Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Personal Note

If you will indulge me a pause for a reflective moment …

The end of 2016 is also the completion of ten years of social commentary postings on the Thoughts From The Mountain blogsite. It is also the completion of seven years of spiritual messages on the Our Spiritual Way blogsite. There have been 221 individual essay-ettes on the Thoughts site; 95 essay-ettes on the Spiritual site. An estimated 300,000 words. So many words. Oftentimes when I am staring at the calendar looking at the next posting due date, I wonder, “What else is there to write about? What else is left to say.” Yet, inevitably, some topic ultimately presents itself. Thereby, another posting hits the digital landscape.

When I first heard the call to start writing these blogs, the principal question for me – besides whether I was qualified or not to speak on these subjects – was what would be my “niche.” Did I have something new to add to the dialog, rather than just repeating commentary already provided by other writers? There are literally thousands of blogs out there, wandering the internet in search of an audience. Some are well-written, contributing to expanding our knowledge and nourishing our personal growth. Others, not so much. If I have nothing new and of real substance to offer to you, then I do not need to be just another piece of clutter in your inbox.

My goal with the Thoughts blog is not to just react to individual events as they come down the pike. There are plenty of sources in place already for that commentary. Rather, I am always trying to find the broader principles, the larger themes, the historical context for what passes through these events of our daily lives. Such encompassing themes always exist; the difficulty is in unearthing them. The blog is simply a way to sort out for myself whatever insights I may come up with, and to share them with you. They may or may not be meaningful or applicable to you and where your life’s journey has taken you thus far, but I leave that assessment to you. Hopefully you will be stimulated and able to take my thoughts and build upon them to discover your own insights – insights that will excite and inform your thinking.

The same principles apply to the Spiritual blog. Frankly, I try to stay out of denominational, institutional, and religious dogma discussions. There are no lack of such religious issues generating much strong discussion, and plenty of religious speakers more than ready to comment on them. Issues such as of the meaning of, and the direction for, the church in today’s society, and who has the “right” answers about these questions. Yet even in the midst of such often heated confusion, there are many small congregations, and individual congregants, doing such very good things, often going unpublicized. They remain true to the core beliefs of their faith, do not unduly burden others with that faith, and genuinely reflect the best examples of their founding Teachers regardless of denominational and institutional pressures. My personal spiritual pursuit is to find the fundamental spiritual lessons that transcend separate religions, scriptures, geography, cultures, and national borders. Because in the end, the one thing that we share is that we are all human beings. We may have different beliefs about how we got here, and what is expected of us now that we are here. But underneath the skin, and beyond the intellectual corners of our minds, we all think, react, and seek similar things. We all know fear; we all often feel overwhelmed by this Life we barely understand; we are all making up our way as we go; we all embrace joy; we are all interrelated and affected by each other. If we ever get around to embracing those commonalities instead of beating up on each other, that is where we will find true transcendent spirituality.

One of my disappointments in the recent election campaign of personalities that we witnessed was that issues of substance, very vexing problems needing fresh thinking leading to genuine solutions, got completely ignored and drowned out in the buzzword conversations that passed for national debate. Needed conversations on social and spiritual topics that underpin our secular life were also buried under the campaign noise. In 2017 my intention for these blogs is to get out from under this suffocating blanket of coarse arguments and move back to discussions of ideas. We will never find the commonality and humanity that we seek as long as we are overwhelmed by these tsunamis of personalities. Observing the events of our daily lives is like looking at a small, cropped photograph of division and conflict. It is in the quest of the bigger picture, the glaring, expansive billboard of our social and spiritual landscape, that we will find the love, unity and compassion that we seek.

I intend to continue my search to know more today than I did yesterday. To understand just a little bit better that which I did not fully grasp yesterday. To be a little more skeptical about what I may think I believe. And to put such insights that I may have to good use in my relationships with others – including each of you. Relationships that hopefully will continually be made better. None of us has the full Truth about anything. Every person, thing or idea is inherently too complex, too expansive, for us to find solely on our own. So we learn best by sharing each of our individual discoveries, pulling Truth together like pieces of a vast mosaic artwork. When we come to see divergent opinion not as a threat to our thinking and well-being, but as an opportunity to add more bits and pieces to a continually broadening perspective and understanding, then we can progress together to a better place for all.

So with your permission if not indulgence, I begin a new decade of writing, for as short or long as God determines that my life still has some worthwhile contributions to offer. Writing that seeks to be built upon deep reflection, factual accuracy, historical connection, respect to those involved, exploring differing perspectives of belief, while giving voice to that which frequently goes unsaid. Perhaps thereby you will begin another decade of reading alongside. Thank you for your interest, support, and feedback as I have traveled this long pathway. I am quite sure there will be plenty to talk about in the months and years ahead. In the meantime, I wish you many times of quiet reflection, joy and love during this coming year. Peace be within you.

