Stand Up Scout

•March 11, 2013 • Leave a Comment
After the trial for Tom Robinson's life, attorney Atticus Finch leaves the courtroom in defeat.

After the trial for Tom Robinson’s life, attorney Atticus Finch leaves the courtroom in defeat.

It’s a hot summer night in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama.  It’s 1933, right in the heart of the Great Depression.  People are desperate, poor, and tense.  Everyone in this town has been following a major trial — the one for Tom Robinson’s life.

Tom Robinson is African-American, despised for the alleged rape of a young Maycomb woman by his predominantly white peers.  They’ve already organized a mob, and would’ve taken his life by their own hands if not for the man standing between their fervent vengeance and the accused.

His name is Atticus Finch.  A pensive, intellectual and virtuous attorney…a widower struggling to raise his two children and defend a man that he knows doesn’t have a chance. On that night in the summer of 1933, Atticus and Tom will lose their fight.  And after the crowd of spectators leave this old courtroom, Atticus Finch is left alone to pack his belongings away into his briefcase.

But he’s not alone.  Watching above from a crowded balcony are his supporters — the forgotten community of Maycomb, and his children…his son Jem and daughter Jean Louise, a tomboy known to everyone as “Scout.”  To these people, this defeated man didn’t fail tonight…to them – he is a hero.

As he shuffles out of the courtroom, they rise in silent, stoic unison.  All but Atticus’ daughter.  It’s at this moment that a Reverend nearby softly demands…

“Stand up Scout.  Your father’s passing.”

Scout obeys — standing with the others, as Atticus exits the courtroom.

It’s always been one of my favorite scenes, in a movie that is powerful and poignant…a story that is timeless and rich with important lessons.  The bond between Atticus and his two  young children is the current that runs through this story, as they come-of-age in the most challenging of times.

Atticus and his daughter Jean Louise (aka "Scout")

Atticus and his daughter Jean Louise (aka “Scout”)

Early on in the story, Atticus tries to teach his daughter Scout a lesson in empathy.  He explains to her…

“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Atticus Finch is one of the greatest heroes in American fiction.  Gregory Peck’s portrayal of this character in the film not only won him an Oscar, but his character was named the # 1 Film Hero of all-time by the American Film Institute.  His embodiment of courage, quiet strength, humility, compassion, and above all – empathy makes this character and this story an unparalleled teaching tool for not just children, but for all of us.  There’s a lot we can learn from Atticus Finch…a lot we can learn about empathy.

When no one else could see it, Atticus struggled with his decisions and the tremendous pressure he was under.

When no one else could see him, Atticus struggled with his decisions and the tremendous pressure he was under.

There’s a certain paradox we struggle with while living life.  Outwardly, we see ourselves as separate, alone, and in constant competition with the world around us.  We force ourselves to toughen up, thicken our skin, defend ourselves if needed by fighting anyone or anything that seems to threaten us.  But all this attitude does is deepen the separation we feel.

So while we see the world this way, within we wish for it to be the opposite.  We strive to feel connected, understood…and loved.  This is why we seek out stories like To Kill a Mockingbird, why we strive to find archetypal heroes like Atticus Finch – because they feed our inner and better self.

Atticus’ solution to any challenge his children face is empathy.  When they get into fights at school, he forbids the violence and instead encourages them to see things from their antagonizer’s point-of-view.  When his son can’t understand why Tom Robinson’s accuser confronted and spit at Atticus after the trial, Atticus talks to him about tolerance and inner strength, not retaliation.  He teaches his son how to rise above the hate, not become swallowed by it.

All violence, all anger, all hate comes not from competition or a need for survival but from a place of fear.  This exists all around us, and if you think about it, is easily apparent…but just as easily forgotten. It takes the greatest strength to remember this, and the deepest courage.  That’s the road to empathy.

Empathy fosters connection, makes us feel deep inner peace and bliss, it’s the gateway to happiness, compassion, and love.  Maybe Atticus knew this better than most and maybe that’s why we wished it for his children…because there was no greater gift he could give them in life than the art of seeing the world from someone else’s point-of-view.

Following Bliss: 2012 Annual Report

•January 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,700 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

2012’s “Helpers”

•December 31, 2012 • 1 Comment

Last night I put up a post about the greatest challenges we faced in 2012.  From escalating conflict in the Middle East, to quarreling politicians, to climate change and finally to this year’s horrible mass shootings, our world faced (and continues to face) unbelievable tragedy, sadness, and adversity.

But while it’s easy, and somewhat natural to focus on all of the negative I think it’s important to remember all of the good growing in this world, much of it blossoming this year and in the face of 2012’s greatest tragedies.  In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, many news programs invited expert child psychologists onto their broadcasts to address the issue parents throughout the country were now facing…”How do we talk to our kids about what happened at Sandy Hook?”  A few of them referenced a method that came from the philosophy of a man who I spent hours watching and learning from as a child…Mr. Rogers.

In times of conflict and tragedy, Fred Rogers remembers the wisdom of his mother, who told him…

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

Fred Rogers (1928 – 2003) was an American educator that hosted the PBS children's show "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood"

Fred Rogers (1928 – 2003) was an American educator that hosted the PBS children’s show “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”

On the last day of this year I want to dedicate my time and energy to those I believe are 2012’s most inspiring “Helpers.”  A few of these people I had the privilege of meeting and speaking with.  Their courage and commitment to making the world better had a profound and lasting impact on me this year.  The others are stories that stood out for me – the inspired acts of ordinary people who faced great adversity and sometimes grave danger.  They’re people I’ve never met, and probably never will.  But whether I read about them or saw their story on TV, they proved to me that no matter the tragedy or adversity the world will always be full of people that care.


One of my favorite things to do every fall is watch ESPN’s College Gameday on Saturday mornings while I enjoy my coffee.  On one Saturday morning in November they aired a story about a teenage boy named Anthony Starego.  Starego has faced adversity his entire life.  Like millions of other children in America, Anthony’s best friend is the strict schedule and routine he relies on to navigate his way through each day.  At a very young age, Anthony was diagnosed with Autism.

Anyone that knows anything about this disorder understands how difficult it makes social interaction.  For someone that has Autism, “fitting in,” is a major struggle, and many autistic children who attend public schools become targets for social alienation and relentless bullying.  Like many children with Autism, Anthony can easily become obsessed with the things that really interest him.  For Anthony, one of these interests became football – specifically Rutgers Football.

In 2006, for arguably the biggest game in Rutgers history, a then 12-year-old Starego was in the stadium with his Father.  That night he witnessed the game winning kick by Rutgers kicker Jeremy Ito, followed by thousands of fans flooding the field — celebrating the great victory.  This event would shape a young boy’s dream.  He later told his father, “Dad, I want to be a kicker.”  Anthony’s father knew how difficult this would be for him.  A child with Autism like Anthony has severe difficulty with any interaction, never mind getting hit or tackled.  But Anthony’s Dad didn’t dispel his son’s dream, he fueled it.

A few years later, Anthony — against all odds — won the starting kicker position at his High School.  This past October, with only seconds left against his school’s greatest rival, Anthony lined up to kick a field goal that would break a tie-game.  In the biggest moment of this young boy’s life he would drill the kick through the uprights; sealing a huge victory for his team.  His teammates surrounded and celebrated him, fans flooded the field.  That night, Anthony Starego was everybody’s hero.

Teenager Anthony Starego, diagnosed with Autism when he was very young, has dreamed of kicking a game-winning field goal since he was 12 years old.

Teenager Anthony Starego, diagnosed with Autism when he was very young, has dreamed of kicking a game-winning field goal since he was 12 years old.

It’s difficult to understand what goes on in the mind of a child with Autism.  But Anthony Starego proved that all children, no matter what challenges they face, can dream big…and sometimes those dreams really do come true.  Next time you think the odds are all against you and you can’t endure, remember that a boy that probably faced much greater adversity stared it in the face and literally kicked it down.


I had the honor of meeting one of the Anti-Bullying Movement’s most dedicated and inspiring leaders this past September.  A victim of bullying when she was 12, Ashley would later save the life of one of her classmates who confessed to her that he was considering suicide as his only way out. Saving this boy’s life showed Ashley that she was capable of great change.  It inspired her to create her own anti-bullying non-profit organization called Students Against Being Bullied.  Her mission to prevent bullying in her own school led her to be an anti-bullying advocate for other schools and organizations.  To date, Ashley has spoken at well over 60 schools, teaching students and educators alike about what they can do to fight back against the greatest threat her generation faces.  Ashley’s work has also brought her to National Conferences where she has appeared as a guest speaker.

16-year-old Ashley Craig is the founder of "Students Against Being Bullied," a student-led bullying prevention organization.

16-year-old Ashley Craig is the founder of “Students Against Being Bullied,” a student-led bullying prevention organization.

Connected by a mutual friend, Ashley’s world-changing work was already several years in the making by the time we met with her at her High School in Sussex, NJ.  That’s right — Ashley is only 16 years old.

While other kids her age are worried more about their social status, sports performances, or academic scores — Ashley spends her days not only worrying about the safety and well-being of others, but advocating on their behalf for change.  For a kid that’s severely bullied in today’s world, it feels like no one understands or cares, it feels like you’re all alone and up against the world.  Ashley has selflessly taken on the role as these victims’ advocate, their protector, their friend.

Ashley believes we can live in a nation without bullying someday.  She dreams of being in Washington and working side-by-side with others to implement a National Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights.  While others look at this issue, shake their heads, and say, “what a shame,” Ashley is leading a charge for change.  Her dream is helping others feel safe and empowered enough to follow theirs.  Her work allows all of us to imagine a safer, more harmonious world…a better world.


In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting, millions of Americans felt the need to act, asking of themselves “what can I do?”  NBC journalist Ann Curry answered this question with an inspired solution.  Using social media as her ally, she asked each of us to commit to 26 random acts of kindness.  Each act would honor the memory of one of Sandy Hook’s victims.  On Twiter, if you type in #26 you’ll be transported to an unending list of significant acts of kindness taking place all over the world and in the memory of those that lost their lives on that terrible day.

