Tuesday, December 31, 2013

It's New Years All Year Long

The onset of a new calendar year varies, depending on cultural norms. Among the numerous start dates, the below offer up several examples:
  • Western New Year - Jan.1, 2014 
  • Chinese New Year - Jan. 31, 2014
  • Tibetan New Year - March 2, 2014
  • Jewish New Year - Sept. 24th 2014
  • Mayan New Year (they gave up in 2013)

This begs a fascinating question: why are there so many different dates for the start of a new year if we all live on the same planet in the same solar system?

Scholars would be able to answer this question, but the average lay person should be given a chance to contemplate this enigma without all the justifications set forth by anthropologists, astronomers, historians, and holy men with their holy books held high.

While this blogger dares not to venture a guess, there is an upside to the dizzying array of New Years. If one slips up on the typical New Year's resolution, i.e. lose weight, make more money, stop yelling at kids, spouse and dog, go to a yoga class - hey, no worries.

Simply honor all the other New Year's days and you can resolve to resolve all over again. Just think what a wonderful life! So many new beginnings and choices available to the human race... 

So if at first you don't succeed, just Google the next upcoming New Year and try again.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Blood and Water

The saying, "Blood is thicker than water" makes no sense in the context of today's English language. As for the "blood" portion, this aphorism refers to the strong bonds of family, which is obvious as families have bloodlines in common and under normal circumstances they have lived together with shared experiences. Thus, bonds that bind.

But where on earth does the "water" piece of the equation fit? Does it mean that we have more in common with our relatives than fish? Or, the consistency of the liquid makes thick preferable over thin? Anyway, blood is only thicker than water under certain circumstances. Clotted blood is thicker than running water, but ice is more solid that flowing blood.

In its original context, the phrase was "the blood of the convent is thicker than the water of the womb," a horrific reference denoting that the blood shed together in battle creates more bonds-in-common than the amniotic fluid in which a growing fetus thrives. 

Clearly, customs evolve. Humans are the arbiters of both culture and language; the former is the left hand and the latter is the right hand. As hostages of time, certain anachronistic phrases linger when they no longer have a function (much like the troublesome appendix). 

As humanity moves into a new age where our toys are powerful enough to destroy an entire planet, perhaps phrases comparing the virtues of blood versus water could be eliminated altogether.

Blood and water both comprise essential elements needed for life. Let us eliminate their historic sibling rivalry and give them equal parts in the stage play of existence, bonding all humanity in a collective caring that shows no favoritism.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Grounded Cognition

Neuroscientists use the term grounded cognition for a process that broadly includes mind-body-environment interaction. Narrowing down the playing field, one area begs further examination.

Sophisticated scans enlighten us as to the mysterious ways of the brain: the mere remembrance of an activity or experience stimulates neuronal activity in the brain, causing those little balls of energy to fire away as if recalled events were occurring in "real" time.

Thus, it is only logical that one-pointed concentration on a particular event in the memory bank will reactivate it; a nasty breakup makes your stomach churn anew; the delightful memory of a lover's kiss has you staring reverently into space in the middle of a busy office; the smell of lilacs places a childhood hiding place front and center in your inner vision.

Thanks to neuroplasticity, our gray matter develops more of itself in the most frequently activated parts - not unlike a body builder whose pectoral muscles expand with exercises designed to enlarge that area. 

So what part of our brain/psyche do we want to enlarge? The primitive reptilian bit, or the logic bit, or the compassion bit, or the nicotine sensitive area, as well as thousands of other places enfolded in those convoluted coils that function as command central in our complex lives?

Tibetan Buddhist philosophy has been hip to this brain-building process for centuries. In a practice called deity yoga, one pictures a Buddha or Bodhisattva that embodies qualities such as compassion, wisdom, purification, joy, equanimity, etc. These energies can be contemplated via specific visualization techniques given by a qualified lama to the student. The end game: to embody that quality represented in the externally perceived entity such as a Buddha of Compassion; insight then arises as to the non-dual nature of "other" and "self" as the flow of compassion becomes one river.

Outside observers mistaken deity yoga as akin to pantheistic traditions with a plethora of gods and goddesses, but this is not what's going on. The purpose of deity yoga actually echoes grounded cognition. When one perceives a Buddha of Compassion as a visualization beaming his love at you, the brain actually starts registering this phenomenon as real. And voila! One not only feels compassion but the compassion center of the brain actually grows. With enough time logged sitting on one's ass in meditation, the compassion center not only asserts itself as bigger and badder than other parts but it stays with the meditator in his or her "off the cushion" moments. No fake smiles and guilt-ridden acts of charity; compassion in action becomes an effortless, spontaneous event.

While not everyone wants to practice deity yoga Tibetan Buddhist style, it would be wise to understand the impact of thoughts and memories. What one reads, sees at the movies, speaks to others, speaks to oneself, imagines, or projects - the stories we tell ourselves about how things are - all have significant impact on how our brains develop.

We are literally growing ourselves with every thought. So buyers beware. You are what you remember.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Day After

It feels like the day after an atomic blast minus the complete and utter ruination of body, mind, soul and property. Wreckage abounds but all is quiet on the western front. Christmas presents have been opened and trash cans overflow with wrapping paper and cardboard boxes. The content spilled from this wastage varies. Some is useless junk received with artificial squeals of "it's perfect" while others delight in new gadgets that make life more efficient, swift, pleasurable, or difficult to manage when premature planned obsolescence sets in.

