi once starved himself for 21 days), but we can survive only 4 to 6 days without water.

But as important as water is, there is of course one other element that is even more critical. If you think nature abhors a vacuum, try breathing in one. According to Guinness, the record for the longest breath voluntarily held is 24 min 3.45 secs and was achieved by Aleix Segura Vendrell on 28 February 2016. I suspect you and I would fall far short of that mark; we could try, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Empty space is never all that empty, even in a vacuum.
Bear with me for a second.

Our bodies are made up of atoms which themselves are 99.9999% space. If you could remove all the “empty” space between the atoms of every living person on the planet, the compressed matter would be about the size of a sugar cube (weighing 478 million tons). Same for the air filling the top half of that infamous glass, but not quite so heavy. It is “space,” composed of atoms, which are essentially composed of more space. And what is the space inside the atoms made of?

Well, virtual particles are constantly popping into and out of existence. They exist for only billionths of a second, filling space with a writhing population of virtual (but real) particles comprising what physicists call quantum foam. And beneath that?

Impossible to measure. It is a reality (certainly can’t be called a place or a thing) beyond space and before time, easier to experience than describe. Might be called God, or Spirit, or Consciousness, but it is the same force that powers the thermonuclear reactions in a star 10 billion light years distant, makes the grass grow in your back yard “all by itself,” and enables the 100 billion neurons in your brain to communicate through 1,000 trillion synaptic connections.

It is the same reality behind what Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance,” otherwise known as quantum entanglement. Spooky but experimentally confirmed. It involves communicating information faster than the speed of light. In short, experimenters can pair two particles so that changing the direction of spin for one will change the direction of spin for the other. But they discovered that when they changed one particle, its twin reacts exactly the same way…instantly…no matter where it is or how far. This means that information can be “teleported” anywhere in the universe, irrespective of time or space. Makes “Beam me up Scotty” look like child’s play.”

It also suggests what eastern philosophers have been teaching for thousands of years…everything is connected, everything is the same thing.

There is an absolutely remarkable Ted Talk by Dr Jill Bolye Taylor, a neuroanatomist who describes her experience during a stroke suffered eight years prior. A unique opportunity for a brain scientist to study her own brain in real time from inside out. What she experienced was the absence of her brain’s left hemisphere, the language, voice in your head, “I am” side of the brain that separates us as contoured individuals from everything and everyone else It categorizes and organizes the cascading information from the present moment and associates it with everything we’ve learned in the past and projects our possibilities into the future.

The right hemisphere, she explains, “is all about the present moment. “Imagine what it would be like to be totally disconnected from your brain chatter…information, in the form of energy, streams in simultaneously through all our sensory systems and then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like, what this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like. I am an energy-being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy-beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And in this moment we are perfect, we are whole and we are beautiful.”

We are infinitely greater than our ego, greater than our problems, greater than our pleasures. We are not just manifestations of infinity, we are infinity itself. Not just drops in the ocean, but each of us the entire ocean in a drop. The glass is always full.

You Will Reach Your Destination in 300 Yards

I met my wife Mary in 1988.  I was a nursing home administrator, she was a Director of Nursing.  We married the following year and as we built a life together I moved on professionally and built my own company, one of the most highly regarded Medicare certified home healthcare agencies in Illinois.  The intervening 25 years were the best and worst of times, but the best predominated by far. But the worst was pretty bad, starting with a diagnosis of breast cancer, followed by seven years of multiple re-occurrences, a lumpectomy, a mastectomy, two more primary carcinomas, endless ER visits and a gauntlet of surgeries, radiation and chemotherapies.

 

Mary died October 2013, age 63, but not of the breast cancer that continued to plague her.  There was no family history of cancer; fate seemed to have saved it all for her.  So even as she received treatment for a recurrence of breast cancer, when she ominously began to discharge blood, we nervously hoped for the best but feared the worst.   The worst was soon confirmed when her oncologist, with a very long face and conspicuously sober demeanor,  told Mary she had a uterine sarcoma, a relatively rare and particularly aggressive form of cancer.  The tumor was surgically removed in February but was back again in March. It returned after being incinerated by radiation and survived once again after being starved by embolization.  Mary carried on bravely, maintaining what routines she could, hoping to rescue a failing body with a positive mental attitude.  Then came the hammer; nodules were growing in her lung.  I’ve never before heard of anyone looking forward to a diagnosis of breast cancer, but we were all hoping the resulting biopsy would prove to be a metastasis from her lymph nodes.  That type of cancer, the doctors explained, was much more susceptible to chemotherapy.  But no such “luck.” Not only had the sarcoma proved impervious to treatment, it had metastasized.