26 Acts of Kindness was created by NBC's Ann Curry as a response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

26 Acts of Kindness was created by NBC’s Ann Curry as a response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. or #26Acts

To each and every person that has “Committed to 26,” and will continue to in the New Year…you are one of the Helpers.  Hopefully the 27th random act of kindness you commit isn’t a result of tragedy.  How wonderful would our world be if we focused more on acts like these…on the random and average good happening every day?  We’ll never know until we try.


I was fortunate enough to do some work for a charity doing some very important work in the world this past year.  Family Reach Foundation provides not only heartfelt support to families whose children are fighting pediatric cancer, but this organization often helps them get through crippling financial challenges wrought by the disease.

In March, I had the privilege of meeting a wonderful New Jersey family.  In their home, I interviewed a 9-year old girl named Bethany.  When we met, Bethany was thankfully coming out on the other side of leukemia in remission.  After hearing about her struggles from her parents I asked Bethany about how she battled her way through cancer.  According to Bethany she put her faith in God, believing that if she was good that he, “would always keep her.”  I asked Bethany about her big dreams.  She imagines a big family of her own someday, with a loving husband and beautiful children.  Not only does she see herself caring for her own family, but others as well.  This cancer has shown Bethany not only the depths of her own inner-strength, but the power that helping others can have.  Bethany plans to be a nurse one day, so she can help heal other people like the nurses that looked after her.

A few months later, I was standing beside Bethany and her family when she had maybe the biggest thrill of her young life.  In that moment, Matt Damon squatted down to her level, and with a big smile asked her what her name was.  After she answered, he said, “It’s nice to meet you Bethany, ya know I have a daughter that’s about your age too.”  For a kid that already glows, she was beaming.  For anybody that doesn’t believe that good things happen to good people — I wish you were standing beside me that evening, because seeing this would’ve proved you dead wrong.

I’m still amazed by how much I learned from a courageous 9 year old girl. If she can face cancer, overcome it, and see the world with the same optimism, wonder, and beauty that she does…then what excuse do you or I have to see it any different?


I don’t think anybody that lives in the NY metropolitan area will ever forget Hurricane Sandy.  The intense images of devastation are burned into our memories forever — and for those that lost their homes or even more tragically their loved ones — nothing will ever give them the solace and peace needed to truly “move on.”  But for all of us that were pure witnesses to that week — I hope we’ll always remember “The Helpers.”

There are so many that hopefully someday a book is written just about them.  But for now, all I can do is write about the people and stories that I remember the best from that harrowing aftermath.

At NYU’s Langone Medical Center, the power outage and subsequent failure of their generators the night of the storm brought Nurses, Doctors, and Emergency Personnel a tremendous challenge.  Using mere flashlights to light their way, these helpers carried patients down as many as 15 flights of narrow stairs — one by one — to ambulances waiting below.  Many of these patients in fragile, life-threatening condition — including newborn babies being kept alive only by respirators.  These children were carried down the stairs, one at a time, by a paramedic while a nurse manually pumped air into their tiny lungs.  As far as I know, all of these babies are alive today, and all of them will celebrate their first birthday in 2013.

In the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy medical professionals at NYU Langone Medical Center evacuated patients to safety -- including newborn babies.

In the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy medical professionals at NYU Langone Medical Center evacuated patients to safety — including newborn babies.

In my hometown of Hoboken people living on the first floor up and down my block guided power strips out their windows and offered fresh coffee and food every morning to town residents who were without power for days.  There was nothing more moving those first few days after the storm, than seeing someone plug in a dead cell phone, call their family and tell them, “Don’t worry, I’m okay.”

First Responders and Energy Professionals worked non-stop for days and even weeks after the storm hit — restoring power to homes and businesses, coordinating traffic, putting out fires, repairing downed power lines, and the heavy presence of so many police officers in every town made all of us feel as if maybe we’d be “safe,” and okay after all.  Energy professionals and construction professionals came from states all over the country, down from Canada, and from overseas to lend their time, knowledge, expertise, and energy to the rebuilding effort.  Many of them are still working on putting our home back together to this day.

Being a first responder or energy professional doesn’t mean that your home is the first one to get, trees cleared, water removed, or power back.  Just like the rest of us, their homes suffered damage, their families slept in the cold and waited on long gas lines.  But every day that got back up and out, working to restore the basic “needs” of our world.  Not only did Sandy remind us that we take complex systems like electricity, water, and waste removal for granted…but that we take the hard workers that maintain these systems and ensure our safety for granted as well.

To all of the first responders and energy professionals that worked to bring life back to normal and who continue to do so — thank you for being the Helpers not just in the days after the storm…but every day.


No tragedy this year was more devastating than the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  But even as we untangled the details of that morning’s horror, there are many stories of incredible heroism that came to the surface.

During his speech at the Newtown Memorial Service on a solemn Sunday night, President Obama spoke to us not as a leader or politician, but as a Father.  He simultaneously reminded himself and all of us of the shared responsibility we all have in raising America’s children.  We all set an example for them to follow, we all help them learn valuable life lessons, we show them how to grow and face all of life’s adversity with compassion and integrity.

Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT was invaded by a gunman on December 14th, 2012.

Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT was invaded by a gunman on December 14th, 2012.

On that tragic morning, there are stories of many teachers and aides that risked their own lives to keep other people’s children safe from harm.  There are teachers that hid children in closets and darkened rooms, that kept their composure under the most dire of circumstances.  For hours, some of these teachers watched over these children in quiet darkness, instructing them to draw happy pictures and “show me your best smile.”

The elementary school’s dedicated principal Dawn Hochsprung believed in the hopes and dreams of every child in her school.  She knew that the work that she and her staff do on a daily basis is the most important work anyone can do in the world, but she didn’t look for credit or approval from others.  She is remembered by many parents and faculty members as always “positive,” and someone that made parents sending their little boy or little girl off to school for the very first time feel like she deeply cared about their child, and would do everything she could to keep the safe and help them grow.  She had advocated for a state-of-the-art security system and made sure faculty and students strictly adhered to the school’s Lockdown procedures.  And even when all of these precautions broke down around her, Hochsprung put herself between the shooter and the children under her protection.  She led by example, and there were other teachers that day that put themselves between the shooter and innocent children.  If not for the heroism of Hochsprung and other teachers that morning we may be remembering 40 or 50 victims today…not 20.

*             *            *

On the surface, it may look like the stories of all of these helpers are vast and disparate.  But not for me.  To me, these helpers have a common, and unmistakeable bond.  They all remind us that no matter how alone we feel, how great the adversity we face seems, that we are ALL connected to so many other lives.  Some are our family, some our friends, but many others are strangers that we intersect with every day on our crazy journey through this thing we all call life.  When we’re not so absorbed by our own plights or problems, when we’re listening to the world around us, and when we’re really trying to find the good out there — they are there.

2012’s Helpers have shown us how to live life to its fullest, how to remain strong in the face of personal adversity and grave, certain danger.  They embody integrity, empathy, and show us what true character really is.  I remember them as I look back at 2012 and the lessons they all taught me.  They remind me that no matter what happens in 2013, to always look around and find “The Helpers,”  and then to find a way to become one for someone else.

Remembering 2012

•December 31, 2012 • 1 Comment

It was supposed to be the year the world ended…

…or at least “changed.”


With one day left in this year, the way we view these 365 days now is probably very different from the way history will see them.  Right now though, on the surface, it doesn’t look like much changed this year from the last few years past.  Anyone I’ve talked to about this year has the same response…”it went fast.”  2012 did seem to be a draining year, at times exhausting.  This year provided America with a seemingly unending Presidential election — what many called the “ugliest” and “nastiest” in our nation’s history.  And while both candidates talked about dynamic change and progress, they neglected to tell us how they would lead others we’ve elected to work together to solve our collective problems.

The 2012 Election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was called the "ugliest" and "nastiest" in our country's history.

The 2012 Election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was called the “ugliest” and “nastiest” in our country’s history.

The remainder of this year since Election Day has showed us more of the same…mounting anxiousness over incessant conflict in the Middle East and grave fear and tremendous uncertainty over our collective financial future.  Facing tremendous adversity and challenge, our “leaders” seem to still be more worried about political maneuvering than problem-solving.  In a year where we were promised hope, change, and reform we’ve only received more of the same rhetoric and stagnancy.


Satellite image of Superstorm Sandy as it approaches the Northeastern US.

Satellite image of Superstorm Sandy as it approaches the Northeastern US.

It’ll be impossible to look back on 2012 without discussing the violent weather.  America itself was besieged by quickly-changing climate and dramatic storm systems.  Throughout the country this year, average temperatures rose to the highest they’ve been in history in many places.  The midwest experienced one of their worst tornado seasons and many areas of the Northeast were literally transformed by “Superstorm Sandy.”  Sandy didn’t take the track of hurricanes past, riding the coastline and gradually losing energy and force.  Instead, the storm gathered strength over the ocean before spinning into the Northeast at full force.  Combined with a late October Northern cold front and tidal forces created by a Full Moon the storm smacked the coastlines of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut with storm surges ranging from 10 to almost 20 feet high.  In the immediate aftermath of the storm, those with power were witnesses to images of unprecedented damage.  Houses removed from their foundations and obliterated by ocean waves.  America’s greatest metropolitan area — New York City saw one third of Manhattan under water in the immediate aftermath of the storm.  Major tunnels and bridges shut down, and blocks upon blocks without power for days.  New York City Burroughs fell victim to even greater devastation.   Areas of Staten Island and Queens (particularly Breezy Point) featured horrendous flooding and widespread damage.  For many of the people that lived in these neighborhoods — the word “home” will never feel the same, ever again.

A couple looks at the devastation to their neighborhood after a fire caused by Sandy destroyed 80 homes.

A couple looks at the devastation to their neighborhood after a fire caused by Sandy destroyed 80 homes.

I’m writing this post from my home in Hoboken, NJ.  This town, an adopted burrough of The Big Apple is an island roughly a mile long and home to 50,000 people.  Hoboken was one of the hardest hit areas during Sandy.  I’ve lived in New Jersey all of my life.  Like many kids that’ve grown up here, most of my childhood is filled with memories of time spent with friends and family down at The Jersey Shore.  Thanks to Sandy, these beaches and boardwalk communities are now unrecognizable.  It’s not just buildings that were ripped from their roots and pulled out to sea — it’s a collection of memories so many of us made as children playing on those beaches, laughing on those boardwalk rides.  Now those memories exist only in our imagination.  Much of New Jersey was turned into something resembling a demilitarized zone in the wake of the storm.  Miles and miles of communities without electricity, downed power lines and uprooted trees, blocked roads, closed bridges, and gas lines miles long weren’t the exception.  For one week in 2012 — this was normal life.

