As of late, I’ve been trying to live my life as one big spiritual practice. And, truth be told, I’m not exactly sure what that even means. For the most part, it’s simply meant making a series of small, conscious adjustments to my day-to-day, mostly mundane existence. For example, eating less, making an effort to drink more water, spending more time in solitude, walking in nature, etc.
On a deeper level, however, when I find myself becoming aware that I’m feeling a bit impatient or full of myself (not to be confused with confident) and noticing my empathy and compassion for others waning, I do my best to pause, remembering that I too suffer. Doing so brings me back to the present and allows me to connect more genuinely and intimately with my fellow human beings. This isn’t always easy or pleasant of course, for if I acknowledge the pain and my projected shortcomings of others, I’m then forced to humbly look at my own.
For the past several weeks, something I once heard from Richard Rohr keeps coming to mind. In an interview with Krista Tippett of The On Being Project, he states, “I ask God for one good humiliation a day, and I usually get it . . . And then what I have to do, Krista, is I have to watch my reaction to it. And I’ve got to be honest with you, my inner reaction — I’m not proud to tell you — is defensive, is, ‘That’s not true. You don’t understand me.’ I can just see how well-defended my ego is.”
I recently moved out of the city, which means I no longer have immediate access to the park in which I loved to walk for the past handful of years. Fortunately, there happens to be a beautiful, tree-lined trail near my new place onto which I can get out and spend some time in nature. My usual route takes me north about a mile and a half where I always pause for a few minutes and listen to the creek making its way across the accumulation of assorted rocks below the bridge. It’s there, looking out over nothing but water and trees, that I often have the desire to just keep walking; leaving everything behind and seeing where life leads. Though it certainly sounds romantic, rest assured that I have no intention whatsoever of doing any such thing (at least for now, anyway). Nevertheless, there is something about the quiet of early morning there that makes the thought of embarking on such an odyssey an enticing one.
I’ve written before about how I admire those who have the courage to write openly about their lives and experiences of being human. It’s because of their willingness to do so that I find the genre of memoir so appealing. Even so, I’m aware of just how hesitant I continue to remain when it comes to allowing myself to be seen through my own writing. Interestingly, my greatest fear is to be exposed as a fraud, and yet the path that leads to freedom from that fear, authenticity, often terrifies me. But onward it is, even so.
Whenever my time comes, a fitting epitaph may well be, “Just when he was beginning to get the gist of it.” I do feel I’m finally getting a glimpse, be it ever so slight, of what it might possibly mean to take on this human incarnation. For instance, I like to think that I’m becoming a bit kinder, overall, as well as more empathic towards myself and others while setting appropriate boundaries when deemed necessary. I also like to believe that I’ve grown to be somewhat less impatient, and I’m certainly less sarcastic—a good thing for all concerned, believe me. I’m slowly, albeit begrudgingly, conceding to the fact that I will never be perfect, which is undoubtedly in my best interest. My misguided desire for perfection thus far has generously provided me with the suffering required to see the futility of my efforts.
Therefore, aware that old habits die hard, I’ve been trying out a new mantra as of late: “You don’t need to be perfect,” as a means of keeping me on course when I find myself caught up in idealistic self-talk. Notice the second person perspective in which the older and wiser part of me offers practical advice to the younger, naive part. I wish I could honestly say this exchange takes place numerous times daily, but that simply isn’t the case. In actuality, the two parts connect a few times each day, which may not be ideal, but it is movement in the right direction.
A friend once said to me, “As long as we’re breathing, we’re learning.” It’s a simple teaching, rooted in compassion, and one that I find especially useful when hearing the idealized version of me letting the far-from-perfect, everyday me know that I should have done this or I shouldn’t have said that, and that when things don’t go as planned, I should have known better somehow. And how many times have I been certain that I had finally arrived at the place in my life where I had everything all figured out, only to realize sooner or later (usually sooner) that I actually hadn’t a clue or, at best, that I had barely scratched the surface? I guess you could say I’m a work in progress—always learning, indeed.
