Wednesday, April 22, 2009

All Aboard!

I love trains. I experience a small thrill every time I see one. It doesn’t matter if it is a freight train, a passenger car, light rail or even a kiddy ride at the park, trains hold a special place in my heart.

So when my spouse, CB, announced we had tickets for a journey on the Verde Valley train, I was quite pleased. The train snaked its way from the quaint Clarkdale’s station to a scenic ranch in Perkinsville and back. I’m not writing an advertisement here, so you can visit for more information, but suffice it to say it was an incredible and relaxing way for CB and me to celebrate our 7th anniversary.

But that’s not what this week’s blog is about.

I experienced something during the ride that was a bit of a wake up for me. As I watched the idyllic scenery gently pass by, I had the opportunity to watch the expressions of my fellow passengers. With the exception of one young family, everyone in our car looked to be a card-carrying member of AARP. I’ve taken note of folk’s ages more lately, as my birthday was approaching fast (it’s the day after my anniversary). CB held out the digital camera and took our picture. Then, we asked a nice lady if she would take our picture as well. I’m not fond of having my picture taken. I’m not particularly photogenic, and each picture reminds me that time keeps a chug, chug, chugging along.

However, as I looked at my digitized photo, and at the faces of the women around me, I noticed a serene beauty that I hadn’t noticed before. Instead of my typical mugging-for-the-camera smile, my face looked serene and even beautiful. It wasn’t so much that my features had been enhanced by the trip. I still had wrinkles, my eyes are still small, and I still have three cowlicks in my hair. But, at that moment, and during the train ride, I had nothing else to do but enjoy the surrounding beauty. And it seemed my face reflected the inner tranquility I felt.

Of course there is beauty all around me wherever I am, including during my regular workday, but I am generally too distracted, too busy, or too caught up in my own thoughts to notice. But on this train trip, I was able to loosen up and let the beauty of the canyons wash over me. The lines in my face relaxed and so did my defenses. I was at peace.

After we returned from our trip, I tried to recreate this tranquil state – particularly in my countenance. However, I noticed something odd that I never noticed before. I had a difficult time keeping my face relaxed. It’s as if my eyebrows have minds of their own and constantly want to burrow into my forehead (it’s a look I get when I’m thinking about something.)

I know there are scientific and biological reasons that we age. Genetics, nutrition, lifestyle choices, sun exposure and numerous other factors take a role in the aging process. But in my case – during this train ride – I realized a lot of those lines in my face are from screwing my face up in thought. I don’t take enough time to just "be" and enjoy the moment.

So if you want to reverse the aging process a bit and you don’t have the resources for massages, derm abrasion, botox or expensive face creams, why not try a scenic excursion? It doesn’t have to be riding the rails. It could be a walk in the park, or even a stroll through the neighborhood. It may be hard at first, but take a few moments to watch the graceful dance of a butterfly, the scent of the earth after a rain, or the sound of the leaves rustling in the breeze. As they say in the Verde Valley gift shop – it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that counts. So why not fully climb aboard the journey in life and be fully present to enjoy the ride?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Navigating from a wider perspective

I had a couple of disturbing experiences on the road lately and thought it might make good fodder for the blog.

I was riding in the car with my spouse and we came to a red light. CB signaled to make a right hand turn. When the light turned green we waited for a kid on a bicycle to cross in front of us. This was not only the polite thing to do, it is also the law in all 50 states. However, the vehicle behind us honked its horn in indignation. Either the driver behind us didn’t see the child, or felt we should race and make our turn before the kid could start to cross the street.

Then, a few days later, I was merging to exit the freeway. When I was on the off ramp, I could see the cars in front of me were braking. I wasn’t exactly sure what the problem was, but I knew better than to race to find out. I gently slowed down to better access the situation. This really angered the guy in a truck behind me. He not only honked, he flipped me off as well.

