Are the French Really Rude?

July 16th, 2017

It seems whenever people discuss visiting France (whether or not they’ve been there themselves), the topic of French rudeness comes up.

 

“Aren’t the French rude?” other Americans ask me when I mention having been to France. Or, “The French are so rude!” they’ll tell me, if they’re more the telling sort of person.

 

Are the French rude? I don’t think so. But then, I’m an avowed Francophile.

 

I think it boils down to this: Americans believe their country is number one (Go USA!), and they’re absolutely stunned to discover that the French think and act like their country is the best. While Americans will admit that the French have great cuisine (French fries, French toast, etc.), invented some pretty nice things (French kissing comes to mind), and gave us the Statue of Liberty (thanks, Eiffel), there is no doubt to Americans that the USA rocks and no one else can compare. But, for whatever reason, the French aren’t convinced.

 

But, no matter who wins the argument over which country is better, in France, the French have the advantage. They speak the language.

It’s Been a Long, Long Time

June 21st, 2017
Colorful Lorikeet at the Pittsburgh National Aviary

Lorikeet. Pittsburgh National Aviary

It’s been a long, long time since my last post. Years!

 

So many thing have happened (or course), that I don’t even know where to begin. So, instead of reviewing the past, let’s instead look at the present, and the future.

 

It’s a beautiful summer day. Solstice, so it’s the first day of summer today. I can hear the birds singing their summer songs. There was a family of cats that turned up last week, but I haven’t seen them since the weekend. A mama cat and her five kittens. I was planning to buy a live trap to catch them and take them to a (no-kill) facility, but they haven’t been around since I got back on Sunday from my trip to Ikea. I wish them well.

 

I love Ikea, but not as much as before. It feels as if they’ve cheapened out, somehow. Which is weird, because it also seems their prices have increased rather steadily. I’m not sure why, but ever since they changed their store design a couple of years ago, it’s not as much fun to visit. And, the quality doesn’t seem too awesome anymore. Maybe I’m just spinning a tale of the “good old days”, or maybe I’m resistant to change, but I feel as if there must have been a significant management or vision change in the last several years, and I don’t really care for it.

 

Condor Grooming at the Pittsburgh National Aviary

Condor Grooming

My friend and I also went to the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. Wow, that was an experience! I hadn’t even known it existed, but my traveling companion loves birds, so we stopped by. We fed lorikeets (such colorful birds), watched as beautiful birds strutted right past us, admired the colorful and the plain feathered friends, and glimpsed condors and eagles.

Swimming Penguin at the Pittsburgh National Aviary

Swimming Penguin

The most fun were the penguins. You could crawl into a low room and then pop your head into a plastic enclosure to get a close look at  nearby penguins. My favorite, however, was watching them swim. They’re so graceful when they swim!

 

When you’re in Pittsburgh, I highly recommend the National Aviary.

On Boredom

February 24th, 2012

As I described in another post on boredom, when my brother and I used to complain to my mother we were bored, she’d cry out, “How can you be bored? There are so many things you can do!”

Now when my children complain of being bored, I tell them “Good”, because I have come to believe boredom is a good thing and an important ingredient of creativity.

It seems G.K. Chesterton agrees with me:

When the strong chord of monotony is stretched to its tightest, it breaks with the sound of a song.

unBoxing

January 26th, 2012

Apparently there’s a slew of videos posted on YouTube of people unwrapping their recent technology gadget purchase. This is called “unboxing”. An article I read said that it’s mainly a guy thing.

I learned about unboxing while reading about Microsoft’s internal spoof video of what iPod packaging would look like if they had designed it. (You can also see the video and read networkworld.com’s take on tech gadget packaging here.)

I bought an iPhone last fall, and I still have the box. I don’t usually keep boxes around–my grandmother was a young woman during the Depression, and one of the lingering frugality effects was that she always kept boxes.

Shelves of boxes. Closets of boxes. Boxes within boxes. All kinds of boxes. Big boxes. Little boxes. Long boxes. Short boxes. Tall boxes. So many boxen. (She also kept jars. Don’t get me started on jars!)