I enjoy simple tasks: making my bed in the morning, sweeping, doing the dishes, sewing a button back onto a dress shirt or favorite sport coat. I’ve noticed, though, that despite my claim of deriving pleasure from such activities, I always seem to experience some hesitation before committing to engage in them, as if I’m unwilling to resign myself to the mundane and have better, more important things to do—which is rarely the case by the way. What I find interesting about this is that, deep down, I know that I truly cherish the mundane. I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to spend a fair amount of time residing in Buddhist monastery settings, where I found the modest daily routine nourishing and refreshing. Even so, I was often well aware of my yearning to return to the “real world” and get on with life as I fantasized it would be. Needless to say that each time I succumbed to that craving, it didn’t take long for me to realize that reality hadn’t received my script.
It’s been nearly five years now since my last lengthy stay with the Vietnamese monastics that played such a vital role in my transition of a particularly challenging time, and although the pull I feel to drop everything and return to such a lifestyle is not nearly as strong as it once was, I must confess that it remains. It’s the inner conflict that Trappist monk and Christian mystic Thomas Merton must have felt while knowingly benefiting from the quiet and solitude of his hermitage on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani, yet longing to be on the outside nevertheless. I certainly entertain no serious thoughts of abandoning my present way of life, however. I have work that I enjoy and that provides me with meaning. I also have the freedom to spend time with friends and loved ones, even though such interactions are currently limited to taking place virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic we’re undergoing.
So, today, I will continue with that meaningful work while remembering to take time to sit quietly, ponder, and tune in to occasional birdsong. And tomorrow, I’ll wake early and, once again, straighten and tuck in my bed sheets as the sound of brewing coffee emanates from the next room.
I must admit to feeling some internal pressure as of late to pick up the pace a bit and live more fully and authentically. I’m not saying this is a bad thing; in fact, at least in my case, I would suggest that this existential angst I’m experiencing is for the better. With this pandemic stepping in and letting me know that I’m not nearly as special as my ego would like me to believe, I hear the proverbial clock on the wall ticking louder these days. No, I’m not ill (as far as I’m aware, anyway); I am, however, rapidly approaching my sixty-first birthday and feeling that perhaps I haven’t used my time here as well as I might have. Again, not a bad thing, as I believe it’s actually emanating from a place of love and genuine concern for my well-being. Similar to a dear friend or neighbor pounding on my door in the middle of the night, letting me know that my house is on fire. Not necessarily pleasant, but welcomed and appreciated nevertheless.
Over the past several days, I’ve been going through photographs of mine and assigning them to my posts here. In the process of doing so, I’ve noticed a handful of common threads in both my images and writing: simplicity, solitude, love, self-acceptance, authenticity, nature—things that truly speak to my heart. What this awareness has confirmed is the vital role creativity plays in my life and the positive effect it has on my way of being. Understanding this, and since it’s been quite some time since I last posted, I’ve set an intention to begin writing on a more regular basis and sharing the world as I see it through my eyes. And I’m certain my heart will thank me for it.
I was having an interesting discussion early last week with a delightful young person whom I had just met when the topic of intimate, vulnerable conversation came up and how it can seem difficult to come by these days. As we were parting ways after our short time together, something I heard a while back from Richard Rohr in an episode of the On Being podcast came to mind. I paraphrased as best I could in the moment and have since referred to the podcast’s transcript for Rohr’s precise sentiment: “Vulnerability transforms you. You can’t be in the presence of a truly vulnerable, honestly vulnerable person and not be affected. I think that’s the way we are meant to be in the presence of one another.”
I believe he’s right, for when one feels comfortable and safe enough to open up a bit and share something authentic about oneself with a fellow human being, it’s a true gift, as it gives the other the permission to do the same. And in the end, isn’t that all any of us are really seeking: the opportunity to be seen and accepted for who we are?
I was out running an errand with my daughter one afternoon a couple of weeks ago when we came to a red light at a busy intersection in the city. On the near corner of our side of the street, a small, energetic group sporting matching blue t-shirts gathered around two folding tables with a poster-board sign attached advertising lemonade for sale: $1.00. Several cups of both the yellow and pink varieties sat iced and ready. At one point, my daughter made eye contact with the group’s front man who was busy scampering from car to car before the light turned green. As he approached, she smiled while lowering her window and informing him that, unfortunately, she didn’t have any cash on her. Without hesitation, he generously offered it to us free of charge, for which we thanked him but politely declined, not wanting to hold up traffic. As we pulled away shortly thereafter, I told my daughter that I was pretty sure I had a couple of dollars in my wallet and that we could stop on the way back.