In both cases, the drivers were more interested in getting to their destination than driving safely and avoiding an accident. They aren’t bad people per se (although if their actions are indicative of how they navigate the highway they probably aren’t the best drivers). However, in both cases the drivers were guilty of making rash judgments based on a narrow perspective.

This limited perspective isn’t limited to driving. During Easter dinner my daughter, Brittany, who is studying interior design, mentioned how she was learning about fabrics, their flammability and why different textiles were better for different environments such as hospitals, child care facilities and nursing homes. Not only was she learning about the safety of materials, they also had to take care in their use of terminology. She mentioned they had a guest speaker from the American Disabilities Association. Brittany showed us ADA preferred language with examples such as using the term wheelchair user, not wheel chair bound etc.

What ensued was a discussion on political correctness and using language that is sensitive to others. As in a lot of discussions of this nature, there usually seems to be at least one person who objects to political correctness. In this case it was my son-in-law. He’s a nice enough fellow, but as a healthy, straight, white, Christian, male, I’m sure he’s not encountered a lot of discrimination. It’s not that he’s insensitive to the needs of the disabled, ethnic minorities, gays, Jews, gypsies or any other group that faces discrimination, he just can’t relate to it.

Since most of us tend to judge events based on our own lives, it can make feeling compassion for others who are different from us, harder to understand. And since we tend to hang out with people who look like us, share our religion and political views, we tend to continue to view the world from a narrower perspective. However, as my mother taught me (and probably your mother as well) you really can’t understand someone else’s situation until, as the aphorism states, you walk a mile in their shoes.

So, when traffic is slowing, don’t try to honk someone into driving faster and endanger innocent lives. When two out of three lanes of traffic have slowed, or come to a halt, don’t barrel throw the open lane as quickly as you can. There might be a road hazard, an animal or a person on the street that is just out of your view.

Why not slow down a bit and try a safer more prudent approach? The same is true whether on the highway, or in life. When things don’t match up the way you’d like, take a moment to see things from another perspective. Or before judging someone else, try to use the old “walk a mile in another man’s shoes” approach. And not just for compassion’s sake. Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you’re a mile away and have their shoes. Only kidding….

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Aloha Oe, Aloha Oe, Until We Meet Again

I found out this morning that a friend of mine died last night. I knew it was inevitable. Allen had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer almost two years ago. I remember I shuddered when I first heard the news about his illness. Pancreatic cancer is not only a death sentence – it’s a horrifically painful one. The doctors said Allen would only live a few months. But they didn’t know Allen Abad. As a Grand Master in martial arts, he not only knew how to fight – he knew how to live. With focused prayer, he extended his life by at least a year.

And in that year I personally saw how Allen used his time to encourage others. I remember we were both at a Buddhist study meeting last summer. A young, single mom named Tiffany was there with her one-year old son. I was familiar with this young woman’s plight and I knew that she would really benefit from embarking on a Buddhist practice. Out of the corner of my eye I watched her as different men and women discussed Buddhist philosophy and history. Tiffany’s eyes glossed over and she fidgeted in her seat.

“This isn’t reaching her at all,” I thought to myself. “Not only is she not going to join this practice, we’ll be lucky to get her to attend another meeting.” This sad fact (or assumption on my part) was really a shame. From my own experience, I knew that chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, and learning about how to live a Buddhist life would be of great benefit to this young mother. However, as I watched Tiffany, I sensed she was hoping her son would have a poopie diaper so she would have a good reason to leave the room (and maybe sneak out a window). I felt my hopes of her deciding to chant were as futile as expecting the home team to win when they are down by 20 points with only seconds left to play.

Then it was Allen’s turn to speak. He was supposed to give the background on some historical event that happened in the 1200s. Instead, he stood up and apologized that he wasn’t able to prepare the material he was supposed to give, but asked if he could give a personal experience instead. Everyone perked up a bit. Allen is a tiny man, but he has a masterful presence. He talked about his illness, his determination to fight it, and his joy to be alive. It was mesmerizing. In a few short minutes, he had transformed a sleepy room full of Buddhists and guests, to emboldened men and women who were inspired to change the world.