I think my grandmother filled the box-keeping quota for several generations. So, no boxes for me.

Except for the iPhone box. I like that one.

Which is silly, because… what am I going to do with that box? (Well, I could make it into a handy-dandy recipe box…)

Happy New Year!

January 21st, 2012

It’s that time again–the Year of the Dragon!

January 23, 2012 marks the end of the Year of the Rabbit and the beginning of the Year of the Dragon.

Here’s to a rip-roaring new year!

Happy New Year!

January 6th, 2012

It’s 2012!

Happy New Year to you!

May you enjoy a peaceful, prosperous, and exciting year!

What do you live for?

August 26th, 2011

Tree against a blue skyWhat do you live for?

I used to be able to answer that question without hesitation. Enlightenment, I’d say when asked what my life’s purpose was.

Now, not so much. It’s not that I don’t have the same answer, but rather that I pause, then answer “enlightenment” after I remember that’s what I used to say. And the reason I cast about for what I used to say is that no answer springs to mind as easily as it once did.

What happened?

A number of things, I suppose, starting with the realization that my approach to enlightenment had been formulaic: if I do so many good works, if I meditate so many hours, if I do the right combination of things, then enlightenment is bound to happen. I know, intellectually, that there are no easy answers, but it seems that spiritually I was still hoping for a to-do list of goodness.

I’d like to tell you that I grew wiser and realized the limitations of my approach to a spiritual life. But I’d be lying if I did. I actually got drop-kicked into this awareness.

I started practicing vipassana meditation in my early twenties. You attend a ten-day meditation retreat where you meditate for 10 1/2 hours each day while not talking for the entire time. After my first meditation retreat, I emerged much calmer, a little wiser, and convinced that I’d found my spiritual path.

My goal was to do a ten-day retreat every year, meditate every morning and evening, and practice lovingkindness. As far as I was concerned, I was on the fast track to enlightenment.

I didn’t follow my plan exactly. After a ten-day retreat, I’d usually meditate regularly for a couple of months, and then my meditation practice would peter out. I didn’t do a meditation retreat every year, but more like every other year. But I cobbled a practice together, as best I could.

In all, over a fourteen year period, I sat for seven meditation retreats. I believed going to them made me a better person, and I was looking forward to continuing the practice for the rest of my life.

Two years ago, I was applying to attend another ten-day retreat when I received an email asking me about one of the answers in my application. The question had to do with whether I practice Reiki. (Reiki is a healing modality. You can read more about it here and here.) Yes, I answered, I do practice Reiki.

“I am sorry,” came the reply, “you cannot come to the retreat if you practice Reiki.”

Reiki is a form of channeling energy that allows you to tap into the healing energy of the universe. With Reiki, a practitioner acts as a conduit for the energy to go from the general (the universe) to the specific (a particular person receiving the Reiki treatment). The idea is that when we are ill or injured, our energy is out of balance, and it is helpful to receive loving energy. Kind of like when you feel sad, it’s good to have a hug. When the body is ill or injured, healing energy can help.

The folks who run the meditation retreat have difficulty with Reiki because they say that practicing Reiki is manipulating energy, that the Reiki practitioner directs where the energy goes. The reason this is problematic is because the entire premise of vipassana meditation is to develop equanimity and non-attachment. You’re supposed to observe your reactions to stimulus and learn not to react. And, part of not reacting is not trying to change the condition you are experiencing. Therefore, a practice like Reiki, even with the best of intentions, runs counter to the whole purpose of the meditation retreat.

Unfortunately, I think they totally miss the boat with Reiki. Although I suppose one can try to direct Reiki energy to go here rather than there, it’s completely unnecessary. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, healing energy is drawn to where it is needed.

When I practice Reiki, my job is to focus on allowing myself to be a good receiver and transmitter of healing energy, not to make diagnostic or executive decisions about where that energy should go. For example, suppose you came to me for Reiki because your shoulder hurt, but let’s say, too, that you are very unhappy at the time because it’s the one-year anniversary of when your best friend died. The energy may well go to your shoulder, but chances are some of it will also go to your heart and heart chakra, because that’s where it’s also needed. I don’t even have to know about your sadness for Reiki to “send” healing energy to your heart, because I’m just the conduit for the energy.