©   2016   Randy Bell               www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com


Thursday, December 8, 2016

Happy Holidays Redux

Back in December 2007, I wrote a post about a rising national protest from some Americans. They were complaining about being instructed to say “Happy Holidays” to their customers instead of wishing them “Merry Christmas.” This gag order was seen as an infringement on their religious rights, and yet another assault on the public expression of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Since then, this religious persecution mantra has resurfaced on an annual basis, sponsored in part by Fox News stoking the fire. After these many years of argument, we really need to put this issue back into the Church where it belongs, and out of the public debate and business marketplace.

When we look to extend a greeting or good wish to another person, the presumption is that our goal is to honor that person’s life and aspiration. When we send someone a Get Well card, it is not we who are sick but another who is suffering. When we send a Congratulations card to a recent graduate, it is not we who are walking across that commencement stage. The premise is that we extend good feelings to someone for what is happening in THEIR life, not ours.

The story and celebration of Jesus’ birth is a remarkable yet decidedly Christian event. However, there are millions of non-Christians in this country, almost one-third of our population. Many of us no longer live in isolated homogeneous communities, but increasingly we live intermixed all together.  One can choose to “spread the Gospel” in the winter holiday time to those not looking to receive it, or one can express true love and acceptance of each other and honor their respective celebrations.  People who insist on the “right” to wish a Merry Christmas to people whose traditions of observance are different are in fact being very selfish.  They are looking to make themselves feel better, not the person they are addressing. They are not seeking to truly spread “joy and good will to others,” but to themselves. Does a Christian you expect a Jew to wish you a Happy Hanukkah?

On the website http://www.interfaith-calendar.org/2016.htm, there are 19 religious holidays listed as celebrated in December, and 21 in January. They include a number of generalized “Christian” observances, but many are reflective only of one denomination of Christianity: Christian, Catholic Christian, Hispanic Christian, Hispanic Catholic Christian, Orthodox Christian, Armenian Orthodox Christian, Ethiopian Orthodox Christian.  In addition, a number of non-Christian holidays occur within these same two months: Jewish, Shinto, Buddhist, Confucian, Daoist, Islam, Zoroastrian, Baha'i, Sikh, Wicca/Pagan.

People of all of these faiths are our neighbors and fellow citizens. Our country’s diversity is one of our strengths and reflects our multiple cultural and religious heritages.  So say Happy Birthday to me on my birthday, not yours.  Wish me a Happy 4th of July, not a Happy Bastille Day.  Wish people joy and peace in their own personal form.  If you know that family or friends are Christian, then by all means wish them the “Merry Christmas” that they celebrate. If you do not know them, or have not bothered to try to understand another person’s religion and culture, then do not assume that you know them. Just know that when in doubt, “Happy Holidays” really does work just fine in all cases. And in this time of such strife and division, perhaps a simple message of “Peace” works even better.

Happy Holidays. Peace be within each of you, and your families and friends.

©   2016   Randy Bell               www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com

Monday, November 21, 2016

Fear And Promise

A lot of known and unknown friends and neighbors, within this country and across the globe, are feeling very fearful these days. It is fear that crosses political ideology, racial identities, economic status, and national borders. In some instances it is a fear from certainty: bombs exploding all around (Syria); a loved one who has been shot cradled in your arms (major cities); an empty plate on a dining table (across America). In other instances it is a fear from uncertainty: a vague sense of dreams and ambitions escaping away; of known, unshakable truths being challenged; of security being threatened by forces unseen and unimaginable; of a comforting way of life eroding and disintegrating.

In light of recent political events, many Americans fear that sixty years of cultural/political movement towards the realization of “Liberty and Justice for All,” yielding accomplishments achieved against continuing resistance and barriers, is now under threat. Old battles are having to be refought against a seemingly perpetually recurring foe. Other Americans fear the loss of cultural identity, a way of life embodied in 1950s America of set family roles, unambiguous church teachings, job and economic stability if not upward mobility, clear social and legal rules, and American world dominance. Our fears of loss may be different; fear itself is shared.

The parent Fear creates the child Anger. And Anger in turn creates an environment of separation from each other. So we have in our land today. Not “One Nation, Indivisible,” but a nation separate and not equal.

Numerically, we are separated right down the middle, 50/50. Middle America separating two costal populations. The division, fueled by our anger, is exemplified by increasing acts of physical violence against persons and property, social violence in name-calling and indiscriminate insults thoughtlessly and casually tossed about, and spiritual violence in our rejection of each other based upon our unacceptance for no reason other than “they’re different.” A difference we typically know little about. A superficial difference that masks a shared commonality.

In our collective existence as one tiny sliver of the vast Universe, we are regularly called upon to face disruption due to changing times, and to face our fears that arise out of those occurrences. We have a choice to act out of our fears, if not perpetuate and expand them. Or we can discover the challenges that the fears provide to us, and commit to meeting those challenges and transcending those fears.

