Smartphones, Tools or Traps?

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The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Distractions to giving our full attention to others have existed since time immemorial.  In the prehistoric era, I can picture a cavewoman having an engaging conversation with her caveman husband.  The discussion was going well until he became entranced by the sight of a saber-tooth tiger having a fight with a woolly mammoth outside their cave. Frustrated by his lack of attentiveness, she booted him out of the cave, only to discover the next morning that the saber-tooth tiger had decided her husband was a much tastier meal than the woolly mammoth  Or, picture in ancient Egypt, when Mark Antony wanted to chat with Cleopatra about their problem-child daughter, Cleopatra Selene, who had been flirting with the next door neighbor’s son.  While Mark was tearfully baring his heart and soul, he abruptly realized that Cleopatra was staring through the open window at an attractive slave boy working in the garden. Angry, and seriously thinking about strangling his Egyptian lover, he yells “Stercore!” – Latin for “Shit!”- threw his goblet of wine against the wall and stalked out of the room. In more recent times, while not nearly as dramatic as the scenes described above, the television has captivated many a man, who preferred to watch football games on their big-screen TVs rather than listen to the demands of wives or children.

The latest in our longstanding history of compelling distractions is not the saber-tooth tiger, the woolly mammoth, the sensuous slave boy or a football game, rather, it’s the smartphone.  One seems to be in everyone’s hands, and when I was in India last year, even among the poorest of the poor, many were chit-chatting on them nonstop.  Why is that?, one might  ask.  I believe that never has such a intoxicating and powerful technological instrument been so readily available to John Q. Public.  In the not-so-distant past, access to the wisdom of the universe was limited to astrophysicists, nuclear scientists and highbrow, ivory tower intellectuals, who were willing to spend long hours digging through dusty tomes in the hidden recesses of a library. Now, anyone with a smartphone can search worldwide for information at a moment’s notice.

Besides the Internet, another fringe benefit is that a person can communicate with anyone, anytime.  Need to say hi to a friend?  Knock out a text.  Want to wish happy birthday to a sister who lives in Albania?  Make a quick call. There are no limits, no boundaries; the world is at one’s fingertips. Also, with a smartphone, the public has the rather amazing capability to keep in touch with all the latest happenings. A notification beep goes off whenever an email, tweet, or news flash is received.

And what about gaming and apps?  When someone is between appointments, what better way to kill time than to enjoy a comforting game of Solitaire or perhaps snoop around the local environs in search of a rare Pokemon?  Depending on one’s mood and inclination, maybe download some new apps and explore other games or programs?

One problem with this immediacy of information, communication and entertainment is its incredible allure.  When I hear that mesmerizing beep, it draws me to my smartphone much like a mythological Greek siren, and it takes all the will power I can muster to resist its magnetic call.  Most of us will drop whatever we are doing to discover what the meaning is of the captivating signal. What could the beep represent? Did I win the lottery?  Did the Oklahoma City Thunder win their last basketball game?  Did a tornado alert get issued for my area?  

What is the solution to this all-consuming madness?  I believe Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh would patiently inform us that the answer lies in mindfulness, and one should give full attention to whatever is happening in the present moment. While certainly there are times when multitasking is important, in most instances it’s best to keep the mind one-pointed.  To give few examples:  Driving a car?  Try to ignore the beep from the smartphone, especially if motoring on the interstate going seventy miles-per-hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Even a quick glance to discover the source of the beep could be risky business. Having lunch with friends? Unless one needs to be available for life-or-death emergencies, leave the smartphone in the car.  Close companions deserve one’s complete attention and nothing less. Taking a stroll outside?  Try putting the smartphone on silent, slip it into a pocket and quietly, introspectively, observe the surroundings.  One might hear a bird singing a lilting melody, see an ant scurrying by on the grass, enjoy a nod and wave from a stranger, and – one can only hope –  view an orange and black monarch butterfly majestically soaring into a deep, blue cloudless sky. One might be surprised at the beauty and interconnections that can be discovered, if only willing to observe them.

