What’s love got to do with it…as it turns out, everything!

In the world we are currently living in it can be a curious conundrum to speak about believing we live in a friendly, loving Universe. We need only look around us to find countless arguments and evidence that appears to suggest the contrary. But are we really seeing ultimate reality? Again, this can sound like a Pollyanna viewpoint devoid of realism, scientifically minded judgment and within the realm of wishful thinking.

However, I don’t share this fatalistic viewpoint. I feel there is an overwhelming plethora of evidence that points to a Universe (and humanity) that is kind, loving and always working on behalf of our highest ultimate good. The problem as I see it is the all-knowing Divine mind of the Infinite lays out these plans in ways that are often in opposition to what we humans deem as the best path or right situation. We think we know how things should be for us to be happy, fulfilled, safe, successful but the truth is we don’t know what’s coming around the corner and we can only make decisions from our own past experience and limited point of view.

This often makes us snow-blind to seeing the potential for a positive outcome from circumstances that don’t fit within our definition of desirable. None of us would actively choose to have a bankruptcy, serious illness, experience the death of our child, find ourselves homeless, and a whole host of other deeply challenging circumstances. But repeatedly we find the people who encounter these life altering situations are inexplicably changed and, in many instances, changed for the better. They typically speak of living life with more freedom, love and kindness than ever before – frequently stating they would not change the fact these circumstances occurred in their life.

Somewhat surprisingly, they are usually deeply grateful for having had the seemingly “tragic” circumstance come into their life. Time and again people who have traversed these situations credit the experience as completely altering the trajectory of their life and adding a meaning to their existence that had been missing. I don’t know about you, but that certainly sounds like the result of a kind and loving Universe. Somehow a mysterious alchemy takes place, transforming what we initially defined as our worst nightmare into the method of our evolution.

When we decide life is for us and not against us, it completely changes the way we interact with everything. We start to loosen our grip on needing to control outcomes and agendas. We become less fearful and more trusting in all areas of our life. In turn, our reality that was once viewed through ominous lenses morphs into one in which we begin feeling safe to extend love in all circumstances. We do this in confidence knowing a loving, kind Universe has our back and indeed the best is yet to come.

Spring has sprung

It’s April in Michigan, winter has released its grip, and we are enjoying the glorious spring season emerging all around us. It always feels like a breath of fresh air to witness the ground breaking open with new life. This year in particular feels like a time of rebirth and reemerging into life. It happens to also be one year since my father passed away.

In some ways it seems impossible that a year has come and gone since his death. In other ways it has been a year filled with extraordinary challenges and change for not only myself, but the entire world. I think we are all ready to emerge from our collective hibernation and reclaim some normalcy and connection. This time of isolation has created such a deep appreciation for the little things that once seemed so insignificant and mundane. Experiencing the holidays, special occasions and meaningful moments of this past year without dad has been tough. But slowly through the grief I have discovered a new way to live without his physical presence.

During this past year we have all been through a master class in learning to live with loss and grief while wading deep into waters of the unknown. I look forward to this spring season with renewed hope that the worst is behind us and that the best is yet to come.

Your heart’s desire

I recently read Being Ram Dass – his last published work before his death (spoiler alert, it’s the featured book this month). There were many insights, aha moments and powerful takeaways from this book. However, the real stand out message for me was the importance of following your own north star. By this I mean doing what you know is your heart’s desire and following your calling to live your truth.

This is not often the easy choice, but it is truly the only choice that will satisfy our soul’s longing for expression. Oftentimes we will face a series of challenges, tough choices and opposition when we travel the path of following our truth. This can be very disturbing, troublesome and scary to work through. It is even likely to cause us to consider giving up and settling for a life we have talked ourselves into wanting because it will keep the peace or be more palatable to our family, friends or society. But inside we die a little bit every day by making this trade. Our soul yearns for truth and expression yet our ego wants the acceptance, security and safety of the familiar.

This point was so clearly demonstrated in the transformational life of Richard Alpert. The safe path of a respected Harvard professor, transformed into a controversial polarizing figure of the 60’s, transformed again into the spiritual teacher Ram Dass. Each step along the way was wrought with challenges, setbacks, self-discovery and adversity. But the one constant was the impetus to follow his own path.