The boardwalk/amusement park in Seaside Heights, NJ after Superstorm Sandy.

The boardwalk/amusement park in Seaside Heights, NJ after Superstorm Sandy.

As a state, and as a country, we continue to rebuild after this historic storm.  But how?  Many scientists point to this storm as proof that Global Climate Change DOES EXIST.  With rising sea levels and aggressively erratic temperatures shifts how do we plan for an uncertain future?


When the history books write about 2012 decades from now they may see it as a turning point, or maybe the early days of a new era in our nation’s violence.  2012 was our nation’s worst ever  in terms of mass shootings.  151 Americans died this year in 10 mass shootings, while countless others were injured.

Georgia Health Spa Shooting – Norcross, Georgia – February 21st, 2012

Chardon High School Shooting – Cleveland, Ohio – February 27th, 2012

Oikos University Shooting – Oakland, California – April 2nd, 2012

Seattle Cafe Shooting  – Seattle, Washington – May 30th, 2012

Aurora Movie Theater Shooting – Aurora, Colorado – July 20th, 2012

Sikh Temple Shooting – Oak Creek, Wisconsin – August 5th, 2012

Minnesota Workplace Shooting – Minneapolis, Minnesota – September 27th, 2012

Brookfield Spa Shooting – Milwaukee, Wisconsin – October 21st, 2012

Clackamas Town Center Shooting – Portland, Oregon – December 11th, 2012

Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting – Newtown, Connecticut – December 14th, 2012

While each of these tragedies grabbed our attention this year, two in particular were the most haunting.  The first happened in a affluent suburb of Denver, Colorado known as Aurora.  Just before midnight in a movie theater, a single shooter entered the premiere showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.”  He opened fire on the crowd, killing 12 and injuring 58 others.  No clear-cut motive for this destruction, and in the days after the tragedy we found ourselves asking the same question from coast to coast — “Why?”

A massive candlelight vigil was held for victims of the Aurora Movie Theater Shooting.

A massive candlelight vigil was held for victims of the Aurora Movie Theater Shooting.

Almost 6 months later, the unthinkable happened again.  This time though, the tragedy and impact was worse.  At an Elementary School in a quiet New England town, a lone shooter entered and opened fire on the faculty and children inside before taking his own life.  26 people dead, most horrible of all — 20 young children, between the ages of 5 – 7.  All throughout our country that afternoon and evening, there are stories of mothers and fathers rushing home, hugging their children, and not wanting to let go.  And in the days that followed, we all felt as though a member of our family had been taken too —  hearing the stories of these innocent, vibrant lives with so much life still left to live — and the teachers, counselor and principal who gave their own lives, defending them.

Immediately, the media turned both tragedies into a rallying cry for “gun control.”  Other agencies or groups blasted our Mental Health departments at the state and federal level, while others blamed violent video games and movies.  As in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, or the Columbine or Virginia Tech shootings the finger-pointing has always been the same.  And what we often find is that these political arguments immediately become polarizing and debilitating — seemingly distracting us from the issue at hand until its swept away by the next major news story.

Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT was invaded by a gunman on December 14th, 2012.

Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT was invaded by a gunman on December 14th, 2012.

Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”  What is it within the American psyche that is so drawn to and fascinated by violence?  In my opinion, any chance we have of preventing future tragedies starts not with eliminating weapons or better mental health check-ups.  These are appendages that distract us from attacking the greater issue.  We must go much deeper than the surface to solve the problem, and we all have to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror.  Our media is our natural mirror.  Through movies, music, and television our lives are reflected through art.  Through the news, our lives are unveiled to us as “fact.”  From our living room, the news shapes our view of the outside world — all of its potential for greatness, despair, and destruction.  In 2012 America, our media is failing us.  The majority have chosen style over substance and sensationalism over truth.  All too often, they reflect a world back to us where murder and mayhem bring immediate attention.  In the mind’s eye of a mentally disturbed person, attention and fame are one in the same.

I remember one of the most poignant moments from CNN’s coverage during the Aurora Shootings, when a father of one of the victims shakily came up in front of the camera to speak to Anderson Cooper.  Live, on the air, he pleaded with Cooper and other broadcasters to completely refrain from televising the shooter’s name, image, and story.  He knew what we’re all afraid to admit, that our attention only feeds the next one of these tragedies.  During his coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, Cooper kept his promise — never identifying the shooter by name or image during his broadcast.

Candles penned with the names of Sandy Hook victims are lined up at a vigil after the shooting.

Candles penned with the names of Sandy Hook victims are lined up at a vigil after the shooting.

For me personally, the Sandy Hook shooting felt debilitating…and I don’t think I was alone.  The overall weight of the tragedy and then the heart-wrenching personal stories shared by parents, grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, and siblings about the children their families had just lost was so deeply saddening it felt like it settled deep in my bones and hasn’t left to this very day.  I’ve always believed that children, not adults, are the ones with real courage.  Before they know any better — they demand action and laughter, they give their love freely and openly, without any fear of the repercussions.  As I heard the individual stories of these 20 children I thought deeply about the places they had called home…about their families.  I thought about those 20 Christmases.  When you’re a child, nothing is more magical than Christmas morning…then jumping out of bed and rushing down those stairs in your pajamas…about seeing what Santa brought you this year, and then finally tearing open those presents.  In those 20 homes this year, those beds were neat and made, those steps were eerily silent, and those presents were never opened.

When an adult passes away we talk about their accomplishments.  The titles they held, awards they won…we talk about how many children they had and how many grandchildren followed them.  But when a child dies, the eulogy is so much different.  Instead it’s about the little things they enjoyed about their day, the little quirks about their personality, the dreams they had, and always the love they shared.

We can all learn a lot from these 20 children, and it has nothing to do with gun control, violent video games, or mental health evaluations.  The lesson these children have for us is much richer.  It is a lesson about how we can and must — come together.


At this point, we can’t do anything to change the way history will view this year…it’s almost over.  But as we look forward to 2013 we can use the events of 2012 as a compass for our future.  As technology pulls us farther and farther apart, these tragedies should serve as reminders as to why we need to come together and work together to build a better collective future.  Instead of focusing on our political differences we should instead shed light on the things we have in common — the things that make us all human.  Any great tragedy teaches us this, that we are all fragile and that we all need the help of others every single day.

History’s mind is already made up on 2012, but when it comes to 2013 — the World is truly what we make of it.  We’re still here, so what kind of world do you want it to be?

Practice the Present

•December 4, 2012 • Leave a Comment
"The oak tree in my garden appears to be looking at me now.  It must be more than 400 years old and the only thing it has learned is to stay in one place." - Paulo Coelho

The oak tree in my garden appears to be looking at me now. It must be more than 400 years old and the only thing it has learned is to stay in one place.” – Paulo Coelho

What if I told you that TIME was all in your head?

Whether you believe you never have enough of it, it’s quickly running out, or even that it’s on your side it’s really all just a creation of your imagination.  Of course you’re not the only one that feels this way.  Time is something we can all agree on, so that means it’s real, right?  Well whether it’s real or not can be debated.  But what is for sure is that the way we use it and experience it is different for everybody.

Collectively, time is unifying.  It brings us together.  We use it to look back at our collective history and to look forward at where we want to be in the future.  It reminds us of traditions and helps us plot out events to take place in the distance.  In his book “Stumbling on Happiness,” psychologist Daniel Gilbert refers to this as the act of “making future.”  We are the only species on Earth that can do it…and, he suggests, it is the human brain’s greatest achievement.

“To see is to experience the world as it is,” he begins, “to remember is to experience the world as it was, but to imagine — ah, to imagine is to experience the world as it isn’t and has never been, but as it might be.”  It’s called prospection:  the act of looking forward in time or considering the future.  And it is a trait, completely unique … to us.

The same incredible ability to look forward and imagine the future also allows us to look back at our past.  Our memory allows us to find events at will in the database of our mind, recover them, analyze them, and draw conclusions from them.  These conclusions are what we will use as aids in making our future decisions — our past serving as an unlikely but very common compass for our future.

But when you look at time this way and the way you use it to view yourself, your decisions, and the world around you … consider what is always missing.   NOW.

The present is something we almost always overlook.  Why?  What are we missing?  Psychologists like Gilbert would argue that when we view life only as what happened or what we want to happen next that we’re missing out on happiness.

Our natural distortion of time worsens our experience.  Analyzing areas of difficulty in the past and using them to chart the actions we imagine for our future can not only be detrimental…but flat out paralyzing to our bliss.

In Paolo Coelho’s Aleph he uses an old Oak Tree in his yard as the perfect metaphor for gauging time and wisdom.  The oak tree is over 400 years old, majestic and overwhelming.  He stares at it, remembering a time when it once brought him awe and astonishment, when he was younger and thinking about the power that must come with time, wisdom, and experience.  But now as an older man himself he realizes that this great oak hasn’t learned much in 400 years — other than how to stay only in one place.

“Time doesn’t teach,” a mentor tells him, “it merely bring us a sense of weariness and growing older.”  This may be why after a few failures in life we start to delay decisions and attempt to “control” time.  It manifests and transforms the way we view others around us, even the world which we see not necessarily as it is — but again as a creation of our own mind.  It’s shaped by a confusing mix of our own personal experiences and the persuasions of others around us.  Then it becomes “the way” that we filter life … again the compass we use to chart our path for the future.

Despite our ability to imagine happiness, to construct an optimistic view of the future — many of us instead fall too easily into the rut of negative thoughts.  It’s in our DNA, engrained in our evolution.  From our ancestors thinking negatively, analyzing the dangers and failings of the past and trying to minimize risk is what kept us safe, but also alive.  75 – 80 percent of the average human being’s thoughts are negative…even on a good day.  So even when we are hopeful about the future (or tell ourselves we are), we often self-sabotage that happiness by overlooking the most important part of it…the present.