What does all this celebratory hoohah really mean?

If people came together with gratitude, love, and an appreciation for our human connection, triggered by the notion that Christmas time appears more special than any other time, then that's a good thing. If the holiday represents a dreaded time of familial suffering or severe loneliness, then why bother with a tradition gone south.

In any event, the Balinese, who are decidedly not Christian, have it right at least in one small sector of social mores. Daily, the highways and byways of life are suffused with tender offerings of fruit and flowers, displayed for the delight of divine presences. Left on sidewalks in front of dwelling after dwelling, these lovely offerings abound in the most natural manner. They represent a sense of daily celebration, a nod to sacred life as the sun kisses the earth every morning.

Real or imagined, when every day becomes Christmas - or an offering to life divine - we will have arrived.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Sugar Time

I have a new refrain for the holiday season, sung to the melody "Summertime" from the wonderful Porgy and Bess musical.

The lyrics go like this:

Sugar time and the eating is greasy, 
Sugar time and the glucose is high, 
Oh your tummy's fat, and the cal'ries come easy, 
So eat, big ol' mama, do-n't you deny.

Come the new year, there may be cause for deep regret when previously comfortable clothing digs 
tightly into new folds of flesh. But in the best tradition of short-sighted decision making, let's eat, drink, and be merry and deal with the now of tomorrow when it arrives. 

And when that moment arises, one can only bemoan the feeding frenzy of the holiday season and proclaim, "Why did I put off until next month what I could have done last month?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Hot Beef Injection

Most moviegoers know the line, "Make my day," uttered by actor Clint Eastwood playing the character of Dirty Harry - although people often confuse the real person with the fictional guy. However, it was such a popular and endearing phrase that Mr. Eastwood repeated it in his speech at the Republican convention in support of Mitt Romney. Isn't it sweet to make people feel like kids again, in the good old days when "make my day" was cool?

A less known phrase, but one oft repeated by teenagers in the late 1980's, derives from the classic movie The Breakfast Club. The bad boy asks the prissy and virginal prom queen, "Hasn't anyone slipped you the hot beef injection?"

Redolent of hot dogs or cows being slaughtered, nonetheless this catchy sentence became the rage - until it wasn't. Naughty humor aside, these fictional high school students have real life troubles, and ask questions which many can relate to, having once been hormonally challenged under-twenty-somethings.

The beauty of this movie, made an entire generation back, is the portrayal of timeless emotions. Insecure human beings wallow in the story of who they are, break down when trust becomes a shared experience, and repressed pain, vulnerability, and a desire to love and be loved spills forth.The operative word here: shared experience.

Who are we without others reflecting back to us an identity? Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest one of all? Those mirrors are alternately pleasing, frustrating, or baffling as embodied in the illusion of "the other."

When we connect from an honest place in the heart, a magical force seems to unite us together in a hug of warmth. And then the mirror reflects back to all in the circle, "You are loved." And we are content.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Big Red One

NORAD is a branch of the US and Canadian military that protects the North American skies with supersonic jets and sophisticated radar systems. On Christmas Eve day, top brass of this agency announced on TV that they were guarding Santa's mission as he traversed skies the world over. A tradition since 1958, a top General reassured children via mass media that Santa Claus was spotted over the Maldives, soon to cruise over India. If one knows global time zones, this means that he would be in Southern California right after midnight in the wee hours of December 25th. His mission will have been completed thanks to the protection of the United States military.

As one of the news commentators remarked, "It's kind of sad that Santa Claus needs to have jets scrambled for his safety."

The General, apparently up to date on Dr. Seuss and Hollywood blockbusters, retorted, "We want to make sure that the Grinch doesn't get him." (A nod to The Grinch that Stole Christmas in all media.)

AT&T commercials used to bring tears to my eyes as they depicted moms and daughters kvelning over each other at Christmas time, albeit over long distance phone lines; in recent years cynicism has replaced sentimentality. But on Christmas Eve day, when the five star commander in battle fatigues assured any young'uns watching that Santa Claus was safely traveling the globe to deliver goodies, a chill did run up and down my spine.

It's rare to encounter a military man of such rank talking with childlike innocence and earnest goodwill to wee ones glued to the television. That the message of the military could always be so sweet...

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Curious Case of Self-Preservation

Almost everyone knows the name of Nelson Mandela, the extraordinary South African freedom fighter who went from prisoner to president. Another prisoner of conscience, albeit one with less iconic stature, was granted clemency this week by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon of vast wealth, spent ten years in a Russian penitentiary for criticizing the authoritarian Putin publicly. Ill advised about the risks of speaking out, MK was whisked off his private jet by Russian authorities and sent straight away to the slammer with a stiff sentence. Ten years into the prime of his life, behind bars, he changed for the better.

While the intricacies of Russian politics elude anyone who is not an elite member of the Kremlin or a CIA agent, this particular man of dubious wealth made an interesting statement to the New York Times yesterday“When I crossed the threshold of prison...I understood this is for a long time. And then immediately quit smoking. If they are going to bury me, let them do it themselves, without my participation.”

The world may not need more oil tycoons, but this brand of optimism contains within it a marvelous hope for the future; a life-affirming act in the face of a real downer that might crush the spirit of a lesser man.

