20 January 2012

We're strangers in our own brains

There's surprisingly little going on in our heads, even when they seem full of every thought, worry, and stray wisp of consciousness that we can muster.  Our stream of consciousness never really dries up, and even when we want it to be still so that we can stop and focus and think, it largely just does what it will.  

That stream of consciousness is a lot like a summer blockbuster, a lot of explosions and interactions and ramblings, but little substance.  

One of my siblings asked me about this when I was visiting for the holidays, and it inspired me to go back and see if I could conjure something up. I'm going to start a list of posts this week on some of the basics of mindfulness.  The Stoics have a great deal to say about mindfulness, and, really, all great religious and spiritual traditions focus on mindfulness, but the basic practices of Buddhism probably tell us the most.   

Seeing what's around us is a lot more difficult than it seems, with our egos and expectations and prejudices constantly jumping in the way of what's in front of our eyes.  Reading posts on the internet don't really do anything to help us with this, as Socrates observed long long long ago, reading something often just convinces us that we know something, when we have really just read it.  To get started on knowing, rather than just having read, we need to do.

Here's a nice video to get to just that, it takes about an hour, and you'll want to watch it somewhere quiet and where you're not being pestered.  Enjoy:

17 January 2012

Decide what to be and go be it

That's a really fun smile.  That's Sharon Lebell.

I've never met her, but sometimes there are people out there who you can just imagine really getting along with.

She is apparently a master player of the hammered dulcimer.  I couldn't really say what a hammered dulcimer is, but Google of course can, so here it is:  

Not that I've ever heard her play the dulcimer.  If I'd never looked at her website I'd never have known that she played it.  I "know" her from her translations of Epictetus.  I feel a sort of kindredness to her.  Here is someone who took the time to become a master of the hammered dulcimer, who first wrote a book about naming children, and then who wandered into the realm of Epictetus, Stoic philosophy, and contemplating the good life.

Some of us take roundabout ways to reach what eventually feels natural to us.  Others find a way to get there young, and, sadly, most of us never really move out onto that path.  I don't know whether Sharon was the first or the second, but I find myself definitely moving through the first.  Sometimes I feel like David Byrne, waking up, looking around, and asking myself, "How did I get here?"

Somewhere along the way I asked myself the question, paralleled in the title with a song by the Avett Brothers, and here translated from Epictetus by Sharon Lebell:

"Who exactly do you want to be? What kind of person do you want to be?  What are your personal ideals?  Whom do you admire?  What are their special traits that you would make your own?"

And once you ask yourself, you have to face up to it.  You are not, no matter what your momma told you, perfect, and you will never have the chance to be perfect, but you do have the chance to be better, to be more at peace, to be more happy and open and forgiving and honest.

 "It's time to stop being vague.  If you wish to be an extraordinary person, if you wish to be wise, then you should explicitly identify the kind of person you aspire to become.  If you have a daybook, write down who you're trying to be, so that you can refer to this self-definition.  Precisely describe the demeanor you want to adopt so that you may preserve it..."

11 January 2012

Reading is hard

I spend a bit of time each day reading The Meditations, not reading in depth or for any great reason, but just finding a random bit and reading it.  When I do that I use an old translation by George Long, replete with thee's and thy's and didst's.  There's nothing about past speech which makes it in any way "better" than modern speech, and there are arguments to be made that putting classical texts into modern English, or even vernacular, open them up to far greater audiences, but there's something about the movement and the flow of older English that really draws me in.  Seeing text in different formats definitely leads us to think differently about it, even when it is based around giving the exact same set of information.  What would some of those differences look like?

09 January 2012

Living in truth, looking at the little bits

We're all worlds unto ourselves, but we live in a pretty crowded solar system

When I'm not mindful of what I'm doing I find myself focusing my attention far away from myself, reading lots of random news articles and generally obsessing over how the world is failing at doing a million things.  That's not too hard to do, there are millions of articles out there to read, millions of failures both small and large to write said articles about, and a probably too small and not well paid enough group of people who are getting paid to write about things for good reasons- they're pretty good writers and they have something to say. 

But there I am, taking in information, taking in information, taking in information, without any real reason for doing so.  It's just habitual.  The problem there is, of course, the lack of mindfulness, but if I could solve that one...

So I've tried to branch out this year, especially with this being my last four months on Earth where I'm not fully and completely responsible for another human being.  I've picked up a couple of things to do and started to look around at the people around me much more than the world around me. 

I've baked bread for the first time in my life.That's really the product of my hands, right there <-------. It seems like a small thing, and that's why it was important to me. Why had I gone my whole life without having done such a simple thing for myself?  Flour, yeast, salt, butter, badda bam badda boom, bread.  It's an interesting process, with the living yeast doing its own thing, a bit of ancient bio-engineering thrust into the modern world.  There's a rhythm to it which doesn't fit in with modern times, mixing, kneading, waiting, punching, manipulating, waiting, baking, waiting, and finally the payoff.  Well, maybe the punching and manipulating fit in, but not the waiting. That sort of delayed gratification breaks us out of our normal modes of being, and forces us to deal with some of the same realities as gardening- that nature doesn't follow our timetable.

I've also started coloring.  Funny huh?  I've taken a lot of guff from various people for it, but I've really liked it.    I bought some great Prismacolor colored pencils on sale from Amazon, some even greater coloring books, and I've just been chilling out and coloring.    Sometimes, when there's a simpler picture I just break out the old school Crayola crayons and go from there.  If you're looking for awesome coloring books for adults, not adult coloring books though, check out Dover.  First up on the block will be Life in Ancient Japan for me, then maybe Beowulf, and then, when I'm much better, Ancient Mexican Designs.It's pretty calming, and maybe it's a first step towards learning to do something artistic.

As for the people around me, I've been taking the time to try to notice things in people that I've probably always overlooked.  I have a sister who's attempting to go vegan, a friend who has been writing beautiful short pieces of meditations on the internet, a wife dealing with all the joys and not-so-joys of pregnancy, and a group of coworkers and students who each bring something different to the table each day. 

So, a 2012 where I try to focus my attention on the people around me more so than on the toings and froings of the world at large.  Let's see how it works!

05 January 2012

Opening up your worldview

One of the things that first attracted me to Stoicism was its call to be a citizen of the world, to be a member of an interconnected humanity rather than a citizen or resident of a specific location.  We do, however, live in a very geographically bound world, and regardless of what people may say, the world is far from flat for most of us.  We don't often get the chance to truly interact with people from different backgrounds in a sustained and constructive way. Luckily I get to work out all of the practicalities and difficulties of this in my day job, teaching English to newcomers to Canada.  I know that you're supposed to complain about your work, and there are always a million things in each workplace to complain about, but I just wanted to take a minute to be grateful for the chance to interact and connect with my students, who bring experiences from all over the world into my classroom every day.  Working through all of those different sets of cultural expectations and practices isn't always easy, but when you get the chance to be in an environment like that it really highlights the humanity, with all of its blessings and curses, that we all take part in.