The present, the now, IS the key.  Many great Eastern spiritual teachers believe that the present moment is eternity…it’s “karma.”  Not the way we all often mistake the word or its meaning.Past and future exist nowhere else but in our mind and the only way to change our future is to ignore it and the dangers from our past.  What you may find here is that despite thinking about all of the things that happened to you and all the things you want to happen in your future that in the present you feel calm and peace.  Whether we’re past or future oriented we have a tendency to identify ourselves with either…often both.

Studies show that people who truly know how to enjoy the Present…

Have higher-functioning brains.

Lower heart rate and blood pressure.

Less susceptible to illness.

Live longer.

Some Eastern monks are said to have lived around 120 years!  A major element in this “achievement” is their practice of present-oriented thinking.  I think it’s interesting to think that the people least concerned with “time,” are the ones that are around the longest.  So how do we get there…how to abandon the past and forget about the future.  I found an article with some interesting tips…

1.)  Witness your thoughts:  don’t try to “quiet” or “shut out” your thoughts.  Instead experience your own inner thoughts as you would noise.  In other words…allow for separation from your thoughts without trying to eliminate them.

2.)  Re-Identify yourself:  Most of us identify ourselves with our thoughts.  This is especially dangerous when we use our past as our guiding force.  This means that we identify ourselves as our past, the “inner voice” that’s constantly talking to us in our mind.  You’re much more than your inner dialogue.

3.)  Just Breathe:  Take a moment and pay attention the way you breathe.  Focus on each breath as it goes in and out and how it seems to take shape and move through your whole body.  Anybody that enjoys yoga would probably agree with this one.

4.)  Enjoy Music:   Music may actually be the language of the world.  It resonates in us, it actually has a positive effect on the cells in our body…nourishing them and allowing them to repair themselves after times of stress.  I remember years ago doing a story for a Children’s Hospital and in interviewing Music Therapy specialists they explained to me the way that music will actually merge with the body.  It syncs with our not only our heart beat but also our brainwaves.  Softer, soothing music was used by these therapists to improve motor functions and speech patterns in children who will never walk or talk like you or I.  However, their work was proven to increase not only the lifespan of these children…but to provide them with an overall better quality of life.

5.)  Peace of Mind:  It’s called “Mindfulness.”  Much like tip # 1, it’s the art of being aware. While you are distancing yourself from your thoughts make the effort to observe life around you.  This doesn’t just mean when you’re out in nature or around a lot of people that you can observe.  It means taking notice of your actions and all of the experiences around you…RIGHT NOW.  As I write this, I’m taking notice of the way my fingers feel when they hit the keys and the sound it makes, etc.  You can do this anywhere.

For a more in-depth list of these tips and the article that accompanies it…go to:

I’m going to add one more to this list that I like…

6.)  Act Against Routine:  If we identify ourselves with our thoughts and in our thoughts we only analyze our past and use it to predict the future then we get stuck in a routine that is crippling.  Take action, when you feel a “routine” forming, including in your thought pattern then act AGAINST it.  Do what is not intuitive but counter-intuitive.  “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results,” said Albert Einstein.  I agree.

In closing, now is the time for you to take away your past…then, forget about the future.  What are you left with?  The present is where you are open…where you’re free…where you’re the real YOU.  Now that you’ve met that person, I guarantee that you’ll have a better compass for what to do next.  In fact, it’ll probably just “come to you.”

You might realize that the rest was all in your head…it was just your imagination.

Lincoln’s Lessons

•November 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” chronicles the last 4 months of our 16th President’s Life – focusing on his mission to abolish slavery.

This weekend Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited biopic Lincoln was released in theaters throughout the country.  This epic, a decade in the making, chronicles the last 4 months of Abraham Lincoln’s life.  It is a span that begins with the conclusion of America’s Civil War, focuses on our 16th President’s struggle to abolish slavery and ends with (spoiler alert!) his assassination.  The film was inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Team Of Rivals, which I recently began reading.

Lincoln’s early life was such a struggle, full of poverty, tremendous hardship and deep sadness brought on by the losses of two women he was extremely close with – his mother and older sister.  In a country that cherishes it’s underdogs – Abraham Lincoln was the consummate.  He ascended from poverty to the most prominent position of power available in America and then carefully guided our scarred, fractured nation through it’s darkest hours.  With every new sentence you read about this man you can’t help but feel a deep resonance within that grows greater by the moment.  He’s is simultaneously relatable and paradoxically distant and untouchable — like a myth.  For me, Lincoln is so inspiring for his philosophy, not his political philosophy…but the philosophy with which he lived his life by.

There are a lot of life lessons we can learn from the way in which Abraham Lincoln viewed and lived life.  Here are the ones that I feel are his greatest…

Famous picture of Lincoln taken in 1863. Growing up in complete poverty, Lincoln was focused on his great life ambitions from a very young age.

1.)  Honor Knowledge:

Lincoln didn’t have the luxuries enjoyed by many of the politicians that would be his contemporaries.  His father was an illiterate farmer who seemed to always be working off debt.  Lincoln had to work excruciatingly long hours every day just to make ends meet.  Still, no matter how tired he was he made time every day to read.  Whatever book he could get his hands on, sometimes traveling miles to borrow one from another family.  There are stories about a young Lincoln that would be so excited when he would get a new book that he would be transfixed upon it, unable to think of anything other than opening it’s cover and discovering the illumination of its pages.  His father not only looked down upon his son’s passion for knowledge but actively tried to sabotage it — often destroying his son’s books or beating Lincoln as punishment for reading.  But Lincoln saw the knowledge he gained as power.  He used it to build his confidence and fill his powerful mind.  He taught himself how to memorize passages at will and throughout the rest of his life always made time to read.  Lincoln never stopped learning.  He used this knowledge to build his law practice, outsmarting lawyers with greater pedigree and academic degrees than him by far.  He did the same later with his political adversaries.  Abraham Lincoln never left America, but the depth and range of his knowledge allowed him to see the World.

Our Founding Fathers created America because they believed that people had the God-given right to govern themselves…that they should be uninhibited by kingdom or government in the fulfillment of their great inner potential.  As Lincoln was coming-of-age in a still very young America he had to fight for every ounce of his knowledge.  He cherished it so deeply that he would someday give his life fighting to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery.  It was an act that would pave the way for millions to experience the same “God-given” right.  In today’s America many of us treat our education and the powerful knowledge that can be gained from it with indifference and entitlement.  I can only imagine how this would make Lincoln feel.

Two-time Oscar Winner Daniel Day Lewis portrays the 16th President in the film “Lincoln.”

2.)  The Suffering of Others Is Your Own

This is a lesson in empathy. His historians have often focused on Lincoln’s deep, almost preternatural feelings of empathy.  He seemed to absorb the suffering of others and it would quickly manifest as his own.  Throughout the brutal days of The Civil War Lincoln often ended his nights by writing long, heartfelt letters to widows and parents of soldiers who had died in battle.  In these letters he often talked about the multitude of personal losses he had sustained throughout his own life — his mother, sister, and young son Eddie who died after a long struggle with tuberculosis when he was only four.

It would be easy to say that Lincoln’s empathy was shaped solely by the personal losses he endured, but history seems to indicate it goes much deeper than that.  Many agree that Lincoln had what could be called a “melancholy” demeanor and temperament.  He was extremely pensive, thoughtful and serious — giving him the appearance of a man that may have battled chronic and almost crippling depression throughout his life.  But when you look at Lincoln’s life on the whole you see a man that didn’t suffer from the depth of his feeling but used it to help shape his endeared philosophy on life.

There are almost comical stories about Lincoln’s empathy in his young life.  He’s said to have been deeply disturbed and almost personally hurt by seeing his schoolmates turning helpless turtles on their backs and burning their stomachs with matches.  This childhood experience is said to be one that Lincoln often revisited.  There’s one story about an older Lincoln who passed a horribly injured pig on his way into town.  The thought of leaving this defenseless animal there to die ate away at him so much that he went back, rescued the animal and helped nurse it back to health.

Those that knew him best report that Lincoln seemed to be incapable of hurting another living creature.  That their pain was unbearable to him that he would do whatever was in his power to “fix” it to lift the cloud of anguish he was experiencing.  Knowing all of this one has to wonder about the toll the carnage of The Civil War must’ve taken on him.  But maybe this tells us something else about leadership.  I believe that a great leader should be one of great empathy and a deep understanding of others experience.

There are studies that show that Empathy is on the decline in today’s world, falling precipitously.  Some organizations such as “The Greater Good” ( are working hard to develop programs promoting and increasing empathy, especially in children.  I believe that a detachment from our empathy is a fracturing of our very humanity.  From the way it sounds, our 16th President would agree with this statement.

3.)  Take Time to Decide

Lincoln struggled mightily with some of his greatest decisions – not only during his presidency but in his personal life as well.  When courting his wife Mary he revealed to his closest friends the conflict he felt within, wondering openly if we would be able to provide a happy home life for her at the same time as he pursued his vast personal ambitions.

The President was notorious for stalling, plotting, and struggling with big decisions.  Quietly taking his time to meditate on all of the possible angles.  It made his foes think he was weak and indecisive, but in truth it was this ability to weigh all of the possible scenarios and “see” all of the potential consequences to any action taken that formed his great perspective.

I’ve always believed that leadership should be strong, immediate, and decisive.  But as I get older I value more and more the benefit of giving big decisions the time they deserve.  Lincoln was a master at this, not only doing his own thinking but inviting the thoughts and opinions of those around him — from his most trusted confidants and sometimes to individuals that weren’t much more than strangers.  To be a great decision-maker, especially one who is counted on to make decisions for others, I’ve learned that you should never feel that your way is the only way or the right way.  Lincoln always invited discussion, wasn’t overly threatened by challenges to his opinion.  At the times in his presidency where things were at their worst, he seemed to have an uncanny ability to become egoless.

When you are making decisions from an egoless place you have the ability to think free of emotion.  This also allowed Lincoln to understand and appreciate the art of seizing an opportunity.  The main focus of Spielberg’s film is the struggle to Pass the 13th Amendment in the final days of the Civil War.  Lincoln could’ve settled for a quicker end to the War, which would’ve been the popular choice.  Instead he saw a unique opportunity to not only end the War but Slavery simultaneously and he pushed and persuaded all of the branches of our Government to make it happen.

When one operates from an emotionless and egoless place their vision into the future is vast.  He knew the importance of seizing the moment, probably because he gave each of his decisions the value, time and respect it deserved.

Lincoln visiting Union troops on the battlefield.