In my way of thinking, the goal should be for us to own our smartphones, and not let our smartphones own us.  While technology is an important aspect of our society and is to be valued, far more meaningful is our connectedness to humanity and nature. If Buddha walked among us, he would recommend the Middle Path, not being extreme in any one direction. As I ponder his wisdom, I realize that could also include the appropriate, measured use of smartphones.

So, if you had to pick one over the other, would you choose to see a smile or hear the latest events?

For me, it’s an easy call . . . I mean choice.



Is this love of mine blind sentiment
That sees not the pathways of reason?
Ah, no! I love India,
For there I learned first to love God
and all things beautiful.
Some teach to seize the fickle dewdrop, life,
Sliding down the lotus leaf of time;
Stubborn hopes are built
Around the gilded, brittle body-bubble.
But India taught me to love

– Paramahansa Yogananda, from “My India”

In March of this year, my wife, Sheridan, and I set out on a exploratory journey to India and Sri Lanka, in hope of gathering information for a sequel to my first book, “The Lhasa Trilogy.”  As far as India is concerned, though, planned events are never as they seem to be.  I had gone there in 1992 to seek out miracle workers, formerly described in my book, “Oklahoma Is Where I Live.”  As I suggested in that writing, spiritual saints were few and far between, but a true miracle occurred on my return home, when my rose-colored glasses were abruptly ripped from my face, and the illusions I had previously swallowed – hook, line, and sinker – disintegrated into the ethers, revealing the stark, shocking truth.  While extremely painful at the time, this newfound wisdom eventually transported me into a far better existence, and I will be forever grateful to India for being the catalyst that set the wheels in motion. But that was then, and I couldn’t help but wonder, What now?

Everything started innocently enough. After painstaking research and pondering carefully what I wanted to write about, we set our travel plans. First, we were to depart from Oklahoma City, eventually arriving in New Delhi.  From there, we would fly to Goa, where we would take a four hour drive over the mountains to Hubli. Then we would motor to Mundgod and visit my longtime friend, Gen Tsesum Tashi, an eighty-eight year old Tibetan monk. Next we would travel to the ancient Badami caves, followed by a flight to Agra to view the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal, and afterward to Aurangabad, to walk through the mystical Ellora and Ajanta caves.  Our last day in India would be in Mumbai, from where we would fly to Sri Lanka for the final leg of our tour.

While I could write a tome about our varied experiences in India, one precious, sacred event stands out in my mind, and that was the time spent with Gen Tsesum Tashi.  I began sponsoring him over twenty years ago when I attended a Tibetan fundraiser in Norman, Oklahoma, and picked his picture out from a stack of photographs of monks who needed patrons.  He was much older than the others, yet his gentle, kind features drew my attention to him. Since that time, I have supported him with a small, monthly donation, one that has provided for part of his basic needs. We have been pen pals over the years, and he contributed a great deal of information as I penned “The Lhasa Trilogy.” While I was looking forward to seeing him, I must confess I was a bit anxious about the meeting and wondered how things would go.

After leaving from Hubli that fateful morning, our driver zigzagged on a confusing route through the middle of nowhere in rural India, yet his efforts were rewarded as we finally found the residence of Gen Tsesum Tashi in the Tibetan colony, situated just outside of Mundgod. As we entered his small, cozy quarters, the first thing that struck me was his smile, radiant with love, reminding me much of the Dalai Lama. After introducing ourselves, I asked him, through the assistance of a translator, to tell us the story of his travels from Tibet.  He related that shortly after the Dalai Lama left Tibet, he exited his beloved country along with a small group of Tibetans. They traversed through the mountain passes into Bhutan, and en route they were bombed by Chinese planes. After many travails, they arrived at a refuge camp in northeast India, and eventually they relocated to Mundgod in the southern part, where he has lived since.