As we approached the intersection on the return trip about thirty minutes later, we turned left at the light and wound our way through a parking lot that eventually led to a spot directly behind where the refreshment vendors had set up shop. The gentleman who had made us the kind offer earlier broke into a big smile when he saw that my daughter had returned and was approaching with cash in hand. The others working the stand thanked her profusely and even turned around to wave at and thank me from a distance.
That evening, my daughter and I both commented on how glad we were that we took the few minutes to go out of our way to help. It felt good. And looking back, I’m certain that she and I benefited from the interaction that day every bit as much as, if not more than, the nice people wearing blue.
I’ve been walking a fair amount lately, somewhere between thirty and forty miles a week by my estimation. I particularly like doing so early in the morning, setting my alarm for a little before five, which gives me just enough time for a few sips of coffee (decaf—it’s the ritual I crave) and fifteen minutes or so of peace and quiet before heading out the door by half past the hour.
I took a break Sunday morning, instead, sleeping in until just after six and plopping myself down in a lawn chair out back with The Road to Character by David Brooks. After about an hour, the sounds of barking dogs and overworked air conditioners battling the St. Louis heat provided me with the incentive to relocate to a nearby park and find myself a seat in the shade. A good move. The morning sun periodically peeked out from above the scattered layer of clouds, and a cool, gentle breeze blew in from the northwest. And with the exception of the occasional airliner making its descent into Lambert International, the only sounds to be heard were those generated by the various birds and insects inhabiting the surrounding trees and vegetation. Every now and then, a fellow serenity seeker, often accompanied by his or her four-legged friend, would stroll by and offer a “Good morning.” A good morning. Yes, it was.
One evening a couple of weeks ago, I gathered with a dozen or so others to listen to a poet friend share her love of Korean poetry. As one who has created a small collection of my own work over the past several years, I found its simplicity both inspiring and refreshing. Upon returning home, I heard that quiet inner voice encouraging me to share some of what I’ve written, and with April being National Poetry Month, what better time to do so.
Two little words: I understand. I had the good fortune to be on their receiving end one afternoon last week, and they made all the difference. I wasn’t looking for an answer or a quick fix for that with which I was struggling. I simply wanted to be seen and accepted for who I was in that moment: a human being in need of support.
Two dear friends of mine, a married couple for more than fifty years now, invited me out to dinner one evening a few weeks back to thank me for picking them up at the airport upon their return to St. Louis from visiting family out west. Though there was certainly no need for them to do so, I was—of course—happy to accept. Both the food and service were excellent, and on a few occasions throughout the course of our meal, we engaged our waitress, a delightful young lady, in random conversation when she would stop by our table to inquire as to how we were doing.
Interestingly, as we were preparing to leave, she demonstrated being exceptionally grateful for the manner in which we had treated her, which, quite honestly, took my friends and me by surprise. (After all, didn’t everyone treat her that way?) Outside of being polite and understanding, we truly didn’t feel that we had done anything out of the ordinary. Therefore, all we could think of was that our interacting with her on a more personal level is what made the difference. When all was said and done, perhaps she simply felt seen as a fellow human being, and not merely someone who was there to serve us that evening. That’s my hope anyway.
I had some free time on my hands after dropping my car off to be serviced the other morning, so I headed for the park via my usual route to get in a short walk. Along the way, I glanced to my left and the other side of the street to see if a certain elderly woman who lives in the neighborhood happened to be sitting outside, as she often is, on the wooden porch at the entrance to her apartment. Weekdays, she passes the time there alone, but weekends are a different story, when loved ones line the flight of concrete steps leading down from her place to the sidewalk.
It had been a while since I’d last seen her there, and she was absent that morning as well. And then it dawned on me as to the (now obvious) reason why—the temperature. It was twenty-two degrees! Fahrenheit! But that’s just my point: It appears that her contagious smile and always friendly “Good morning!” have had such a positive effect on me that I’ve now become conditioned to look in the direction of her front door each time I stroll by—regardless of the weather.
Though we’ve waved and exchanged greetings on many occasions, we have never actually met. So, come spring, I plan to cross the street and introduce myself; ask her how she’s been.
I received a message from my daughter this past Thursday informing me that the poet Mary Oliver died. I’ve always enjoyed the Pulitzer Prize winner’s writing and recently heard her poem “The Uses of Sorrow” recited by a guest on a podcast I listen to on a regular basis. Her words spoke to me in such a way that I now have a framed copy of it placed in my office.
