Archive for August, 2012


Many years ago I was sharing with my mentor, Lowell, that my journal entries were so repetitious; I kept re-visiting the same ideas and the same struggles over and over.  I didn’t think I was making any progress at all.  I recall his knowing smile [why do all mystics, wise people and mentors have these ‘knowing smiles’] as he paused before he spoke.

We had been exploring Stoic philosophy [he had introduced me to Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius].  Lowell reminded me that the Stoic philosophical life consists essentially in mastering one’s inner dialogue.  The Stoic believed that everything in an individual’s life depended on how he represented things to himself – in other words, how he told them to himself and then how he engaged in an internal searching; an inner dialogue.  “It is not things that trouble us,” as Epictetus wrote, “but our judgments about things” – in other words, our inner dialogue about things.

Epictetus’ speech was intended to modify his audience’s inner discourse; their inner searching conversation.  In a sense, the person who engaged in the inner dialogue engaged in two types of therapeutic experience.  One was the inner dialogue itself.  The other was in the writing that the Stoic engaged in; the daily keeping of a written journal that captured their inner dialogue.

Such writing thus led necessarily to incessant repetitions – the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius was an example of this.  Lowell suggested that my journals were also examples of this type of repetition.  Repetition is necessary, Lowell reminded me, because our development is incremental in nature and it is also ‘cyclical’ – we don’t ‘get it’ once and for all but we have to re-visit and re-visit and re-visit and our progress toward ‘knowing’ or ‘enlightenment’ or ‘spiritual development’ is truly generational.  It is not enough, he said, to simply re-read what you have already written.  What makes a difference over time is the reformulation in the moment – the act of reflecting/meditating while engaging in our inner dialogue and then to capture this in our writing.  It is the act of composing with the greatest care possible; to search for that which at a given moment will produce the greatest effect in the moment before it fades away – for fade away it will.  Thus we need to experience a succession of repetitions, some the same as before and some as variations upon the same themes.

The goal is to rekindle and reawaken an inner dialogue (a search through conversation with oneself) which is in constant danger of being shut-down.  The task – ever renewed – is to re-engage this inner dialogue; it is repetitious because we are, as imperfect human beings, dealing with the same issues over and over [when I take an inventory of my self-talk I do find that I am engaging the same themes that I engaged as an adolescent].

Lowell reminded me of the importance of Marcus’ Meditations.  As he wrote every day, Marcus was thus practicing Stoic spiritual exercises.  He was using writing in order to influence himself and to transform his inner dialogue by meditating on his daily life.  This was an exercise of writing every day – always taken up again and always needing to be taken up again for one’s development required one to engage one’s self on a daily basis.  As I reflect upon the great wisdom figures and as I reflect upon the great mystics and as I reflect upon the writings of those who continue to deeply influence me I also notice that they, too, addressed the same themes over and over and over again.  Being faithful to the process is the key [or so it seems].   

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What does it mean to really be alive?  Consider that it means three things: being yourself, being now, being here.  The third thing a person needs in order to be alive: being here.  This means that one is present physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.  This also means moving from ‘abstraction’ to ‘experience.’

For example, ‘ideas’ are wonder-full; but ‘ideas’ aren’t life.  They are excellent guides but they aren’t life.  Abstractions, like ideas, are not life; life is found in experience.  It is like reading a wonderful menu.  The menu is not the meal.  If I spend all of my time with the menu I won’t get to eat the meal.  There have been times in my life when all I did was ‘read the menu’ and I missed out on the meal.  Each time I simply read the menu part of my life slips away.

Here’s another example.  Whenever I ‘see’ the name – say waiter or American or teacher – I miss the person; I don’t experience the person in any of his or her dimensions (physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual).

How do we move from the abstract to the experience?  Try this out.  Listen to all the sounds that you can detect around you.  Can you hear all of them?  Are there loud sounds, are there soft sounds, are there whispers or shouts?  Are the sounds soothing or irritating or distracting?  There’s no abstraction here, just experience; no judging just experiencing.  Now look at what is around you; what are you seeing?  Now take time to touch – an object, your hand, your nose.  Now feel the feelings that are emerging.  This morning I was driving my car and all of a sudden I realized that I had no idea how I got to where I was going; I was not ‘being here’ as I was driving (nor was I ‘being now’).

