Kindness

As I get older, I have found that kindness (compassion)is the most important quality for living deeply. Whether called kindness or compassion, it is a universal goal of most world spiritual traditions, sometimes called the Golden Rule. Kindness essentially is about treating oneself and others with compassion.

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is the temple; the philosophy is kindness.” (Dalai Lama)

Monks

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Half Empty or Half Full?

Glass

Is the glass half empty or half full?

One of the lessons of learning how to think is examining first the question being asked, because everything which follows depends on that. So in this question–is the glass half empty or half full?–there is no single right answer. You could answer either way. The problem is with the question. It assumes there is a right answer, either right or wrong. But what if it’s not about right/wrong, a choice between options, but both/and. In our world we tend to think in opposites, without thinking about the possibility of there being more than way that is right.

So is the glass half full or half empty? The answer is both half full and half empty. Or, as the ancient Taoist philosophy and modern physics shows, opposites can be complementary. The glass is both half empty and half full at the same time. And, of course, emptiness in some Eastern philosophies is quite important for without it how is fullness possible?

In a different way, I sometimes think how one sees the glass depends on how one deals with life generally. For some, the glass is always half empty; and that’s how they see life, looking on what is not there rather than what is. The same lesson applies to those who see the glass half full; they tend to see what is positive in their lives, not what is missing.

I got to thinking how the half empty, half full glass applies to being thankful. Could we for one day focus on what we are thankful for and not what we miss? If we could practice this for one day, perhaps we could extend it for more days, until we learn to be grateful for the greatest gift of all-LIFE. That will change not only how we feel about ourselves, but how others feel about us.

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A Perfect Christmas Symbol

Okay, it may not appear to be the most attractive Christmas tree I’ve ever seen put up in a town square near here, but the more I thought about the symbolism, the more I think the somewhat tattered tree they put up is perfect for a city ranked high in crime and poverty. I mean, would a fancy, expensive and probably perfect tree really mean anything to us who live in this area? Or it would it remind us of how poor and unattractive we seem to outsiders?

I prefer the somewhat skimpy tree with huge gaps showing through its branches they had to plant as a replacement when the tree they originally ordered was not available. This one (see link below to newspaper headline and picture of the tree in the local newspaper).

This tree has character. It’s real. It’s hardly perfect. It needs us to make it come alive with ornaments and lights. It’s perfect for those of us who live in these parts. The tree symbolizes how it feels to live around here these days, to be the talking point of outsiders pointing their fingers at us and saying “what’s happening to you, my old friend?”

I tell you what’s happen. No money. The city is bankrupt. There’s little money to go around for improvements and sometimes it appears there’s little vision either. What little time and money we have is poured into entertainment complexes and hotels around them to bring in paying customers. But those who live in neighborhoods can’t really afford a concert or a hotel room, although some jobs might help. The truth is that restoring the neighborhoods requires more than fixating on bringing in tourists to spend money. It requires community policing and code enforcements and better schools–and this requires time and money.

There are days when the cynic in me would prefer Festivus, that holiday of the Seinfeld show, where once a year people dance around the Festivus pole and shout insults at one another. I’ve often thought we could do worse than erecting a huge Festivus pole in the center of town and letting everyone come out and shout insults at everyone who bugs them. At least we give the naysayers a chance to air their gripes once instead of every day hurling insults over the radio or in letters to the editor of the local paper.

I know the city is planning on taking the battered tree down and putting up a new one. But I say, let the old one stand there as a reminder that underneath all the holiday glitter is a real tree that deserves more than to be taken down and thrown away. It’s a perfect symbol of who we are and what we can become if we put our minds and hearts and even the little money we have to making it come alive.

And since the tree is supposed to represent a holiday for one religion, Christianity, I wonder if Jesus would have preferred to be born here near this tree than in a hotel room facing an entertainment center and lights? Never mind, I know the answer.

http://readingeagle.com/news/article/o-christmas-tree-reading-moves-to-get-a-replacement#.VHCmGMk7fKs

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Too Much to Do, Too Little Time

“Enough organization, enough lists and we think we can control the uncontrollable.”
John Mankiewicz, House, The Socratic Method, 2004

House, M.D.