I believe that since Reiki does not require or promote manipulation of energy to work and be effective, it doesn’t actually conflict with the tenets of vipassana. Therefore, no need to ban Reiki practitioners from doing the meditation retreats.

The funny thing is, I’m not really an active Reiki practitioner. I don’t practice Reiki on others nor do I teach it, although I could do both. I learned Reiki almost twenty years ago, and it’s kind of integrated itself into my everyday life. I am pretty much always aware of energy in myself and my surroundings, and I know I can tap into it whenever I need. It’s become second nature.

When the people organizing the meditation retreat told me that I could go on the retreat if I no longer practice Reiki, I was faced with a dilemma. First, I can’t not practice Reiki, because the energy is always present. Second, since I fundamentally disagreed with their decision, no longer practicing Reiki would seem like… selling out (which is a super odd feeling to have when you’re trying to be more spiritual).

But, I really, really wanted to go on the retreat. (It was my chosen spiritual path, after all.)

So I decided to say I wouldn’t practice Reiki anymore. After all, I reasoned with myself, since I’m not an active Reiki practitioner, I won’t lose anything by officially stating I won’t do Reiki anymore. In fact, I argued, since I don’t actively practice, maybe I don’t actually “do” Reiki. I can’t miss what I don’t have, right? (Does this argument sound as hollow to you as it does to me?)

But… I couldn’t do it.

I couldn’t pretend for longer than five minutes that Reiki wasn’t important to me. I couldn’t use argument and reason to change something that was so integrated into my everyday life. And, I thoroughly disagreed with the assessment that practicing Reiki interferes with practicing vipassana meditation.

I was at an impasse. I couldn’t go on the meditation retreat without giving up Reiki, but I couldn’t give up Reiki.

Result: rupture.

I was stunned–what I had seen as my spiritual path, my road to enlightenment was closed to me. Finished. Gone.

I was bereft.

Perhaps it doesn’t seem like a big deal–there are other meditation styles, after all–but I’d hung my hat on this particular meditation as the way. I don’t mean that I thought meditation was the way, or that vipassana meditation was the way. What I had settled on was that this specific meditation, vipassana meditation, practiced in this specific way, was my key to enlightenment. And now it was gone.

I think I was in mourning for a little over a year. As I write this now, it seems hard to believe that I was so caught up in my recipe for enlightenment success that I’d lost sight of the fact that enlightenment does not (cannot) depend on one particular doctrine or methodology. But at the time, and perhaps it’s an issue of ego, I felt lost, as if I’d lost my compass and map and could never recover them.

I was lost because I didn’t know how to answer the question, how would I become a more enlightened person if I didn’t have this meditation process as a tool?

Now, two years later, I’m still finding the answer to this question. My first signpost to follow was related to the very lay rigidity I had cultivated about my spiritual path. Much of my distress at not being allowed to continue the meditation retreats stemmed from my strict belief that this was the way I needed to practice my spirituality. I realized it was my own attitude that created the difficulty, not the rule itself.

Eventually, it occurred to me that my rigidity was not a kind or useful trait. By being so strict, I was limiting my ability to be responsive to a changing world. (This is ironic because one of the main tenets of vipassana meditation is that everything is impermanent.)

Although I like to think of myself as a kind, caring person, I must admit I have a rigid, puritanical streak that is a mile wide. The rigidity I’d experienced with the meditation was a natural extension of this puritanical side of myself. Obviously, it was a limiting attitude.

Therefore, I resolved to be gentler with myself. Instead of looking for an explicit set of instructions for how to live my life, I decided to listen to myself more and allow my heart to guide my gaze. Instead of following a set of rules outside my life, I decided to let my intuition and insight guide my steps. I decided to trust myself more.

And I do trust myself more. I believe that door closing to me was beneficial, because it allowed me to see how attached I’d become to a particular practice and methodology. And it allowed me the freedom to explore other ways of walking a spiritual path.