The Universe always conspires to sever the past. The past is simply past. It is not the present, certainly not the future. (Stripped of the fog of selective nostalgia, the 1950s were not all that great anyway!) The Universe also conspires to wake us up when we get too complacent, and remind us that social progress towards our spiritual brothers and sisters requires constant effort and vigilance. Such are the Universe’s conspiracies occurring in these current times.

It does not take much skill or creativity to tear things apart. In the Universe’s grander schemes, we will be measured by our ability to transcend division and see truths on all sides of our divide, and judged by our ability to give voice and create reconciliation across that divide. We should take heart that our even divisions also give us our equal choices. They make the questions to be answered, and the decisions to be made, an imperative to address, impossible to gloss over and bury in cheap rhetoric. The substance of our divisions is also the energy for our search for answers and understanding.

Underneath the anger we hear is the fear we seek to hide. We need to expose and acknowledge those fears, because only out of that naked exposure can come the direction and reconciliation we seek, working together rather than against each other. We need compassionate listening and respect for each other, because each person’s perspective is their own truth, and some measure of truth is found in every pocket of humanity. With thoughtful effort, our diverse national makeup can work for all of us, a nation Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for All. That is the Promise awaiting us.

©   2016   Randy Bell               www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Natural Rhythms Of The Universe

In the Christian New Testament, we are told that “To every thing there is a Season,” an appropriate time for each aspect of Life to happen naturally. The Tao te Ching tells us that there is a Life Force (Tao) that permeates all things, substantial and unsubstantial, and that Life Force creates a structural momentum and flow with which we are expected to align ourselves. Nature, indomitable and undeniable, works her ways, both foreseeable and unforeseeable, in spite of our best efforts to control her. In times long past, human beings lived in harmony with this Universal Life.

Regardless of these teachings given to us by word and actions, we often expend great efforts to ignore these realities of Life. We ignore the inherent makeup of things, and seek to make them into what we would like them to be by genetic engineering, or by the force of our will, or by seeing things only as we desire them to be. Or we try to force events and actions into our own timeframe, disregarding that all things have their own schedule to meet. We are stressed that results are not happening as we planned, but our plan likely did not reflect the plans of others. We cause most of our stress to ourselves.

Our calendars show blocks of time (days, weeks, months), but these are merely artificial human constructs, fairly meaningless in the grander scheme. We still think of four distinct seasons, each marked by a particular date and time of equinoxes and solstices. Night is distinguished from day; morning is distinguished from afternoon. Yet in spite of all this movement within consistent structures, we seek to live each day the same as the last, repeat the same for the next.

In the midst of summer warmth that begs us to move more slowly, we leave our air conditioned house to get into our air conditioned car to drive to our air conditioned workplace. Same in reverse in the winter cold. Fruits and vegetables are planted and harvested at different times in different seasons and locales, but we expect to eat the same throughout the year. We work eight hours per day year around, but in winter we leave in the dark and return in the dark. In the summer we underutilize the extended daylight that is available to us.

We build houses and landscape yards impervious to the geography and weather conditions that encompass them. We overlay timetables and schedules to fit structural models rather than accommodating the Universe’s Rhythms. What if we ate only when hungry? What if we rose in the morning when we woke up rather than when the alarm rings? What if we lived in a house sized to the occupants’ true needs, rather than the expansive space we need not try to afford? What if we spent more time outdoors in Nature’s guest houses than in our homes and offices?

In today’s complex and highly structured cultures, such Walden Pond-esque thinking can sound as an incredible fantasy, impossible to reengineer. But maybe, just maybe, even if only on occasions of our own making, we could slip into periods of natural rhythms, away from our artificially imposed lifestyle. We could listen to our bodies rather than looking at our clocks. Eat when hungry, and maybe only what the farmers provide to us in today’s season.  Sleep when tired. Have no “to do” list for today; just do the very next thing that shows up on our plate, rather than acting from our self-developed master plan.

Such would take a conscious effort. With practice, it can get easier. But the rewards will become more important, more visible, more appreciated, as living in sync within the Universe’s natural rhythms promises us.

©   Randy Bell              www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Success Of Failure

The pursuit of success is inculcated into our person from our earliest days. Problems arise, and we move to surmount them using whatever skills are available to us. Successfully overcoming problems feels good, both as an accomplishment as well as obtaining the fruit of the resultant reward – food, drink, cuddling, sleep. It is good to be a victor, conquering challenges, gratifying needs.

Somewhere in this repetition of “I succeed,” two things begin to be added on: the approbation and positive attention from others over our accomplishment; conversely, the criticism inflicted when success is not achieved. Success has a traveling companion always lurking a few steps behind: failure. A delicate balance is set into place between success (approbation) versus failure (criticism). We set an objective to pursue; we expect success from our efforts (why else the pursuit?); we know failure can occur instead (do we risk it?). For some, success progressively becomes the end game itself. Being successful at success replaces the original objective we claim to be pursuing. Fear of failure becomes the true driver behind our efforts.