Thank you, Mr. Khodorkovsky, for proving that realization is possible under adverse conditions. This apparachik, turned wheeler-dealer billionaire, turned political prisoner, now thinks about the fate of less fortunates, abandoned behind bars in icy Russian lands. Sometimes, worst-case scenarios turn into blessings that speed a being along the evolutionary path. 

May we all rise to the challenges that come our way, turning obstacles into stepping stones.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Myths and Miracles

Around Christmas time, talk of miracles abound in Christian circles. According to the lore, Jesus Christ was born of virgin birth in a manger. But he wasn't the only wunderkind. Padmasambhava, the Indian saint who brought Buddhism to Tibet, was said to have be born from a lotus in the middle of a lake. These saviors constitute only two of a multitude of heroes (mythic or otherwise) said to have been born not from the egg and sperm of human beings but from a sacred power.

If one does a little research, it is actually astonishing how many cultures have similar heroes who come to save mankind, born of the gods, or from one God, or through self-manifestation. This plethora of eerily similar myths, codified as real scripture in different times and places, can be viewed in several ways.

Theory number one. Mankind has a collective memory that brings forth parables with culture-specific details in an attempt to humanize the source of all beingness; a way of anthropomorphizing an ineffable universal force. A process not unlike the development of language, alphabets may vary but the intent of language and the capacity for humans to learn language is identical in all societies. And so it is with religion. People perceive something very special occurring in their world and then weave that mysterious power into a mythology of their own making.

Theory number two. The residents of planet earth have a strong need to invent stories to make life bearable and orderly amongst chaos. This too smacks of universality, as tales of saviors born from the non-physical are too similar to be co-incidental. Homo sapiens must need reassurance that they are not left to their own egocentric devices and that a power greater than themselves will save them from their own stupidity and short-sightedness.

Theory number three. I have no clue why irrational stories generate unflinching belief by billions of people worldwide. That being said, I have seen the inexplicable with my own eyes, i.e. physical healings that no doctor could ever ever ever explain. Cancer, malaria, deafness, severe colon problems, mental illness, all gone within the twinkling of an eye at the hands of a person who applies a non-physical technique. What we call "miracles" do occur in the time/space continuum and they happen to ordinary people at the hands of many different healers, enlightened or otherwise. 

Given the above, it would be unwise to blindly follow the words of any scripture unilaterally. The new Catholic Pope recently stated that some aspects of the Bible refer to archaic cultural norms not relevant in the 21st century. The Dalai Lama has told his followers to look upon Buddhist scripture with a critical eye when it comes to cultural norms of the past that were laid into holy texts as dictates.

Wars fought over whose god is the best god become ridiculous when the evidence is examined. So amen and peace to all peoples with their multitudes of gods and goddesses -  or a simple belief in the large capacity the human heart. As Rodney King once said, "Can't we all just get along?"

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Prenatal Profile

Many couples expecting a baby say that they don't want to know the sex before the baby emerges from the womb. They want to be surprised.

Based observations made by prenatal psychologists (yes, they do exist), babies don't just emerge and then suddenly develop a unique identity based on its sex. They have conscious awareness far earlier in utero, exhibiting behaviors that indicate personal characteristics. Whether on the interior or the outside world, they are already beings with either XX or XY chromosomes that will determine many factors down the road, due to their hard drive content and subsequent software downloads.

But maybe not knowing the sex of one's child could be a good thing as their little cells multiply fed by mom's umbilical chord. Afterall, how many children are subjected to gender-based profiling from the moment they are born? Blue for boys, pink for girls. Cars, trucks, and balls for boys; dolls, play houses and little fake grocery items for the tiny play kitchen for girls.

And then on the opposite side of the spectrum, the uber hip parents - dad leaning over mom's swelled belly at bedtime, reading a book to the unborn with a beatific smile on his face; or mom making sure that the surround sound in her Mercedes is tuned to Mozart, shunning heavy metal and rap. No girl child of hers will be called "bitch" prematurely and no boy child will model that rude behavior. (Later for that.)

Whether or not one practises good mental hygiene with their yet-to-be-born but growing fetus, one thing is for certain. That child's entire cellular system is being laid down second by second in the mother's body, and what she thinks and feels definitely gets encoded into the building blocks of the developing life.

In certain ancient cultures, pregnant women walked around with masks; should an evil sight present itself, they could shield themselves lest the being in their womb get the negative fallout. Maybe they were intuiting something vital, those pre-modern prenatal psychologists.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Lady Luck

Thank goodness for people who clean up old papers. A man stashed his lottery tickets in an unused cookie jar in the kitchen. When his wife got fed up with the clutter and threatened to throw them away, he reluctantly decided to check the numbers. It turns out that he had won ten million dollars in a drawing three months prior - not too late to claim the pot.

And then the guy in Florida who won the lottery twice, each time for millions of dollars. He definitely was on top of his number checking.

I have never heard of a multi-millionaire winning the lottery, except for the guy who won it twice but he doesn't count. Is this because only people with a dim financial outlook beg Lady Luck to save them from poverty? And what kind of karma must one have accrued to not only buy a ticket but check it and find out that it is the one! 

Buddhist scriptures claim that attaining human birth is rare, and that thousands of souls vie for that enviable event. Above and beyond that is precious human birth, when one discovers the dharma (truth) and learns how to behave in a civilized, loving manner.