If you asked me now if I would go back on the vipassana meditation retreats if I were once more allowed, I think I’d answer no. At least, I’d answer no until I am sure that I am no longer susceptible to my old, rigid attitudes.

What do I live for, now?

Gentleness. Compassion. Lovingkindness.

What about you? What do you live for?

 

Spiritual Journey–Denial

July 21st, 2011

As I mentioned in my first Spiritual Journey post, I recently bought the book Autobiography of a Yogi and began to read it again.

Early on, Yogananda talks about his parents’ teacher, Lahiri Mahasaya, and refers to a photograph he had of this teacher. I turned to the page with the photograph, curious to see if I would feel anything upon looking at the picture of this revered teacher. No, looking at the picture did nothing for me.

Then I had the thought to close my eyes and meditate on the picture. I did so, and I immediately felt myself in the presence of Lahiri Mahasaya. It was peaceful, and we began conversing.

You will not be surprised to learn, if you have read my two previous “Spiritual Journey” posts, that I cannot tell you much of our conversation. Even as we were talking, I blocked out many of his words. I could still hear that he was talking, but I could no longer understand what he was saying.

*   *   *   *   *

It reminds me of a dream I once had when I was seventeen. In the dream, I was somebody else, with their mind, their body, and their memory. This has happened a few times over the years, that I totally become someone else in a dream. What surprises me most when this happens is that I have someone else’s memories. I can draw upon a lifetime of experience that is totally different from my own life experience.

In this particular dream, I was a German man. The part of me that was watching the dream, the part most closely associated with my waking self, knew that I cannot speak German in the waking world. So, even though my dream-self spoke German and conversed with others in the dream in German, my watcher-self could not understand what was being said.

How was it possible, I wondered upon waking, that one part of me understands something while another part cannot, at the very same time? How can my access to knowledge be so variable? I suppose it’s not much different from waking life, when one moment you have forgotten something and another moment you can remember it. The difference in the dream was that I witnessed my inconsistent access to knowledge.

To my shame, I notice that I have inconsistent access to knowledge in waking life, too. I can remember several occasions when people have said things that I didn’t want to hear or know of, and, once I realized they were saying something I did not want to hear, I could no longer understand what they were saying. It was as if a flip had been switched, and instead of hearing English, I heard gibberish.

The first time I became aware of this was in college. There was a person in the campus administration whom I admired very much. His department was holding an event that evening, so his name was in the air at the student center, where I was having lunch. Some women at the table next to me were discussing him, and one was criticizing him rather vocally.

I remember taking offense when I realized they were criticizing him, since I considered him to be such a fine person. I did not want to hear a word spoken against him. Once I had that reaction, I could no longer understand the words of the woman who was speaking against this man. She had changed neither volume nor pitch, but speech that I could discern and understand before became garbled and unintelligible. Even though I had been curious to hear what she would say next (she was going to explain why she disliked this man), the larger part of me completely rejected what this woman was saying, to the extent that in my ears her words became gibberish.

This event points to two things. First, I can and do filter my world, limiting my perceptions to what some aspect of myself has determined to be permissible within a framework of acceptable world view. I have read in self-help books as well as spiritual books and I have also inferred from my own observations of the world that we perceive the world according to our beliefs. This means that our experience of the world is limited or enhanced depending on what we allow to be true. This is obviously the case for me.

Second, this event highlights how much understanding depends on emotional concordance. Have you ever been so angry with someone that all communication seems to break down? The expression “breakdown in communication” is generally meant figuratively, in that the negative emotions of one or both speakers prevents them from creating a receptive environment within themselves to the words of the other person. But in my college experience, once I became angry and rejected what this woman was saying, the breakdown in communication was absolute. Even though I could still hear her, the woman’s words no longer held any meaning for me.

Remembering this humbles me, because I like to think that I am open-minded. Yet here is proof positive that at times I am close-minded. It’s one thing not to understand talking seals in a dream (see previous blog post), but quite another to lose understanding from one moment to the next in “real life”. How much confidence can I have in myself when I know that I do not allow certain information into my awareness?

