Destroy Your Life Timeline

Have you ever been depressed or saddened by your life course? Have you ever wanted to go back in time and change previous decisions? I play that game a little too often; “If only I would have stuck with pre-med…I could be a doctor right now,” “If only I would have enjoyed that stage in my life and not have rushed through it,” “If only I would have been more patient I wouldn’t be in this current predicament.” This game can be both good and bad depending on whether you learn from your mistakes or just continue sulking in a theatre of regrets.

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Another dangerous game to play is making a timeline for your “life.” By 22 I will have my college degree. By 25 I will be married. By 30 I will have my first baby. By 35 I will be a manager at work. This all too familiar timeline can be an excellent guide for our life goals, but many times it becomes a barbed-wire measuring stick. If your life goes off the tracks, you can feel lost and frozen with fear of the unknown. “What am I going to do now…I’m already (fill in the age)!” Age controls us more than we like to think and I am by no means immune to the pressure; just the other day I was thinking about going back to school but thought myself too old for the endeavor. So what is one to do if they find themselves flying off the tracks of their ideal timeline?

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The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
-Albert Einstein 

One of my most favorite things to do is to read about what other people have experienced in past lives. For example, what if you were really stressed out about not getting pregnant? Did you know Marie Antoinette took SEVEN years to consummate her marriage and the whole time she was freaking out about not having a baby? What if you stressed about not having the career you dreamed of? Did you know the first time Winston Churchill ran for office, he lost and subsequently became a war prisoner in South Africa? Or what if you think love will never come knocking on your door? Did you know Queen Victoria, thinking life was over after the death of her husband, fell in love with a Scottish servant?

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The point is that whatever you are worried about, someone has already lived it and come out of the situation better than ever. We are not on an isolated island; the past is there to help us as if it were an experiment – all different problems and scenarios tested over and over. We need to put this historical knowledge into practice by fostering patience and hope. What if Winston Churchhill had just given up hope? What would the world look like today? Your timeline might look like crap but do you really think it will never get better? Do you really think anyone has a perfect timeline as if life were a conveyor belt at Disney World?

We will not have failure – only success and new learning.
-Queen Victoria

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To Hope and Wait is to be human. We are most human in groups, and we must always look to others for wisdom. To be human is also to be present. What does the “future” have to do with the current moment? Your age is just a number but more than that, the future is just an imaginary pretext. The future is something in our heads, and there is truly nothing besides this moment in which these words are being read. That is a hard concept for people to grasp but when it is correctly understood life becomes disentangled from a timeline.

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An example of this is whenever old people get married. I think this is one of the best ways to tangibly understand the “present.” A 90-year-old bride doesn’t care about her timeline. She gets married so she can enjoy the here and now. Of course, this is all easy to write about, but it ‘s hard to put into practice. Again I remind everyone to Hope and Wait. Enjoy today and believe that tomorrow will be even better. Appreciate your timeline and be grateful for what you have instead of what you do not have. You will get through this stage in your life and one day smile at how far you have come; maybe your shaky timeline will provide wisdom and motivation for someone else.

 

Buddhism for a Christian

As a Christian, I think it is important to have a working knowledge of world religions. Studying a different religion not only expands your understanding of varying beliefs but also helps you appreciate your own spirituality to a greater extent. Some people are wary of studying different religions because they believe it will tarnish their devoutness or lead them astray. In reality, the opposite almost always happens – for example, learning about Buddhism made me appreciate Jesus Christ to a far higher degree. Thanks to my physical therapist, I was recommended an excellent book on Buddhism called Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hand is a Buddhist monk, and a proliferate author – he wrote this book as a factual biography of the Buddha – heavy on doctrine and light on myths.

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It follows the life of Siddhartha, a wealthy prince who seeks the path of enlightenment and eventually becomes known as the Buddha. The word Buddha actually means “the enlightened one” and this book explains how Buddhism was initially spread throughout eastern India around 450 BC. At that time, many religions believed in various gods and degrees of asceticism – how much humans should avoid or indulge in pleasure. Siddhartha followed the greatest spiritual leaders but was never able to reach enlightenment until he understood the actual source of human suffering.