So the noble doctor saves her patients, but actually fights to vanquish the threat of illness. The politician gets elected but has no genuine concerns for his constituency. The artist continues to create, desperately looking for that “follow-up second success” to duplicate her early acclaim. The scientist toils in the lab determined to prove his hypothesis no matter the human or financial cost. Failure must be avoided; success trumps failure.

Except that sometimes failure is the most very right thing we need at certain points in our life. As nice as success may feel, even when driven by fear-of-failure, repetitive success over time can breed a sense of inevitability, of unfounded certainty, of unquestioned right-ness, of arrogance. We come to believe that we alone are solely responsible for, and the singular cause of, our success – forgetting the thousands of people and endless links in the chain of our life story that have shaped our lives and outcomes.

We are a player in the game of our life, but we are only one cast member in this play. Many of the outcomes in our life are dumb luck in spite of ourselves, a luck that can change in an unforeseen instant. A luck that often does change, usually when we least expect it.

So the golden boy, whose simple touch seemingly turned everything to gold, goes bankrupt. The gambler’s luck vanishes at the table. The movie star no longer receives the scripts begging for her attention. The spiritual leader falls from grace when discovered to be a mere mortal. The Big Man On Campus is caught doing drugs. How far the mighty can fall. How many people we stepped on as we traveled on our way up still wave to us as we pass them on our journey back down?

Failure is painful. It is not something to strive for. But it is often the Universe’s needed course correction for us in our life journey. A necessary shattering of the illusions we have wrapped ourselves in. A gift of proper perspective when our view has lost its clarity. A reminder of fragility where we had come to believe in the false protector of permanence. A refresher course in proper relationships. A teaching experience about what we failed to learn along our way, or a truth we forgot to consider when it was most needed.

Failure will come to us at some point. It is an inevitable (and often necessary) part of living a human life. So we best not spend too much time trying to deny it when it comes. Better to embrace it fully. What we choose to do at that point of failure, how we handle it, what we take from it, what lessons we learn, are all important. We need not fear failure; we need not strive for success simply to avoid failure. God uses moments of failure for our benefit. Can we do the same in those moments? Therein lies our true success.

©   2016   Randy Bell               www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com

Sunday, August 21, 2016

We Are All Temporary Workers

During my professional career, I was privileged to be involved in doing institutional administrative planning, culminating as an external consultant to colleges and universities nationwide. This role required me to be closely embedded within an organization’s employees for varying lengths of time depending on the scope of the project. During that period, I was an “outsider” functioning as an “insider” – often a delicately balanced role to fulfill.

In these potentially difficult situations, some people would welcome my presence, happy to tap into whatever assistance I might be to them in meeting their job responsibilities. Others could be wary, if not openly antagonistic, to my disruptive presence in their work life. It was not necessarily hostility to me personally. It was more that outsiders were seen as just there to take dollars out of their already-too-thin operating budget, and a belief that they had no real concern or loyalty to the institution “like a real employee does.” However, my consistent observation over time was that within the ranks of the many good employees I had the honor to work with, some “real” employees often evidenced little concern for the greater good of their institution, while placing a high value on their own personal benefits and power base. Conversely, I knew many consultant colleagues who, regardless of the nature and duration of their affiliation, cared very much about the future welfare of the institution and its employees.

In the end, we are all temporary workers, whether on the employee payroll system or a consultant fee-for-services contract. Whether our affiliation is for a day, a week, a year, or forty years, we show up, we do the work asked of us – hopefully of quality and with respect for others – and then we leave. Also hopefully, we do work of substance and dedication until our last day on the job; no free rides and not “just playing it out.” But at some point, we do leave. We leave some legacy, ideally a positive and inspiring one. Yet by definition a legacy is a past story. We did our work in one moment, in a manner suited for us. Then the day after we left new people took over and began changing what we did and how we did it. Our legacy is a remembrance, not a granite monument set forever in place, unchanged. We have our moment in time on stage; we make room for others to have their moment. That is how it should be.

So it is with all things. Yet we often put great emphasis and pride on “owning” stuff – houses, cars, clothes, etc. Such ownership makes for some implied permanency and success. But our clothes go out of style; new cars turn “used” as they are driven off the lot; houses no longer serve us properly as the decades roll by. They are all just temporary fixtures in the passing moments of our life. “Pride of ownership” ultimately becomes “lead weight holding me back.” The whole idea of “personal ownership of the land” was incomprehensible to the spirit of Native Americans who saw the land as a singular whole serving its people, not divisible into separate parts. Such was a main theme for philosopher Henry David Thoreau who cautioned about home ownership, “And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him ... for our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them; and the bad neighborhood to be avoided is our own scurvy selves.”

It is not about living uncaringly and unconnected in a “disposable society.” It is about recognizing that we are just temporary workers according to our current circumstances – as parents, as employees, as leaders, as occupants of the chair. We contribute what we can in our times of temporary service, and then step away to accept the next calling that reaches out to embrace us. Which is why we hold our “possessions” thoughtfully but lightly, merely an entrusted custodian of our roles and our “stuff,” freely passing them on to others to enjoy and benefit from when their time comes about.