I remember a wonderful story that a monk shared with me.  There was a famous guru who became enlightened.  He then found that he had followers.  One day, a follower asked him, “Master, what did you get out of your enlightenment?  What has enlightenment given you?”  The guru smiled a knowing smile [Why is it that these gurus or mystics or wise persons are always smiling that ‘knowing smile’?] “Well, I’m going to tell you what it has given me: when I eat, I eat; when I look, I look; when I listen, I listen.  That is what I have been given.”  The disciple replied, “But everyone does that!”  The guru then laughed a hearty laugh, a real belly laugh, “Everyone does that?  Then everyone must be enlightened.”  My experience is that few of us human beings ever do this.  Don’t believe me?  Observe – first yourself and then others.

Being alive means being yourself, being alive means being now, being alive means being here.  Look at yourself.  To the degree that you can observe yourself, not just mentally, but as an impartial observer, you will begin to move from being asleep to being alive.  Strive to become a true ‘reflective-participant-observer’ in your own life.

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What does it mean to really be alive?  Consider that it means three things: being yourself, being now, being here.  The second thing a person needs in order to be alive: being now.  What the heck does this mean, one might ask – in fact many ‘ones’ have asked me this very question: ‘What does ‘being now’ mean?’  First, it means understanding something that few people seem to understand: the past is not real, the future is not real and living in the past or anticipating the future is not ‘being alive.’  This does not mean that we can’t learn from the past or that we can’t recall the past or that our past has not influenced us or shaped us, etc.   We also know that is can be helpful to plan for the future and it can be helpful to image the future.  To the extent that we ‘live in the past’ – say, by ruminating about what might have been or to the extent that we anticipate the future – say, by telling ourselves that ‘once we achieve so and so then all will be okay’ then we are not really alive because are not, literally, ‘in the now.’

It seems to me that we live in a future culture – the culture of tomorrow.  Tomorrow I’m going to be happy; tomorrow I’m going to live: When I get married I am going to live.  Then, once I have children I am going to live.  Once these kids grow up I am going to live.  Listen for how many times people, including yourself, spend time ruminating about the past AND anticipating the future.  Examine your own thoughts and you will see how often you are past-oriented and/or future-oriented.

This awareness is disturbing.  It’s like settling in to have an orange and then not savoring it – from looking at it, to holding it, to peeling it, to separating it into slices, to slowly eating it – often we cannot even remember eating the orange.  We were not present; we were not ‘in the now.’  We were, probably, ruminating about the past or anticipating the future.

What is the cure for this dis-ease?  A story might help.

Legend has it that Buddha traveled all over the country seeking enlightenment; he went to the greatest masters of his time, and he practiced all the disciplines and spiritualities that existed, but enlightenment didn’t come.  Finally he quit.  In desperation, he sat under a fig tree and was enlightened.  Many years later his disciples were asking him, almost daily, to teach him his ‘technique.’  The Buddha said there was no ‘technique’ – his disciples didn’t give up asking, however.  Then Buddha – can you see him smiling as he responded – said: ‘All right, I’ll give you the technique.  When you are inhaling, be aware that you are inhaling.  When you are exhaling, be aware that you are exhaling.’  This doesn’t seem very spiritual does it.  Yet, if practiced several times a day it does help one learn to be ‘in the now.’  Life isn’t in the past nor is it tomorrow; life is right now.

Here is another exercise that was given me by a mentor: Do some every day thing and as you do it, verbalize what you are doing.  I have found that this is a good exercise for entering in to ‘the now.’  To be yourself, be ‘in the now.’  Here is a poem that I wrote in 2009 (I posted this poem a while ago but it is appropriate for this posting so I post it again today):


Children are in the now.


They now more fully than

most adults.

They now from the top

of their heads

through the tips

of their toes.

They don’t concern them-

selves with the past

or the future for they

are fully in the now.