After presenting Gen Tsesum Tashi with some small gifts, I asked if we could meditate with him, and we agreed to sit for fifteen minutes.  I closed my eyes, focused on my breath, and after a bit glanced down at my watch. The prescribed time had passed, but my monk friend was still deep in meditation, eyes closed, fingers rhythmically moving his prayer beads, his head slowly rocking back and forth.  I went back into meditation, and fifteen more minutes passed, yet he remained immersed in his contemplation.  Once again I closed my eyes, and after a total of forty-five minutes, Gen Tsesum Tashi continued to be oblivious to the world. At that point, I glanced over at one of the other monks in attendance, who stood and walked over to gently arouse him.  When Gen Tsesum Tashi became conscious of his environment, once again there was that smile – that beaming, beautiful smile.  A short time later, as Sheridan and I were preparing to leave, he said to me, “I know I am an old man, but I hope that before I die, I will see you again.”  I replied, “Of course, I’d like to see you as well.”  We smiled, clasped hands, and as we bowed to each other, we accidentally bumped heads, bringing a chuckle to us both.  When Sheridan and I walked out of the door, tears formed in my eyes as I realized I was leaving the presence of an old, dear friend.  I wondered, Will I ever see him again? God only knows . . .

Now, as I look back, I realize that Gen Tsesum Tashi had spent much of his life devoted to his meditation practice, and his technique had become so finely tuned, he was effortlessly able to go into samadhi, a one-pointed state of consciousness where the stimuli of the world fade away. Samadhi is a state of mind all meditators aspire to – certainly I do – and to witness that ecstatic state firsthand was a blessing beyond measure.  For me, meeting Gen Tsesum Tashi was the unexpected and delightful What now? of my trip to India. While spiritual growth can oftentimes be painful, it doesn’t have to be.

So, what is India?   The best way I can describe it is a steamy, sweaty blend of poverty, spirituality, filth, beauty and challenges. India is a place of self-exploration, certainly not for for the faint of heart or those seeking a light, easy adventure.  As I ponder India, a land of mystery and diversity, a kaleidoscope of images roll through my mind: Cattle wandering through busy city streets, acting as if they own the place – women adorned with beautiful saris, no matter the destitute conditions – copious, foul-smelling diarrhea – bright, loving, curious smiles – women slapping their laundry on rocks in polluted, murky green lakes – cell phones in nearly everyone’s hands – sweltering, penetrating heat – men urinating by the roadside – the stunning beauty of the Taj Mahal – wild monkeys pilfering handbags from terrified tourists – snorting black pigs rooting around through ubiquitous piles of rotting trash – pleading beggars holding their hands out – bathrooms without toilet paper or sinks – tasty, spicy food that is guaranteed to make steam come out of your ears – friendly, loving, peaceful people – and so on. India is an enigma beyond description, a milieu unlike anywhere else in the world. Yet, underlying all the sticky, odorous morass is an inherent, ancient spirituality, bathed in glowing love, just waiting to be discovered.

The next time I’m ready to be tested, reconfigured and raised to the next level, I’d like to return. Like Paramahansa Yogananda, I love India, with all of the intensity and growth opportunities she offers.

Besides, I’ve got a Tibetan friend I’d like to see again.


A Flood of Memories

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With the recent passing of my mother, at least once a week I take my eighty-seven year old father out for lunch.  It’s a warm, happy time, as I get to spend one-on-one moments with him, something that rarely happened when my mother was alive. But times have changed, and while I greatly miss my mother, now is the time to focus on my dad, and I’m glad to spend moments with him, a man I admire more than any other.

Recently, as we were returning to his home after eating, I realized we were passing by my old stomping grounds, the area where I lived from second grade until my graduation from high school in 1970. Eleven years I resided there, and when the time for college came, I left my beloved home in southwest Oklahoma City for Stillwater and the orange and black of Oklahoma State University.  As hard as it is to comprehend, over forty-six years have passed since then. Where has the time gone?

Dad was agreeable for a little sashay into the past, much like Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future,” so we made a right turn into the neighborhood and after driving ten blocks, we arrived at 64th Street.  Another right turn and four houses later, our old digs came into view.  I was astonished to discover how small the red-brick home appeared. When I was a lad, it seemed much larger.  How did our family of five fit into such a tiny place?