One might ask (and understandably so), especially while in the midst of it, what purpose this inevitable part of human life could possibly serve. I won’t speculate as to Ms. Oliver’s inspiration for composing the piece, but for me personally, it provides the opportunity to appreciate the heartaches of others through the awareness and acknowledgement of my own. And as simple as that may sound, I find it invaluable.
Some time ago, I had the opportunity to take part in a weekly, mindfulness-based sharing and discussion circle. And while it wasn’t uncommon for things to proceed slowly at first, I remember the initial several minutes of one gathering during which my fellow group members, many of them newcomers, seemed particularly hesitant to speak from their hearts. With that being the case, I went ahead and began by speaking from mine since I had been participating on a regular basis for quite a while by then and, as a result, felt fairly comfortable doing so.
I don’t recall specifically what it was that I talked about that morning, but I do recollect asking if anyone happened to be struggling with fear. And I was glad that I did because, one by one, the hands gradually began to go up, followed by those who had raised them telling their stories—mostly having to do with loss and the anxiety and grief surrounding it. By the time we were through, a few tears had been shed, and I like to think that at least a bit of healing had taken place.
Experiences such as this have led me to believe that one of the highest aspirations we can have as human beings is to ease the fears of others. In order to do so, however, I feel we must first be honest with and accepting of ourselves regarding our own trepidations, for only then will we be able to genuinely embrace the concerns of those around us.
There is what I consider to be a particularly beautiful tree in the park in which I walk—asymmetrical and full of knots. Majestic.
One morning, as I made my way up the slight incline that leads to where it stands, I could see a small bouquet of yellow flowers sitting just outside the hollow at its base. In front was a young woman crying softly into her partner’s chest.
As I walked past, I naturally began to speculate as to what it may have been that brought them there that day. Meanwhile, the one with the offering at its feet simply bore witness without the need to know.
On the shelf of my nightstand is a small, framed photograph of me as a child: a school picture, on the back of which is my name and “3rd Grade” pencilled in my mother’s handwriting. Mom, now in her late seventies, would have been twenty-six at the time, my daughter’s age in just a little over a month. In it, I sit before a light-blue background, sporting a buzz cut and with black, thick-rimmed spectacles perched on my nose and oversized ears. A half-smile can be seen on my face.
Most days, I forget that it’s even there; however, every now and then it catches my eye as I take a quick look around before turning out the light and leaving the room. And when it does, it serves as a gentle reminder to be good to myself—and the young boy on the other side of the glass.
When I awoke and checked my phone for the time Saturday morning, I was pleased to see a text message awaiting me from a good friend of mine in the United Kingdom. We’ve known each other for a couple of years now, ever since an impromptu conversation he and I had outside the cafe of the university we were attending. He was beginning his final year of undergraduate studies in finance, and I had just begun the fourth semester of my master’s program.
Before returning home to the UK recently, he thanked me for all that he had learned as a result of our friendship and for helping him through a particularly difficult time. While I appreciate his kind words, I hope he understands that I learned a great deal from him too, especially the importance of keeping a positive attitude and not taking oneself quite so seriously. He comes from a beautiful, caring family, and as a father myself, I’m certain that his parents, whom I had the pleasure of meeting when they were on campus for his graduation, are delighted to have their son back.
I plan to cross the big pond and pay them all a visit sometime this summer. Believe it or not, I’ve never been to Europe, so I’m looking forward to spending a week or so enjoying their company and taking in the countryside about two hundred miles north of London. From the pictures I’ve seen, it looks lovely.
One of my favorite places on the planet is a stand of twenty or so cypress trees located in a nearby park. And on its eastern edge sit matching hand-crafted wooden benches, on one of which my daughter and I sat side by side and shared a sundae from a local creamery on a hot and humid St. Louis afternoon this past June. Since then, I can’t help but smile every time I return and picture the two of us enjoying two of life’s simple pleasures: ice cream and the good company of a loved one.
Over the past few years, I’ve developed a sincere interest in expressing myself through the writing process, due in great part to having taken a handful of classes offered by a writer friend of mine, all of which I found to be quite inspiring and helpful. During the most recent, I suggested to another participant that the most valuable quality a writer can possess is honesty. I happened to be reading a couple of memoirs at the time, Paul Auster’s Winter Journal and Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Anne Patchett, and the genuineness and transparency of both authors had a real impact on me.