Adults are in the know.


They know from the top

of their head to the tip

of their chins.

They are obsessed with

their past

and with their future

for they are fully

in the know.

They are wedded to the


the now has been replaced.


One small consonant keeps the

adults in the know so that

their now is hidden from them.


To know is to love.

To now is to be love.

To know is to remember,

and ruminate.

To now is to experience,

and savor.

To know is to plan,

and prognosticate.

To now is to play,

and immerse in.


What a challenge it is

for adults to shed the ‘k’

of know so that the

wonder of now becomes

available to them.                    –Richard W Smith, 24 December 2009


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One day Buddha was sitting with some of his disciples when a crone emerged from the nearby woods.  She approached the Buddha and asked: ‘How long do you want to live?  Ask for a thousand years and it will be granted to you.’  Without hesitating the Buddha responded: ‘Eight years.’  The crone smiled knowingly, turned and slowly walked back into the woods.  As she disappeared the disciples jumped up as one and said in unison: ‘Master, why didn’t you ask for a thousand years – think of all of the good you could have done for many generations.’  The Buddha then he smiled; the same smile as the crone.  He paused.  He replied: ‘If I were to live a thousand years, people would become more interested in extending their lives than in seeking wisdom, compassion and love.’

At this time in my life, I, too, find myself seeking to find ways to extend my life rather than continue my search for wisdom, compassion and love.  When I do, I find myself living without living.  I am not alone, I don’t think.  Many people think they are alive because they are breathing, eating, speaking, conversing and going from one place to another.  They are not dead, of course.  But are they (myself included) really alive?  What does it mean to really be alive?  Consider that it means three things: being yourself, being now, being here.

Being alive means being yourself.  To the degree you are you, you are alive.  Well, one might ask, ‘If I am not myself, then, who am I?’  A good question; one that I have often asked myself.  My current thinkingis that I am like a puppet.  In this case, I have given some (if not a great deal of) control over to others.  Who are these others?  Here’s a question or two or three that might help: ‘What are the voices in me that my voice is responding to?  What are the current voices in my head that I am responding to and what are the voices from my past – especially those from my past – that I am responding to?  Whose story am I living – the one I am writing or the one that was written for me by others? I also find that I am responding to past experiences – the feelings that I still hold onto anyway – in a way that guides my feelings, thinking, and choices I make today.

I recall how shocked I was when I first heard that Jesus said ‘If you would be my disciple, you have to hate your father and mother!’  WHAT?  Given who Jesus was supposed to be this did not make any sense at all – he couldn’t mean this literally.  It seems to me that he is saying that I must not be controlled by their ‘voices’ and their ‘stories’ and by the ‘story they want me to live.’  I cannot be a disciple of Jesus if I am a puppet, for Jesus, it seems, wants me to be awake and aware so that I can freely choose (or not choose) to follow.


Here is an exercise that I learned many years ago; it might be of some help to you gentle reader.  It is simple and ‘easy’ and yet my experience is that if one stays with it for sometime one will see the difference in one’s self.

THE EXERCISE: Think of some event from the recent past – no more than a week ago.  ‘See’ the event as clearly as you can.  Now observe your reaction to your recollections.  How are your reacting emotionally?  What kind of attitudes do you have about this event?  Just observe.  Now, ask yourself what voice(s) your are responding to.  Have the courage to ask: ‘Might this not be the reaction of someone else reacting inside of me – someone from the past that I am carrying around.  This exercise lasts no more than a minute or two; if you want to attain all of its effects stop several times during the day, enter into the exercise, and observe.  Look at your reactions.  Look, don’t judge (good or bad), don’t approve or condemn, be the impartial observer.  LOOK!  You don’t even have to respond to my questions – if you find them distracting then just look.  Over time you will find that the puppet master(s) will slowly lose their control of your mental and emotional strings and you will notice the difference (this might well be anxiety producing for you will also realize that you are, really, truly, response-able).