4.)  See Through the Eyes of Others

A continuation of Lessons # 2 and 3, Lincoln used his uncanny empathy to see from the point-of-view of others.  This again means a detachment from the needs, wants, and desires of oneself in order to accurately see and feel a situation from the place of another.  Empathy allows you to interpret the motivations, hopes, and possible decisions that others may feel and make.  This ability made Lincoln a formidable political foe, as he could accurately predict how challengers and enemies would think and act — always staying many steps ahead of them.  He knew exactly how to support and inspire others in order to get the best out of them even in critical and sometimes dire situations.

5.)  Be Open to Criticism

Lincoln took the time to surround himself with people that didn’t just follow his lead but often challenged him.  He invited criticism and kept discourses loose and open.  Some of his greatest rivals earlier in his political career would sit with him in his Cabinet and would later become some of his closest friends and greatest admirers.  He knew how to make a friend out of any enemy, not by manipulating but again leaving himself open.  With the thoughts and minds around him free of any constraint he was again able to get people operating around him at their best.  He didn’t see their challenges as personal attacks, it didn’t make him defensive, he instead saw their opinions as they really are — different, but never wrong.

6.)  Embrace and Encourage Humor

As serious and melancholy as Lincoln often was, he’s also remembered for being incredibly funny.  His sense of humor was quick, sincere and self deprecating.  As serious as the times he lived in were, he was always careful to not take himself too seriously.  In the middle of serious meetings he would often divert the attention of the room to the humorous with an anecdotal story.  Sometimes these moments of humor seemed to come out of nowhere, surprising those around him.  But it seems that the opposite is true…Lincoln knew what kind of effect his humor would have on others, often helping them to loosen up when they were too tense.

A great leader can innately sense what those around him are thinking and feeling, and thus knows exactly what to do to have them thinking and working at their best.  Often this means giving them the opportunity to breathe, forget, and relax for a moment before re-focusing on the difficult work ahead.  When it comes to bringing and keeping people together, humor is a indispensable tool.  Lincoln not only knew, but openly embraced and practiced this.

7.)  Enjoy the Art of Storytelling

Lincoln loved the escape offered by great stories.  When he was a boy and couldn’t get his hands on many books he would read the ones he had over and over again.  He’s said to know The Bible inside-out, have Aesop’s fables memorized, his knowledge of Shakespeare was deep and rich as was his knowledge of Greek mythology.  Abraham Lincoln not only loved a good story but also saw the immense value in sharing them with others.  If reciting Euclid or sharing a memory of a person or place from his past he was always telling stories.  Many times they were just entertainment or distraction, but other times he used them as metaphors…teaching lessons to others without force.  A great teacher suggests, guides, and leads their students to the right choice without ever telling them what to do.  Lincoln could be disarming at this, and he used stories to impart his lessons.

In Time Magazine’s recent “What Would Lincoln Do?” release there is a famous story about a bunch of abolitionists that confronted Lincoln during a New England speech in 1862.  Demanding he take a stronger stance against slavery, he responded by asking them if they “remembered Blondin?”  As far as they were concerned it had absolutely nothing to do with the Anti-Slavery movement, but they did remember Jean-Francois Gravelet who several years earlier walked over Niagra Falls on a tightrope.  Known as “The Great Blondin,”  Gravelet traveled back and forth over the Falls several times, pushing a wheel barrel, cooking an omelet and carrying others on his back…all on a tight rope no wider than 3 inches.

Lincoln used the man and his feat as a metaphor, asking the raucous abolitionists if they were there to see him walking over the Falls if they would shout out at him with instructions of how he should take his next step. It was clear to him and them that Blondin’s achievement was a metaphor for Lincoln’s own balancing act and a plea to his challengers to be patient.  Less than three years later he would deliver an End to Slavery only months before negotiating the end of The Civil War.

Instead of coming right out and revealing his innermost intentions, Lincoln instead used a metaphor to convey his message.  Stories create lively images that live inside of our minds, they force us to think and see more empathetically especially when they are in the hands of a storyteller as masterful as Lincoln was.  Lincoln cherished stories and their ability to bring people of all ages, beliefs, and backgrounds together to become of a single mind…if even for a moment.

8.)  Live for Your Legacy

From the time he was young, Lincoln was desperate to make a mark in this World, to have some kind of long lasting impact.  Even though he believed in God he privately doubted the presence of any kind of afterlife.  He knew that for his existence to matter he needed to do good work while he walked this Earth.  He was always conscious about the impact he was having, how he would be thought of an remembered and put tremendous pressure on himself to live up to his own expectations of himself.

Many succumb to the pressures put on them by others…living their whole life seeking the approval and acceptance of others.  Abraham Lincoln needed the support and even adoration of millions of Americans to ascend politically but looking back on the man and the way he lived his life it doesn’t seem as though he was dependent on the approval of others.  Lincoln seemed to have lived his life the way I desire to…working only for his own approval, following a life philosophy not of others’ creation or design, but of his own.

He lived for a legacy that he would admire and he knew that the only thing preventing or accomplishing the fulfillment of this legacy was him.  He didn’t make excuses, didn’t blame others when things didn’t go his way, he followed his own path.  Campbell would call say that he was “Following His Bliss,” Coehlo would say that this was the “fulfillment of his personal legend.”

Lincoln often thought deeply about existence, about destiny and fate, the role we were to play on this Earth and what of it was intentional.  In Spielberg’s film, at a critical point in the President’s wartime decision he openly asks two young military officers if they “think that we choose to be born, or are we fitted to the times we’re born into?”  According to screenwriter Tony Kushner there’s no evidence that Lincoln ever said this, but when he was first starting to think about the writing of the screenplay this line was the first thing he ever wrote down.  He explains that he believes this is something Lincoln would’ve thought about internally very deeply.

Above all, maybe the key to living a good life, to leaving a lasting legacy is not just believing in yourself and your own abilities but believing in the greater good for all that you share this world with.  For all of the causes that inspired Abraham Lincoln, for everything he truly believed in there seems to be nothing more important to him than the belief in his fellow man.  Our 16th President was a man that not only hoped and dreamed for a better world but worked endlessly to create it, to bring it to life within the hearts and minds of everyone he shared the world with.

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

A great leader guides not with their power, politics or rhetoric they choose a path less traveled.  It is a path where they are led by the warmth and strength of their heart.  Open, free, and full they are generous with their energy and spirit.  Long before he gave his life for America, Abraham Lincoln had given us his mind, heart, and soul.

Like any great soul, he probably expected nothing in return.  The best way we can honor him now is to live a good life, one full of humor, empathy, and careful thought…a life rich with knowledge, compassion and a belief not only in ourselves but in all others we share the world with.  It should be a life that would make a great story one day.  One that Abraham Lincoln would be eager to read about by firelight or share with a stranger.


Mark Twain’s 9 Tips for Living a Kick-Ass Life

•September 18, 2012 • 1 Comment

I really love these philosophical “tip lists” from great minds and author Mark Twain’s stands out as bold, strident, and unabashed.  That’s why I think this list is very worthy of it’s title.  It’s popped up a couple times on other blogs I’ve been reading, so I decided it would be a great one to share here…

American author and satirist Mark Twain (1835 – 1910) is best known for his stories “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Finn is widely referred to as “The Great American Novel.”

1. Approve of yourself.

“A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.”

2. Your limitations may just be in your mind.

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

3. Lighten up and have some fun.

“Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.”

“Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”

4. Let go of anger.

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

5. Release yourself from entitlement.

“Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

6. If you’re taking a different path, prepare for reactions.

“A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.”

7. Keep your focus steadily on what you want.

“Drag your thoughts away from your troubles… by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.”

8. Don’t focus so much on making yourself feel good.
“The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.”

9. Do what you want to do.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

For me — these tips seem to reinforce a lot of the key messages and themes I try to share, celebrate, and analyze on this blog – a great crystallization of living a life rich in fulfillment, following one’s own path (and bliss), and leading the hero’s journey by finding ways to make the world around you better while simultaneously bettering yourself.

In what ways are you living a “Kick-Ass Life?”  You can start at any time…

The Being of You

•September 15, 2012 • Leave a Comment

“Just be yourself.”

It’s the cliche we throw at people their whole lives.  Whether they’re a teenager heading to their first day of High School, professional starting a new job, or someone going on a first date we use these three words to set them at ease in a situation that might bring anxiety, discomfort, or self-doubt.  It’s a quick reminder to stay grounded, be true to yourself, and let fate do what it’ll do.

But “being ourselves,”…what does this really mean?

Some scientists believe they can prove that we undergo significant chemical changes once every 7 or 8 years.  This means there are certain shifts to our brain, effecting us on a subconscious level.  Because we are constantly reminding ourselves of the person we think we are (the ego) these shifts that we don’t even understand are happening, and can range from moderate nuisances to consciously traumatic episodes.

These changes we undergo are inevitable — and the best way to deal with them is not to fight against them, but instead understand their depth and complexity and work towards calibrating our psyche to integrate them into our conscious behavior.

In Campbell’s Pathways to Bliss, he spends a great deal of time referencing the work of Psychologist Carl Jung.  In the chapter Myth and the Self, Campbell discusses Jung’s theories on the life cycles that are always working on the subconscious of our psyche.  These are the deeply rooted triggers behind your mood, general temperament, and overall state-of-mind.

Psychologist Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) is the founder of analytical psychology; proposing the idea of the collective unconscious, individuation, and the presence of and role archetypes play in our active psyche.

To segment this, Jung (through Campbell) symbolically describes individual existence as a “solar journey.”  The first half of life is the rising of the sun into the sky — this is the arc from our birth to the gradual integration into society.  The latter half of life is like the gradual setting of the sun, as we move from active participants in the world and society to death.   Paradoxically, the threat of the first half of life is life, the threat of the second half is death.  Throughout, all the symbols we are faced with (on both a conscious and subconscious level) are constantly changing in their meaning.

Dante comes up with a similar description — and both give us a general 4 part structure to existence that we’ll refer to as the “Phases of Life.”

