Friday, February 15, 2019

Our Capacity For Change

“Change is great. You go first.” A Friend

One of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism is the intrinsic inevitability of Change. Change is ongoing from the moment of an object’s creation, through its continuing existence, stopping only at its ending/“death.” Change applies to tangible things: e.g. humans, animals, birds, plants, mountains, oceans, automobiles, kitchen utensils. It applies to intangibles that we treat as tangibles: e.g. nations, borders, institutions, religions, cultures, races, time itself. It applies to purely intangible concepts: e.g. ideas, philosophies, laws, science, logic.

As human beings, we change physically at the micro level and at our surface appearance. Changes occur due to our preordained growth cycle, or by internal disease, or by external acts forced upon us (e.g. wars, accidents, criminal acts). It can be subtle change; gradual over passing days; sudden, as with a head-on automobile accident.

We change mentally. Changes in our thinking come from the teachings of our parents; the lessons of the classroom; the guidance of our mentors; the result of our self-study. We learn a moral code, shaped by our culture and religion. We factor in our personal experiences, “successes” and “failures,” fears, aspirations, and definition of a “life well lived.” Most of our beliefs are set in place by the end of adolescence, ingrained deeply and rigidly having come from “authoritative sources” and therefore are not easily changed. We then venture out into the Real World with our baseline thinking regarding what life is about and how to interact with it.

With a great rapidity, that Real World comes knocking at our door with a loud shout, a tidal wave of new ideas and experiences that may bare little resemblance to our pre-adult world. The further we drift away from the familiar and protective cocoon of our youth, the more we expose ourselves to – and invite – personal upheaval. Upheaval can come from the challenges of a multitude of sources, and can disrupt any part of our overall existence.

Typically, we prefer to ignore these disruptions and go on with our already busy life. Even within conflict, it certainly feels safer and easier to stay with what we already know. But such avoidance can last only so long. The disruption likely came about in the first place because we have been living in opposition to some greater truth that we are not seeing or acknowledging. So the disruption will continue to plague us, returning time after time in various disguised forms, each time with increasing intensity. Ultimately, we either give it the attention it demands, or we hide ourselves within a life deadened of creative thoughts and honest emotions.

Disruption is the genesis force of Change. When it comes, our first step is to determine if this is just a minor blip on our radar, or the tip of a more meaningful iceberg in our life path. If the latter, we are called to a time of personal reflection to fully understand what new turn is being presented to us. As our reflection gradually unfolds, ideally we begin to change accordingly – opinions, beliefs, circumstances, life roles, personal directions. Appropriately. Deliberately. Without negative judgment or self-criticism for where we have been before. We simply leave behind what was, and allow Life to help guide us through our journey to our next intended place.

Disruption will present itself to us throughout our lifetime, always conflicting with our desire to stay in our status quo. Some Changes we will choose to explore and accept. Some Changes we will let go by, either because we feel they will be too hard; or will take too much time and energy; or because we are simply burned out from having undergone too much upheaval too often.

Over the course of my single lifetime, I have witnessed a remarkable sea change in lifestyles and thinking in American society. Changes in equality of legal rights; racial integration into all segments of society; mixed-race marriage; redefined nuclear families; multiple marriages and single parenthood; women into the workplace; openness of LGBT relationships; new forms of religious / spiritual belief and expression; advancements in technology and communications; exposure to, and interactions with, people from across the globe. These Changes in fundamental, bedrock grounded beliefs have created a modern world with little resemblance to my boyhood society. Keeping up with so many changes, across so many overlapping fronts, occurring in such  a relatively short time (versus the glacial pace of change in centuries past), is almost impossible. That is why we see periodic backlashes and resistance to Changes that have occurred – often from older citizens who may simply feel that they are being asked to accept just one Change too many.

Individually, there is only so much Change we are able make in our one short lifetime, although each of us has a different capacity. That difference is usually based upon our differing degrees of adaptability. The more deeply our life is anchored in “the current,” the less adaptable we are. The more lightly we walk our life’s path, the more adaptable we are able to be.

