Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Peaks and Valleys by Spencer Johnson, M.D.

Peaks and Valleys: Making Good and Bad Times Work for You—At Work and In Life by Spencer Johnson, M.D. is a slender volume, a narrative told in the form of a parable meant to teach valuable life lessons. To be honest, I approached this book with extremely low expectations. I had read, and loathed, his best-selling Who Moved My Cheese? I did not anticipate enjoying this book at all. So it is with some pleasant surprise that I say I liked this book enough to not hate it. Admittedly, nothing Johnson shares is new and the parable makes the profundity of the lessons come off as almost trite. Anyone with a modicum of familiarity with Greek philosophy (Aristotle, Plato, and Epictetus in particular) and/or Buddhist teachings will not find anything new within these pages. What Johnson manages to do is take great ideas and synthesize them for the masses, rather like pop music. If you prefer classical, avoid this book. You won’t enjoy it. But if you are not likely to ever curl yourself up with the classics then you’ll probably find this book interesting and maybe even enlightening as it addresses how our perceptions define our circumstances, driving home the simple truth that our circumstances do not define us so much as how we respond to them. All in all, not a bad book but not brilliant. For brilliance, I’ll stick with what’s been said before by far superior teachers.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Ten Golden Rules by Michael Soupios and Panos Mourdoukoutas

The Ten Golden Rules by Michael Soupios and Panos Mourdoukoutas presents ten philosophical precepts drawing upon such Ancient Greek icons as Plato, Epictetus (a personal favorite), and Aristotle, among others. Taking one great thought from ten different philosophers, the authors offer the reader a sample of some of the great truths that do not rely on religion or dogma to retain relevance. And these authors have the credentials, holding more four Ph.D.s between them. With excellent authorial credentials, one would anticipate a well thought out and interesting discussion of philosophy. Unfortunately, what they offer is “Philosophy Lite.” Not even a basic discussion of philosophical schools nor offering much in the way of real life application, this book reads like a cotton candy sampling rather than an intellectual one. I can’t tell who the audience is supposed to be for this. Anyone who is interested in getting some interesting discussion on philosophy without the text becoming overly intellectual will be disappointed that the text doesn’t even come close to sounding academic. This reader would only walk away thinking the book doesn’t take the material seriously enough. But if the aim is to appeal to the reader who is normally intimidated by philosophy and would not want their philosophy presented under the onus of academia then this book fails to deliver because that reader probably wouldn’t get past the title, cover, or the author’s credentials. This is the Happy Meal of philosophy books coming in at barely over 100 pages, it tries to cover ten principles without offering any depth or real discussion. Frankly, if Plato et al had presented their thoughts in this superficial and shallow manner, we wouldn’t be discussing them today. Too bad the authors didn’t live up to their potential, an ironic statement after reading the too brief first golden rule about how important it is to live life to its fullest. I wish the editor or agent had returned this slender manuscript and said, “This is a good skeleton. Now flesh it out with more content so we can have a real book and not just a booklet.” I am sure the authors were up to creating an invaluable resource but without the necessary encouragement all they created was so much fluff.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Anahata Metta Meditation

The Anahata Chakra is associated with the heart and it’s color is green. Normally I introduce a vigorous way of working with the chakra, recommending a form of dance that compliments and helps cleanse. However, this week I am beginning with a lovely meditation practice. If you do nothing else this week but this meditation, preferably in the morning (and again in the evening is recommended), you will have done more to help heal and cleanse the Anahata Chakra than if you were to do all of the other practices combined. The intention of the Metta Meditation is to increase compassion. The etymological meaning behind the word “compassion” looks like this: com = with + passion = suffering. The purpose of the meditation is to bring the meditator to a place of compassion, not just of sympathy but of true empathy. To feel with the person what they feel. The meditation begins with yourself—to give compassion and loving kindness to yourself. For many, this is actually the most uncomfortable part of this practice because we are not in the habit of being compassionate or loving towards ourselves. And yet, this is the first step in this meditation, recalling Jesus Christ’s words that we must love others as we love ourselves. And so the first part of the Metta Meditation is as follows:
May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.
This should be said sotto voce, just loud enough to be heard by the self. If you prefer to meditate in silence, you may do so. However, by speaking aloud the phrases you are drawing in a deeper awareness, incorporating the actions of speaking and hearing within the meditation practice. The meditation moves from the self to someone for whom you feel love, a family member or a dear friend. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests thinking of your mother but if your relationship with your mother is not the best, you may want to choose someone else. It is recommended, however, not to choose someone for whom you have sexual or erotic feelings. You would repeat the same phrases, this time thinking of this someone you love:

May my mother be happy. May my mother be well. May my mother be safe. May my mother be peaceful and at ease.

