Thursday, December 31, 2015

Year End Review

"Fast Away the Old Year Passes"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

On this last day of 2015, almost everywhere I look throughout the various media I see some sort of year end review -  pictures, stories and reports of the year now coming to the end-- stories about terrorism, bombings, shootings, immigrants, refugees and presidential campaigning, lists of failures, defeats as well as lists of accomplishments.

I suppose it’s only natural for us to look back and review what went on at the end of a year.  Just this morning I was thinking about all the stuff that happened in my own life over 2015, and as I was doing this I suddenly remembered something I read a while back about the kind of life end review that people often engage in as they lay on a death bed. Many times, when people are dying they experience a certain clarity about what is really important about living.

Dr. Ira Byock, a nationally renowned hospice-care physician, has witnessed and documented thousands of death-bed experiences; and he discovered that, when people come to the end of their lives and stand at the threshold of death, almost everyone says some very similar things in their final breaths. Dr. Byock has distilled these “end of life” statements into four very basic sentiments:

Please forgive me
I forgive you
Thank you
I love you

As I think about it, these simple yet profound statements really do lie at the very core of our common humanity- they may be the things we say when we die but they beautifully express what it means to be fully alive.  What really matters, endures and gives meaning to our living is:


So many of us devote a lifetime doing the things that, in the end, don’t really matter all that much – building a career, climbing the ladder of success, accumulating more and more stuff, holding onto anger or grudges, constantly seeking the praise of others. But in the end most of us will not use our last breaths to inquire about our bank balance or ask to see a copy of a business report.  Instead we will look to the people who have surrounded us in life and we will seek or offer forgiveness, thank them, and tell them how much we love them.

People who are dying remind us about what is important about living.

I recall something Eckhart Tolle once said:

Death is the stripping away of all that is not you.
The secret of life is to ‘die before you die’
And find there is no death.

As I do my own year end review on this last day of 2015, I am asking myself those questions about what really matters in life. Over this past year how well did I seek and offer forgiveness? Was I grateful for my life? How well did I love? Everything else that happened was not at the core of who I really am and can be stripped away.

2016 is a good year for me to die before I die.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A World Full of Noise

"A Quiet Moment"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I had a conversation yesterday with an online friend who told me that he couldn’t wait to get back to work again. He had taken a few days off for the holidays and said he has been so busy that he just can’t catch a breath.

I find it rather odd that people often talk about how busy and chaotic life is when they take a vacation – I thought time off was supposed to be a time to rest and reboot. And yet many people talk about needing a vacation from their busy vacation. Maybe we have forgotten how to stop and pause, or worse yet, maybe we have come to wear the busyness of our lives as a badge of honor.

When I go out to eat or stop to get coffee at the local Starbucks I often notice that everyone (literally everyone) is pecking away at an iPhone or a laptop- surfing the web, answering emails, sending texts- busy, busy busy. I sometimes wonder if all that activity is a way of demonstrating self- importance:  I am so much in demand that even when I take a coffee break or stop to have lunch I need to be constantly involved with my many emails and texts.

The problem is, of course, that we need pauses and rests in life, not only for our physical well-being but to give our life texture and deeper meaning.

In his book, Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise, Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, offers this observation:

In music there are moments of ‘rest,’ of no sound.
If those spaces weren’t there, it would be a mess.
Music without moments of silence would be chaotic and oppressive.
That space between notes is very, very powerful, very meaningful.
The soundless can be more pleasant, more eloquent than any sound.

I find deep truth in this simple observation - it makes a good deal of sense to me, not because Master Hanh is such an astute music critic but because he is such a wise teacher of spiritual wisdom.

Like any piece of music, the song of our lives needs to include deliberate rests and pauses to give it meaning - we need to catch a breath from time to time. A time away should in fact be treated as a time away –a pause from the chaos of an everyday busy life. Even the routine of an ordinary day needs to have times of pauses and rests - a dedicated time of quiet meditation, closing your eyes, clearing your head and taking a breath for a moment or two in the middle of an ordinary busy schedule, putting away the laptop at Starbucks and taking the time to enjoy sipping the coffee, or maybe just finding a nice quite corner where you can sit and stare for a bit.

The famed Jazz composer, Miles Davis, once said of his music:

The space I leave is just as important as the sound I make

The spaces we leave in life are as important as the sounds we make.

I think there are probably a lot of people who, like my online friend, find that their lives are so busy that they just can’t catch a breath. As a New Year is about to begin maybe all of us should be much more intentional about inserting soundlessness into the music of our lives.

Socrates once wisely said:

Beware the bareness of a busy life

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Goals and Resolutions

"Fading Light"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

The end of the year must be approaching because almost everywhere I look I see some article or story about New Year Resolutions – how to set goals for the New Year, how to keep the resolutions you make.

In one sense there is probably no harm in setting New Year goals.  I suppose all of us would do well to lose some weight, eat a healthier diet, workout more, walk every day or improve a relationship; but I just read a report that, statistically speaking, only 5% of these newly-made resolutions will actually be implemented in 2016.

Generally speaking, people have good intentions in making resolutions for a New Year, and at least for a few weeks, they try real hard to live up to the goals they set;  but when the workouts get too strenuous or that extra piece of cake looks too tempting many people quickly fail in their resolve and then feel bad about themselves because they were too weak, not enough gumption or willpower.

To be honest I am not a big fan of New Year Resolutions. While setting future goals may have some merit, I also believe that there is an inherent spiritual danger lurking in a corner when you plan too carefully for the future. Setting goals and developing long-term plans can often turn into little more than a futile exercise of the ego. "I” devise a plan in order to manipulate what will happen. “I” develop a strategy to control the outcomes, to make the future turn out according to the way I want it to turn out.

The problem, of course, is that life doesn’t usually happen according to the way I plan it. There is very little (if anything) that any of us can actually control in a world of constant change. Furthermore, when my energy is spent trying make the world conform to the way I want it to be, I will inevitably miss something of what life is actually offering me.

One of my books of Buddhist essays offers this insight:

There is no secure or unchanging ground
and we make ourselves safe only when we see and accept the way life is –
utterly spontaneous and impermanent.
When it’s time to laugh, we laugh.
When it’s time to weep, we weep.
We are cheated of nothing in life except that from which we withhold ourselves
by ego’s narrow bounds.
These bounds were made to break;
indeed they must break if we ever hope to be whole again.

As for me, I won’t be making any list of resolutions for the upcoming year. Instead I resolve to try to be more mindful, more intentional about living every day grounded in the moment, aware of what life is offering to me - laughing when it's time to laugh and weeping when its time to weep.

The Buddha taught:

In the end these things matter most
How well did you love?
How fully did you live?
How deeply did you let go?

As this year comes to an end, these are the questions I ask myself as I review 2015 and this is the path I hope to follow in the year to come – to love well, to live fully, to let go deeply.