Our capacity for Change, i.e. our ability to be receptive and adaptable to Life’s disruptions and lessons, is our choice to make, our skill to develop. While it behooves each of us to be sympathetic and compassionate to those whose capacity has been exhausted, we nevertheless recognize that disruptions, and their consequential Change, will still continue. And over the long narrative of human history, the overriding direction of these Changes seems predominately clear – however many side trips are taken along the way. Change comes to us – even as we may think we are warding it away – until comes that greatest disruption of all: our death.

©   2019   Randy Bell   

Monday, January 14, 2019

Joy In The Midst Of Suffering

We are living through very difficult times throughout the world today. Our goal during this period is to remain positive about the state of humankind, and energized regarding our ability to make some difference in its future. Nevertheless, trying to keep an appropriate balance in our life, and not succumbing to despair or stagnation about the state of things, requires a focused effort on our part. The following is an excerpt from “The Book Of Joy,” a series of moderated dialogs between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Perhaps the perspectives of these two highly recognized leaders, who have carried a lifetime of burdens on their shoulders, will give us some guidance in our efforts. Indeed, perhaps even some form of joy in the midst of the suffering we see everywhere?

[Moderator Question:] This question is for people who feel interdependence [among people] profoundly and are so compassionate that it makes them world-sick and heartsick. [A] person wants to know how she can find joy in her life while there are so many who are suffering.

“Yes. Very good,” [Archbishop Tutu] said, looking down and reflecting on the question. “As an old man, I can say: start where you are, and realize that you are not meant on your own to resolve all of these massive problems. Do what you can. It seems so obvious. And you will be surprised, actually, at how it can get to be catching.

There are very many, many people – I mean, my heart leaps with joy at discovering the number of people – who care. How many people walked in New York City for the environment? I mean, it was incredible. Nobody was going to pay them anything. But they were there in droves. There are many, many people who care. And you will be surprised when you begin to say, well, I would like to do something relating to the aged. You will be surprised at the number of people who come forward and want to help. Why are there so many NGOs (Non-Governmental  Organizations)? I mean, it is people who say, We want to make a better world. We don’t have to be so negative.

Hey, remember you are not alone, and you do not need to finish the work. It takes time, but we are learning, we are growing, we are becoming the people we want to be. It helps no one if you sacrifice your joy because others are suffering. We people who care must be attractive, must be filled with joy, so that others recognize that caring, that helping and being generous are not a burden, they are a joy. Give the world your love, your service, your healing, but you can also give it your joy. This, too, is a great gift.”

[Moderator Observation:] The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama were describing a special kind of generosity: the generosity of the spirit.  The quality they both have, perhaps more than any other, is this generosity of the spirit. They are big-hearted, magnanimous, tolerant, broad-minded, patient, forgiving, and kind. Maybe this generosity of spirit is the truest expression of spiritual development, of what the Archbishop had said it takes time to become.

The Archbishop had used a beautiful phrase to describe this way of being in the world: “becoming an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that ripples out to all of those around us.” … 

In generosity, there is a wider perspective, in which we see our connection to all others. There is a humility that recognizes our place in the world and acknowledges that at any other time we could be the one in need, whether that need is material, emotional, or spiritual. There is a sense of humor and an ability to laugh at ourselves so that we do not take ourselves too seriously. There is an acceptance of life, in which we do not force life to be other than what it is. There is a forgiveness of others and a release of what might have otherwise been. There is a gratitude for all that we have been given. Finally, we see others with a deep compassion and a desire to help those who are in need. And from this comes a generosity that is “wise selfish,” a generosity that recognizes helping others as helping ourselves. As the Dalai Lama put it, “In fact, taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life.”


Sometimes, even if the water may be a bit cloudy, nevertheless the glass really is half full.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Year Out, New Year In

Yet another year comes to a close. Like all other years before it, this year has told its own unique story, filled with its own unique actors and actresses. Has there ever been before a year like this one? Our history books may say some yes, perhaps some better and some worse. But our minds remain doubtful; could anything like this experience have preceded us?