The meditation next moves to an associate. This can be a coworker you do not know very well, a person with whom you have no relationship but consider an acquaintance—your postal carrier, your dry cleaner, et al. Choose someone recognizable but not necessarily someone whose memory stirs much emotion.
May you be happy May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.
Now the meditation becomes challenging as you move your focus onto someone who has caused you pain or grief. It can be very difficult to do this meditation with sincerity if you choose someone who recently caused you pain. It is usually best to choose someone either emotionally or chronologically distant to begin with. If you were in a car accident caused by someone else last week, it is not suggested that you meditate on the person who caused the accident. However, if the accident was five years ago, you may want to choose that person. Politicians or celebrities are also a good place to start as you do not know them personally and can possibly tap into feeling some compassion for them in spite of the pain they have introduced into your life.
May you be happy May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.
Last but not least, you meditate on everyone in the world, embracing all beings in the meditation.
May all beings be happy May all beings be well. May all beings be safe. May all beings be peaceful and at ease.
Some teachers have you say “May all sentient beings” but I prefer to be more inclusive. There are variations on the Metta Meditation phrases and you may find the following equally beneficial:
May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be peaceful. May you live with ease.
When you have finished you may choose to begin again at the beginning or conclude the meditation practice. I cannot say strongly enough how lovely this meditation is and encourage everyone to incorporate it into your meditation practice. I am sure that your experience with this meditation will be as much a blessing for you as it has been for me.

Short Story Sample

I've been posting haibun rough drafts in my well-being blog. I occasionally share samples of my creative writing in this blog as well. The following is the start of a short story I have not yet finished. Enjoy! Two weeks and three days after Curt left my mom, moved out of our house, and said “fuck you” to the door he slammed behind him, mom brought home a long-haired tabby. “Her name is Tigger.” “Tigger was a boy,” Tara pointed out the obvious, as always. “Stop being such a brat,” mom said. Tara at thirteen was a mistress at making mom’s life miserable. “I like her eyes,” I said, trying to distract and appease. I was eleven and not yet ready to be man. Two years later, stupid Tigger would disappear for three days and forty days later give birth to a litter of kittens. Mom never knew Tigger had come home at all. I found her panting, hidden beneath my bed where she felt safe because I didn’t want to be bothered with the bitch. Albeit, a cat can’t technically be a bitch but I knew that Tigger didn’t want or need me and the feeling was mutual. So when I heard her panting, I was surprised to see her curled in the furthest corner of my bed. I tried to lure her but she wouldn’t come out. It wasn’t until I realized what was happening, that she was giving birth there beneath my bed, that I understood why she was being so resistant to my persistence. She was giving birth and had no desire to come out from the haven of my bed. I didn’t push the point. The next day was my birthday and I fell asleep to the odd sounds of kittens mewling as they were being cleaned before finding the nipple. When I woke up, the water bowl was empty and there was a pile of cat shit in the corner. My fault. I had closed my bedroom door and stupid Tigger couldn’t get to the litter box in the bathroom. I don’t know why but in the morning, I didn’t tell mom that Tigger had come home. Mom was making my favorite breakfast: cream of wheat with fresh strawberries. As she set the bowl down in front of me, she started singing in her thready voice an off-key version of “Happy Birthday.” She punctuated the last note by kissing the top of my head and ruffling my hair. “I love you, moochie. Happy birthday.” I suppose I muttered a thank you or some such. I can’t really remember. I waited until she left the kitchen, leaving my breakfast unfinished, and grabbed the milk and a bowl. I guess I figured Tiggger would want milk. This is how it began. Tigger lapped up the milk and then faded under my bed again. I didn’t really care. We’d pretty much ignored each other for two years. Why should now be any different? I went out to hang. No need to stay home. Skipping school wasn’t a prob. That’s one of the good things about having a birthday in July. Tara, she had skipped school last year. Her birthday’s in April and mom blew a fuse when she learned that her precious baby hadn’t been perfect. For once. A few weeks later Tommy Thompson told me Tara blew him in the bleachers and I beat the shit out of him, stood over him as I licked his blood off my knuckles. Guess he didn’t think some middle high punk could kick his ass. I live for the surprise.