Allen’s physical body may have been dying, but his words brought life to everyone in the room. Tiffany was so encouraged she made the decision to become a practicing Buddhist. It was a magical moment. It was one of many meetings where Allen lifted the spirits of those around him. Allen was an anomaly. He had the fighting spirit of a lion, the humility of a sage, as well as a kind and gentle heart. When he spoke, he spoke through his heart and connected to the hearts of everyone around him. It wasn’t an intellectual exchange, it was a humanistic one.

Allen, in the physical form that I have known for many years, is gone. But not his spirit. As long as I am alive, the things he said, and the way he lived, will be instilled in my heart. In my saddest moments, I will remember his words and use it as an elixir to mend my heart. And in my finest moments I hope I can use his example as a way to help others.

I can think of nothing more appropriate to say goodbye to my Hawaiian-born friend and fellow peace lover than through the lyrics of one of my favorite childhood songs written by Hawaiia's last monarch, Queen Lili’uokalini.

Aloha Oe, Aloha Oe
Until we meet again.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

I just watched the Oscar-winning movie, Slum Dog Millionaire. What an amazing film! I experienced a full range of feelings, from sorrow and fear, to elation and joy. I sat in the theater after the movie ended and let a gamut of emotions wash over me.

The movie was awe insring in a number of ways. The most obvious example is it sheds light on a subject that is easy to ignore. India is thousands of miles away, so it is easy to remain oblivious to the poverty and pain of millions of people, especially when we have problems at home to deal with. However, as the movie unfolds through the lives of three young children and what they encounter, it is impossible to ignore the pains and joys they experience. The viewer is swept into their world and vicariously experiences what life is like for billions of people. Hopefully, this glimpse at another world will invoke a desire to help - or at least cultivate compassion - for the plight of others.

Watching this film also reminded me of one of the main reasons I became a writer. Writers can use language to inspire, educate, generate fear, or simply entertain. I've always been drawn to the humorous component of writing, but I took a more traditional route when Jackie and I decided to write, Erase Negativity and Embrace the Magic Within. I'm a problem solver. I see an injustice and I want to correct it. When I notice how an action or habit is causing a problem in someone's life, I feel compelled to help.

I can't go around pointing a finger at folks and saying, "Hey you, if you would just do this, this and this, your life would be so much better." Well, actually I have done that, but only to people I know. I usually preface it with, "I'm going to offer you some unsolicited advice..." Most of the time I wait until people come to me for these pearls of wisdom. If not, it can be like passing out a snow cone on a hot day. If you want a snow cone, that's great. If you don't, it's a drippy mess. However, I must confess, there are times I can't restrain myself and I offer suggestions anyway.

The best way for me to keep out of trouble - and still acknowledge my compulsion to help others - was to write a book. However, my coauthor, Jackie and I didn't limit the book to our own experiences. We interviewed a number of people, from meth addicts to millionaires. The result was life stories that provide useful examples on how the reader can erase negativity from their lives. There is advice in each chapter too, but a lot of the power of the message is by using the life stories of others as a teaching tool.

So here's a story I want you to create. Since I'm writing this on April Fool's Day, it can be a little game you can play to trick yourself into feeling more compassion. When someone annoys you, I want you to send them a silent prayer. Instead of invoking the four letter word that easily coomes to mind, try substituting the word, "bless." When someone cuts you off in traffic, say "bless you." Is your boss grumpy again? It's time for another blessing. Living with a snotty teenager? "Bless you, bless you bless you."

At first you may feel like a whiff of pepper at an allergy convention, but that's okay. Saying "bless you" is better than cursing, it will keep you out of trouble, and, in time, it may even provide a little perspective. Because just as it is difficult to imagine the poverty of those in third world countries, the same is true for your grumpy boss, a rude sales clerk, and discourteous drivers. Anyone can curse, but it takes a rare individual who can offer a little prayer.

Make each day a blessed one.

Sally and Jackie