©   2016   Randy Bell                           www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Hate Thy Neighbor

In consideration of Sandy Hook, Mother Emmanuel Church, Orlando, Istanbul, Paris, marriage equality, economic and racial inequality, “a beautiful wall,” immigration bans, and religious intolerance …

A famous person from the Middle East famously said, “Love thy neighbor.” A very simple, short, direct statement. A very profound and long-reaching clear instruction. There was no “except for” clause that came thereafter. No except for Group X. No except for Religion Y. No except for any Place or Culture. Just “love thy neighbor.” All of the everyones in the neighborhood of this global earth.

Given the brevity, clarity, and limitless scope of that instruction, why is it so hard to enact it in our daily thoughts and actions? In far too many instances, directed to far too many people, we in fact practice the opposite command: “Hate thy neighbor.” Humanity has a consistent track record over millennia of living in hate. Certainly we have regularly done so over the 2000 years since we were counseled to do otherwise. We live within the oscillating waves of noble acts of love alternating with extreme, if not incomprehensible, barbarian acts of hate. It is a back and forth dance in which neither always dominates.

Of course we never attribute hatred coming from ourselves versus others. Hate is such a strong, repulsive word that we invariably couch it in softer, more socially acceptable or patriotic terminology. Very few act on that hate in blatantly destructive ways – war and genocide being the frightening exceptions. Instead, we simply ridicule that which we hate. We talk about other people who are “not like us.” We discount other perspectives and opinions as being from ill-advised if not stupid or immoral people. In American society, for years many White Americans belittled Black Americans as being “uneducable” even as we stripped them of their cultural heritage and refused to send them to be taught a meaningful education. We label groups as “shiftless” or “lazy” even as we fail to offer them worthwhile employment or economic / creative opportunity. We ridicule the cultures and judge the religious beliefs of others as being “primitive,” or socially unacceptable, or not-with-the-times, even as we brag about our own superiority – a case built on little basis of substance. We falsely insist that “our values” are the only true values, ignoring the vastly diverse possibilities of human life. The same scenarios permeate across the globe, adapted to local cultures and histories, a reverse mirror reflecting back our own conduct. Yet is there any realistic expectation that a 12-year-old child living today in Syria will grow up thinking and acting the same as a 12-year old child growing up in a small town in rural Iowa?

In a substitute for physical violence against those we hate, we perfect forms of social and mental violence into a community-acceptable juggernaut of disguised hate. We live in enclaves protected by invisible walls of similarity, a sameness of race, economic class, religion, culture, upbringing, ideas and opinions. That sameness leads us to believe that all others should live and think as we do, thereby losing recognition that, on the map of earth’s 7+ billion people, our community is but a tiny, infinitesimal blip barely visible to God.

We hate what we fear. We fear that which is different. “Different” separates us, alienates us, from that which we cannot know firsthand, from that which is beyond our control and therefore can threaten our safety. So we hunker down in our enclaves, protected by the invisible but very real boundaries of our common community, defending ourselves against the various inevitable forces of Change – even though we intuitively know that our hate simply creates a vicious cycle of hate in return. We choose to hate others even though, at our core, all human beings share the same fundamental concerns, aspirations, values and needs.

We can instead choose to confront our masked hatreds. Not to self-flagellate, not to despise or disparage ourselves. We do so to reveal and acknowledge the hidden unacknowledged thoughts that live within all of us, and the subtle actions unseen by us that unconsciously flow from our thinking. It is only when we acknowledge the truth of what is that we can change what is. The real danger to us lies in our blindness, our loudly proclaimed wonderfulness which allows little room for acknowledging our less honorable side. Yet it is in that very acknowledgment of our insecurities, in admitting our fears, that we are allowed to see their unintended and unwarranted consequences towards others. From that recognition, we can truly choose to let the hatred go, fully and forever. To then let our goodness become purified and true. To resist bad actions when necessary without losing our better Self into that bad actor. To do as we were originally told: “Love Thy Neighbor.” Even when that neighbor is different from us.

“Hate cannot drive out hate.  Only love can do that.”
(Martin Luther King, Jr.)
©   2016   Randy Bell           www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com

Friday, May 20, 2016

An Unworried Bird

A few weeks ago, a bird built a nest atop a small wood block attached to our porch ceiling. This in spite of my vow to head off any such nest building this year, given the ongoing mess that ultimately follows this kind of construction project. Yet seemingly overnight, there it was. A perfectly constructed domicile, fully occupied with several small eggs already inside. And so we will have another year of inevitable bird poop all over the porch. Nevertheless, we will survive this intrusion on our well-being for yet another year as godparents to the aviary population.

