Tag Archives: wisdom

“Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm” by Thich Nhat Hanh

So I finished reading this book about a week ago, and today, the day I am writing my draft post, is the day after the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. I had picked this book for a book club which I started, for which tonight is the first gathering and we will be discussing this book. Anyway, I selected this book because it seemed important and relevant to the current paradigm, which is a fear-focused society. When I read the blurb from the back cover, I knew that this was a timely book to read.

Fear has countless faces: from the fear of failure to worries about everyday life, from financial or environmental uncertainties to the universal despair we all experience when faced by the loss of a friend or loved one. Even when surrounded by all the conditions for happiness, life can feel incomplete when fear keeps us focused on the past and worried about the future. While we all experience fear, it is possible to learn how to avoid having our lives shaped and driven by it. In these pages, Thich Nhat Hanh offers us a timeless path for living fearlessly.

There is such a wealth of wisdom in this short book. I took a lot of notes when I was reading through it. While I can’t cover everything here, I will share some of the passages that stood out for me.

We all experience fear, but if we can look deeply into our fear, we will be able to free ourselves from its grip and touch joy. Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay.

(p. 4)

This is so true. Fear is essentially the disease of “what if.” We look at our past and see what went wrong, and then we look to the future and worry about whether these things will happen again, or if something worse will occur. Our obsession with the past and future causes us to lose touch with the present, which is truly all we really have. The past is gone, and the future is uncertain. Therefore, being present in the now is the best way to avoid becoming overwhelmed by fear.

If we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by our fears, we will suffer, and the seed of fear in us will grow stronger. But when we are mindful, we use the energy of mindfulness to embrace our fear. Every time fear is embraced by mindfulness, the energy of fear decreases before going back down to the depths of our consciousness as a seed.

(p. 38)

As with everything, if you feed it and nurture it, it will grow. This is also true with fear. The more we feed our fears, the more fearful we become. It is really simple, but unfortunately not that easy. When in the grip of fear, it is difficult to step back, take a breath, accept that you are fearful, and then shift focus to the present, recognizing that at this moment, that which we fear is not an actuality. Something else to keep in mind, prolonged fear often leads to anger and/or despair, both of which are very dangerous mental states. For that reason, it is really important to address fear when it arises, and to do so in a healthy and positive way.

Everyone feels very much the same. Our planet is beset by so much danger. There’s so much violence and suffering in the world. If you allow the plague of helplessness to overwhelm you, you’ll go insane. You want to do something—first of all to survive, and then to help reduce the suffering. And we’ve seen, just as the Buddha saw, that is we don’t have a sangha, we can’t do very much. So we come together and we stick to the sangha through thick and thin, because we know that there is no way out of this situation except with a sangha.

(p. 122)

A sangha is, for all intents and purposes, a community. So what Thich Nhat Hanh is saying here is that being involved in community is the best way for us to deal with our collective fear and suffering. Isolation only breeds more fear. When we separate ourselves from our neighbors and our communities, we begin to look at people as “others,” and become suspicious of them. This leads to fear, which only deepens our isolation. It is a vicious cycle that can only be broken by open communication, acceptance, and community.

This book is a quick read (only 164 pages). I highly recommend reading it. Even if the ideas are already familiar to you, it is good to reinforce them.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading!

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My 1000th Blog Post! – “King Lear” by William Shakespeare: An Exploration on Aging

Before I delve into my thoughts on Lear, I want to say thank you to all of you who have followed me, shared your comments, and encouraged me to continue with the blog. My goal is to keep writing for as long as there is interest.

Now, on to King Lear.

So I have read this play numerous times, and for me, it is right up there with Hamlet. There is so much depth in this text, and so much that could be explored. But considering that I am past middle age, the issues on aging were what struck me deepest during this reading.

In this play, both Lear and Gloucester suffer because they are old. There are two main forms of age-related suffering: suffering caused by bad decisions resulting from mental decline associated with old age, and suffering as a result of abuse from younger people who view the elderly as hindrances to their personal advancement.

Very early in the play, Lear’s daughters Regan and Goneril recognize that their father is exhibiting signs of senility.

Goneril:

You see how full of changes his age is; the
observation we have made of it hath not been
little: he always loved our sister most; and
with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off
appears too grossly.

Regan:

‘Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever
but slenderly known himself.

Goneril:

The best and soundest of his time hath been but
rash; then must we look to receive from his age,
not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed
condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness
that infirm and choleric years bring with them.

(Act I. scene i)

There is the archetype of the wise old man, but as Lear’s fool rightly points out, not all people who are advanced in years possess wisdom. Wisdom is gained during your younger years; but if you fail to seek wisdom in your youth, then you become a foolish old man.

Fool:

If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I’ld have thee beaten
for being old before thy time.

King Lear:

How’s that?

Fool:

Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst
been wise.