Since anyone reading this blog has a human body (gorillas have yet to read written English), then logic says that we have all won the big lottery in the sky because we are here, embodied in form. In the cosmic scheme of things, we truly are the big winners, lottery bonanza or not.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Don't Put Off Until Tomorrow What You Can Do Today

"Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today" is one of the commandments of a popular guru. It may seem like a rather mundane directive considering the Ten Commandments, but think about it. If we didn't put off anything, and acted upon every "to do" list we had, or materialized an invention in the back of our brain, a mighty lot could be accomplished in this life - including more leisure and less anxiety and guilt.

The most frustrating examples of a loss, for people who put things off, are the lottery winners who never knew that they had won. Over half a billion dollars in lottery wins went unclaimed in the US last year. Maybe it's good that the people who got lazy about checking their numbers don't know what they are missing. Like the stockbrokers in the crash of 1929, people might start jumping out of high rise windows after knowing a better life (in terms of material comfort) was squandered, simply by not taking care of business.

My father never approved of my spiritual life, especially the fact that I had a guru (which means "dispeller of darkness, revealer of light"). He felt that my teacher supplanted his role as the supreme patriarch, an oddly egotistical position considering that he championed women's rights and civil rights quite vocally.

He once said, "Carole, I could never understand why such a smart girl like you would think that 'never put off until tomorrow what you can do today' is so brilliant. Everyone knows that."

Well dad, the truth is hidden in plain view, but sometimes us humans just overlook the most obvious things in life. Like telling each other how much we appreciate being alive together. And let's face it. If you just lost out on millions of dollars because of inattention, you better get hip to the love in your life for your own sanity. In the end, that's the richest boon of all and the only one that counts anyway.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Tis the Season

My automatic coffee machine grinds whole coffee beans that percolates hot black joe directly into any size cup or carafe. But, a fine sediment of the crushed bean always remains in the bottom of said containers. 

Those undesirable dregs remind me of depression; no matter what perky process one undergoes to make life more meaningful and fulfilling, sediment forms underneath the full-to-the-brim surface that leaves a muddy, sluggish feeling at the bottom of the psyche.

Many people experience depression at one time or another, due to an unexpected negative event or an expectation unmet. And then there are people for whom life has been so consistently traumatic, or whose genetic makeup threw them an extra dose of downer genes, that an underlying depression keeps up a steady monotonous drone.

A person in the dregs of depression has an external affect that can resemble laziness, apathy, dullness, lethargy, tears, blankness, sleeplessness, oversleeping, and a bunch of other unappealing behaviors. Or, the black inner space is concealed behind a stoic mask or pretend smile.

Those who have never experienced this silent tornado have a hard time understanding what keeps a person from simply picking themselves up and dusting off the debris. Those who know depression have more sympathy for the afflicted, as this state literally effects brain chemistry. And when a toxin is flowing through the neuronal system, positive thinking doesn't cut it.

This is a season when depression seems to strike the many. Ironically, despite the aphorism "'tis the season to be merry," it triggers old patterns of family dysfunction - or throws up a mirror to our disjointed self as the rest of life seems to be celebrating something special.

The only positive thing about seasonal depression is that season's change, and the darkest day of the year, December 21st, will quickly pass into ever lengthening light.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Life Expectancy

On planet earth, life expectancy ranges from a high of 86 years in Japan to a low of 46 years in Sierra Leone. Poverty, with its unfortunate companions of hunger, poor nutrition, tainted water, and lack of medical care, are major contributing causes in many African countries. In the USA, that average age is considered young; many in their forties still resemble youthful thirty-somethings.

Longevity in Japan is more mysterious; having been massively radiated twice in WWII and with the Fukushima disaster, Japan's exposure to nuclear fallout might have caused a dent in this stellar number, but apparently not.

The word "expectancy" raises an interesting question. Living in Los Angeles, one would "expect" to live well into old age barring an incurable fatal illness or accident. Thus, one of the luxuries of First World natives are considerations such as long term care insurance and the choice of old age facilities.

With the reality of life expectancy so vastly different from place to place, it makes one wonder: does a cultural perception differ if everyone in that society lives into their forties versus their eighties? Is it normal for a Sierra Leonian to feel justified that they have lived out their time without feeling that it is premature, compared to the Japanese? Do they wonder what life would be like if they could double their time on planet earth?


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The WiFi Fry

From The Daily Digg by Sarah Weber
"The WiFi fry" is not only a tongue twister - you could try repeating it rapidly twenty times and see how it scrambles your tongue -- it also might be scrambling your brain.

In an experiment done by Danish school girls, they placed two plates of little green thingies in separate locations; one plate near the sun and fresh air, the other next to a wireless router. The plate on the right demonstrates healthy little sprouts enjoying their life, while the plate on the left shows the shriveled remains of a once vibrant group of veggies. (Obviously the fried greens were next to the WiFi router.)

Apparently the experiment was done under properly controlled scientific standards that won these school girls a national prize in Denmark, where humane government policies seem to exist.

With the plethora of WiFi gizmos in our world, from TV remotes to cell phones to powerful towers transmitting the juice to run these things - how much can our electromagnetic brain waves endure?

Maybe that explains the wave of mass murders by suburban young white males, who spend their days looking at computer screens maneuvering video games. Or the horrific spike in autism, thousands of times more prevalent than 50 years ago.