*   *   *   *   *

In my meditation moment with Lahiri Mahayasa, our conversation became unintelligible and I could no longer hear his words. I do not know what he said during that part of our conversation. I did perceive that the information was being absorbed by me on other levels, as if my body could hear and receive his words even though my mind refused them.

However, I can tell you some of what Lahiri Mahasaya said to me. He told me to write and publish these experiences, and all my spiritual experiences.

“Now publish it,” he said.

“Publish what?” I asked, not wanting to know.

“All of it,” he answered.

“All my writing?” I asked.

“All of it,” he said again.

And so here is the beginning of the writing. May it serve.

 

Spiritual Journey — Teachers

July 14th, 2011

I had a lovely dream once.

I was underwater, in a temple deep under the ocean, in a room where I could breathe easily. There were ionic columns, and a stream ran through the temple room. It was beautiful.

A seal was there, speaking to me. She told me she could teach me. To show me some of what she could do and teach me, she made beautiful green vines grow up around the columns. The vines bloomed and bore fruit–clusters of grapes appearing all around. She took a handful of grapes in her flipper and showed them to me, then changed them into precious gems. She offered to take me on as a student and teach me.

I was scared and angry. This was too different from my understanding of the world. Talking seals? Vines that grew from nothing? Grapes that turned into gemstones? It was too much.

I hit her flipper, making the gems fly all over the place, and I refused her offer. “Seals can’t talk,” I said. From that moment, I could no longer understand what she said.

Then I woke up.

For years I regretted my choice. I wondered, Why hadn’t I said yes? I could have learned all manner of interesting things! But my fear and anger had interfered, and I had lost an amazing opportunity.

Then, a few years ago, I decided not to regret that choice. For one thing, that was who I was at the time–someone who refused teaching and learning because she didn’t like how it was presented. For another, who was to say that I should have said yes? Perhaps the seal didn’t have things to teach me that I needed to know. My fear kept me ignorant as to what, exactly, was being offered, but perhaps that ignorance served me well anyway.

I’ve known that I receive teachings in other ways, however. Sometimes it is through the books I read, sometimes it’s intuition, sometimes something else. I’ve come to recognize them and accept that this teaching actually takes place, even though I am still uncomfortable with it. Perhaps it’s a control issue. I’m not sure.

One of the more profound ways I receive teachings is information that is transmitted to me in the night. Often I fall into a deep sleep, a sleep so deep it’s as if I am in a coma.

Once, a friend woke me up while I was in the middle of such an experience. She had been scared because so little of me and my essence seemed present. When she woke me, it was as if I was still very, very far away, and I had trouble becoming fully awake for hours. It was odd, but one of the attendant phenomenon during that time that I was awake but not awake was that my body seemed to weigh very little. She could pick up my hand or arm, and it wasn’t as heavy as it usually was. It’s as if part of me still wasn’t there. Once I was fully awake, however, my body had its normal mass again.

In these nighttime transmissions, the teachings are extremely deep and meaningful, yet don’t translate well into words. I know that I am shaped and changed by these teachings, but I couldn’t tell you the why and how of it.

A few weeks ago I awoke retaining more memory of the teaching event than usual, and the best way I can describe the information was that it looked as if it was comprised of geometric symbols. As if words are too surface-level to convey these meanings. As if these meanings were meant for the cellular level rather than the intellect level. Even now I can kind of perceive those symbols–flat and slanted and red-colored, but it’s only a sliver of what was conveyed to me at the time and, obviously, doesn’t translate well into English. If you were to ask me what they mean, I couldn’t tell you anything but that it was important.

I recently realized that I’ve been dreaming of the seal again, and she is teaching me. I guess part of me has accepted these teachings after all, even if I seem to be keeping it from myself. And, since I am keeping it from myself, I cannot tell you what the seal is teaching me. Honestly, I prefer it that way. I still find comfort in my inability to name information that baldly. So long as I can tell myself (and you), “I dream of a seal teaching me” but not that the seal’s name is “X” and she has taught me such-and-such, I can still pretend that it’s only a dream, even though I know in my heart of hearts that it is more than that.