Take the time (we do have the time, really we do) and observe your reactions to each thing that happens during the day.  Observe your convictions.  Raise questions that stretch and challenge you.  Ask yourself: ‘Am I truly open to questioning my own convictions?’  If you are not it might well mean that the puppet master(s) are still pulling your strings (the gift here is that you can claim that you are not response-able).

These past months I have been reading the works of a certain Rabbi and I just recalled a story about him.  Even when he was young he was considered to be a brilliant Rabbi – just like his father was a brilliant Rabbi.  People would say to him, ‘Rabbi, you are brilliant like your father but you are completely different from him.’  The young Rabbi would then laugh, ‘I’m just like my father!  My father didn’t imitate anyone, and I don’t imitate anyone.  He wasn’t a carbon copy, and neither am I.’ For me, this is what being alive means, being unique.  I was created to be ME, to be unique – am I willing to really, truly become the ME that I am called to be?  Am I really, truly willing to be myself?  Pardon me, I am feeling a bit of a tug at my strings so I must move along now.     



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[NOTE: Please see yesterday’s posting for the context and PART I of ‘Consider Ethics’]

Philosophy’s reflections contain a distinctive aim – to understand the tap roots of motivation, reason, and feeling that motivate, guide and direct us.  Its aim is also to understand the complex system of rules and ‘norms’ that sustain our lives.  This aim is often one of finding meaning in the apparent jumble of principles, deep assumptions, core values and goals that we respect, or say we do.  Its aim involves an undertaking of self-knowledge.  Philosophers are fully human and hence do not escape their cultures and sub-cultures, even as they reflect upon them.  Any story about human nature in the contemporary climate is a result of human nature and the contemporary climate.

Admiring the aim, embracing it or aspiring to it are themselves moral stances.  Like fig trees they can themselves flourish or wither at different times, depending on how much we like what we see in the mirror [the ‘mirror’ comes to us in many forms – it is our charge as philosophers to discern them and look deeply into them once we do].  We also reject the aim, especially when things become uncomfortable for us.  We all have a tendency to complacency with our own ways, like the wealthy American in Europe: ‘The Italians call it a coltello, the Germans a Messer, but we Americans call it a knife, and when all is said and done, that’s what it is.’

We humans do not like being told what to do.  We want to enjoy our lives and we want to enjoy them with a clean conscience.  People who disturb that balance are not easily tolerated by us – for example, moralists are often uninvited guests at the banquet table and when they show up we employ a multitude of defenses against them.  On the other hand, some individuals can insulate themselves from a dis-eased environment for a while – they may even profit by creating one.  The owner can live upwind of the chemical factory, and the logger may know that the trees will not give out until after his death.  Similarly, individuals can insulate themselves from a poor moral environment, or profit from it.  Just as some trees flourish by depriving others of nutrients and light, so some people flourish by depriving others of their rights and their due.  The western white male may flourish because of the inferior economic and social status of people who are not western, or white, or male.  Insofar as we are like that, we will not want the veil to be lifted nor will we take the time to look deeply into the many mirrors offered to us.

Ethics is inherently disturbing to anyone who is awake and aware.  We are often vaguely uncomfortable when we think of such things as exploitation of the world’s resources, or the way our comforts are provided by the miserable labor conditions of the third world.  Sometimes, defensively, we get angry when such things are mirrored back to us.  But to be entrenched in a culture like this, exploitative attitudes will themselves need a story.  So an ethical climate may allow talking of ‘the market’ as a justification for our high prices, and talking of their selfishness and our rights as a justification for anger at their high prices.  Racists and sexists, like pre-civil war slave owners in the United States, always have to tell themselves a story that justifies their system.  The ethical climate will sustain a conviction that we are civilized, and they are not, or that we deserve our better fortune than them, or that we are intelligent, sensitive, rational, caring, or progressive or scientific, or blessed by our God, or that we alone are to be trusted with certain freedoms and rights, while they are not.  An ethic dis-eased and ‘dark’ is an essential preliminary to the concentration camp and the death march; a crucial step away from the dark side is to believe this to be true.  So we begin our foray into the field of ethics with two questions: Who are you?  What do you believe to be true? 

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