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   

Monday, March 12, 2018

What I Can Do

“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but I can still do some things.
Just because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
—Edward Everett Hale, UUC minister

There are many times on our life when we feel overwhelmed. Sometimes it is when difficult things happen to us directly, and we know not why nor how to extricate ourselves from their power. Other times it is when we look at our surrounding environment, and feel powerlessly unable to make a difference. We may see so much that is wrong, so much that is in opposition to our values, and is destructive to that which we hold dear. We wonder, what can I do? What difference can I make? In a world of seven billion people, our individual self is a pitifully-sized army. How does one move a mountain when one can only lift a small stone?

We start by questioning our own view. Is that which we are protesting against, or advocating for, truly what we believe? If so, is that truly in our best interest, versus just being stuck in our old unquestioned thinking? Not all that looks “bad” is bad; not all that looks “good” is good. If we get clarity and pass that first step, our next question is, is it right for all others in all circumstances at all times? We are not they; their life is not our life. Is life a competition of winners versus sinners, or is life a cooperation of companionships walking in and out of our life?

Assuming we make it past this self-discussion, what do we do, if anything? Is doing “something” worthwhile, is it worth the perhaps seemingly futile effort? The answer is almost always “Yes” – IF our efforts are truly for the greater good toward others rather than just a cover story for our personal good. It is a Yes that begs for realistic perspective, which thereby obligates us to position ourselves properly and humbly.

“How can I help?”

Ram Dass, Buddhist teacher

Human beings are an impatient species. We are truly in a hurry to reach an endpoint and “change the world” from our own efforts. Action taken; objective accomplished; off to the next righteous goal. Yet the reality is that, in the larger scheme of things, we can each alone do very little on our own in this one lifetime. Lasting societal change and improvement in our human interactions take many lifetimes to accomplish. That is why human history teaches us that much of today is yesterday, and it has been this way throughout the human story. Only the dates, places and faces are changed.

Yet in other ways, things are different for more times, in more places, for more people. The march of civilization is a long march, but it is always moving forward, even if it is in a slow-time cadence with many left turns and temporary “about faces” along the way. In the larger course of time, our life is barely one half-step in that long cadence.

Our life can seem as of supreme importance; our lifetime a vast expanse of time. Yet our life is a speck in the mosaic of human history, a blip in God’s hourglass and calendar. So do we do nothing, out of despair that we cannot do it all? No, we simply acknowledge that we are that one slow cadence step, one more link in that necessary chain that drags human civilization along to its next milestone. We find our little spot in this landscape. We plant our seed to be grown there. Someone else may have to come along in a subsequent lifetime to water and fertilize our planting. A further somebody else may get to enjoy the forest that comes forth from our seedling. Some will find their place illuminated in the spotlight; most will toil in quiet anonymity. Understanding the inherent limits to our outcomes will keep all humble, but not prevent our making the effort.

“A society grows great when old men plant trees
whose shade they know they will never sit in.”

Greek Proverb

We place just one brick onto that rising cathedral that humanity is building. We place just one stone in the footpath to the future. It truly is about the journey, not the arrival. Our entire life is but one step in humankind’s journey – importantly unimportant and significantly insignificant. With these understandings, we give what we can, where we can, when we can. In that, we find peace and comfort. It is in the giving itself, from a pure intention, that we achieve. Just as the Universe intended.

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now.
You are not obligated to complete the work,
but neither are you free to abandon it.”

©   2018   Randy Bell   


Saturday, February 3, 2018

Change Others, Change Us

“God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”  Qur’an, 13:11

We spend a good deal of our time and energy trying to make an impact on our surroundings. Perhaps it is even more so in these days that seem so difficult to find our proper place in the world, a sense of alignment with our values and our aspirations and our beliefs, and our connection with a Power greater than ourselves. We may seek to make our impact in our role as a parent responsible for a growing child. Or as a career person responsible for the well-being of our colleagues, or the quality of products and services delivered to customers. Or as an aid or charity worker bringing assistance to human beings, creatures of nature, or to our physical environment. Or as an educator or spiritual teacher bringing knowledge or opening creativity to growing minds and hearts and souls. Or as an activist seeking justice in the rules and mechanisms of our society and governments in the face of conflicting views about what that justice should look like.

Unquestionably, there is much suffering that exists in the world today. The degree of suffering varies widely across the globe and across social groupings. It ranges from desperation for basic food and shelter and clean water lost in wars, to the never-satiated pursuit of extreme wealth to accumulate more “things” for their own sake.

In our efforts to make an impact of some kind in some sphere of endeavor, our view is typically outward. “They” must be supported; “they” must be changed; “they” must be reeducated; “they” must be redirected. The “they” that we rarely see in our eyes is the “they” that is doing the seeing – that “they” in the mirror. We are so often blind to the most significant “they” that there is: ourselves. Significant not because of our supposed importance, but because it is the one place where we are capable of making the biggest impact of all – and likely one of the places that needs our foremost attention. Yet it is also the place where we erroneously convince ourselves that there is the least need.

How many of our beliefs are not truly our own, but have been simply copied from others over time, without proper questioning? How limited has been our life experiences in the context of all the cultures and adventures that exist within the world? How narrow is our perspective in light of over seven billion people and 200+ nations across the globe? How much of what we believe is because mom / dad / our community or a strong role model / mentor said it was so, versus what we have seen and experienced directly? When we can come to accept that our reality is not all of reality, it opens the door for us to make one of the biggest impacts of all – transmuting our limited self to our expansive Self where true insight and happiness await.

This is not to say that our efforts to impact the world are not worthwhile or appropriate. Quite the contrary. We should certainly continue to contribute positively what we can for our companion human beings, for our community, and to the lives and fulfillment of our neighbors. But such happens best if we have first brought the honest and needed change to ourselves that is calling us. For it is in living a life exemplifying change that ultimately has the real potential to bring change in “they.” Before we attempt to clean the houses of others, we should be sure that we have first tended to the cleaning of our own house as well. Have we the courage to encounter and see ourselves for who we truly are?

©   2018   Randy Bell