As we ruminate over this latest movement in time and our unique role in it, we do well to remember that this year that is ending is 2018. Meaning that there have been 2,018 years that have ended before this one, each with its own story to tell. But even “2018” oversimplifies that measurement, since it only  reflects the Western/Gregorian calendar used predominately in Western Europe and the Americas, thereby ignoring all the years, centuries, millennia and eons of the past.

Time and calendars usually seem to be concrete concepts around which our life is defined and structured. In reality, they are merely insubstantial man-made gimmicks to help us better understand some piece of that which is essentially unknowable. Our “western” calendar measures the length of an era that has been passing since the death of Jesus of Nazareth 2,018 years ago. The Chinese similarly measure their calendars based upon the beginnings of eras of various emperors, their multiple calendars starting in variable years as late as 2156BC or 2698BC. The Jewish calendar begins its new year 163 days after Passover, celebrating the creation of Adam and Eve; this upcoming fall will be the Jewish Year 5779. The Islamic calendar reflects a 12-month year of 354 days; August will begin the Islamic year 1440. What is inescapable is that our one year 2018 is but one pebble in a vast sea of stones. Time may be a reality, but our connection to time is entirely relative. Like many things in life, our measurement of time is not absolute, but simply a human construct, shaped and defined by how we choose to see it.

By whatever calendar we employ, the end of one year simultaneously gives rise to the beginning of another new year. A year that will ultimately be what we choose to put into it – singularly and collectively. For most people, those choices will be built on Hope. Hope for a better, more peaceful existence on this ever-shrinking planet of diverse humanity. Inherently, human beings are an optimistic species, even as their life faces continual attempts to shatter that optimism. While we should be cold-eyed in our understandings of life’s realities, it is Hope – the belief that life has the potential to be made better – that keeps us moving forward in spite of the grievances and disturbances that befall us. It is Optimism that moves Hope into action, our belief that much more can be achieved if we just continue to try. And Optimism leads us into Faith – which is Hope transmuted into Certainty.

Each new year offers us the opportunity to reflect on where we have been, where we now are, and where life is opening for us to go next. Our hope for a life made better, our optimism in its achievability, and our faith in the greater purpose within which we live, carries us into yet another new time of exploration, of doing. May your “doing” in this upcoming year bring you happiness, fulfillment, compassion, and new understandings beyond your wildest dreams. And may we be less judgmental and harsh, and instead be a positive force in bringing happiness, fulfillment, compassion, and new understandings to all.

©   2019   Randy Bell     

Thursday, December 6, 2018

I Am, I Do

“Who are you when you do not exist?
Who were you before you were born – and after you die?”
Thomas Merton, 20th century monastic and spiritual writer

When was the last time you updated your resume? I have often recommended to people to do this whether or not they are in an active job search. There, on one or two pages, is a succinct, outlined statement summarizing some key parts of our professional life. It documents what we have done; where; with whom; and when. It recounts what we learned, the skills we acquired, and what we contributed to the well-being of others. If done on a regular basis, it also points out the directions and changes in our life since the last writing. A resume can be a valuable insight into how our life has been unfolding.

Perhaps you have also incorporated personal, non-work aspects of your life into a more complete highlighting of the various outcomes of your life’s journey: decisions made, paths taken, the stepping stones of our spiritual travels, and the consequences thereof. Such a resume reflects the facts and chronology of our life, the basis of answers to a job interview, or the awkward first date, or the social interactions at the cocktail party. Yet if utilized openly and properly, it can also be a guide to assessing the growth and maturation of our life’s spiritual journey.

Over time, we add a lot of “stuff” onto our resume, some by conscious decision, some from “outside” consequences (often seemingly random occurrences). As a result, we have accumulated many layers of “being” stacked up over our lifetime. We have worn many hats representing the things we have done, the roles we have played, the relationships we have maintained: child, parent, sibling; student, worker, manager, leader; friend, confidante, lover; donor, civic contributor. Some of these hats were worn for a long duration; others were a mere blip in time. They all represent a ceaselessly busy, full life of “doing.” Collectively, we believe they make up and define “who we are.”