 

Spiritual Journey

July 11th, 2011

I have begun to read the Autobiography of  a Yogi by Parahamsa Yogananda, again. I had read it a few times before and appreciated it. Not only is Yogananda a good storyteller, he has very interesting things to say.

Recently, the desire to read this book again has grown within me. I remembered noticing the second time I read it the positive effect it had on my outlook and temperament, especially when I was reading the passages on the lives of the saints. Similarly, I had noticed a similar difference in my general attitude when I was listening to Brian Tracy’s cd series “The Psychology of Achievement”. These experiences point to the phenomenon that the food we feed the mind is important, as it affects us deeply.

I’ve begun listening to Brian Tracy’s Psychology of Achievement again in my car–I bought a car with a working cd player–and I’ve noticed again how my mental outlook has much improved. Although I am by nature an optimist, these cd’s help me be more fully positive, perhaps by reinforcing my natural temperament as well as by helping me address pockets of myself where I am not particularly positive.

And so at this third experience of noticing the impact of what I read or listen to on my outlook and focus, my mind has begun to remember the positive effects that reading Autobiography of a Yogi had on me. I began to think of reading it again. During the time this idea was developing, I found myself in a local bookstore, skimming a few books on a particular topic. I’d gathered several books and was looking for a place to scan them. The only empty chair I found was in the biography section, and there, looking at me when I happened to glance up from my reading, was the Autobiography of a Yogi. I resolved then to buy the book, although not on that trip.

*   *   *   *   *

I suppose now I should confess to something that I don’t usually share with people, at least to any significant extent. My life is filled with spiritual (and, to a lesser extent, psychic) phenomena. I have an ambivalent attitude toward these experiences. My first reaction tends to be negative. I very much like things to be provable and replicable, and if I could apply the scientific method (including peer review) to spiritual experiences, I would. However, much of the spiritual seems to be highly individual in nature, for while any particular person’s experiences are not necessarily unique to that person, since each person is at a different place along the spiritual path, it may well seem that way.

For a long time I resisted that these things were happening. When I was a child, I could hear whispering–whether it was the whispering of spirits or other phenomena, I don’t know. It irked me considerably, because I couldn’t tell what they were saying, and it was distracting.

I once told my third grade teacher I was having trouble concentrating on my work because of the voices in my head. Her teacher-like answer was that if I didn’t do my work, I’d have much more to worry about from the voices outside my head. Since there was no help in that quarter with these voices, I decided to banish the voices. I’m not sure how I did it, I just know that I did. I haven’t heard them since, but I still intensely dislike the radio to be on at a volume low enough that you can hear it, but not loud enough to distinguish the words. It reminds me too much of those irritating voices.

Nowadays, much of the spiritual information that I receive is incomplete, as if it is interrupted by static. I have suspected for years that I myself am the source of that static. For, although I have come to accept the occasions when I manifest objects (or aid or situations that I have requested) and no longer falsely ascribe these events to “luck” when I know it is something else, I still have great difficulty accepting information, like names or places or numbers, that is verifiable. I can’t decide if I am more afraid that verifiable information would prove to be false, leaving me in a precarious position with respect to my understanding of the world, or true, which would also leave me in a precarious position with respect to my preferred understanding of the world.

It seems that while I (understandably) derive no comfort from the idea that these experiences might be delusional, oddly enough, the possibility that they may be true and that there is much more going on in the world than our science can substantiate is perhaps even more frightening. So I keep myself in a strange limbo, begrudgingly accepting happenings and occurrences that seem mild and don’t warrant any grand attention yet creating my own static and interference so that I cannot receive information that threatens to tip the uneasy scales in one direction or another.

Still, despite my deep-seated reluctance, the overwhelming number and frequency of experiences is slowly pointing my compass needle to North. Yet I drag my feet. I like logic and truth, and while these phenomena may well be products of logic and truth, they are not the logic and truth by which I prefer to measure the world and its events.