When I stepped out of the car to take a picture, shown above, I was flooded with a kaleidoscope of memories, a collection of odd snippets that I couldn’t believe I still remembered.  I recalled when the neighbor to our east planted a mimosa tree, which grew into an overshadowing, lurking giant, and how my father and mother hated cleaning up the debris that it shed on our lawn. Through the chain link fence, I could see the infamous storm shelter, mentioned in “Oklahoma Is Where I Live,” the one constructed by my father, with the assistance of my uncle Dale, which leaked an ocean of murky water onto its floor. I remembered when my father planted multicolored ornamental pepper plants in the front flower beds, ones we were just supposed to admire, but we tried to eat them anyway, much to our fiery dismay.  And who could forget the time Dad lovingly bought a train set for us, which, when not in use, was kept raised up on pulleys in the garage?  I also looked back on the moments my brother and I were coerced into going to my sister Connie’s dance recitals and trying not to squirm in our seats. I recalled the ping pong matches my brother and I used to have, bitter games of high intensity that often led to angry disagreements, and the times my amazingly tolerant parents allowed us to invite our friends over on Friday nights for penny-ante poker, many of us smoking Swisher Sweets Cigars and trying to act like professional gamblers.

Of course, how could I not recall puppies – lots of them.  We had two fox terrier mixes, Snappy, the male – my first dog, and Mandy, the female – my brother’s dog – and they produced litter after litter of cute, wiggly puppies. One such litter is seen above, with me to the left of the photo, and my brother, Jim, to the right. Nothing in the known Universe is better than snuggling up to an adorable puppy, one that is bound and determined to lick you in the face.

Dad and I then decided to drive around and check out the old neighborhood. Again, powerful unbidden memories swept through my consciousness, wanting once again to be remembered. Across the street from our home was the residence of Charlie and Michael Babb, neighborhood chums my brother and I wrestled and played games of football and baseball with, occasionally breaking out windows when we were lucky enough to hit long fly balls.  My bud Marvin Turner’s home was just around the corner, and a block north was the home of Lisa Forrester, a young lady I had a longstanding, unrequited crush on. We drove past the houses of old friends George Hargraves, Patty Keller, Adena Shepherd, Sarah Thompson, Phil Calame, well, the list goes on and on, all bringing up warm feelings of bygone times.

After I returned Dad back to his home, more recollections flooded my mind, and this process went on for days, pulsing in and out of my awareness. As I basked in their glow, I realized that the feeling of love and connection that bathed and protected me as a young boy continued to surround me, even as an adult.  As I look deep inside myself, I realize how important it was that I felt safe, a blessing not every child had.  Not that I wasn’t exposed to neighborhood bullies and occasional cringe-worthy moments – I was – but overriding all of this was a feeling of security, love and the opportunity to morph into the person I would become.  As the twig is bent . . .

So, thank you, Mom and Dad, for finding a house in such a tightly-knit neighborhood and providing a loving home environment for me to grow up in. You gave me a firm foundation upon which I was able to eventually go to college, become a physician, raise three daughters and, finally, evolve into an author. Also, thank you, all my old friends, wherever you may be, for contributing memories I will cherish forever. And, most of all, thank you, God, for giving me the opportunity to live and breathe, and allowing me to appreciate the simple pleasures in life.

Such as being licked by a tail-wagging puppy.

Damn the Torpedoes

IMG_20160822_114544  “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’.”  – Erma Bombeck

Do you recall the days when you were young, and the world was at your fingertips?  Nothing, no nothing could get in your way, and any setbacks were only temporary.  Death was a distant reality, too far away to even think about. You effortlessly cavorted around your difficulties, much like a ballet dancer in perfect form. Nothing could stop you; you were Superboy or Supergirl, the strongest of the strong. You were untouchable and invincible, at least, that’s how it seemed in the Pollyanna days.

Then, with time, inevitable chinks began to appear in your shining, perfect armor. You might find yourself in a job that is less than satisfying. Your Cinderella marriage, one you planned to stay in for life, perhaps had significant problems or even failed. Health issues may start to appear, ones with no ready solutions.  Loved ones fall away – no maybe about this one – death claiming those most dear to you, and the grim specter of your upcoming death begins to look you directly in the eyes.  The stark realization occurs that, unless you are Elijah of biblical fame, there is no escaping your demise, and the only question is:  How bad will it be?  The “Golden Years” becomes a hollow jest, and with a start you realize the joke’s on you.  Pretty heavy, isn’t it?