As for me, I have been sitting next to my WiFi router for about a year now. Maybe that explains why my car keys and purse disappear into thin air in my house, or why I couldn't find my iPad with its bright red case that was sitting in plain view on the kitchen counter.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Repetition Reaps Rewards

I was talking to a friend about her labile moods; a wise and kind woman with deep insight into human behavior, nonetheless she expresses sudden bursts of anger, bitterness and tears of rage at times. She also feels energy with great sensitivity and can be drawn to high frequency, sacred spots naturally and easily.

We discussed the stormy aspects of her emotional landscape and their impact on her overall state of well-being, not to speak of the recipients of this negative force field. Having used meditation and the basic tenets of Buddhist philosophy for decades, I know that one must have tools and use them consistently in order to steer the ship on stormy seas.

I said, "You need to meditate, or at least listen to guided visualizations, read books that inspire, do something to break the cycle of negative thinking."

She said, "I tried all that. It works for one minute and then I'm upset again."

Me: "Have you tried it consistently?"

Silence. After a bit she answered, "No."

And therein lies the problem. One cannot simply take a shot of meditation every so often and expect transformation. The only way to experience a true shift in the zeitgeist called your life is to develop a habit. Daily. Twice daily. As much as required for you to notice a change in thinking, acting, and being for the better.

Thoughts are literally electromagnetic impulses, and these little bundles of power are always charging us up, for better or for worse depending on how they are directed. The electrical generator called the brain begets powerful results but only if it is trained. Otherwise, it runs amok.

Just as the body needs exercise and good food to stay fit, so too does our mind. Developing the habit of meditative awareness brings about a definitive change in the nature of being. And who doesn't want equanimity and peace in their lives?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Funeral Party

Nelson Mandela's body traveled to his home village in the deep country, his remains encased in a flag-draped coffin barely visible through the sleek Mercedes with thick armored glass. South Africans that traveled great distances to catch a glimpse were thwarted by heavy security blocking the route; an ironic game plan for this man of the people.

When John F. Kennedy died from an assassin's bullet, his funeral took on a very different tone. His widow and other dignitaries walked through the streets of the Capitol behind a horse-drawn cart carrying the President's body. In JFK's hour of death, his funeral decor harkened back to the days when a revolution freed the country from a foreign king's greedy rule. This simplicity evoked a message, even if the military-industrial complex failed to take note.

Mandela's funeral also sent a message. The man who stood up to honor a maid because she was a lady - in the midst of a conference with heads of state - sent a powerful message straight from a golden heart. Had Mandela passed away with the clarity of mind to dictate his funeral, it might have looked very different. And cost the taxpayers of his country much less.

As South Africa moves on with Jacob Zuma at the helm - the man who spent $20,000,000 government dollars on his private house renovation (yes!) - the legacy of Mandela will continue to fall by the wayside. The best hope for this country lies in peaceful elections, fruitful dialogue and people of conscience to step in.

South Africa is not the only country still in the throes of childbirth. Planet earth is also undergoing a difficult passage. Do we allow our governments to run away with the goose that lays the golden egg, to slaughter her for immediate gratification? Or do we nurture her so that she continues to give forth sustenance for the many?

All of us must decide, and after making that decision take an action. Large or small, every drop in the ocean contributes to its body.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Axe the Gun Slingers

The line used by the National Rifle Association to justify the easy availability of guns in USA: it is not guns that kill, it's people who kill.

From one perspective, that fact is self-evident. For example, in Iceland there are two guns in every household, yet only one murder last year. The Swiss are armed to the teeth with very few murders, and Canadians have more guns per household than Americans, with a very low murder-by-gun rate.

The above facts don't bode well for the American mindset; it means that a lot of whacko people obtain access to guns that don't hold life in the same esteem as other heavily armed countries.

On the flip side of the coin, very few deaths by gun occur in Japan because almost no one can get a permit to possess one. The red tape and bureaucracy to obtain a weapon may boggle the mind, but in fact make perfect sense. The individual wishing to purchase a firearm is subjected to intensive psychiatric evaluation, community surveillance, hefty licensing fees and other measures to insure the stability and civic mindedness of the gun owner. And, all the above permissions expire after one year, forcing the gun owner to go through above said regulations in a groundhog day ritual.

All things considered, one can only conclude that the policy for gun control in America should follow the Japanese model. Just as one wouldn't put a gun in a child's hands, apparently one shouldn't put a gun in the hands of most gun owners in the good ol' America of Wild West fame.

The right to bear arms was granted by the Constitution shortly after the American Revolution, when it was a good thing for the population to be armed. After all, the British tried once more to gain control of their former American colony, getting as far as Washington D.C. and burning down the White House and other government facilities in the War of 1812.

But in 2013, the invader comes not from the outside but from within. With an unseen pressure causing our citizens to axe each other at alarming rates, let's go Japanese -- not just in our sushi addictions but in their policies of gun ownership as well.

Friday, December 13, 2013

How to Grow A Brain

Some of the more popular western religions view meditation as a new age, brown rice, crunchy granola activity. The designated priest, minister, rabbi or imam provides the conduit to a connection with the Almighty while the faithful rely on personal prayer to get by inbetween sermons. Meditation only gets the official stamp of approval as a bona fide activity in a small cluster of orders, such as the Benedictines.

Of course prayer can be powerful because of its acutely focused intention. And with everything else under the sun, when motivation and concentration form a holy union, they become an unstoppable team.