But do these specifics really constitute who we are? What if we reversed course, and read our resume backwards? What would happen if we began subtracting, rather than adding, each of these individual line items, taking off each one of those hats one by one? Who is left then?

Our resume shows us that all the roles and accomplishments of our life were merely transitory, temporary stops in our overall journey. After we strip away each singular thing of our life, who do we discover back at the beginning of that resume? Who were we there at “Step 1,” when we were spiritually naked, unadorned by the many costumes we accumulated later. What if we had made different choices at the many forks we encountered in the road traveled. Did our life choices change who we were at Step 1?

We spend much time and energy in pursuit of what we seek to be – our “becoming” – rather than simply our “being” who we truly are. The question we often grapple with – often unconsciously – is whether there is a fixed “I” that runs through all of the subsequent versions of “Me.” In the transitory versions of Me that play out in our life, is there one constant that was there at the beginning? And if so, has our life journey been consistent with that beginning I, fulfilling the promise and intention of that constant? Or have my successes of doings buried me within a patchwork, crazy-quilt version of Me unrecognizable and incompatible with my original I?

What we “do” is not really who we “are.” Doing is a picture we paint that overlays the original design sketched on our blank canvas. When we scrape away the many layers of our self-applied paint, what tracing do we see remaining underneath – that original I?

When we remove all of the labels we have sewn onto our spiritual vest like merit badges; when we take down the many billboards we have built proclaiming to all who (we think) we are; when we stand naked in the spiritual spotlight of our own True Self – who do we see? When we accept that what I do is not really Who I Am, it opens up a vast expanse of creative opportunity for Who I Am to explore.

©   2018   Randy Bell     

Friday, September 14, 2018

Lest We Be Judged

It is not easy to accurately judge another human being. Yet we are subject to such judgments throughout our life, seemingly from first breath to the last. Within the Abrahamic religions, judgment was a significant aspect of early Judaism, which codified specific do’s and don’t’s, attached to specified punishments. The idea of cumulative judgment was also established, recording our history of “good” and “bad” deeds and how they netted out over our lifetime.

Jewish law was initially the basis for God’s judgment of us. But, human beings being as they are, these rules quickly became the basis for human beings’ judgments of each other. Judgments that were highly susceptible to human frailty and deviousness. Judgments that became exclusively dual: right versus wrong; good versus bad; acceptable versus unacceptable. Either/or. No middle ground. No gray areas.

A force such as judgment was also effective for creating earthly power structures and maintaining group control. We have thusly become very good at using this judgment tool for our own designs, even as we color it in a “divine will” or “greater good” dressing. This judgmental framework flowed naturally from its Jewish roots into Christian and Islamic dogma and practice.

Then Jesus came along into this structure and said, “Judge not, that ye also be not judged,” (Mth. 7:1), thereby thoroughly upending the accepted system in place. “Judge not” is hardly compatible with a power and control social architecture. When we lose that convenient list of do’s and don’t’s, we are called upon instead to go into that difficult personal territory of compassion and humility. We have to make choices about how we live, rather than being able to conveniently rely on an external manual of conduct. The solid ground beneath our feet turns to mush, while our opportunity to grow as mature individuals presents itself.

To complicate this further, we are required to make many choices every day over a multitude of topics just to transact the daily business of life. We make choices about “things”: what foods to eat; what clothes to wear; what purchases to make. We make choices about “intangible things”: whom to marry; what career to pursue; where to live; what friends to make. We make choices about “ideas”: our religious beliefs; our political opinions; our understanding of Truth itself. Each of these choices potentially opens a door of judgment as to their “rightness.”

We also make – almost reflexively – judgments of others, by judging the choices they have made for themselves. Yes, there are times when we need to assess others, e.g. their job qualifications, or their output, or their actions and culpability for same. But such assessments often slide into more profound judgments as to one’s worth, one’s value, as a human being. Judgments often made on the basis of what one would choose for him-/herself rather than what is truly right for another. Mistakes, errors in decision-making, our individual actions that cause negative consequences are all part of our humanness. All part of our baggage we might like to take back and reverse but cannot.