With all this in mind, just recently I had my sixty-fourth birthday, and as I approach the Medicare and Social Security years, more than occasionally I think about the idealism of my youth, the hard lessons – growth experiences – that life provided me, and the inevitability of death.  It’s amazing, though not surprising, how your perspective changes as you grow older. That said, unlike many in Western society who prefer to avoid the whole idea of dying and moldering in the grave, I choose not to get too overly concerned about my eventual demise. Not that I wouldn’t profoundly miss the day-to-day relationships with those I love and the joys that life offers, certainly I would. But I don’t think of dying in a dark, morbid way, rather, I view it as a transition, a movement from one phase of existence into another.

When that fated time comes,  I don’t want to be as a bright-eyed, cherubic youth, untouched by the experiences of life. Rather, I prefer to be like the gnarled, dead tree pictured at the beginning of this article, one I discovered lying on the ground in the Wichita Mountains. As the tree, the scars inflicted on me would show that I tried to engage life and live it as fully as possible, perhaps frightened at times, and maybe even scared out of my mind, but overall, willing to take chances.

Chief Tecumseh once wisely said, “When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”

If you live your life fully – not perfectly, of course, no one can do that – your death can be peaceful.  You didn’t stand to the side while conflict swirled all around you.  You dove in headfirst, doing all you could to keep your head above the rising water, and to paraphrase Admiral David Farragut, you “damned the torpedoes and went full speed ahead.” You may have been badly wounded as a result of your involvement, but whether you win or lose the struggles of life isn’t as important as the fact that you engaged them as completely as possible.

Embrace your scars; you’ve earned them. And if you do just that, when the time comes for you to make The Great Transition, you can sing your death song proudly.

After all, you have every right to do so.

To My Mother

IMG_0970  My beloved mother has died, and up to this moment in time, every second I have been alive, she has been in the world. Tears stream from my eyes as the stark realization occurs that she no longer walks the Earth. Never again can I call and ask how she’s doing, no longer can I bring her a bag of palmiers, her favorite cookies, and no more am I able to share my latest happenings with her. She had been ill and had suffered greatly for a number of years, so her death was not unexpected. Yet, I am in a state of disbelief.  How can this be?

The Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “No birth, no death.”  In other words, we have always existed and always will.  Annihilation does not occur at death, only the moving out of manifestation. My Christian friends say death is a time for celebration and joy, since believers enter the heavenly spheres to be with Jesus. Somehow, though, in the present moment, all this spiritual rhetoric rings hollow to me.  It is head-centered and not balanced with the heart. The uncomfortable truth is:

Gone is the woman who went through labor for me.

Gone is the woman who changed my diapers, fed and cared for me when I was helpless.

Gone is the woman who rubbed Vicks VapoRub on my chest.

Gone is the woman who wiped tears from my eyes.

Gone is the woman who cried the first time I got on the bus to go to school.

Gone are sacred stories of my life, ones only she knew.

I lie down in my backyard and gaze up at the clear blue, morning sky.  White, wispy clouds hang high, and I watch as Mississippi Kites circle overhead and bumblebees buzz in and out of nearby bright-yellow squash blossoms. A canopy of blackjack oaks surrounds me, and the clean, warm air that brushes against my face is a harbinger for a piercingly-hot Oklahoma day. Everything seems the same, but it’s not. My universe is forever changed.

Now, as I think deeply about it, I am struck by the notion that the best way I can honor my mother is to live my life as fully and graciously as I can, demonstrating the love she so often shared with me.  I, and those she loved, will become her legacy, for in one hundred years or so, it is likely that no one on this Earth will remember her.  But the chain reaction of kind and loving acts that she set in motion will go on forever, and the world will be better for it.

If Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were here, they would sing to my mother:

Happy trails to you,
Until we meet again.
Happy trails to you,
Keep smiling until then.