Although the vast majority of Americans consider themselves religious, the second religion of the overfed public is the multi-billion dollar fitness industry. But with all the emphasis on the body beautiful, the mind has been left in the dust. And this is where meditation enters stage right as the perfect bridge between the Saturday or Sunday tip to religion and the rest of the week where fitness and other less than holy activities occur.

Although not understood completely, neuroscientists do know that the brain contains areas of specialization: some handle logic, while the forté of other gray squiggles might be intuition, creativity, inspiration, memory, fight or flight, and so forth.

With age, the brain shrinks and so all the goodies it provides the young and healthy tend to diminish. How many 90 year olds have the fast reflexes or memory of a twenty-year old (leaving out the doped up younguns)? Answer: almost none.

But there is hope for us baby boomers who are entering the age of decrepitude. We can grow our brains in areas most desired, such as memory and equanimity - which we will need as aging parts start giving out and the Grand Mechanic In the Sky refuses to warranty them with replacements.

Meditation is the key to keeping the incredible shrinking brain from doing so. In a phenomenon called neuroplasticity, the idea goes something like this: use it or lose it.

So how does one grow clarity, awareness, peace, and sharp perception? Meditation, apparently, provides the key. By learning how to focus the mind with positive aspiration, the brain continues to grow, instead of shrivel in these wonderful areas. And the longer one meditates, the bigger the amount of wattage supplied to the brain for expansion. 

With the statistic that 45% of people by the age of 85 will have Alzheimers, it would be logical to rush posthaste for meditation instruction to insure a ride into old age with all the grace and smarts deserved for someone who survives the perils of life that long.

Whether one chooses a secular, westernized version of meditation, or gravitates to a more Eastern style format, the time has come for quiet contemplation.

And now, let's _________________________ for a moment.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Seeing Is Believing - Or Is It?

Yesterday I blogged about a bug that flew into the blazing fire pit at my home; a reflection upon his untimely death. That evening as I was making dinner, a black spot appeared in my peripheral vision. Whirling about to see what insect had ventured into my sacred indoor cooking area, I realized that it was not an external "thing" but something in my own eye.

Throughout the night, little black specs appeared in the three dimensional visionscape, but these black spots were not objective objects. Rather, something screwy is going on in my eyeball, deemed a floater by the vision doc. 

In the midst of dinner conversation with my family, an embarrassing thought popped into my conscious mind from the depths of neuronal hardware. Was it really a bug fly that flew into the fire or a black spot caused by some issue with my eye that I perceived to be an external reality?

The fable of the bug that flew into the fire has its own merits, as all fables do. And maybe a bug actually did fly into the fire. But the realization of a floaties-in-the-eye phenomenon introduced internal controversy: real bug or a non-existent bug disappearing into the flames?

Buddhist philosophers would say that a "real" bug and an "imagined" bug are both illusory, as both are begotten of a dream-like mind; waking events pass in the blink of an eye and vanish into our memory banks, to be interpreted and re-cast as we will them to be. All projection, from no start to no finish! 

Just as we dream of being chased by a bear and wake up with our hearts pounding and beads of sweat forming - all the while snug as a bug in our beds  - so it is with our version of the "real" world that is inextricably woven with the dream world. What I thought was a bug perishing in flames triggered an entire chain reaction of emotions in my psyche, as real as the black floaty that introduced itself later in the day.

Seeing is believing, but what we see is subjective, to say the least. Today my dish is humble pie.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Bug That Flew Into the Fire

One of the most basic tenets of Buddhism is impermanence. Another foundational principle is that all beings have a consciousness and as such should not be murdered. Even insects.

Despite the nippy 55º F weather, unusual for Southern California even in December, it seemed like a good day to light the fire pit in the backyard to contemplate nature, a cup of cafe au lait in hand.

A sense of serenity and gratitude descended upon me as the flames danced upward, albeit throwing off minimal heat as the source is a small gas jet. Apparently, the warmth didn't spread far enough afield for a fast-moving bug.

This little black supersonic invention of Mother Nature flew right into the edges of the flames' circumference and was incinerated so quickly that its little body disappeared into thin air; not even enough remains to fall on the stones of the fire pit. Who knew that certain insects are so highly flammable?

Although its incineration did not make me weep, something inside me did get a sharp jolt. This little creature was buzzing along, probably quite happy that there had been rain a few days before, which meant vast renewal of life. It didn't know as it traversed along its merry way that sudden death was its fate.

We say of humans who die instantaneously, "Thank god they didn't suffer too much." And in this case, my compassion does go out to this little being and the same sentiment applies to it-him-her.

The reminder of the day takes on yet more sad overtones as the memorial for Nelson Mandela commences in another time and place on the globe. Nothing lasts forever, and lest we forget, the bug that flew into the fire remains a vivid reminder of the frailty and beauty of life.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Born Into the Light

Many issues covered by the US media seem trivial - a fixation with car chases, murders, or celebrity-based scandals, as opposed to serious coverage of major world events. But one story about a small group of people struck a deep chord, even if it was not a critical analysis of global economic, political or environmental issues.

Midwives in the Cameroon countryside do not have electricity. As babies don't plan their entrance during daylight alone, those born at night come into the world by the glow of the midwife's cellphone. She works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but many women in her area die in childbirth because of zero health care tools such as light, sterilized equipment, running water - let alone an operating room for the emergency caesarian section.