Each of us is entitled to a reservoir allotment of excused “oops”; hopefully we do not exceed that capacity. That reservoir is the source of the graciousness and compassion we extend to our self and to each other. For our own benefit, and the benefit of others, we would do well to be cautious and sparing in our judgment-making. At the very least, we can hold our tongue from speaking our negativity about the judgments arising in our mind. We can contain our judgment to those most important of things that may arise, and not the trivial. We can remember how to mind our own business when there are no real consequences to us. We can acknowledge that there but for grace go I.

©   2018   Randy Bell   

Friday, July 27, 2018

What Do I Really Know?

“I want to know all God’s thoughts; all the rest are just details.” Albert Einstein

People have been telling me what to think all my life. Starting from the moment of my birth, and continuing throughout my long life, voices of “instruction” have been aimed my way. Much of it has been well-intended: to keep me safe; to inform and strengthen my decision-making; to open me to new experiences; to inform me of what has been and what now is; to give me the skills to provide for my own existence. Yet some of it was not so well-intended: to keep me within societal norms; to keep any of my differing thoughts safely at bay; to fulfill others’ needs of me for their own benefit. Yet all was given “for my own good.”

My teachers came in varying forms. Parents explaining the world; older siblings passing on their learnings; school teachers offering static facts across a variety of subject areas; employers dictating what will be produced, and when and how; religious figures defining a specific moral code, reinforced by an unseeable – and therefore unquestionable –greater authority. And so on.

It is a structure well-honed over millennia. The process starts at birth, delivered by authoritative figures. The instruction, and our passive acceptance of it, is ingrained in us before skeptical resistance in this education has a chance to develop. We go along with it because it is the accepted process for living, the way to get along with an often seemingly hostile environment. Besides, there are times when we need information, and proactively seek it out.

The problem is that, while we are continually taught what to think, we are rarely taught HOW to think – i.e. “critical thinking” that challenges accepted beliefs. Complex issues are thereby reduced to incomplete simplifications. Our teachers rarely confess that what they are teaching us is predominately limited to what they had been previously taught – information passed down generationally over time. Even as broader information has continually been made more accessible over the centuries, we remain far too unaware of divergent opinions and experiences that offer alternative ideas to our set learnings. It is too often easier to settle into any available handy truth rather than making the effort to know many expanded Truths and their nuances.

Over time, the lessons embed themselves deeply within us, familiar friends to console our minds as we encounter a bewildering array of questions and challenges every day. We hang on to the lessons tightly, while the source of them fades from memory. The teacher’s lesson morphs into OUR lesson, rather than beliefs reflecting our own discovery of them. Until one day we open our internal ear to hear that quiet voice inside that asks us, “Really? Is that what YOU truly believe? How do you know it to be true, rather than assuming it to be so? Whose thought are you really thinking here?”

The world has much to teach us. Indeed, learning is the principal reason we are here as human beings in the first place. It is easy and comforting to hang our truth on a readily accessible hook. But real Truth is revealed against a backdrop of genuine personal thought. Thought that starts with no preconceptions, and proves itself in the outcomes we see in our own personal experience. Whether or not we may have been encouraged to “think for our Self,” we will find very little Truth without deep introspection. How many once rock-solid scientific, societal, and religious Truths have ultimately fallen by the wayside over time?

We strive to live an ethical life guided by deeply seeded principles, while also pursuing a continual quest to refine and expand those principles. Ultimately, we come to realize that what we know, we know only in this moment. We come to know that our knowing is only temporary; there is always more to learn about all things. We come to know that much of what we know we have borrowed from others – memorized, not discovered. We come to know that what we truly know for our Self is dependent upon how much time we spend in the pursuit and endeavor of discovering our true ideas. What do we truly know – and believe – for ourselves? We know we do not yet know. We pursue answers continually fueled by our curiosity. In that pursuit, we find joy in our unknowing.