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What is the central root of human suffering? Ignorance. Not knowing the truth is the cause of all the pain in the world. Well, what then is the truth? The Buddha believed that…

“People were caught in endless suffering because of their erroneous perceptions; they believed that which is impermanent is permanent, that which is without self contains self, that which has no birth and death has birth and death, and they divided that which is inseparable into parts.”

Put in another way, people have the wrong perceptions of the world and hence inaccurate realities of truth. So the next question then is how can one fix their reality? Again the Buddha believed that…

“…the key to liberation would be to break through ignorance and to enter deeply into the heart of reality and attain a direct experience of it. Such knowledge would not be the knowledge of the intellect, but of direct experience.”

This “direct experience” is achieved through mindfulness of the present moment. Complete mindfulness requires one to understand that there is no “self” and that there is no permanence – all things depend on each other in a cyclical-eternal fashion. Understanding this interdependence of life – the Buddha was able to shed all the sources of suffering: fear, anger, hatred, arrogance, jealousy, greed, and ignorance. The Buddha taught his followers to meditate to reach this awareness and connectedness. In a way, Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion – there is no soul, higher power, or afterlife; the goal is to reach Nirvana which is complete enlightenment and the extinction of self.

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Buddhism is complex – especially with reincarnation – and what I have described are the main tenets; there are many different schools of thought just like those in Christianity. So how did I apply these Buddhist teachings as a Christian? First off, Christianity teaches that you can not earn your way into heaven and that Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life. In Buddhism, the individual is responsible for their enlightenment, and the path to salvation is earned rather than gifted. Just that fact makes me want to shout “Praise the Lord for Jesus!” I did, however, find several parallels between Buddhism and Christianity in respects to suffering.

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Jesus, just like the Buddha, teaches that we need to love one another and that we are all interconnected – we fall apart because of fear, anger, hatred, arrogance, jealousy, greed, and ignorance. I also took away the important message of impermanence and mindfulness. Nothing on this earth is forever, and this life is just a blip on the map of eternity; we shouldn’t be sad about death because it is transient. We must be mindful of the present because it not only makes us more aware of our blessings but it gives us a glimpse of what eternity will actually feel like – no past or future. I actually have been meditating more, and it helps me with gratitude, calms my mind, and rids me of thoughts that cause suffering. No matter what you believe, learning about different religions will always give you a greater sense of the world and the human condition.

When Death Surprises Us

It is always remembered as that definitive moment in time. That very instance in which bad news was learned. Before the news, life seemed normal. After the news life seemed forever tinged. Very few things in life bother us more than an unexpected death; the death of a person whose time should not have come. When death surprises us it is one of the most shocking and disorienting moments of our existence. We see our lives as journeys that have some sort of predictive storyline: go to school, get married, have kids, move up the ladder, travel, retire, die of old age. When this plot suddenly falls off the tracks, we tend to pause in befuddlement – questioning our destiny. Usually, we try to rationalize an unexpected death. We convince ourselves that there was a “cause.” We try to put order to a thing that just seems random. Death caused by something is better than death caused by nothing. Randomness is scary and we quickly rush for explanations to help us rationalize our control on life. It’s like watching a scary movie and saying that we don’t live in that haunted house so we couldn’t possibly be killed.

Of course, there are sensical things to be done to avoid death. We know not to stand in the middle of the road, play with venomous snakes, smoke 10 packs of cigarettes a day. Along with the obvious, there are daily health habits which can help a person reach old age: eat fruits and vegetables, exercise, limit stress, etc. In general, people tend to live longer and healthier lives than past generations. It is for these reasons that we tend to forget about the inevitable – death. We think that if we follow a formula that the outcome will be fireside chats with grandkids and a peaceful death at the ripe age of 95. More than ever we believe that our “own” choices can dictate our future. Unfortunately, we have absolutely no control of the future. Sure, we can do our best to live healthy lives in the “hope” of old age, but there are no guarantees. This may sound fatalistic, but it is the truth – we have zero control over the future. Our lust for control is why unexpected death always sends us into an internal panic. We reassess our goals and look at our loved ones in a new light. It is this mindfulness that is always so fleeting but yet so vital to our existence.