 

No matter how much it may be expected, a diagnosis like that comes as a shock.  The impossible had at last become the inevitable.   Mary’s tears had dried by then and been replaced by resignation, but I shed a few on her behalf. Her first impulse was to forgo further treatment.  But within days of confirming the metastasis Mary’s discouragement yielded to determination and she continued treatment, hoping to defy the odds.  I remember sitting in the oncologist’s office during a follow-up examination. Mary was seated across from her doctor adorned in one of those lovely creations that open in the back, when she quietly asked “Am I dying?”  After a brief moment of silence lasting several hours, without looking up from the notes she was entering in the medical record, her doctor replied “no.”  Mary’s doc was as compassionate as she was highly skilled, dedicated to Mary’s well-being.  Her terse response may have been arguably correct (there’s always hope until there’s not) but her response was a resounding, unequivocal evasion. That’s a difficult conversation even for those practiced in the art, and physicians are rigorously trained to cure but not necessarily to heal. So, Mary was not dying, not until the moment she developed a fistula and her oncologist recommended hospice.

 

I’m uncertain if it was due to the heavy dose of opioids or the progression of the disease, probably both, but Mary’s physical strength and mental cognition steadily declined after that. I remember one evening sitting on the love seat across from her bed, watching her sleep, although I was seldom sure when she was sleeping or not even when she spoke, due to the sedative effects of her meds. She liked to see me there when she woke up, sometimes a bit frightened.  Her hands were folded across her chest, eyes shut and mouth slightly open, and I swear she looked like death.  She stirred a bit, a puzzled, almost pleading expression crossed her face as she reached out both arms, gesturing.  Silhouetted against the lamp shade I noticed that her hands were shaking uncontrollably.  In retrospect, I think it equally probable that what I interpreted as a pleading expression was in fact a joyful welcoming. She often said how she longed to hold her much loved Daisy, her “doodle bug “ beagle, just one more time. I picture her in a better place at that moment, overjoyed with reunion, arms open to receive her ear flopping, onrushing puppy.

 

There came a time when I could no longer care for Mary at home.  Near the end, on the eve of our 24th wedding anniversary, it was her wish to forgo food and water to hasten a comfortable death.  She was kept under terminal sedation for six days before the lack of fluids and the accumulation of toxins stopped her heart from beating…the last week of her life and the longest, most agonizing week of mine.

 

I would spend each day at the hospice center, going home at the noon hour to feed myself and the children, a dachshund named Little Ricky and a one eyed cat named Fergus. Each time I returned to the facility, the GPS would remind me that I would reach my destination in 300 yards. I knew the way, but relied on the GPS to spare me the effort of concentrating.  And each time I approached I thought of Mary, unconsciously waiting to die.  What would she think, what would she say if she had the gift of prophecy and knew that sleek building 300 yards in the distance would be her last earthly destination? And my destination, where and when would I be arriving?  It is the journey after all, not the destination, but had it been worth the trip?  When my time comes, will I be afraid to die because I had been afraid to live? How can I purposely inhabit the rest of my life?  These questions leaped to my mind in the interval it took me to turn off the intruding voice of the GPS.  Now was not the time, but soon: we are all just one breath away from infinity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is a Life Well Lived?

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau

I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to lead a “life well lived.” Appropriate enough considering that’s what I’ve named my consulting practice. My own walk in the woods has introduced me to many of the technical answers, aided in part by an impressive body of literature and research devoted to positive psychology. (I have a fairly large resource library on my website, if interested.) I’ve read my share of pop psychology self-help books, and the writings of accomplished life mentors, and studied the more academically rigorous ideas of scholars like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his “flow theory,” even though I’ve yet to master pronouncing his name (the theory in a nutshell, a person’s reach should exceed his grasp, but not by too much.)

My walk was informed by insights from world religions and philosophies, both ancient and modern (I tend toward Taoism), and thought experiments like “brain in a vat,” and even found thought provoking ideas in the realm of science fiction. For instance to borrow from The Matrix trilogy, would you sacrifice everything you’ve experienced, everything you are, and every potential to become, and render yourself an impotent and inert equivalent of a human battery, in exchange for an illusory but flawlessly real experience of bliss on demand? A fictitious, artificially induced life as real as the back of your hand, featuring everything you’ve always wanted?

The well-considered answer to that question is almost always “no.” But why not? Why not have your brain surgically removed and sustained and nourished in a vat of secret sauce? Artificially stimulated with perfect efficiency, living a perfect life of your own design. Mother Theresa, Bill Gates, Mick Jagger, Julius Caesar without the Ides of March? Done, satisfaction on demand! You would never know the difference between your cherished lifestyle and your home in a vat on a shelf in the science lab. So why not?

Sometimes the questions that best define the well lived life have no final answer. Instead, you carry the questions with you, finding deeper and deeper answers as you grow in your capacity to inhabit your life. I give you Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen.

Dr. Remen is a best-selling author, physician, and professor of alternative medicine at the Osher Center of Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. She has spent 25 years of her career as a physician and therapist to cancer patients, young and old,many of whom were fast approaching the end of life. “Cancer in particular,” she tells us, “strips life down to its essentials…how few things matter and how much those things really DO matter.” In her decades of experience, “No one has ever said to me ‘When I die I’ll miss my Mercedes’” adding cogently, “And I practice in Marin County!”