I am a recovering list maker. I used to start every day compiling a to do list. And at the end of every day I had checked some off and added many more. I moved to having more than one list, even writing on both sides of a page.

When it grew to the point where I felt I could no longer complete all the work on my lists, I stopped one day, looked over what I had said I needed to get done, and decided other than getting milk at the grocery store and putting shoes on my feet, I really didn’t need to write the next great American novel by noon or figure a theory of everything by dinner. I did keep one item on a mental list: Take time every morning to read a few sentences of better writers than I am, spend a few minutes in silence, breathe in and out slowly, and try to free my mind from thinking.

I used the quotation from the TV series, House, one of my favorites for taking philosophy into the wasteland of television, because it rings true. Making lists is just one common way we think we can control the uncontrollable. Some people just need to feel they are in control, driven by deeper psychological motivations than I am able to diagnose here.

But the truth is that like the myth of Sisyphus, most of us spend out lives pushing rocks up hills, seldom getting to the top and when we near it, finding the rock rolling back down with us under it. We then redouble our efforts, pushing and straining our backs to get near the top, finding the same result. Don’t get me wrong: Rock pushers are needed in this world, but according to the Jewish tradition, even God rested one day a week.

Sometimes the smartest thing to do is to stop trying to control everything and everyone around us. Sometimes, contrary to what our culture teaches us, the best thing to do is give up. Sometimes by giving up we learn how to let go and move on. In losing our need for control, we gain our lives back. A teacher of wisdom once asked: “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world, and lose his or her soul?”

So don’t put off what you need to do until tomorrow. Get rid of that pad of paper on which you keep your to do lists. Don’t get stressed out when people act other than the way you hope they might act. Relax. Take a deep breath and think of all the things you don’t really need to do tomorrow, all the people you won’t have to change, and focus instead on only a few things that are really important. And do them (without making a list).

We are, after all, human beings, not human doings.

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New Centers of Life in Communities

“The center cannot hold.” –William Butler Yeats

Once upon a time there were centers to most communities. This is still true in some areas and certainly in New England where I have lived and worked.

However, it may be that it’s difficult now days in many communities to specify exactly where the center is or even where it has moved. It may be there is not one center but many centers and many communities in a given area.

When I left the area in which I now live many decades ago there seemed to be a vibrant center of the region. There were movie houses, department stores, small businesses, jobs and many people out walking the streets at all times of the day. People lived within walking distance of a clearly defined center of the area.

Now the “center” seems to have been recreated in another part of the city and new businesses relocated there–an attempt to recreate what was once and is no more. Meanwhile, the towns and villages around what once was the center have shifted outward. What once were new suburbs are now taking on the appearance of what once was the center–call them exurbs. And what once were the suburbs have moved outward into what were farmland. And there has been some movement back to the inner cities by young people, but not nearly enough to change the landscape.

I have lived in some areas where policies built on a different paradigm or model are being employed, such as not trying to recreate a “center” like it used to be (e.g., with department stores, big restaurants, etc.) but rather focusing on rebuilding neighborhoods–creating and sustaining new neighborhood centers with parks and village like shopping areas (not strip malls) with walking and bicycle paths, even creating times and places where cars are not permitted so pedestrians can walk freely, and where there is a visible law enforcement presence to make certain people feel safe at night especially. If I ask myself the really important question about renewing a region–what kind of community do I want to live in?–it will follow the model above.

There’s a principle architects cite and which made sense to me when I was working in community programs and that still makes sense: Form follows function. Or, as someone once asked me when I was working on a new project: “What’s success look like?” Put another way: What’s your vision? Are you going down the highway to the future looking in the rear view mirror? Or are you driving as fast as you can on the turnpike but not quite sure what direction you’re headed?