An obstetrician from the United States traveled in the area and became aware of the plight of pregnant women in labor. Her husband, an inventor, designed a yellow plastic box that not only contains some basic equipment but also functions as a solar panel. With this boon with that arrives with the dimensions of an over-sized briefcase, the midwife and her compatriots in other poverty-stricken rural areas now have the most basic necessity: light so that they can see the precious cargo they are steering into the dawn of life.

Any mother who has given birth can relate to this precarious passage, during which time the intense suffering of the mother and the potential for fatal mishaps can kill both woman and child.

This magic yellow box is being reproduced as quickly as time and money will allow; at this juncture a few thousand have been donated throughout the region.

This simple and elegant design has made the difference between an agonizing death and a joyous event. And just one compassionate doctor and her science-prone husband made this difference.

Human beings can be so creative, kind and effective. Thank god for the magic yellow box and the inspired doctor. The world is a better place because they are here.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Meat, Ice Cream and War

During his 27 years prison tenure, Nelson Mandela could have easily died in a cold, damp cell, or have been "disappeared" by South African special forces. Instead, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu states of the infamous prison where Madiba stayed his course, "Robben Island was defeated by someone who could take everything it threw at him by melting courage into forgiveness, creating the gold of reconciliation.” 

The alchemy of this act takes a grace and understanding that lies deeper than the deepest part of the ocean. Contrast this pinnacle of human behavior with the jargon of military men, in this case the United States army.

Meat Eater - a particularly disgusting term referring to Special Forces soldiers whose mission focuses on a violent act of taking out the enemy (a.k.a. someone's son or daughter), as opposed to armed forces with a mission to promote stability and training. Note: the meat eaters are also born of parents who probably never imagined that their cute little ones would become government sanctioned killers.

Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone - military propaganda or political doctrines that produces misleading statistics to justify an action. For example, a boastful piece of press will talk of the amount of weapons seized in a tribal village in Afghanistan, while the real result was the death of villagers. Net result: nothing to brag about and hardly a victory because most people will take revenge and counterattack; thus the cycle of hatred perpetuated.

As one of my spiritual teachers once said, "Just because we all have human bodies, it doesn't mean that everyone is a human being."

Point well taken.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


According to new age pundits, the key to a successful life lies in the ability to visualize a goal, and then step into it.

Consider a study performed on pro basketball players. One group practiced tossing balls into the hoop for an hour. The other group did the on-court boogey for thirty minutes and spent the other thirty on their backs (by choice) visualizing the ball swooshing through the net. Then they went into action; the ones who had imagined that coveted swoosh scored better than the ones who practiced trying to swoosh it. Apparently, imagination can be harnessed to powerfully influence an outcome.

At the other end of the spectrum, a celebrity with serious depression remarked famously about his illness, "There is a magic wand across the room that can grant your every wish, but you can't be bothered to get up and get it."

This leads to an interesting puzzle. Why can some people see a bright picture on the horizon and move towards it by leaps and bounds, while others defy the logic of such positive action, sinking deeper and deeper into a paralyzing malaise?

The pharmaceutical industry has tried its best to remedy this conundrum with drugs of all types to sway the mood from black to bright. Millions of people and even their dogs are on Prozac. (Yes, dogs in America are prescribed that famous anti-depressant with regularity and do tend to bite their owners less often once dosed properly.)

A throw of the genetic dice probably explains the propensity for some to have a more cheery disposition than others, but nonetheless, the key to the kingdom lies in one's perception.
Every man-made item we see around us was born in the mind first; even our atmosphere now responds to mankind's creations in the form of global warming.

What we imagine gives rise to all sorts of phenomena, so it behooves us to think carefully lest our jumble of ideas leads to self-fulfilling prophesies. As ever-so-clever human beings, perhaps our species could do a collective vision quest.

In the words of John Lennon, bard of the 20th century:

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Failure is Feedback

A quote by Nelson Mandela, frequently broadcast on the days following his passing: "Judge me not for my successes but by how many times I fell down and got up again."

Thomas Edison, Louis Pasteur and many others would agree with this sentiment - as well as every wee child who wants to learn how to walk.

In the age of instant gratification, this law of evolution bedevils the young and the restless weaned on MTV and video games. Hardly auspicious for the long arc of career development and penetrating expertise.

But it is not just our youngun's who exhibit such traits. A few years ago, the Dalai Lama rebuked his American audience. The gist of his remarks centered around his students'
desire for instant enlightenment and blissful freedom from neurosis. That it might take years of disciplined practice to master the mind, to develop true compassion and wisdom, was frustrating to people weaned on fast food and fiber optic networks. Apparently, His Holiness had gotten an earful of western whiners and saw fit to set us straight.

So the watchwords for today are patience and perseverance. Even if our dreams don't come true, we will have been happier living out our time on earth with these virtues!


Friday, December 6, 2013

Madiba's Magic

A great soul has passed on. The world will always remember Nelson Mandela as a man who brought an end to apartheid peacefully, when no one believed it could be done. From prisoner to president, he will remain an inspiration to all cultures and all nations around the world. The impossible is possible.

In 2009, my husband and I filmed a documentary titled Reconciliation: Mandela's Miracle. It is not we who coined the phrase but the South Africans themselves. After 300 years of vicious oppression, the black and colored people of that nation were able to let go of generational torment to allow peace to prevail.

We filmed on Robben Island, where Mandela had been held captive for 27 years. The cell where his transformation occurred, from armed terrorist to consummate mediator and peacemaker, was the last stop on our shoot. As the location was being filmed, a Robben Island guide hurried into the area to inform us that the ferry taking us back to the mainland was leaving earlier than expected.