A very special co-worker of mine died this weekend, and I feel almost frozen with questions of why. Why did she have to die so young? Why did God take someone so smart and amazing? Why did it seem so random? Grief is a complicated beast, and I had to write this post to tweeze through a lot of my thoughts. I miss my friend, and I do believe she is in heaven. Life teaches us to never take for granted the present. What we have today is not guaranteed tomorrow. It is ok to make plans for the future but never rush through your days trying to get there. We can’t escape death, and we can’t control our futures. Love deeply whenever you can because you may never get a second chance.

 

Waiting to Die

My whole life feels like one big waiting game. I could not wait to get done with High School. I could not wait to get married. I could not wait to buy a house. I could not wait to eat my dessert. I am always waiting for something in life and it is not good. We all tend to do this to some degree because we are uniquely gifted with the understanding of the “future” tense. No other animal is consciously waiting for some future event – they are always responding to stimulus in a programmed manner. The ultimate example of the waiting game is that guaranteed end point – death. I am scared that I will eventually run out of exciting things to wait for and ultimately begin to wait for my last breath. It sounds macabre but isn’t that what a lot of elderly people are doing at this very moment. There are nursing homes around the world full of people that have one last future plan. I don’t want to rush through life anymore and try to speed up what is already a fast-tracked existence.

On any given day, I am waiting for a myriad of future events. In the middle of the night I wake up waiting for my alarm. In the morning I wait for lunch time. In the afternoon I wait for the end of the work day to get done. In the evening I wait to eat dinner. While lying in bed I wait for my favorite TV show. While I close my eyes to sleep I wait for my dreams. When I’m waiting for the aforementioned events, I am waiting for even more things in the distant future: blog posts to write, books to read, plans to be made, sex to be had, money to be saved, and chores to be completed. During my waking hours, I probably spend 75% of the time thinking about things in the future or things that are unrelated to the present. Even when I am doing something fun, I catch myself waiting for it to be over so I can move onto the next activity.

When I was in college, I was in a huge rush to get done and start my life. I could not wait to never have to write a stupid paper or turn in an assignment again (ironic now that I blog). I did everything I could to graduate early and now I look back with deep regrets. I missed out on seeing my friends whom I rarely ever see now. There was nothing for me at the end of the process – all I had was that habit of waiting for the next step. Are we all destined to wait out our lives until we’re dead in the ground? I am realistic and know waiting will always play a role in my life. How could I ever plan for the future without daydreams? How could I ever better myself without future goals? I will never stop looking forward but I need to find a way to balance my gaze more towards the present. What is the best way to be mindful? The number one way to get out of the waiting game is to notice the details. Your brain is almost always on autopilot and can function pretty well with minimal concentration. Whenever you take your brain out of its autopilot you begin to concentrate and focus on the here and now. My top two ways of doing this is by focusing on my breath and focusing on specific details. For example, my mind was wandering while writing this blog so I focused on my breath for a couple of inhales. Almost immediately, I began concentrating on the task at hand and was completely present. If you find yourself in the waiting game focus on something extremely particular. I love looking at the sunrise or the stars when I let Max out to take a crap. Focus on one thing and just analyze it for a couple of seconds. You will be present and your thoughts will stay in that state for quite some time thereafter.

I know this is all stuff that people have heard before but I personally always need reminding. Practice being present and stop waiting for the next step. Life is a river that you float down; every bend is unique, some bends are bad, some bends are good, but you can only stay at each for a certain time – once you pass one it is gone forever.

Chihuahua Super Powers

Max, our pea-brain chihuahua, has been a member of our family for almost two months now. I wrote about Max in a earlier post and since then our friendship has grown significantly. Initially, I saw our friendship as one sided-being that I fed and loved the dog on a regularly basis. But over time, Max has returned the favor by teaching me a key life lesson-contentment. It is hard to be content in this world that always tells us we need “more.”  Max has a very simple life and for all intents and purposes seems quite happy. He is either in a complete state of relaxation on the couch or in a complete state of ecstasy while eating-especially when its tortilla chips. From my observations he never thinks about anything except what is happening right in the present moment. If he is on the couch, he owns that couch. If he is on a walk, he doesn’t even know the couch exists. Max is a master at being present. Now, this may be because his tiny brain can’t handle too much thought but nevertheless it is a skill that I am learning from my new friend. At any given moment I am trying to get somewhere, do something, or thinking about the future. It is rare that I am actually a witness of the present and fully taking in my surroundings.