Someone once asked me why people want to live in any community. Without giving it much thought but reflecting on my experiences living in and trying to create new communities, I responded: People want to feel a sense of purpose and find a place to belong. So the question is not how to redevelop a center that no longer exists, but how to adopt a different model–supporting not one center, but many, and creating spaces where people can feel they belong and where there is a wider sense of purpose. It’s not all about buildings (e.g., creating new hotels, restaurants, et al)–I used to call this the “edifice complex–but about people. Rather than one big city with a center, why not many communities or neighborhoods with many smaller centers?

So the question to ask people is: What do you want in a community where you choose to live? I suspect you would find some common responses that have little or nothing to do with building a new movie theater or hotel. Who moves to an area to stay in a hotel or go to a movie? We may travel to these but not live in them. The communities in which we choose to live have great schools, parks and affordable and decent housing, health related care, libraries and religious groups, civic clubs, government that is listening to and working on behalf of people–in other words, communities where the mission is to serve the basic human needs of food, shelter, etc.

I have lived through at least two major periods of our history where attempts were made to renew or rebuild centers of regions. Some worked, some didn’t. Maybe given the realities of our times (less money to spend on renewal, more people to serve, etc.)it’s time to face reality and adopt a different model that creates many centers of community life with smaller numbers of people in any community, with businesses and parks and places to gather closer to where people live, and with a focus that takes care of the nuts and bolts of neighborhood life that citizens have been talking about for decades: Less crime, better code enforcement, walk ways and bike paths which are accessible and safe, businesses within walking distance serving local needs, enclaves of beauty and learning, etc..

Communities are about people–their hopes and desires and needs. That sounds too simple, I know. But as a wise city planner once said to me: “Keep it simple; it will get complex all by itself.”

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Landing on Comet Denied

Despite pictures showing a comet within reach of a small, refrigerator size craft sent into space ten years ago to land there, some Americans have said the flight was a fraud and the pictures taken in a storage facility in New Mexico.

“If God had intended us to land on a comet, he would have created us on one,” said one pastor. “The next thing you know they’ll be saying that humans are bringing about climate change.”

Opponents of the launch toward the comet say it was created to answer the big questions about the universe, its origin and future. “If they want to answer big questions, go read the book of Genesis in the Bible,” said one protester.

A advocate for a group advocating for teaching creationism in public schools in biology classes, said the supposed landing on the comet was created by evolutionists wanting to prove life on earth arose elsewhere and came here on a comet. “I’m not a scientist, but it doesn’t take one to make a film about going to a comet,” he said.

Meanwhile, in its Texas warehouses, a publisher has already begun making sure any new books on science omit any mention of a trip to a comet. “We’ve already eliminated evolution from our biology textbooks and any mention of religions other than Christianity from our history texts,” said a publisher spokesman.

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How to Know If You Are a Philosopher

One of my more creative students came up with nine statements to determine if you are a philosopher.

Here they:

How to Know if You Are a Philosopher
You are a philosopher if……..
You read Kierkegaard under the bed covers late at night.
You know how to think like a bat.
You have read the Critique of Pure Reason in German (at least three times)
You have a beard (men or women).
You go to thrift stores looking for copies of the Republic.
You know who Regina Olsen was.
You took Pascal’s wager and lost.
You’ve been to Plato’s cave.
Your mother said you were not meant to be.

If you couldn’t figure what these statements meant, don’t fret. Philosophy is more than a subject taught in college. It is about a way of life that is not afraid of questions and wrestles with life’s meanings. If you want to meet a philosopher, hang around a child long enough to pay attention to his or her questions. Why did my pet die? Why do bad things happen? Before we tell them to be quiet, children are natural philosophers.

Aristotle wrote that philosophy begins in wonder. And children live in the wonder years. Some adults still are not too busy to stop and wonder. Blessed be those who wonder; for they shall be fully alive.

There are really two purposes to philosophy. The first is to learn how to think better and the second to learn how to live more deeply. I would contend these are the two highest reasons for being human, and unless we have stopped thinking or living, what it means to be a philosopher. That’s why this description of philosophy makes sense to me:

“The main concern of philosophy is to question and understand very common ideas that all of us use every day without thinking about them.” (Thomas Nagel, then Professor of Philosophy and Law, New York University)

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