Our crew wrapped up quickly and began hoofing their heavy gear back to the dock. The guide, who was an aspiring producer, offered to help the crew. He handed me the keys to the prison cell where Mandela had lived for several decades and hurried off to help carry bulky camera gear.

There I stood, alone in the jail that was once a house of horrors, now a museum that maintained the cells as they were when Mandela and his compatriots were confined. A pervasive, eery silence permeated the atmosphere. I wondered what karma brought me to this moment, standing alone in front of Madiba's cell, holding the keys to his steel cage. As the moment burned into my brain, a ray of light shot through the window, beaming dead center onto the spot where Mandela must have endured through all those years.

It was only sunlight breaking through the clouds, but somehow those rays illuminating Mandela's cell seemed to come from a divine source. That little cell radiated a sacred energy befitting the man who had graced its cement floor. 

And lest the world forget Madiba's magic, he had one last gesture. At the world premiere of a feature film on his life, attended by his daughter-ambassadors and the British royal family, news was delivered while the film in progress: he had just passed.

Mandela's spirit soared into the Light as his legacy was brought to the masses through the light of a projector.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Crazy Juice

Dreams have intrigued waking man for centuries upon centuries. The "science" of dream interpretation boasts various schools of thought, and philosopher-artists have produced numerous works related to the significance of dreams.

Shamanic traditions hold the dream state in high esteem, its lightness of being a window into other dimensions. The art of lucid dreaming proclaims an unbroken continuum of consciousness between the waking and sleeping state and can be taught to an adept. And last but not least, mediums claim that the spirits of the dead come most easily to us in dreams, when the heavy veil of physicality is lifted. 

For that matter, approximately one third of our lives pass us by in slumber, not an insignificant statistic by any measure. (Make it 1/8th for insomniacs.) So it behooves us to take at least minimal interest in this phenomenon.

As for me, formal dream analysis never captured my imagination or piqued my curiosity. Dreams seem too magical to be interpreted with the logic of the waking state; they have a life of their own that reflects a reality back to us through a hall of uniquely designed mirrors. 

In that spirit, I would like to relate my most unusual dreams of late. I have been visited by George Harrison, Bill Clinton, Carlos Santana, Hillary Clinton (with Bill in tow) and Clint Eastwood - all within a ten day period. Virtually every other night, an icon of our era has conversed with me as if he or she were a confidant and regular every day friend. No Chagall fantasy landscapes or superhuman acts of flying or walking on water took these dreams into a land of altered space and time.

Normally, my dreams take place in public spaces with lots of people not known to me in waking hours. So this series of intimate conversations was not only out of the ordinary; upon awaking it felt like I actually was with these people.

Which leads to the best line of conversation I had in the dreamtime. I was sitting with Mr. Eastwood in his office and related how I almost died from chemotherapy treatment. He nodded and communicated that he too had had a near miss of some kind, but survived. He then smiled gleefully and said, "Crazy juice."

Need I say more?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Feel Your Way

A woman with thirty years of marriage under her belt and five children to her credit got a big shock one day. Her husband ran off with their attractive and much younger accountant. Although this story is not unique, this abandoned wife had a highly interesting perspective.

She said, "Gabe was a difficult man, but we never gave him feedback about his behavior when he berated us - for what he thought was our own good. Maybe if we told him how it made us feel he would have changed. We denied him the opportunity to grow because he never knew."

Her insight struck a deep chord. How many of us silently react to the actions and words of another without letting him know his impact? Smoldering inside with a smile on one's face, or hurting inside but pretending you've deflected harsh word/acts, won't go very far in helping the aggressor to know his impact. And if he doesn't get a light shone on the results of his behavior, everyone is left in the dark to keep wandering down the road of disharmony.

Even psychopaths and sociopaths could probably gain some empathy if they were consistently confronted with the suffering they inflicted on one or more human hearts. But for the moment let's consider the average person, although no such thing exists. Most people want to get along, to be happy, to lead a peaceful life. But a Gordian Knot of past experiences, learned behavior, and ignorance of skillful communication lead to breakups, fights, and damaging imprints on the psyche.

If our universal person dishing out the dirt could be honestly told, "When you scream at me, I feel like I want to die it hurts so bad," it gives that perpetrator the opportunity to think about what they are doing. But if one cries and hides, or calls the other person some nasty names, a cycle of emotional violence continues. It's about telling the other how you feel and not telling them what an asshole they are. 

Try this method some time. Express how someone's behavior makes you feel. It's not as easy as it seems. We are conditioned to fight fire with fire, to meet rage with counter rage. We are conditioned to hide our feelings because showing them would make us vulnerable. But when we do let the other know that their actions have hurt us, without hurling back accusations and judgments, the possibility of an amazing transformation just might become a reality.

As with all things in the learning curve of life, repetition probably yields the best results. Firstly, most of us are not used to expressing our feelings although expressing our thoughts roll off our tongue like a carnivore's saliva when contemplating a steak on the barbie. 

But with practice comes results. The more we acclimate to telling others how their behavior makes us feel instead of counter-attacking or dying inside, the better the chance of positive evolution.

Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye make the whole world blind." So next time someone tries to take away your sight, give back insight. It just might work.

Between the Frying Pan and the Fire

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