The nest is just outside the kitchen window, which makes for easy viewing and entertainment as we go about meal preparation and cleanup. I watch as this mother bird flits from and to her nest in continual movement. Flying off to sit momentarily on the wire fence which will house our vine-ripened tomatoes in a few months. Then time to sit on a nearby tree branch. Then out-of-sight, off to parts unknown, likely for a short meal of some kind; it is important to keep the body strong and healthy for the duties of motherhood to come. Perhaps somewhere in all of this flitting will be time spent with other bird friends, socializing and comparing notes. But it is probably predominately a solitary life, tending to the responsibilities that constitute this bird’s routine.

As one day follows the next, and this seemingly endless cycle of daily activity repeats itself, two observations arise: the absolute clarity with which this bird understands its purpose and role; and the unhesitating consistency with which she goes about fulfilling them. Clarity of purpose; consistency of execution. Nothing seems to complicate her understanding of her life.

She appears to know love, evidenced by her careful dedication to her charges in the nest. But perhaps that is only in my imagination as she simply goes about what she is to do. She clearly knows fear, the need to protect herself from harm, evidenced by her rapid departure when I come too near. Yet I wonder … is this little bird “happy”? More specifically, does she worry?

We, the supposedly advanced form of life, worry up a storm. We make plans, and then worry about whether they will come to fruition as we envisioned. We worry about all the ways harm could potentially befall us, even though the statistical likelihood is that they will never happen to us. We worry about our next dollar – do we have enough, will it keep coming, how will we buy the next toy on our list – even though living a truly fulfilling life requires far less wealth than we assume. We join groups of people to alleviate our aloneness, then worry about whether we will fit in, be accepted, be thought attractive / witty / intelligent enough. We form deep relationships with others (human and non-human), then worry about whether these relationships will last. We worry about what people think of us, while most people are too busy and preoccupied to think much about us at all. We worry about losing all we have achieved and having to start over again, yet our life has been lived through continuous change and renewal. We have survived.

We, the advanced species, tie ourselves up in futile worry. That little bird, on that nest, simply tends to her business at hand. I doubt that she does much planning ahead, frets over many regrets, gives up after something called “failure,” or changes her actions based upon what the other birds say or do. Her mission and direction lives inside of her; it simply flows freely outward to guide her. Our mission and direction similarly lives inside each of us. We need only to get out of our own way, and let it flow out of us. Without worry, Guidance can then guide.

©   2016   Randy Bell               www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

I Am Right,You Are Wrong

Human beings love to argue, to fight about ideas of what is right and what is wrong. Or more accurately, WHO is right and WHO is wrong. Certainly there are infrequent times when people respectfully listen to one another, debating points of view only to sharpen one’s understandings rather than to undercut one another. But most conversations are verbal sporting events whose objective is to win – to dominate in the jousting of ideas and to belittle and overwhelm contrary opinions. The end results of such contests are very little advancement of informed knowledge, minimal progress in the advancement of interactions within societies, and the cause of much needless division and conflict in the world. Argument perpetuates and reinforces the stagnation of thought.

The human need to be “Right” about something – or about nearly everything – is another illustration of our emotional fragility. Our need to be Right is the mirror image of our abhorrence of being “Wrong.” That fear of being Wrong is the guard that keeps us imprisoned away from our own creativity, from discovering our own truly original thought. Certainty is the archenemy of truly creative thinking.

If we are honest with ourselves, most of what we believe – and argue vociferously to defend – is not what we truly believe anyway. Most of our supposed well-thought out beliefs are actually pasted-on opinions we borrow from others – parents, teachers, mentors, friends, colleagues, opinion-makers – devoid of our own direct experiences and encounters. We have opinions about people we have never met, or only know peripherally; cultures we have never visited nor engaged; religions we have never studied or shared their ritual; lifestyles we have never encountered; moral principles we have never really questioned; starkly minimalistic living conditions we have never experienced. Most of the people we spend time with are people who look like us, speak like us, echo the same opinions as us. We nourish our beliefs by our immersion within the sameness of a familiar community of look-alikes.

We sincerely think that our beliefs are framed within great absolute and universal Truths. Yet the first Truth is that our beliefs reflect, and are limited by, our personal perspective. It is a perspective built upon our individual life experiences, encounters, and role models, experiences far different than others. If our perspective has been gleaned from a wide breadth of exposures, then our beliefs will similarly incorporate a breadth of thinking and openness to considering and finding accommodation with contrary opinions. If our exposure has been narrow, then our beliefs will likewise be narrow, closed to contrary opinions.

We think that our beliefs are logically derived and thought through, reflecting our superior human intellect. Yet the quality of our logical thinking rises or falls based upon the comprehensiveness of our inputs. If our inputs are limited, our conclusions necessarily will be limited. We believe our thinking creates our perspective. In reality, our preexisting perspective from our experiences create our thinking, and thereby our beliefs. That self-fulfilling cycle should make us very cautious about what we think we believe is right.