Who cares about the clouds when we’re together?
Just sing a song, and bring the sunny weather.

Happy trails to you,
Until we meet again.

Bon voyage, my mother, adviser, confidante, wellspring of unconditional love and support. I love you, and I always will.

Happy trails . . .

The Bird Feeder

CardinalThere are very few things in life I enjoy more than watching a bird feeder.  Everything about the whole experience is unpredictable and meditative, and I find myself wondering: What kind of birds will I see today? Will I get a glimpse of a species that I’ve never identified before?

As I sit and gaze at the birds flying in and out, I imagine how great it would be to have the carefree existence of a bird. At first glance, one would believe that a bird’s life would be easy street. Think about it.  Their main duties are to soar and pirouette as high in the sky as they would like, eat from the abundant harvest of nature, and sing their song. That doesn’t sound too hard.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that other, more challenging obligations are required of our fine-feathered friends. After the singing, which draws the loving couple together much like Sonny and Cher, the natural urge for mating occurs, which eventually leads to little speckled eggs and the duties of parenthood.  Once hatched, mom stays home and watches after her squirming, demanding hatchlings, while dad forages in the wild to bring back food. How would you feel, if each time you returned to your humble twig abode, everyone was screaming at you, demanding something to eat?  I can almost hear the complaints: “I’m tired of worms; can’t you find something else for a change?  The ladybug looks too cute to eat.  Can I play with her? What are we having for dessert?” No rest for the bedraggled parents, who have no therapist they can go to for help, even though they are likely on the verge of complete insanity.

Besides, unless you made your nest as deep as the Mariana Trench, the possibility exists that while Junior is horseplaying with his brothers, Ollie and Waldo, he might lose his balance, fall out of the nest and be mortally wounded on the pavement below. To your dismay, when he actually does just that, in the blink of an eye he is pounced on by the neighborhood cat, Fuzzball, who had been sitting patiently at the foot of the tree, smacking her lips and waiting for this golden opportunity.  As you fly down in desperation, you discover that the wicked feline has her partially open, drooling mouth full of your mangled chick, who somehow is able to squeak out, “Daddy, please help me,”  just before he takes his last breath. How horrible is that?

What about the other predators you have to keep your eyes peeled for? Can you imagine watching helplessly as your shapely, unsuspecting cardinal wife, Edith, is grabbed kicking and screaming out of the air by a vicious hawk? You stare in horror as you see her struggle against the vise-like grip of his razor-sharp talons, red feathers flying every which way.  In moments, though, she goes limp, just before she is carried off into the deep blue sky, never to be seen again. Yikes!

And how could you feel safe at night, with owls marauding at will from tree to tree, hoping to find a plump, tasty bird for a nighttime snack?  Can you picture sitting in your wifeless nest – now that Edith is gone – with your two remaining chicks, peacefully watching the full moon rising over the horizon, when all of a sudden two glowing, dilated yellow eyes hover before you, scouring the area for prey?  You silently put your trembling wings over your nestling’s beaks and crouch down in the nest, praying to God that they don’t tweet or move a muscle. I shiver as I think about it.

As I emerge from my nightmarish daydream, I sigh in relief as I discover that I am no longer living a bird’s life.  I gaze up and see that the feeder is now flush with activity, and a red-bellied woodpecker, with his large orange cap, has just made an appearance.  Soon after he flies away, a blue jay lands on a perch and takes control of the feeder, while little chickadees flit in and out from the adjacent landing, trusting that they will be able to avoid his pecks.

Come to think of it, perhaps I can soar, pirouette . . . well, maybe not pirouette . . . eat heartily and sing my song, without being a bird.

Certainly seems safer that way, doesn’t it?


IMG_20160407_122930From The Lhasa Trilogy:

“Abraham,” Matt interrupted, “I feel . . . I feel so terribly guilty for the things I’ve done.”
“My son,” Abraham said, “guilt is a useful feeling; it makes you aware of a wrongful doing. There its purpose ends. When one feels guilt, one should try to correct the misdeed, and if unable to do so, ask forgiveness of the one you have wronged. If for some reason even that is not possible, direct your plea to God, and there your responsibility ends.”