Dr. Remen uses storytelling drawn from her practice to illustrate the point. In one instance she speaks of a man named George, who at the age of 45 patented a piece of medical equipment and spent the next 20 years as the CEO of a company manufacturing and distributing his creation worldwide. A successful business man, sophisticated investor, and world traveler, he acquiried wealth and beautiful works of art. By most standards, he led an enviable, perhaps well lived life.

Six months before Dr. Remen met George for the first time, he had been diagnosed with colon cancer, wide spread, and was understandably shaken by his terminal diagnosis. But perhaps not for the predictable reason. “I’ve wasted my life,” he told Remen. “I have three ex-wives and five children. I support them all but I don’t know any of them. I never took the time to know them, or to know anyone else either. I don’t think there is anyone who is going to miss me and I’m leaving nothing behind me but a great deal of money.” His eyes teared up as he spoke.

As it happened, another of the doctor’s patients (call her Stephanie) knew George’s device first hand; it had changed her life. Prior to its use, her chronic disease symptoms rendered her home bound. Managing her symptoms took up all of her time. She was unable to work, had no friends and was literally unable to live a life among other people. But soon after being treated she was able to get a job. She made friends, met and married the love of her life, and had a beautiful baby boy. “The day they gave me this device” she confided, “I was reborn.”

HIPAA notwithstanding (thank God), Dr. Remen shared that she knew the inventor, and asked if Stephanie would write him a letter explaining what he had done for her. Instead, Stephanie asked the doctor to invite George to the house for dinner so she could show him what he had made possible. George was surprised and touched that Stephanie wanted to meet him. He had never met anyone before who had actually used the device. So he gladly accepted.

The evening of the dinner date arrived, George expecting to meet a young couple and their child. Instead, he was greeted by dozens and dozens of well-wishers; Stephanie’s family, friends, neighbors, a whole community of people who had sustained her in her years as an invalid. The small home was grandly decorated with crepe paper and everyone brought food for the celebration. And each spoke with George to share their story, the story of Stephanie’s life. It took almost two hours, and George cried through most of it. And at the end of the evening Stephanie told him, “This is really a story about you George. We thought you needed to know.”

George shared this story with Dr. Remen one week afterward, shaking his head with gratitude and wonder. “George, how many of those devices did you say you make each year?” she asked. “Almost 10,000. I only knew the numbers Rachel, I had no idea what they meant.”

So what is a life well lived? Certainly not the Mercedes. The well lived life is at once more simple and profound, and accessible to us all. In the words of Dr. Remen, “What matters is who we’ve touched on our way through life, and who has touched us. And what we leave behind in the minds and hearts of other people.”

Quora Question: How do I cope with the death of my ex husband? He died 5 years ago shortly after we got a divorce.”

The sadness of losing someone you love, or loved, never goes away completely, but it typically doesn’t remain center stage after five years. Being preoccupied to the extent it disrupts your daily routine or undermines other relationships is referred to as “complicated grief.” So what’s the complication? Your experience of death and divorce appear to be closely related, both in time and probably in raw emotion. How traumatic was your divorce, or for that matter you marriage? It’s rare when divorcing couple’s don’t harbor resentment for each other, or worse. Did the uninvited thought, “I wish he were dead?” ever cross your mind? Or perhaps you felt you didn’t “try hard enough” to save the marriage, that it was somehow, primarily your “fault.” Either way, your bereavement may be overcompensation for feelings of guilt. If wishing for the demise of an ex-spouse (or current) had effect, a third of the population would likely disappear. Thoughts have the power to kill peace of mind, not other people. Or perhaps there was a lot said in the months prior to his death that you wish were unspoken, or words you wanted to share that were never said. Unfinished business, complicating grief.

Try this. Write your ex a letter. Picture him in front of you. Tell him your thoughts and feelings. What do you miss about him, what DON’T you miss? Apologize or confront. Be honest. Don’t share what you think you SHOULD say but how you. really feel. If you want to mail the letter, burn it and scatter the ashes.

If you’re still struggling to cope, try joining a support group. Or find a professional grief counselor or therapist to discuss how to turn the page.

Response to Quora question, “What do you want?”

World peace or World Series tickets? More cash or more kindness? I’d want all the above, thank you. But given the constraints of our familiar form of reality, I would rephrase the question to “What you really want?” Happiness is the default answer. Aristotle counseled Eudaimonia, often translated as happiness but more accurately rendered as flourishing. I want to flourish, to thrive. I want to understand, and to act upon that understanding. I want to understand that at every moment in my life I have a choice; that moments add up to a lifetime and choices add up to a life.

With gratitude to Martin Seligman, the founder and face of Positive Psychology, I want positive emotions (like pleasure and comfort), engagement or “flow” (when I am absorbed in a task, unaware of self or emotion), meaning (belonging to or serving something higher than the self), positive relationships (no person is an island), and accomplishment (achievement for its own sake).

And I want World Series tickets

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