Arguing steadfastly about who is Right exposes the underlying insecurity of our beliefs. The weaker our confidence in our beliefs, the harder we fight to affirm them onto others. But if one is truly Right, it is not conditioned by how many also believe it. (Rightness may love company, but thousands of slaves and slave owners in America never made slavery Right.) Realistically, most of what we presume the need to agree upon requires no agreement at all, versus making a commitment to live compatibly within a diverse community of opinions. It might be better to spend less time judging the wrongness of others, and instead expend more effort living a better version of our own rightness.

Listening openly to other perspectives – other life situations and experiences far different than our own – puts the genuine pursuit of knowledge and character ahead of our false need to be Right. It is our acceptance of our continuing ignorance that keeps us learning, not our certitude.

©  2016   Randy Bell              www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com

Monday, April 4, 2016

Our Untold Stories

Years ago, I read an article about an elderly man who died alone in his long-term city apartment. When people came to empty out his things, they discovered stacks and stacks of handwritten journals containing the names of all the people he had been introduced to over the course of his life. No details, no narrative. Just the names and dates documenting the people he had encountered sufficiently to learn their names. The journals served as memory. But they also reminded him of the breadth of his life, those who had influenced his life experiences in both large and small ways. It was a personal form of acknowledgment for all those human connections in spite of what may have appeared on surface to be a life lived alone.

Over the course of our lifetime, we have myriad experiences, seemingly just in the course of one day. Experiences of people, places, events, visuals, sounds, tastes, movement, ideas, and role situations. We typically attach to each of these experiences some adjective(s) to denote our relationship to them: good, bad, delightful, horrible, memorable, forgettable, etc. Some of these stay in our conscious awareness constantly; others disappear into the deep recesses of “forgotten” memories, accessible only with immense effort and perhaps emotional courage.

We interpret those experiences based upon what we have been pre-taught to see, as well as conclusions we have cumulatively drawn – whether they are truly accurate or not. Taken together, these interpretations and conclusions make up our life story. A story filled with gaps, faint images defying our attempts of definition, and misinterpretations due to our limited awareness of their broader context and circumstances and the shortcomings of our limited maturity and capacity to understand. Our story is not our Self; it is only that which our  Self has experienced – an important distinction often lost on us.

My experiences – of family makeup and circumstances, of place and geography, of influences of friends and teachers, of directions followed and sights seen – are far different from yours. My life story is unlike any other person’s story; your story is equally unique and personal from mine. Each person we meet has an extensive, untold story that will never to be revealed to us, a story likely never even to be fully revealed to him-/herself.

It would likely take another lifetime just to tell you the complete story of my life – if I could even remember that entire story.  Any autobiography I could write would, at best, be only an excerpt, a sampling, a slice which perhaps hints at a whole. Many feel a need to tell their story more from a desire to be understood than for the telling itself. But what does it actually matter if others hear our story and understand or not? What elements will we choose to select out of the vast database of our experiences? Which ones actually reveal us, and which serve to hide and protect the unseen, the unrevealed? Will such a telling alter the course of our future experiences, or simply reinforce the place in which we are already stuck?

We reflexively make judgments about the people we encounter, based upon an impression we quickly and instinctively form. That judgment is likely based upon a momentary sliver of that person’s story, a deep, vast story we will never be privileged to hear. Nor can we ever fully comprehend how and why we came together at our particular moment in time – though we may have our suspicions.

That old gentleman’s journals recorded no judgments, no conclusions about the people he encountered. Maybe in our encounters we might show someone a similar cautionary respect for their untold story. Perhaps a simple acknowledgment that we passed through and shared a moment in our lives, for a brief instant or more, is just enough before we move on.

©   2016   Randy Bell                         www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com

Monday, March 14, 2016

Letting Go of Memories

We love our good memories. We think positively of people who have been strong influences on our life’s direction. People who have been greatly helpful in teaching us about survival, values and happiness. People who have been with us at significant times and places. We remember special situations that nourished our mind and body with sensual treats, impossible to adequately describe later to friends. And we remember unique experiences that made us feel fulfilled, encouraged, challenged or loved.

We also love our bad memories. We think negatively of people who harmed us, thwarted us, led us astray. People who taught us fear, separation, and distrust. We remember situations that assaulted our senses, overwhelmed our capacity for understanding and forgiveness. Experiences that left us physically or spiritually hungry, discouraged, unmotivated, alone or unloved.

Loving our memories may seem an appropriate way to describe our feelings about “the good times,” but an inappropriate way to describe “the bad times.” But such a distinction exists only on the surface. When we look closely, we see that we experience our memories much the same regardless of content.

We apply significant portions of our time and attention to our memories. We usually direct ourselves to a consistent pool of specific memories rather than exploring the extensive image inventory of our mind. Feelings flow deeply from those memories, generating strong emotional responses rather than a simple cold, factual retelling. We are usually definite about their circumstances and details, even in the face of contrary facts and perspectives from others. Whatever lessons we may have learned from these memories are accepted fully and lived  rigidly, reinforced  by frequent retellings to ourselves and others. We instinctively sense that we would be someone other than who we are if we lost those stories. Which is why we love those stories so much – because we believe they define who we are, why we live and think as we do.