We can never know where our choices will lead us, but if we stay committed to honoring our own truth, we can be assured that it will be a journey worth taking. Along the way without even trying, our life will be an inspiration and blessing to others. By witnessing our courage and fortitude to take the path less traveled it will instill belief and legitimacy for others to also take a leap of faith and embark on the journey of following their bliss.

Speak only if it improves upon the silence

In these polarizing, divisive times we are living in it can be hard to disconnect from the frantic, anxious energy that is so pervasive. Everywhere we turn there is a debate, argument or eruption of discord and negative energy. It is easy to get pulled into defending our views, positions and beliefs. We often feel attacked and misunderstood, then seek to set the record straight by telling our side of the story. In other words, the “right” way to view things – if we are honest, this telling of our position more times than not includes a lot of upset, anger and thinly veiled judgement on our part.

There is nothing inherently wrong with sharing our viewpoint, but doing it in this way rarely ends up resulting in us feeling better. If our goal is to eradicate angry, fearful energy and create more peace in the world, then this approach just doesn’t fit the bill. We can’t get to peace and harmony by arguing and making other people wrong. So, what are we to do with all the anxiety, outrage and anger we feel when we witness the atrocities of this world? We make our one and only goal the commitment to not add to the collective toxic soup of hatred, blame and finger pointing. We do this by keeping a keen eye on our reactivity, bringing a higher level of awareness to how we respond and react in every moment.

We need to be awake to our knee-jerk responses and our tendency to speak, post, or tweet as a means to make ourselves momentarily feel better but not ultimately serve the goals that we all so desperately want to see manifest in this world. This means that we all must be willing to trade what feels good in that moment for what we ultimately want. This is about impulse control, and it has become increasingly difficult in this instantaneous social media world we live in to mitigate this issue. But it can be achieved if we each begin to take responsibility for the energetic pollution we are adding to the mix.

We can begin to ask ourselves if our dialog, comments or social media post is adding anything positive to the situation or simply putting fuel on the fire. If we are honest, oftentimes we want to get something off our chest and in doing so add to the tumultuous chaos of the collective. The Buddhist concepts of right speech and right action are an appropriate corollary to this idea. When we take the time to center ourselves before reacting and speaking, it gives us the opportunity to take an internal inquiry and ask – What is my intention? I have personally decided to make Mahatma Gandhi’s quote the basis for such decisions: “Speak only if it improves upon the silence”. Explore this idea for yourself and see if you too arrive at the same conclusion.

Plant the seeds you want to harvest

The new year is the perfect time to think about planting new seeds. Not in the gardening sense, but in the realm of our beliefs and thoughts. The effort put forth to cultivate and care for our seedlings of “new thought” will reap a rich harvest if we’re willing to stay the course.

Many people try to use affirmations, mantras or meditation to shift their mindset and claim it doesn’t work. Well, the truth of the matter is that we can’t get the results we want by spending fifteen minutes a day being open, positive and centered – and then spend the remaining 23.75 hours in anxiety, fear and negativity. It will take a long time to make a shift with that approach.

The insidious patterns of a negative mindset represent a long-standing habitual way of looking at life. They have actually become affirmations that are actively working against the life we want. We typically also have strong emotions behind these old thoughts and beliefs, which can make them seem even more intractable. The key to having our new thoughts and beliefs take root is to prepare an atmosphere where they can grow. Just like in traditional gardening, seeds planted in poor soil yield poor growth. But planting in rich soil and tending to the care of the seedlings yields a bountiful harvest.

Creating an environment that supports our efforts is paramount. Some things to consider when cultivating a rich medium for growth are the following important questions. How can we stay more aware and present throughout our day? What changes would have to be made in order to make this shift?

Along those lines, it will be important to take a serious look at the things in our life that no longer serve us. This could be people, work, commitments, or our living situation. Anything that we personally define as not representative of the direction we want to go. We can be grateful for the time we interacted with these things and be willing to move on from them.

Sitting with these questions will serve to create a template and action plan that starts us on the road to successful, lasting change. By staying in connection to our own gut instincts and feelings, we can make adjustments and tweaks along the way and close 2021 with a plentiful harvest of growth.

Don’t judge a book by its cover

I am sure many of you know that we are the proud owners of an adorable Shih Tzu named Bella. In case you weren’t aware, she is the light of our life and the princess of the house. Bella wears a top-knot and can always be found sporting an adorable hair bow. She is also a competitive AKC Agility dog. This surprises some people.