(Act I, scene v)

Regan starts to show her resentment against having to care for her father. As is often the case, when a parent ages and begins to require assistance, all the baggage, resentment, and anger from the past begin to surface (note that Regan is an anagram for anger).

O, sir, you are old.
Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine: you should be ruled and led
By some discretion, that discerns your state
Better than you yourself. Therefore, I pray you,
That to our sister you do make return;
Say you have wrong’d her, sir.

(Act II, scene iv)

One of the most powerful and symbolic scenes in the play is when Lear is cast out must face the storm.

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high engender’d battles ‘gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul!

(Act III, scene ii)

The storm symbolizes Lear’s own inner turmoil, as well as the constant pounding of life’s challenges that eventually wear a person down. As he relives his mistakes, regret breeds a storm of chaos in his mind, which can no longer make sense of what is happening around him. He feels his last frail hold on sanity beginning to slip.

The tendency of the young to usurp power from the elderly is most clearly expressed through the character of Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son.

This seems a fair deserving, and must draw me
That which my father loses; no less than all:
The younger rises when the old doth fall.

(Act III, scene iii)

This is still a part of our society. We all like to think we hold reverence for the elderly, but the fact is that neglect and abuse of the old is rampant. In addition, there is the subtle and insidious elder abuse which manifests as ageism in the workplace. Older workers are routinely passed over in favor of younger candidates, which only adds to the feelings of uselessness and despair that sadly accompany aging all too often.

When Lear is finally reunited with his Cordelia, his estranged daughter who he cast out, he realizes that he is nothing more than a foolish old man, and he humbles himself to ask forgiveness, because there is nothing worse than spending your last days bearing the weight of regret.

You must bear with me:
Pray you now, forget and forgive: I am old and foolish.

(Act IV, scene vii)

Finally, after his wits are restored, Lear gains the true wisdom that comes with age. He begins to understand what is truly important in life: family, relationships, and simple pleasures.

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

(Act V, scene iii)

The play concludes with some advice which all of us should heed.

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

(Act V, scene iii)

We should never postpone speaking that which is in our hearts, especially to those who are dear to us. Because one day soon, before we expect it, we will be old, and the time to express our love for others will have passed. Do not allow fear or appearances to prevent you from telling someone how you feel. Missed opportunities are rarely retrieved.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 46” by Lao Tzu

When the world is in possession of the Tao,
The galloping horses are led to fertilize the fields with their droppings.
When the world has become Taoless,
War horses breed themselves on the suburbs.

There is no calamity like not knowing what is enough.
There is no evil like covetousness.
Only he who knows what is enough will always have enough.

This is a very straight-forward passage. Essentially, when you are living in balance and contentment with what you have, you are in a state of peace and oneness with the world. But when you are striving for more, and attempting to grasp and hold material things, then you are at odds with the world. If you believe that you are lacking, then you will never be content with what you have. This feeling of not having enough is what leads to war, societal problems, anxiety and depression, a veritable smorgasbord of social ills.

Ask yourself: Do I really need the things I think I need?

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 45” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

The greatest perfection seems imperfect,
And yet its use is inexhaustible.
The greatest fullness seems empty,
And yet its use is endless.

The greatest straightness looks like crookedness.
The greatest skill appears clumsy.
The greatest eloquence sounds like stammering.

Restlessness overcomes cold,
But calm overcomes heat.

The peaceful and serene
Is the Norm of the World.

Reading this passage made me think about how our impression of the world is based solely on our limited perception. We are in the midst of everything, and not far enough removed to see the big picture. What we see as chaos because we are so close, may really be harmonious from afar. Think of our planet as seen from space. It is beautiful and tranquil, until you get up close.

The Tao, therefore, is like the big picture. When we feel the stress of daily life, take a breath and imagine yourself removed, looking down on everything. This shift in perception will change how you interpret what his happening to you. Remember, “The peaceful and serene is the Norm of the World.”

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 44” by Lao Tzu

“Death and the Miser” by Hieronymus Bosch

As for your name and your body, which is the dearer?
As for your body and your wealth, which is the more to be prized?
As for gain and loss, which is the more painful?

Thus, an excessive love for anything will cost you dear in the end.
The storing up of too much goods will entail a heavy loss.

To know when you have enough is to be immune from disgrace.
To know when to stop is to be preserved from perils.
Only thus can you endure long.

Once again, Lau Tzu offers a pearl of wisdom that is important today. Our present culture is one that encourages constant striving for more, regardless of how much you have. Corporations must always show higher earnings and growth, and the measure of personal success is determined by the rate of increase in wealth.

The problem with this mentality, as Lau Tzu points out, is that it is not sustainable. Eventually, there will be suffering as a result of this paradigm, and we are beginning to see this suffering manifesting in the world around us. It is time for people to step back and realize when they have enough, and not be in constant competition with everyone around in an attempt to prove that they are somehow better at the “Game of Life” than the next person.