The greater concern is that every nanosecond that we spend in memory is time not spent in today. Time not spent moving us to tomorrow. Life pulls us into today via our daily responsibilities, yet it is our choice whether we fulfill those responsibilities in yesterday’s memories or today’s fresh thinking.

Memories can serve us well when we keep them in proper perspective and of limited duration.  We can recall good memories to maintain a positive direction and to reinforce a  balanced perspective of many good blessings received. We can recall bad memories as a way to avoid repeating bad choices because we have learned otherwise. Problems arise when we chase trying to recapture good times long gone. When we fail to recognize new opportunities emerging out of past seemingly familiar circumstances. When, in our imagination, we futilely seek to undo old mistakes made long ago. When the ill-treatment we received blinds us to the ill-treatment we have given. In these instances, we are hanging on to a life already lived rather than embracing our life where it is and could be.

In meditation we often talk of “just letting go.” Myriad thoughts are continually fighting for our attention, and many of those thoughts are reflections of memory. It can be tempting to reengage those memories, sink into the details, and relive their pleasures and pains. But in the quiet of that meditation, we put our emphasis instead on just letting the memories go. Acknowledge them, yes; indulge them, no. They were; they are not. We can love our good and bad memories. But to truly love them is to just let them pass into empty space. Thereby, we allow ourselves to pass into the new opening space that always awaits us.

©   2016   Randy Bell             www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


“It is desirable that a man be clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark, and that he live in all respects so compactly and preparedly, that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.”  Henry David Thoreau

In the earliest days of humankind, our needs were pretty simple. Shelter from extreme weather elements; food and water to nourish the body; coverings to protect the body. In turn, the mechanisms for meeting these needs were likewise pretty simple: a rock cave, or a hut made of branches; abundant plant life, and implements to kill animal life, for food; animal skins and hair, or grasses, for coverings. Life was simple and in sync with one’s surroundings. But as we sought to make our life easier, paradoxically life became harder as we increased our sense of “needs,” thereby causing human beings to compete for resources to fulfill those expanded needs.

Today, there are many people subsisting on not much more than those original fundamental needs. Rarely is it by personal choice, but by the consequences of institutional decisions. People are huddled into tents in refugee camps, or hiding in bombed out homes, due to decisions of war. Others are struggling to provide for themselves due to adverse weather conditions, corruption by rotating politicians, or institutional structures that cater to only a portion of the populace, leaving the plight of these unfortunates near-invisible and unattended to.

That people in these kind of circumstances survive at all is often a near miracle. But in its own way, these most unfortunate remind us how basic life really is. How little is truly needed to exist, to survive, to potentially live happy lives. They show us that the creature comforts we think are so necessary really are not. Our blurring of “needs” versus “nice to have” creates a highly skewed perspective of life, and is the cause of so much unhappiness and dissatisfaction in the world. That dissatisfaction in turn leads to much questionable conduct – individually or collectively – as we pursue methods for meeting our expanded needs. Our moral judgments, our interrelationship actions, our career choices, our lifestyle pursuits all become colored by this continual push to “better” our lives.

There is nothing inherently wrong with achieving success with money, fame, and position. No reason not to enjoy a less burdensome and more comfortable way of getting through our demanding days. No cause to forgo the opportunities for beauty and joy available in this world. Yet we have MBA business programs, and religious movements advocating “prosperity theology,” that focus on achieving wealth as its own end. But how much is enough for us? Problems occur when we become blinded to the harm we cause ourselves and others in our desperate chase after our objects of wealth. Problems happen when nice-to-haves gradually become must-haves, even though they are not really “musts.” Problems arise when we lose the ability to appreciate the half-full glass of what we have, lost in a half-empty view of what is missing. Problems emerge when one’s sense of entitlement overshadows a recognition and appreciation for all those beings who contributed to making our good fortune possible. Perceived individualism notwithstanding, we do not accomplish anything solely on our own.

All steps forward entail some steps backward to properly chart our way. I have had to reset my life a number of times, resets not without pain and difficulty. Each reset involved a transitional return to a more basic existence, starting over once again, living a simpler life of reduced needs – times I describe as our “back to the laundromat” moments. In each case I have been reminded how simple life’s needs really are, thereby moderating our incessant demands for more. As we are able to accumulate our “things,” we appreciate them in their moment, but we also know that they are not needed to protect us, or define us, or trap us into a position we cannot freely walk away from. In that recognition is true freedom, an openness to unbounded creativity and joy. We may not choose to live physically in Thoreau’s simple cabin in the woods, but we would do well to create such a simple space to house our mind. Knowing what is truly enough is enough to know.

“There is no greater calamity than desire, no greater curse than greed. Know that enough is enough, and you will always have enough.” Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching, verse 46, Brian Brown Walker translation

©  2016   Randy Bell                www.OurSpiritualWay.blogspot.com