They see the fluffy little white dog with the hair bow and make an assumption…probably a number of assumptions actually. Some about the dog and some about the owners. The point being that we all have a tendency to think we know the story, the situation, person or dog by what we see and observe at a quick glance. But we are often wrong in these assessments. Usually it is our tendency to categorize and judge that is at work in these moments. It isn’t our fault, our human physiology is set up to quickly scan the environment, decide what the deal is and then take action or in fact make a judgement.

But we are more than our physiology, and therefore we have the ability to step back and be willing to open ourselves up to the curiosity and exploration of not knowing. Not knowing can be the most exciting thing ever! Just look at how kids navigate the world. They are so excited to wake up and greet the day because they bring an open-minded spontaneous energy to everything they do.

The key to recapturing that energy in our adult lives is to be willing to admit we don’t know as much as we think we do. The question really boils down to this – Are we teachable and willing to be wrong? The truth is that many people would rather stay stuck in painful patterns then to admit they are wrong or that they don’t have the answers. Our willingness to get comfortable with the idea of “not knowing” is really the first step to recapturing the joy and elation of life.

As an interesting sidenote, Bella received an invitation to compete in the AKC Agility Invitational this month in Florida. The top five dogs in the country from each breed are invited to compete. When we started competing in agility with Bella, we never had any aspirations to reach this level. We had in fact made a number of assumptions about her, and the likelihood of her reaching this level of success competing as a Shih Tzu in agility. Bella has taught us an important lesson about not judging a book by its cover. She reminds us every time she steps in the ring to compete that she makes her own rules, lives life on her own terms and to expect the unexpected.

I’m on the edge with you

Two years ago, this month my father was diagnosed with stage four metastatic pancreatic cancer. For the past twenty-four months I have taken a detour from life as I knew it into a tumultuous space of the unknown. In the way steel is tempered in fire, I felt life provided me the same experience – a burning away of the unnecessary to expose and leave only the essential.

As I look back now, it has felt surreal and dreamlike. So much living has been jampacked into this timespan – my dad’s illness, his death, my mother’s cognitive decline and placement in an assisted living, the dissolution of my parent’s life and selling of their home. The list goes on, but you get the point…it’s a lot.

It was so extremely paramount to stay in the present moment and deal with what was needed and required in the now. The future held too many unknowns to even entertain strolling down that lane. I just kept focused on being present to what life was putting in front of me at any given moment. What I am most grateful for is the way life supported me throughout this entire endeavor. The people, places and kind faces just seemed to rise up to meet every need as it was presented.

I realized that we are all there together, living on the edge. Life’s edge, the place where pain, joy and all emotions reside. It’s the very fabric of our lives. Woven together and bound by our common humanity, we will all walk down a similar path of loss, grief, joy and redemption. The circumstances may be different, but the result is the same.

By the fact that we all traverse this unpredictable journey of life together, we can be comforted in knowing that we are never alone. For better or for worse, we stand on the shoulders of countless others who have endured all that life presents and survived. Sometimes with battle wounds or scars but often, if we are lucky with a renewed sense of faith in the love and goodwill that exists inside every person.

Just Do It

More than a wildly successful tagline and advertising campaign for Nike, this popular slogan holds the key to unlocking us from the fear that keeps us in chains. The beauty of this sage advice can be found both in the simplicity of the message and its potency if heeded. So often in my own life I have let fear and uncertainty keep me from getting in the game of life. I relegated myself to the sidelines out of fear of failure and effectively missed out on opportunities for growth and expansion in an effort to play it safe.

What I eventually came to realize is that fear and confidence weren’t opposing traits – where some lucky candidates got blessed or born with one over the other. They were traits that existed simultaneously and were essentially connected. The mistake I made for years was waiting for the fear to be gone before I acted. Confidence is cultivated by taking action in the midst of fear. I recently saw a great example of this while watching an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

In this particular episode, Jerry Seinfeld spoke with Eddie Murphy about their early days as new comedians on the scene. Each complimented the other on their confidence and fearlessness while on stage, only to then have each one admit they felt anything other than that at the time. In fact, they talked about how the fear of knowing you might bomb up there is actually still present and is a vital part of the whole process. They said that fear and failure are essential ingredients for success.