For myself, I have found that an attitude of gratitude helps me keep the urge for excess at bay. I have much to be grateful for in my life. And yes, there are things that would be nice to have, but I don’t have the burning desire to accumulate and accumulate.

Thanks for stopping by, and take a moment to reflect on all the great things in your life.

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“Meditation is Not What You Think” by Jon Kabat-Zinn

I picked this book up on a whim. I was at a Barnes & Noble café getting a coffee, and they were offering $5 off this book with any café purchase, so I could not pass it up. I had not read any Kabat-Zinn books, but had heard great things about him and was eager to read his work.

Overall, I really liked the book, a lot. It is the first in a four-book series, and was originally published as part of a larger book called Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. It seems like it is the appropriate length, and that it might have lost some of its impact if buried within a bigger tome.

In his introduction to the book, Jon eloquently expresses something that I have been feeling, that humanity is at a crossroads, or a threshold, and that the collective choices we make now will impact the course of humankind.

I don’t know about you, but for myself, it feels like we are at a critical juncture of life on this planet. It could go any number of different ways. It seems that the world is on fire and so are our hearts, inflamed with fear and uncertainty, lacking all conviction, and often filled with passionate but unwise intensity. How we manage to see ourselves and the world at this juncture will make a huge difference in the way things unfold. What emerges for us as individuals and as a society in future moments will be shaped in large measure by whether and how we make use of our innate and incomparable capacity for awareness in this moment. It will be shaped by what we choose to do to heal the underlying distress, dissatisfaction, and outright dis-ease of our lives and our times, even as we nourish and protect all that is good and beautiful and healthy in ourselves and in the world.

(p. xxiii)

While there is a wealth of insight and information in this short book, for me, there is one critical paragraph that, although long, really encapsulates everything that this book coveys: that collectively, we need to slow down, become more mindful of our thoughts and actions, and begin to shift the direction of humanity toward the kind of sane, sustainable, and supportive future that we so desperately need.

As the pace of our lives continues to accelerate, driven by a host of forces seemingly beyond our control, more and more of us are finding ourselves drawn to engage in meditation, in this radical act of being, this radical act of love, astonishing as it may seem given the materialistic “can do,” speed-obsessed, progress-obsessed, celebrity-and-other-people’s-lives-obsessed, social media-obsessed orientation of our culture. We are moving in the direction of meditative awareness for many reasons, not the least of which may be to maintain our individual and collective sanity, or recover our perspective and sense of meaning, or simply to deal with the outrageous stress and insecurity of this age. By stopping and intentionally falling awake to how things are in this moment, purposefully, without succumbing to our own reactions and judgments, and by working wisely with such occurrences with a healthy dose of self-compassion when we do succumb, and by our willingness to take up residency for a time in the present moment in spite of all our plans and activities aimed at getting somewhere else, completing a project or pursuing desired objects or goals, we discover that such an act is both immensely, discouragingly difficult yet utterly simple, profound, hugely possible after all, and restorative of mind and body, soul and spirit right in that moment.

(pp. 71 – 72)

Our paradigm is about to shift in a huge way, and I for one will do everything I can to attempt to make this shift a positive one, and that begins by changing myself. I have made a lot of conscious changes in my life over the past couple years, and continue to examine myself honestly to see where I can continue to grow and improve. Meditation and mindfulness practice have played an important role in these personal changes. I encourage you to pick up this book and begin to manifest changes in the world by changing yourself, if you have not already begun to do so. If you have already started on this path, I encourage you to continue. What we do today is important.

Thanks for stopping by and reading my musings.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 43” by Lao Tzu

The softest of all things
Overrides the hardest of all things.
Only Nothing can enter into no-space.
Hence I know the advantages of Non-Ado.

Few things under heaven are as instructive as the lessons of Silence,
Or as beneficial as the fruits of Non-Ado.

This passage is very short, yet brimming with wisdom. The first two lines are simple enough to understand. Consider how water over a long period of time, steadily flowing, wears down the rock. But the other four lines require a little more work to comprehend.

In order to fully grasp the meaning of the passage, one must have a basic understanding of the concept of Wu wei. Wu wei (translated as Non-Ado) is essentially not striving, an “attitude of genuine non-action, motivated by a lack of desire to participate in human affairs.” In other words, “the sage does not occupy himself with the affairs of the world.” (Source: Wikipedia)

So what Lau Tzu is saying here, is that the path to wisdom is discovered by quieting the mind, and turning away from the distraction of worldly affairs. This silence becomes the softness that eventually overrides the hardness of the mental noise generated by the obsession with all things temporal. This is truly sage advice in an age where we are constantly bombarded with distraction and stimulation-overload from media of various sorts.

This past weekend, I took a long hike in the woods, just myself and my dog, and enjoyed the quiet and solitude. When I emerged back into the world of noise and traffic, I brought with me some of the calmness which I gained on my hike. Quiet time is important. I encourage you all to take some time each day to get quiet and centered. Your life will improve as a result.

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