Guilt is one of the most pervasive emotions in our society, and sometimes I wonder why.  Certainly, the roots for a number of us come from our childhood, as many parents, unfortunately, use guilt to manipulate their children.  I have a feeling that at least some of you have heard phases similar to these during your early years: “You’re a bad boy if you don’t study hard.” “If you don’t eat all of your food on the plate, you’re a bad girl. There are starving children all over the world who would love to trade places with you.” Ouch!

Besides, all of us have grab bags of situations where, in retrospect, we wish we would have made different decisions.  Certainly, I’ve had my share that have floated around in my psyche, ones that made me wince as I recalled them – much like being stung repeatedly by a swarm of angry hornets – no matter that the painful recollections are over and done with. As I have said before, understanding intellectually is completely different from understanding viscerally. So, what to do?

This past April, my wife Sheridan and I were in Sri Lanka, enjoying a vacation together while I was also gathering information for a sequel to The Lhasa Trilogy.  We spent several days in Tangalle on the southern coast, sitting on the beach pictured above, enjoying the warm, pleasant weather and the rhythmic, healing sound of waves crashing onto the beach.  Feeling relaxed and at peace, I breathed deeply and let the restorative energy of the sea wash through my consciousness. Fully embracing the moment, I mentally repeated:

“Breathing in, I feel the healing of the ocean bathing my heart and soul.  Breathing out, I am healed.”

After a while, something remarkable happened.  Inner pain that I had held within myself – for God knows how long – gradually began to dissipate.  I felt soothed and comforted, and, oddly enough, lighter, as if a millstone had been removed from around my neck.

The spiritual experience I had while in Sri Lanka can happen with any of us, and no beach is necessary. All you need is a place that feels comforting, whether it be in the garden, the woods, the desert, sitting before a picture of a saint, wherever.  Further required is a willingness to accept your humanness, realizing that no one gets it right all the time. I somehow suspect – as hard as it may be for some of you to believe – that even Jesus had moments when he fell short of perfection. Think he might have been grounded by Joseph and Mary for sneaking kisses from the girls at the synagogue? Or maybe for cheating on his final exam in carpentry? Or perhaps when he got caught in the wee hours drinking wine with his friends?

On a more serious note, you also must be ready to let the Divine ease your guilt away from you, dissolving it into the ethers, never to be seen or heard from again. However you choose to release it, it’s a worthwhile endeavor to do so.  If you’ve learned your lessons from previous missteps, guilt is no longer necessary – it’s of no use to you whatsoever.

When you have some quiet time, give it a try.  You might be surprised at how much better – and lighter – you feel.

You might even feel like a millstone is no longer around your neck.

Wind Chimes

IMG_20160611_093845  I love wind chimes.  Something about the random, unpredictable rhythm of gentle peals affects me in a positive way. Also, I am quite fond of the oscillating resonance of a Tibetan singing bowl. As I chime it, the varied, fluctuating tones are mystical, centering, and have a soothing effect, much like the soft crooning of a mother to her newborn infant.

When I think of absorbing settings, no doubt the master producer is nature, far superior to Cecil B. DeMille’s mammoth undertakings.  The cry of cicadas as nighttime begins to approach, tree frogs croaking their rhythmic tune, birds twittering their melody, along with the gurgling sound of moving water and the peaceful rustling of wind blowing through the trees – all are balms to my soul.  The sounds of nature are much like an orchestra, each contributing their own, unique musical notes to the symphony.  Put all together, they beat “The Ten Commandments” by a long shot, with Chuck Heston and his wild Moses hair leading the nation of Israel through the parting Red Sea.

Speaking of music, I continue to be amazed at how it affects me.  For example, when I hear a string quartet by Haydn, I find myself completely engrossed in the melody, and during some movements, especially the Largo of Opus 76, No. 5, I often well up with tears as I feel the deep emotion that Haydn so aptly portrays. When I hear the Finale of that same quartet, I find myself giggling like a little boy, amazed at the spontaneity and joy leaping from the creative genius of Haydn into my heart and head.