It is a story heard time and again from successful people in all genres. They felt the fear and did it anyway. They failed, were told no, faced insurmountable setbacks and pushed forward anyway. It seems Nike knew what they were doing all those years ago in 1988 when they crafted this slogan. So, take this advice to heart…Just Do It – go on ahead and push forward in the face of fear, you’ll be so glad you did.

Transform Preference into Peace

Ditch preference, Discover peace

We learn pretty early in life the inclination to run away from things that scare us and cling to things that soothe us. What no one ever told us was this approach to life was not only flawed, but absolutely incapable of ever producing the peace, harmony and joy we hoped it would deliver. “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences” – This quote from the verses on the faith-mind by the Third Zen Patriarch captures the essence of why this seemingly natural approach to life is doomed to failure.

If I have a particular way I want things to be, that means I also have ways I don’t want things to be. Since I have very little control over other people, places and life events, the likelihood things will unfold the way I need them to be to feel safe and secure is highly unlikely. This means that whether I consciously realize it or not, I will be spending my life attempting to manipulate, control and arrange things to be a way that makes me feel okay. These attempts rarely work of course, which creates what we call stress and problems.

The key to our freedom resides in shifting our focus from “how can I get things the way I need them to be?” to asking the only question that will unlock the chains that bind us, which is “why do I need things a certain way to feel safe, peaceful, loved etc.?”. This shift in our approach to life completely changes our interactions and is a totally different way of transacting with life and the world around us. One way seeks to get things how we define them as satisfactory and the other way lets life unfold without taking it so personally.

Afterall, we are basing what we want, like, approve of and agree with on our limited set of experiences. In the face of different experiences, we would have different likes and dislikes. When we encounter an experience that exposes us to a new point of view or impacts us deeply, we often shift or change our point of view. This very truth should tell us that the process of how we decide what we like or dislike is based on the flimsiest data set ever.

It is exactly why the Buddha said all of life is suffering, caused by preference. When we accept life on its terms, we can truly receive the gifts it has to offer us. That means we can feel joy, sadness, elation, grief and all other emotions without seeking to push away the scary and grasp at the soothing. We realize that it is all part of what life is offering us and we get the honor of taking this wild and crazy journey for a few decades, if we’re lucky. All we really have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

Calm, Kind and Resilient

A robust debate would likely ensue when getting an opinion poll on the most desirable traits a human being can possess. In my humble opinion, the trifecta of traits would include being calm, kind and resilient. The reason behind the importance of these traits stems from the power and personal agency created by their expression.

Truly holding the space of calmness means trust. For there are a plethora of life experiences we encounter that can’t be solved or navigated unless we truly trust and believe that a power greater than our own best thinking is supporting us and has our back. When we deeply believe this, then calmness under pressure begins to be our natural state. While the torrential winds and rain of “life” beat against us, we suddenly find ourselves able to hold an inner state of calm amidst the storms and rising tides of change.

Being kind is the next all-important trait. For to be kind is to understand that gentleness, love and mercy are truly gifts we give ourselves. We realize that the very expression of empathy, generosity and kindness we extend to other people, animals and the earth is in direct proportion to the belief we hold about our own worth and how deserving we feel to be on the receiving end of all good.

It may sound counterintuitive, but our stinginess to bring kindness to all situations and circumstances is in direct proportion to our internal judgements we hold about ourselves and others. The doling out of kindness based on virtue or earned merit means we subconsciously feel that it is a response based on worthiness versus a way of being that is our default position, regardless of the person or situation.

Lastly, I think the most important trait of all is the ability to be resilient. For without possession of this trait we lose the ability to pick ourselves back up and try again. Life can often leave us feeling so exhausted, beaten down and hopeless that we opt out of even trying. When this happens, we essentially stop living a fully engaged life and decide to make ourselves as small as possible to mitigate the damage of enduring any further trauma and tragedy.

Being resilient enables us to get back in the game of life quicker, easier and with an understanding that the ups, downs, setbacks and unexpected detours are all part of the plan. Every seemingly impossible obstacle along the way is seeking to fortify and build within us the muscle of resiliency.

Throughout the deepest and darkest chapters in human history, individuals that were triumphant over unthinkable adversity had these essential traits. We are in the midst of deeply trying times once again. And history will remember these times as being another defining moment in which the people who not only survive, but thrive were those amongst us who were able to access the calmness, kindness and resiliency within them and to share it fearlessly with the world.