“Let your … beliefs come from your traditions, family, ancestors, opinions, writings, reasoning, or a captivating spiritual teacher. All of these can help inform you. But when you see all of these things in action, and you see good results flowing from them, such that in your own heart you know directly that these things are good – only then should you adopt such teachings as your own.”
“Lesson from the Teacher Buddha,” #35, by Randy Bell

©   2018   Randy Bell     

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Logical Trail To Untruth

When I was a high school senior a few eons ago, I needed to select a science course for my schedule. Biology and physiology were never my thing (then or now); dissecting a frog held minimal attraction for furthering my education. However, I did enjoy chemistry, and was good with math. So I opted for pre-engineering physics, taught by retired athletic coach John Thompson.

Our pre-engineering physics course was built upon posing a problem statement which was then to be “solved” by applying applicable laws of physics combined with deductive (“logical”) reasoning. Work through the step-by-step path, one statement at a time, and it will necessarily lead you to the right answer. For each such problem I was given, I would dutifully walk through the logic trail, confident in my disciplined thinking, and thereby ultimately arrived at the answer. Except that as often or not, it would not be the “right” answer – i.e. Coach Thompson’s answer. Even though my steps were impeccably logical on their face, I would nevertheless often wind up on my own island of reasoning, waving to my classmates faintly visible on Coach Thompson’s distant shores.

What happened to my navigational compass? I finally determined that my “errors” were not in my application of logical thinking, a process that orderly connects one thought to the next in a controlled and disciplined manner. Rather, the problem would inevitably be in the scope of my inputs. I would fail to include the consideration of some causal or relevant factor, or would not include all of the physics laws that were applicable to the problem. Yet working with what was within my scope of view, my conclusion – my answer – was in/of itself perfectly “correct.”

In the immediacy of that high school moment, my primary focus became doing what I needed to do to pass the course. Thanks to the good graces of Coach Thompson, I did manage to get enough right answers a sufficient number of times to get a “B” grade. Unsurprisingly, I did not grow up to be a physicist or an engineer.

It was only years later that I realized the larger significance – and lesson – of this experience. In the comfort of logical conclusion, our personal fear is reduced; our desired surety of the future is similarly assured. Yet there truly is something called “false logic,” which on its face sounds like a contradiction of terms. If we choose to, and especially if we (knowingly or unknowingly) actually have a pre-determined conclusion of where we wish to arrive, we can most certainly create a sensible, logical, beautiful, seemingly inarguable, and elegantly constructed rationale to get us there. We can control that journey simply by limiting the scope of the input factors we select to consider in plotting our journey of thinking. They may be inputs we are aware of but simply deprioritize or turn a blind eye to. Or we may limit our inputs to our existing personal experiences and accumulated beliefs; we make no genuine effort to challenge those beliefs or to gain wider experiences and new information about the subject matter. But by such limiting, we leave ourselves open to arriving at the very false truth we were seeking to avoid in the first place.

By instinct we are prone to be “lazy thinkers,” content in remaining in our own truths and continually utilizing our skills to reaffirm what we already believe. “Logical thinking” is highly prized in Western culture, both for our own decision-making and for judging the decisions of others. But it will only lead us safely through the thickets of the mind if we do our proper homework, do the advance reconnoitering of the breadth of the territory we intend to pass through. It demands that we first search out and accumulate broad and varying information before we map out our step-by-step path to conclusion. And then to hold that conclusion very lightly and skeptically, understanding all too well the potential shortcomings and fallacies that often underlie our supposedly logical reasoning.

Then there are those delicious times when we choose to rest our mind and put it temporarily on the shelf. We discard the logical path altogether because we sense it is not the best path for us after all. The call to the illogical path may not feel the safest and surest, but it can oftentimes be the most interesting, most creative, most instructive one to follow. Those are the times that intuition, our inner voice, and our wisdom sense of “just knowing” jumps us over the logic trail altogether, and forcibly pushes us into that place we simply need to be.

“Don’t believe everything you think.”
-Pema Chödrön, Tibetan Buddhist teacher

©   2018   Randy Bell