Phase # 1:  Childhood / Dependency

Obviously this first phase starts with Birth and takes us through to roughly the age of twenty-five.  This is the dependency stage of our existence where we first rely upon (and almost deify) our parents in very early life.  They are our first role models, helping us to make sense of a chaotic and imperfect world.  Early-on, at one point or another our young psyche recognizes the imperfection in these role models who are supposed to guide us through this chaotic world.  The recognition of their imperfection is devestating to us at first, but is crucial to our development.  It helps us adapt to an imperfect world that we will gradually become integrated with as we — through rites of initiation — become active members of the society at large.  Throughout this phase, we are constantly looking for “heroes,” these are role models that show us how to live life.  Beyond our parents, these become teachers, other family members and later mentors that we learn from.  Through this phase we are dependent upon these role models to show us how to live life and integrate ourselves not only effectively but prosperously into society.

The fundamental qualities for this phase of life are…obedience, a sense of shame and guilt, comeliness of appearance and sweetness of conduct. We are impressionable and learning, testing out personae and shaping the ego that will eventually take hold and become the sense of “who we are” that we will believe ourselves to be for the rest of our life.

This is The Morning. 

Phase # 2.  Maturity / Adulthood

This is the phase I’m most fascinated with — obviously because I’m in it right now.  This phase lasts from 25 to about 45 years old and is where we are supposed to transition from Dependency to Independence — into “Becoming.”  If you buy into the theory of our life as “Our Hero’s Journey,” this is The Phase of Courage.  If we’ve transitioned correctly from the Childhood phase we’ve accepted the imperfections in our parents, role models, and society and embraced them.  This manifests itself in “compassion.” Instead of being motivated by desires that were more self-centered in the Childhood phase, we are instead focused on the betterment of the whole.  Here we choose work and activities where we give the best of ourselves to others – a spouse we love, children we set to raise, and the parents that raised us and the family that helped us integrate into the society.  In our work, we are at our best during this phase and at around the age of 35, actually reach our peak.  At this point we can take the experience of what we have formerly been taught and use it to teach others.  This is where we give of ourselves back to society, and the key time for what Campbell would call FOLLOWING OUR BLISS.

This is the phase characterized by…temperance, courage, love, courtesy, and loyalty.  They are the values of a knight and the point where we can truly fulfill the destiny we are meant to live, the following of bliss, the fulfillment of one’s personal legend, the journey of our inner-hero.

The problems with all of these phases occur when we are not transitioning properly from one to the next. If we fail to embrace the qualities of The Becoming Phase then our psyche begins to show subtle “cracks.”  This is clearly evident in individuals who don’t move from dependency to independence.  They look to others to solve their problems, symbolic of running back to one’s parents — and blame others when problems arise.  Their actions are often selfish, motivated by feeding interests and causes that only benefit them.

The longer one waits to integrate the qualities of Phase # 2 into their lives the more tragic the consequences will be later in life.  However, if one claims responsibility for their life, and instead of looking to others as heroes, becomes the type of hero they would want to follow then the transition is not only smooth but blissful.  Now that I’m aware of these phases, and how they affect my psyche’s growth I often try to judge my actions not by what other people think of them, but by what I think of them.  In other words, if I understand the depth of my morals and convictions, then I shouldn’t need anyone else’s approval…my own is enough.

For me, this phase is about understanding the Me I’ve always wanted to be,forgiving myself for the mistakes I’ve made that have impeded my fulfillment, recognizing the new opportunities to become the man I wish to be, and seizing them.  This is the embracing of life as an adventure, my adventure — I am my own hero and the living of life is the journey.

This Is The Afternoon. 

Phase # 3:  Wisdom

This stage of life lasts from about 45 – 70 and is the time in one’s life where you take all that you’ve accomplished and learned and impart it to the other members of society.  It is how you help guide the integration of others.  In this stage, one has nothing to lose — you are completely comfortable and knowledge of yourself.  If you have integrated the phases properly you are both humbly proud of your life’s successes and aware and accepting of it’s failures.  From those failures recognized, you choose to impart this knowledge, in the form of wisdom to those in the phases before you.

The characteristics of this phase are…wisdom, justice, generosity, humor, and cheerfulness.

Of course, if you have not properly integrated the other two phases then the Wisdom phase of life can become incredibly traumatic.  This is the phase where a “Mid-Life Crisis” can occur — when an individual has a sudden traumatic realization that they may have not fulfilled something that was supposed to take place in their lives during the earlier phases.  It is where the psyche has been pulled and tugged at for years by the subconscious which warns that “you may have missed something.” According to Jung, there’s typically two ways people will go here…

1.)  An individual can act in selfish ways that call back to their childhood.  This is where they can focus on entitlement, self-pity, a need for attention.

2.)  An individual can try obsessively to control their environment and those that exist in it.  People become possessions, they see life as lost opportunities and become angry about things that “didn’t go their way.”  Since they feel, on a subconscious level, that they didn’t have the life they wanted, they complain about everything in the life they do have.  They retreat to the feelings of guilt and shame that were ever-present in childhood, but are unable to face them.  It becomes a crisis.

The key to this phase of life is to look upon all of what’s happened with that tool you learned during Phase # 2 – “Compassion.”  Realize that you are not, nor have you ever been perfect, and nor should you expect perfection from others or the world at large.  It is always in a state of becoming as you once were and you must embrace it and give to it what you have to offer.  This is your knowledge of how to live life, your wisdom, and if it is given selflessly – it will become an invaluable tool for others you care about and seek to lead and mentor.

This Is The Evening.

Phase # 4:  Nightfall

This last phase, which lasts from 70 and on is the final phase of life.  Here, one naturally carries with them the psyche that evolved and took hold during Phase # 3.  You can either continue to impart wisdom and the grace of living a good life to others or you can perpetuate anger, self-pity, and/or selfishness.  Whether you’re aware it or not, you made your choice at some point in Phase # 3, a choice you were probably slowly making your whole life leading up until now.  At this point, it’s hard to change.

Those that have lived life best are not bitter of it’s failings, their own misfortunes and failures, and the imperfections that they’ve experienced throughout.  Instead, they are whole-heartedly grateful for the experience of being alive.  They have enjoyed the ride, they have fulfilled their personal legend, lived out their destiny, followed their bliss, discovered and carried out their hero’s journey.  Now is the time to sit back and enjoy the rest — with gratitude, grace, and humility.  If you are living in this phase “correctly” you are content and look forward to the end as a “return home.”

This is The Night. 

Joseph Campbell (1904 – 1987) was an American mythologist known for his extensive knowledge of world mythology and comparative religion. His philosophy of how to live life is often summarized as “Follow Your Bliss.”

Being consciously aware of these phases allows us to see them living in those around us and most importantly, within ourselves.  While the phases of our psyche are as inevitable as the phases of our moon the sheer recognition of what is happening to us (and others) allows us to choose how we want to face, embrace, and experience life as it’s lived — not only in hindsight.  It’s the act of being present.

As a denouement to this article I’d like to return to an anecdote delivered by Campbell.   As a professor of world myth for years, he had the wonderful opportunity to watch these phases play out in front of him — especially the transition from Childhood to Courage.  He talks about a know-it-all student, who would seem after reading this, to be amazingly short-sighted.  She said to Campbell at some point…”You don’t understand my generation, we go directly from infancy to wisdom.”

He replies with, “that’s great.  All you’ve missed is life.”

A few years ago, when I found myself fully transitioning from one phase to the next, I recognized within myself a fiery push to accomplish everything.  I had bought into the “life is short” mentality.  Now, we know that life is imperfect and thus can end at any moment, but I challenge you to ask yourselves if living impatiently is the way to be.  I’ve challenged myself to think this way – and while it’s difficult – at moments of true reflection I’ve found peace in the mentality of “let’s just stay here for a moment.”

Campbell goes on to say that the way to find your personal myth, your bliss, is to “find your zeal, and then your support and to always know what stage of life you’re in.  The problems of youth are not the problems of age,” he says.  But when we are so caught up in being who we think we are, it’s impossible to see this.  It’s impossible to see the forest from the trees.

And when we become so swallowed by the shadows of this forest, it’s impossible to appreciate the beauty of the sunlight we should be standing in.

Living in the Age of Entitlement

•August 20, 2012 • 1 Comment

When we’re young, we’re told “you can be anything you want to be.”  We arrive into a society that tells us “all of our dreams can come true.”  We just have to want it badly enough.

Hard work used to be a part of this.

One of my favorite (more recent) documentary series was the History Channel’s “America:  The Story of Us,” from last summer.  I just purchased it and re-watched it…all the episodes back to back.  What stands as the clear through-line in our shared story is that, no matter our background or ethnicity, all of our ancestors came to this place to build a better life for themselves and leave their children and grandchildren with a better place to live in…a better life.  To build this better place we worked hard. We embraced ingenuity, creative expression, vision, leadership and a bottomless well of passion.  We also encouraged individuality — allowing great minds to create freely.  Their ideas not only propelled our country forward, but the world…with startling speed.

At the same time, our history shows us that we are a violent people.  We fought to take our independence, and give ourselves the “God given” right to create the type of land we wanted to live in.  Less than a hundred years later, we brutally fought each other — mostly over the rights we were hypocritically denying people who — unlike our ancestors — didn’t choose to be here in the first place.  Before, in-between, and after we forcefully eradicated the people from the land they lived on.  Land we wanted to take. Less than a hundred years after that — two more brutal wars that we were eventually pulled into.  All of our wars, paradoxically, helped us grow stronger.  The American spirit is defined by grit, determination, resolve — it shapes the American character.  Hard work used to as well.

Enough of a history lesson…

I can also make an argument that our violent ways shaped our humanity…our identity.  Darwin called it survival of the fittest — it’s the law of nature.  Only the strongest will survive in a cruel, painful, and unpredictable world.  I believe Darwinism is a cop-out.  We’ve been granted with the magical power of consciousness.  The ability to not only see the outcome of our actions but the foresight to imagine them and predict how they will effect others and shape our world.  We have been fortunate enough here, in America, to embody our imagined dreams — to lay them out before us and then follow them like a map to our destiny.  We are allowed to see ourselves the way we really are, not as powerless victims of nature’s indifference, but as the co-creators of our existence.  It’s a wonderful power, but one that means nothing if we wield it with indifference and without holding ourselves accountable.  It also means nothing when we only look out for ourselves.