When Max eats a tortilla chip, his one neuron must be overwhelmed by all its intricate details-the saltiness, the crunchiness, the deliciousness, the sheer heaven that is fried corn. When I eat a tortilla chip I usually am not thinking about the chip but rather how fat I will feel after eating the whole bag and whether it is weird to be eating them while taking a shower. When Max goes on walks it is like he is running through a field filled with magical grass and hypnotic trees. When I take a walk, I am thinking about tomorrow’s schedule and questioning whether or not I had pooped that day. My point being, Max is content and I am not. If I were content I would take in each moment and not feel the need to have “more.” I wouldn’t be constantly worrying about the future or trying to upgrade my material possessions. I would be happier and more at peace because all I would need would be the present moment. The next time you eat a tortilla chip, try not to think about anything else, use your “Chihuahua Super Powers” of thoughtlessness. Take a bite and see how much better it tastes. It may be the first time that you have ever consciously tasted something. Who would have thought that my dog, who I thought would never teach me anything, is now helping me see the world in a better way? Thanks Max for your limited mental capabilities, they are helping me to find greater contentment.

Worry Wart-Remover

Have you ever been called a “Worry Wart?” I have on several occasions and throughout my life my worries have grown. As an adult there are a million things to contend with which can induce worries: paying the bills, keeping up with health, climbing the social ladder, maintenance of relationships, etc. Then there are the irrational worries that are usually propagated from movies or news: flesh eating diseases, serial rapists hiding in the bushes, razor blades in candy, movie theater shootings, sex-slave kidnappings etc. And to my luck, I live in Flint, so now I get to worry about consuming toxic water whenever I turn the tap on. So suffice to say, we must grapple with our worrisome thoughts everyday. How can we let go of our worries? To be truthful I don’t completely know but there are a few key things that help me get through storms of mental despair.

  1. Prayer: Release your worries to God because He has your back. Talking to the big man upstairs is not only therapeutic but strengthens your spiritual relationship. I know this the Sunday School answer but it really will lift a weight off your chest. You don’t have to formally pray or say anything at all-just clear your head and notice God’s presence. You’re not alone. We didn’t worry nearly as much when we were children; be a child in God’s presence and know He understands the big picture.
  2. Yoga: I’m a huge fan of Yoga because it forces you to be mindful of the present. Yoga is not meant to be some ab-shaping-calorie-scorching workout, it’s meant to bring you more in tune with your inner self. My favorite instructor is Tommy Rosen and he focuses on breathing throughout all the movements. When you learn how to breath you learn how to listen to yourself. Your true self is constantly being bombarded by outside influences that many times create negativity and anxiety. That may sound like a bunch of hippy crap but I promise if you practice mindful meditation/yoga you will make it priority in your daily life.
  3. Watch a TV series: I love well made TV shows: Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, The Wire, Mr. Robot, etc. There are so many great series on TV right now that you can find the perfect show that fits your personality. Why would a TV series reduce worries? One word-Flow. When you get into a show you forget your worries and enter into the emotions of the characters. For a short moment you aren’t focused on your worries but rather the story unfolding in front of you. Of course, any flow experience is good but I like series for reducing worries because my problems are nominal compared to my beloved fictional characters. Walter White’s worries of selling meth to pay for his cancer treatment trumps my worries of not having pooped in the last two days.

These are three tangible things that you can practice in your life that will help reduce your worries. I love this quote…

The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered “Man…. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

Let us let go of our worries by seeking God, being more mindful of the present, and realizing that our worries really aren’t that big of a deal in respects to the big picture. Your thoughts can make your life like heaven or hell. It’s all up to you, your thoughts are your own-what will you choose?

Trust me in your times of trouble, and I will rescue you, and you will give me glory.

Psalm 50:15 NLT