Some music, as I’m sure you’ll agree, has the opposite effect.  The repetitive drone of rap  – with its sometimes violent, disturbing lyrics – has a tendency to make me irritable.  Not that I listen to it intentionally, but sometimes it’s played in the background of wherever I am. At that point, once I’m aware of the real reason for my unsettled feeling, I sigh and either leave the area, or consciously shield it from my mind.  If the latter fails, a speedy exit is often the only answer.

Life, with its up and downs, often requires a retreat at the end of the day to heal from the wounds inflicted – intentionally or unintentionally – upon us. With my sometimes overpowering, frenzied work in emergency medicine, it’s completely necessary. For me, my sanctuary is sitting in the backyard, hearing the wind chimes toning gently in the background, the evening sun peeking through the trees, lightly kissing me with his warm, calming touch, and seeing the unconditional love in my dogs’ eyes as I pet their soft, furry heads. Usually, after a few, slow deep, centering breaths, I find balance returning once again.

Taking care of yourself and your needs is not selfish, rather, it’s a necessary part of allowing you to do your soul work, whatever that might be. In the meantime, I’m thinking of obtaining another set of wind chimes to put in my back yard.  Trust me, with the stressful work I do, I need all the help I can get.

Don’t we all?




IMG_20160614_101321  Two mornings ago, as I lay in bed, I woke to the symphonic reverberation of rolling thunder.  I turned from my side to my back, tucked my pillow under my head and enjoyed the cacophony of sounds as they echoed into the bedroom, my home rattling ever-so-slightly with each booming thunderclap.  I’m not sure why, but there’s something about thunderstorms that makes me feel alive and vibrant. Perhaps it’s the thrill of experiencing the uninhibited power of nature, or maybe it’s the edgy anticipation of how piercingly loud the next rumble might be.

Some years ago, when I was solo hiking in Canyonlands National Park in Utah, the baddest-of-the-bad high-desert thunderstorms crept up on me from behind, like a cloaked, silent stalker, evil on his mind.  Before I knew it, brilliant, scintillating streaks of lightning exploded all around – far too close for comfort – followed by torrential rain. Terrified beyond my wildest imagination and hoping not to be fried to a crisp – much like those cartoon characters whose skeletons are briefly lit up when they are electrocuted – I frantically surveyed the area and discovered a rock overhang, under which I took refuge. When the storm moved on, not only did I experience the soft, fragrant aroma of clean, negative ion-enriched air, I also felt a bit of sadness. While I was grateful to be alive, the excitement – the adrenaline rush – was over.

Speaking of the power of nature, I recall once when my wife Sheridan and I were visiting Tibet in 2008, gathering information for The Lhasa Trilogy. While we were exploring the capital city of Lhasa, a huge earthquake hit, violently shaking the city for a few moments. Once we got our wits about us, and were no longer afraid of seeing the earth open up before us and toppling into a gaping, miles-deep chasm, our guide informed us it was the belief of common folk that when an earthquake occurred, it signified the birth of a spiritual being, perhaps a high lama, into Tibet.  Given the brutal and repressive Chinese government currently in power, the Tibetans certainly need all the help they can get.

Now, as I sit and contemplate this notion, I realize our country has its own set of difficult, seemingly overwhelming issues, and the idea occurs that perhaps we would benefit from our own, unique American metaphor to the Tibetan earthquake.  I am keen on the concept that the lightning bolt, with all its visceral, untamed power, announces the birth, not of an advanced soul, but of fresh viewpoints, ones that have the potential to promote change for good.

Since that blustery morning those days ago, I’ve altered my way of thinking about thunderstorms, and the next time I hear one rumbling by, I’m going to imagine that the jolting thunder and lightning are doing their very best to shake me up and prod me into new understandings.  Deep within myself, I know: If I change how I think, I can change myself, and if I change myself, I can change our country, and even the world.  Probably not in grand ways, but more likely in small ones.  Remember what Mother Teresa once said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”  Amen.

Thunderstorm, anyone?