At over ten trillion dollars in debt, our America now threatens to do what it has never done before…leave it’s children with a home that is not growing or prospering, but slowly decaying, rotting from the inside out like a spoiled apple.  I’m going to be definitive now — I’m not proud of my America.  It’s not the place my grandparents risked everything to come to — not the land my grandfather risked his life defending, not the place they loved and raised me to love as a child.  We’re failing them, and worst of all, we’re failing ourselves.

I’m not going to address political problems — as far as I’m concerned they are a distraction, merely symptoms of the true disease.  Much like that rotten apple, the source is deep within.  Let’s highlight it here as Entitlement.  It stretches big and bold, creating a wide canvas for us to paint our deserved desires with.  We live to work, not work to live — but the way in which we work now, the true motivation behind what we do seems to me to have become purely and solely…personal.  What’s in it for me?  What can I get out of this?  I deserve to have what I want, and I’m jealous of everyone else that has the things I don’t have.  With this type of thinking, happiness is a commodity, something we believe can be bought.  Our world is purely material, we even objectify others…evaluating them based on what perceived value they can bring to our lives.  When we don’t get what we want, we don’t see our own shortcomings, and use the disappointment or momentary failure as a learning lesson that builds inner strength and character, but instead point fingers at others that we say sabotaged us.  We blame others, we victimize ourselves, and erroneously lie to ourselves to justify our actions and behavior.  We’ll see a historic amount of this in our upcoming election, where debates won’t be about promoting the deeper strategies to fix our problems but will instead be about bashing and pointing fingers at “the other guy.”  It’s become natural for us, when things don’t go our way or the way we want them to, we don’t look within — we look outward to find the nearest enemy.  We can all-too-easily say to them “this is your fault.”  It’s black-and-white thinking, where we simplify our problems into neat little categories of good and bad — one of the many dangers in the way we see and experience our current world, which is as one of basic opposites that ignores the richness, depth, and complexity of our experience.  Duality is deadly.  It’s a breeding pit for contempt, solipsism, fear, distrust and anger — it feeds our decline in empathy and rise in materialistic thinking.  And thus the happiness we strive for and ultimately feel we deserve eludes us — I would argue it’s because we’re all-too-often only looking out for ourselves.  And anyone that might challenge our opinions or choices we don’t choose to meet for a calm and unemotional debate about the issue at hand, but instead quickly analyze them, find their shortcomings, weaknesses, and mistakes — and attack them for it.  It’s safer this way, it means we don’t have to do any work on ourselves and we can justify our actions by showing ourselves and probably others just how imperfect that person, group, or idea is.  But we’re not perfect either — and embracing that lack of perfection in others is what leads to compassion, and unconditional love…it’s the path to bliss.

Campbell talks about this in “Pathways to Bliss,” how we fall in love with an imagined ideal, only to realize that it isn’t what we imagined it to be — it’s not perfect.  So, we have two choices, seek something else — newer, fresher, and better — something “perfect,” that will surely make us happy this time.  Or… we can embrace it’s imperfection and teach ourselves compassion, forgiveness, and figure out how we can work together to make it the best it can be.  Perfectionist thinking leads us into a dark forest with no way out where we keep taking new turns because surely the next one will bring us into an open field of fulfillment.  It’s extra-dangerous when we believe that we’re entitled to perfection.

I usually go out of my way to make these blog posts inspiring and uplifting, but this one I felt needed to be above all…truthful.  This one’s been bouncing around in my head for awhile, mostly because I just don’t like the way I’m seeing people treating each other lately.  It probably has to do with a lot of the traits I’ve already discussed in this post.  So, if you’ve stayed with me up until this point…first of all, I’m surprised.  It either means you agree with some of the things I’ve been discussing and want to see where we go from here, or the things I’ve written have made you angry and you want to debate.   If you agree with me that there’s a problem — how do we fix it?  Now, I would like to pivot to some positives.

1.) Embrace Imperfection:   First of all, we embrace the fact that there is no such thing as fixing it.  We make gradual, consistent, steady improvement — change happens over decades and generations, not instantaneously and overnight.  See our current economic and political predicament.  This must be a shift in our consciousness, in the way we see things, in the way we look at others and the world — it starts not by fixing what is out there, but what lies within.  Stop the rotting by recognizing it’s there, not denying it’s existence.  The first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one — you’ve heard this before.  Embrace it, see it for what it is…for what everything is…a lesson in how to live life fully.

Recently caught the movie “Another Earth” on cable.  It came out last year, and follows the story of a scientist living in a time where Another Earth just like ours is discovered…visible to the naked eye in the sky, like our moon at night.  There’s a wonderful parable shared in the middle of the film, and I’m going to use it here to emphasize my point of the value of embracing those things that are imperfect….

You know that story of the Russian cosmonaut? So, the cosmonaut, He’s the first man ever to go into space. Right? The Russians beat the Americans. So he goes up in this big spaceship, but the only habitable part of it’s very small. So the cosmonaut’s in there, and he’s got this portal window, and he’s looking out of it, and he sees the curvature of the Earth for the first time. I mean, the first man to ever look at the planet he’s from. And he’s lost in that moment. And all of a sudden this strange ticking… Begins coming out of the dashboard. Rips out the control panel, right? Takes out his tools. Trying to find the sound, trying to stop the sound. But he can’t find it. He can’t stop it. It keeps going. Few hours into this, begins to feel like torture. A few days go by with this sound, and he knows that this small sound… will break him. He’ll lose his mind. What’s he gonna do? He’s up in space, alone, in a space closet. He’s got 25 days left to go… with this sound. So the cosmonaut decides… the only way to save his sanity… is to fall in love with this sound. So he closes his eyes… and he goes into his imagination, and then he opens them. He doesn’t hear ticking anymore. He hears music. And he spends the sailing through space in total bliss… and peace.

2.  Competitiveness in its Proper Place:  There’s value to conflict and challenge, it spurs growth and forces change.  But it’s important that we never lose sight of the bigger picture.  At what cost does our winning come, and are we really winning?  I for one feel that we are unfairly teaching our kids now to compete at everything, and win at all costs, even if it means knocking others down and stepping over them to get ahead.  How many young fathers have I heard complaining lately about their first experience teaching five and six year olds at T-Ball.  Most of them struggle just to teach kids the fundamentals of the game, the spirit of healthy and fair competition, and instill a love for teamwork, and a basic game.  Most of the time this experience burns them out because many of the parents of these kids project their own unrealized potential on their children — they believe their kid is going to be a Major League All-Star.  They lose sight of what is truly important at that age or really any, I’d argue.  This kind of competitiveness breeds a society where people believe that to get what they want in life they have to keep others from getting it.  When one of us “wins” it should feel more like we all win something, especially if we decided to go into it courageously.

3.  It is Your Problem:   It’s easy to make excuses and point fingers at others, it’s difficult to hold oneself accountable.  You can be part of the solution to any problem, from the smallest conflicts in your life and the lives around you to the greatest problems we face as a country and world — and you can be a contributor in their improvement or maybe even resolution.  People get themselves anxious with this, I used to.  They think about all the things they could or should do and shut down.  It’s a shame.  Good deeds, just like bad ones, can building upon themselves and create a powerful chain reaction.  Pick something you’re good at, naturally enjoy, and that helps others and make a pact to do it.  A big part of me deciding to start this blog was that I found people positively reacting to other things I’d written.  I’m never going to build a house for a struggling family and probably won’t distribute food to homeless people at a soup kitchen.  But I’ve also been able to make people stop and think, I’ve always been able to use ideas to inspire others.  I choose to not paralyze myself and sink in all the options, but instead pick this and be as good at it as I can be — it’s my best way of pitching in.  Find and exhibit yours. It could be as simple as listening to others…we don’t do that often enough anymore, we’re too busy.

4.  Appreciate What You Have:   It’s optimistic thinking.  When I get overwhelmed or perfectionist-thinking creeps in, my mother is always the first to remind me, “The World is What You Make of It.”  If you think it’s awful or unfair, and that you are helpless then that’s exactly what it’ll be.  I’ve made a concerted effort lately to re-focus my energy on my friends and family lately — to give them what I intuitively feel like they need without asking or expecting anything in return.  I love how I feel after propping other people up, acknowledging their best traits and letting them know they’re appreciated.  I still have a lot of work to do on this, and it’s not easy to leave your own agenda aside…but I’d like to think I’m getting better at it, mostly because I’m resolved to being constantly conscious of it and consistently improving upon it.

I do see in a lot of people though that they tend to focus only on what they DON’T HAVE instead of what they do have.  This leads to jealousy of others who have those things you think would finally make you happy.  Probably not.  Quote by Don Draper from this season’s abyss-opening Mad Men…

“But what is happiness?  It’s the moment before you need more happiness.”

When your happiness is tied to external and mostly material “things,” you’ll never find the fulfillment you consciously and subconsciously seek.

5.  Be The Hero, Not Another Victim:  According to Jung, the way the psyche works is that we actively seek out role models in our lives — they are our hero archetypes.  We project on them that which reflects our most highly-held morals, beliefs, and wishes.  They take the form of our parents in early life and then we look to others — teachers, mentors, bosses, officials we elect and in many cases famous athletes, celebrities, and characters in stories.  They show us how to live life, and we take from them the pieces that we want…allowing them to set the path for how we will leave.  They’re also not perfect.  They will disappoint us and let us down.  Lately, we’ve become a society that loves to build up our sports heroes and celebrities, tear them down — bringing them to the brink of destruction, and then encourage them to become the hero we want them to be all over again.  We love doing this, because we need to follow their story — they live the Hero’s Journey that compels us.  At some point in life, maybe in the middle of our adulthood, the psyche undergoes a significant change — moving away from dependency and towards courage and selflessness.  At this point, we have the opportunity to not look at others to be our heroes, but to take ownership over our own destiny and be the hero we want to be.  Live our life as the adventure that it can be.  If we continue to see others only as our heroes than we can analyze and magnify their imperfections.  We can blame them for our own deficiencies.  If we decide to become our hero, then it’s all on us — got no one else to blame.  It’s a scary thought, it’s also a freeing experience.

6.  The Great Separation:   We see ourselves as separate from everything, other people, our environment, our government, possibly even the creator we may believe put us here.  This is the danger of duality — seeing everything in simplified pairs of opposites.  Instead, try and see yourself in everyone and everything, challenge yourself to look deeper into the motivations of others and not internalize their actions, even if they damage you.  Their actions were most likely motivated by the same fear, and stress of trying to “get what they can or feel like they deserve.”