I truly admire those who possess the courage to write openly and with dignity about themselves and their experiences of being human—what a gift to those with the good fortune to receive their words. I can’t help but believe that writing in such a straightforward, unabashed manner must be intimidating at first, if not always. And I imagine that those who do so must have reached a time in there lives when they no longer felt they had a choice; when the pain of hiding was far greater than any they feared experiencing as the result of telling their stories and allowing themselves to be seen.
While it may not necessarily lead to the writing of a memoir, I believe the counseling experience can, nevertheless, provide a unique opportunity for anyone tired of hiding—writer or otherwise—to practice the gradual dropping of one’s persona in the interest of emerging more willing to share one’s authentic self with the world.
I like to walk in the park, especially in the early morning. It’s quiet, the people whose paths I cross are friendly, and spending time in nature is, of course, never a bad idea. I’ve noticed lately, however, that when I first arrive, not only is my pace quite a bit faster than usual, but I also have a specific plan in place for the time I intend to spend there. For instance, make one quick lap around the perimeter so as to be back home by nine and at the office by ten, as was the case today (hardly relaxing or meditative). I find the experience to be much more pleasant and therapeutic once that initial energy has been released and I’m proceeding in more of an aimless manner. Sure, there are things that need to be addressed in the day ahead, but it’s nice to feel otherwise, at least for the moment, and simply listen to the sound of my footsteps, or take in the sun coming up through the trees.
During a phone conversation the other night, a dear friend of mine brought up the topic of acceptance, suggesting it may be the place where healing begins. Since then, I’ve been giving her sentiment a fair amount of thought, particularly as it relates to self-acceptance. In this regard, a practice I’ve been doing my best to implement throughout the day for a some time now is simply noting and acknowledging with mindfulness what I’m experiencing in the moment, whether it be fear, frustration, shame, you name it, and gently allowing it to be before letting it go and moving on. For I’ve come to understand that when I do otherwise, such as getting lost in discursive thought or distraction, I’m missing a precious opportunity to embrace my humanity with compassion. In essence, to accept myself just as I am.
We need each other. We’re connected. These may not be overly popular sentiments in a culture that tends to pride itself on individualism, but I believe, as it’s certainly been my experience, that they’re true. For instance, a colleague of mine and I recently began meeting once a week to share and discuss our latest writing endeavors, and I’ve been pretty straightforward regarding my need for his support. In the same way, I’m honored when a fellow counselor knocks on my office door or a friend or family member calls simply wanting to talk. With that said, I must admit there’s a part of me—predominantly the culturally conditioned male—that would love to sit here and say, “I don’t need anyone’s help; I can do it on my own.” But that’s simply not the case. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy and make good use of my time alone; however, there’s just something about connecting with another human being that confirms we’re all in this thing together.
I recently helped my son move back to the St. Louis area from out west. Thanks to an early morning flight to Denver, we were packing boxes and loading up the U-Haul by midmorning. Our plan was to be on the road by noon and put as much of I-70 behind us as we could before stopping and calling it a night somewhere in eastern Kansas. The temperature hovered around freezing, and a steady drizzle fell as we made one trip after another from his apartment on the second floor to the parking lot. By late morning, the ramp leading up to the back of the truck was covered with a thin sheet of ice. Fortunately, the furniture and larger items had already been loaded, so it didn’t present much of an issue.
Understandably, I wanted to get on the interstate before the roads got too bad, but each time I became aware of my urge to pick up the pace, I would gently remind myself to ease up a bit and not rush. And I’m not talking about physically, as it goes without saying, me darting around in icy conditions with my arms full would never be a good idea. What I’m referring to here is my inner voice inviting me to slow down mentally, emotionally, and treasure the time with my son, for, and I know it sounds cliché, it feels as if it was just a day or two ago he came into my life, when, in actuality, it’s been more than thirty years.
It’s interesting. If someone would have told me five years ago that I would return to school, earn a master’s degree in counseling, and begin a new career doing fulfilling work that significantly contributes to my life’s meaning, I would have politely suggested they were mistaken—someone else perhaps, but not me.
But here I am. And while I won’t claim to know exactly how I got here, I am certain I would not have made it without the support, encouragement, and inspiration of so many: friends, family, community, classmates and professors, fellow counseling interns and therapists, supervisors, and most important, my counseling clientele, from whom I have learned so much about carrying suffering with dignity.