Instead of our acts being ones that only benefit us, while pushing others down or hurting others, we must find ways that we can use our individuality, our latent talent and potential for not only our own growth but also the growth of all we share this experience with.  This is the key to finding and following your bliss according to Campbell — your bliss is your destiny, a sacrament of fulfillment, that which brings you true rapture…but it is only bliss if it is in service of others.  Think of people that truly give of themselves to others, think of how you feel around them, why you want to talk to them and listen to their wisdom.

*                    *                   *

Now back to the great American Experiment — after scrubbing through the flaws I see and brainstorming some ways to turn it around.  Our country is not the greatest anymore — we need to face that fact.  Our students are 14th out of 34 nations in writing, 17th in science, and 24th in math.  Our unemployment rate has swayed between 8 – 11 % for 4 years now, yet I saw a report on CNN the other day that there are actually a lot of “blue collar” jobs available.  We don’t want them?  Again, I guess it comes down to “what’s in it for us?”

Again, the first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one in the first place.  There is.

The Gaia Principle shows us another way of looking at our existence.  That the whole earth is one giant organism and we have been selected as it’s conscious mind, when we damage it or other we share it with we are not hurting something separate from us but in fact damaging ourselves.  The growth of one means nothing.  It’s not survival of the fittest, it’s “we’re all in this together.”  And if we embrace that instead of just finding what gets us what we want on an individual basis then maybe we can reverse the rotting,

Maybe then we can return to a place that both our grandparents and grandchildren would be proud of.

Where Are You Now?

•July 13, 2012 • Leave a Comment

There’s nothing I love more or have always loved more than shutting out the world and falling into a story…whether it’s a great film I haven’t seen in a long time, a new episode of a TV show I’ve been looking forward to watching all week, or an interesting new book I want to read.  After about 15 – 20 minutes my imagination has always allowed me to fall deeply into that world and forget about ours for a little while. It’s the same place I enjoy going when I write — although then it’s deeper — seeing, hearing and feeling characters simultaneously as I share them with the page.  Psychologists might describe this process or feeling as “flow.”  It’s a point of deep, relaxed focus, that is described by one psychologist as…

“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Some people experience this feeling of complete connectedness when they’re exercising, others when they are listening to or creating music, others when they are designing or painting, and others when they are managing or organizing a project they care about  — some of us are fortunate enough to experience it day-to-day within the work we do.

Here are some descriptions of the factors that create “flow:”

  1. Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable.
  2. Strong concentration and focused attention.
  3. The activity is intrinsically rewarding.
  4. Feelings of serenity; a loss of feelings of self-consciousness.
  5. Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.
  6. Immediate feedback.
  7. Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented.
  8. Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.
  9. Lack of awareness of physical needs.
  10. Complete focus on the activity itself.

This is the feeling of being present, there in the now.  Our brain can be a powerful ally, but it can also be our worst enemy.  Our ability to analyze the past, anticipate / plan for the future, and imagine the possible consequences of those choices down the road can help us create or destroy a fulfilling future before it is able to take shape.  Now, more than ever, it’s difficult to focus on the present.  We are living in what some psychologists are referring to as the “Age of Digital Distraction.”  Some of them believe that the very recent vault in the development, complexity, and reliance on communication technology is literally too much for our brain to handle.  We’re not able to process everything the world is messaging.  If you really think about it, it makes sense.  The technology has evolved quickly for all intents and purposes in a span of the last century — with communication technology spiking in the last thirty years.  Our brains cannot evolve that quickly, so we find ourselves constantly racing to keep up, and then our consciousness (and perhaps society) puts immense pressure on us to stay ahead.

Back to me and my “flow.”  It’s not what it used to be.  Even as I’m writing this post, and it’s frustrating.  It used to come so naturally, easily, it was all mine whenever I wanted it.  Now though, even when I’m watching a great movie, tv show, documentary, or reading a great story I rarely do it without texting throughout or checking / reading / responding to emails.  Thus, I’m never in just one place — I’m always splitting my time.  I’m starting to discover that this is not only effecting my enjoyment of some of my favorite things, but it’s also starting to negatively effect the work I used to enjoy so much.  If any of this is resonating with you as you read it, then you’ve probably been noticing something similar in your own experience.

At times I find myself most anxious or distracted, I remember a question a good friend once asked me in a similar time.  “Where are you now?”  In my car, on my bluetooth, racing from one meeting to another, I snapped back without thinking about the question, “I’m on the Garden State Parkway near exit 165.”  He laughed, re-asked the question, this time a little slower.  He was trying to help me foster a mechanism for triggering “mindfulness.”

This article, published several years ago in Psychology Today does a much better job than I could EVER do at describing Mindfulness and the craft of Living in the Moment:

You should take the “un-distracted” time to read it, if you’re interested in learning more.

But let me hit some of the highlights, quick tips that I know resonate with me…

1.  Reverse Self-Consciousness:        One of the pitfalls of the way our brain has developed is that we can become overly-aware of ourselves and thus sensitive to how others perceive us.  This manifests into thoughts such as, “what do they think about me?”  “how do I look?” “do they like what I just said?”  This is why people have difficulty with presentations, high-pressure meetings, or even dating.  Most likely, the very same people you’re worried about are more focused and concerned about themselves.  In other words, they don’t care about you nearly as much as you care about yourself — I mean this in a good way, this should be a freeing feeling.  So the lesson is, stop thinking about what you’re doing or how you’re doing and just do it, don’t care about the consequences, just let it flow.

2.  Savor It:          Instead of thinking about “what should I do next?” or “what’s going on tomorrow?” when you’re doing something, focus on IT not what could or will happen next, later, or in the future.  In the article I noted above there’s a great anecdote about a woman who goes traveling with a friend of hers often.  When she and her friend arrive at an exciting new place the friend invariably annoys her with the following excited sentence, “This place is beautiful, I can’t wait to come back here!”

3.  Breathe It Out:     This is the key to mindfulness — when life is at it’s most frenetic, stop and focus on the simplest thing — you’re breathing.  Sounds stupid, but it’s an intrinsic force in many Eastern and Native American religious traditions — there’s a reason.  This slows you down, it helps ground you and remind you “where you are NOW.”  It helps you respond to others thoughtfully and not automatically.  I’ve learned about myself that I seem to naturally absorb and feel internal pressure to match the energy of the people I’m with.  On some level, we all feel this — the scale of which though determines how “empathetic” we are.  The trick for me, at least lately, is not synching up or matching the energy of anxious people when I’m around them.  When you are around hyperactive, stressed, or anxious people it becomes more important than ever to achieve your own mindfulness.

4.  Lose Track of Time:            Schedule some time to lose track of it.  Lately I’ve been doing this for myself after work.  I don’t go home where I’m bound to be distracted, but instead to a coffee shop or book store to write.  I know it’s right when after a half hour or so the next hour or even two JUMP without me realizing it.  I used to have that experience all the time, before life was so scheduled out — it’s important to block out some time where “it” is the last thing you think or care about.

5.  Embrace the Opposite:      We all have certain behavior patterns that are inherent to our nature.  All-too-often, these patterns are set in early childhood by what are called “Limiting Beliefs.”  (for more fascinating information on this look up counselor Morty Leftkoe)  These are deeply engrained psychological reactions to situations, people, or environments that bring us anxiety, stress, or strain.  Here’s an analogy, how did you find out NOT to touch things that were hot when you were a child?  You touched something hot, and it hurt, so you didn’t do it again.  This is how we test the limits and boundaries of our physical world.  Well, we do it internally and psychologically as well.  These limiting beliefs become second nature and active mechanisms for our social interactions, for the same reason, we’ve developed them for our own protection.  They help us avoid embarrassment, shame, disappointment, and failure.  We all have them, and more likely than not they are a hindrance to our happiness and full potential.  So, you need to break them.  Again, the “Leftkoe” method is really interesting and actually helpful, I just used it recently for a limiting belief and found that at least in the few weeks after the exercise — it had some very positive results.  But in the short term, what you can do is re-wire your actions.  When you feel anxiousness or apprehension about a situation don’t avoid it, go towards it.  Make a joke out of it, don’t take it too seriously, don’t care about the consequences because they probably don’t exist anywhere other than your mind.  I love when people tell me NOT to do something, because invariably it immediately makes me WANT to do it.  Why is it different when internally I tell myself NOT to do something?  I’ve been trying to reverse this, and my suggestion is that you should too.

6.  Take it All In:        Routine and sameness makes life predictable and boring.  Some people overreact to this, thinking they need to schedule a bunch of exotic trips and adventures to get themselves out of a rut.  I think that’s irresponsible and only exacerbates the problem, because at some point — you’re going to have to return to that same routine and the life you think is so boring, and when you do, it’ll only be worse.  The key is to find that mystery, enjoyment, adventure and above all appreciation in every day.  Take time to notice others, share, connect, and LISTEN.  I remember one of my best friends in High School — no matter where we went, would make it a point of talking to the people around him, in line at a fast food restaurant or coffee shop, he’d turn to an older woman behind him, smile, and tell her he liked her earnings, her scarf, or just say “you look lovely today, has anybody told you that?”  He said it with a smile, and he always meant it.  He always made the other person’s day, and doing that seemed to make his.  At first I was embarrassed and uncomfortable by this, but I quickly realized how simple but powerful this could be.  Now, I push myself to do this all the time — and 95% of the time people are appreciative of and receptive to the connection.  I guess I’ve come to believe that we all go through this life, from one degree to another, seeking to connect with others yet we often, “don’t want to bother anyone.”  This has become increasingly noticeable lately, with all of us immersed in our smartphones and tablets.  Take the time to notice others positively, and enjoy the world around you and the people in it.

One of my mother’s favorite sayings is always, “The world is what we make of it.”  She’s right.  You want to blame everyone else or everything in the world for the way you feel — okay.  Or, instead, you can embrace it, look for the positive, and appreciate the little things.  Instead of always worrying about what else there is, what’s next, what other people think, or what could go wrong, slow down, focus on the moment and remember where you are.  Despite wherever your mind is, the truth is…you’re here, right now —  might as well make the most of it.

Okay, I gotta go now, I started writing this post at 7:30 this morning when I woke up and now I realize I’m late for work…guess I just lost track of time.

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