For the Class of 2013 (& People Everywhere) — Four Brief Pieces of Advice


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1.

If I had one piece of advice for people everywhere, it would be this: think critically more often.  Try to spend some time every day thinking critically, examining yourself, your life, your relationships, your own deeds and words, your basic assumptions, your conscience and your principles.  Be a more reflective person.

2.

My second piece of advice would be to try to spend some time every day reading something of substance.  Not just something that affects you emotionally, but something that makes you think, that makes you go wow! or a-ha! or I hadn’t thought of it that way before.  Books and reading are too often abused; intellectually we Americans consume far too many books that only entertain us or that only speak to our biases.

3.

My third piece of advice would for people everywhere would be to learn to deal better with criticism.

I don’t mind criticism.  I really don’t.  The rejection part of it still stings, but nowhere near as much as it did at one time.  I learned these things about criticism (and dealing with it) long ago —

Don’t mind criticism; if it’s untrue, disregard it; if it’s unfair, keep from irritation; if it’s ignorant, smile; if it’s justified, learn from it.” — unknown

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” — Winston Churchill

I’ve found that the best way to deal with criticism is to make the decision to detach emotionally from it and instead think critically about it.

Criticism rarely is the enemy; our reactions to it more often are an issue; once we learn better how to deal with ourselves and our emotions and calm and soothe and talk to ourselves (talk ourselves down), then we become much more inwardly peaceful and much better able to deal with criticism.

If you’re not being criticized, you’re not really living.  A person can easily avoid criticism by saying nothing, doing nothing, standing for nothing, being nothing. (I think a quote similar to this has been attributed to Aristotle).

Or as Winston Churchill said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”  The same goes for criticism:  You’re being criticized?  Good  It means maybe you’re standing up for something.

Or it means that maybe you’re in the wrong and you have something to learn.  Either way, it’s a win for you if you can reign your ego in and not let it get in the way of things.

(And here’s a link to a blog post that might be helpful. — http://tinybuddha.com/blog/how-to-deal-with-criticism-well-25-reasons-to-embrace-it/)

4.

My last piece of advice to people everywhere (including myself) is this: whether you are young or old or somewhere in between, get your house in order.

Living constantly under perpetual threat of dying or of losing those around you, or of losing your health, can be exhausting, not to mention highly unnerving, anxiety-producing, and panic-inducing.

But what other option is there really?  Ignoring all of this?  Living in denial?  Only thinking every once and while about our own mortality?

If we don’t reflect at least occasionally on our own and others’ mortality, we tend to live badly, without much appreciation.  We tend to take other people and life and our own health and the good things we have in our life for granted.  Reflecting on death is one of the surest ways to cut through the morass and muddle and get to what matters most.

Of course thinking too much about death can completely unnerve us, cause us to take too many chances, live desperately, do rash things.

So what’s the solution?

Find an optimal balance.  Think about / acknowledge death just enough so that you don’t go off the deep end (or too far off the deep end) and live foolishly and recklessly, but think enough about death so that you don’t take life and those around you for granted, so that you live in a more deliberate but not desperate way.  Live in a way so that you focus on the things that will matter the most to you in the end.  Death is inevitable for each of us and for all of those whom we love and rely on.  This is not negotiable.  It’s a hard fact of life—the hardest, if we’re honest.  But how much time we and those around us each have is a bit more of a mystery, and it’s this leeway that tends to get us each in trouble.  We tend to play games with ourselves and others because of this leeway—taking them and ourselves and our health for granted, or we numb ourselves, we don’t live from our highest and best self, we don’t live a very examined life, we go through life on autopilot, we don’t live deeply and passionately and intensely enough, and we don’t live in such a way that we put our house in order.

Thoreau’s oft-quoted words about life and death still make for some very sound and good advice—

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms. . . .”

Bonus point to ponder:

“The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive.”

How awake are you?

How awake do you want to be?

How much discomfort and unsettledness are you willing to endure to become more awake?

And is it possible to live a very meaningful life if one is not very awake?

Camus wrote, “everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.”  Great spiritual masters and leaders have spoken throughout the ages of human beings tending to go through life asleep, blind, deaf, and needing to “wake up.”  What if awareness is where it’s at?  And what if the more aware we are—the more we see and feel and think about—the less settled and less comfortable we are?  How aware are you willing to be?

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Enjoying Every Sandwich: Living Each Day as If It Were Your Last


Erin, over at Analyfe.com, wrote a review of the book “Enjoy Every Sandwich: Living Each Day as If It Were Your Last” by Lee Lipsenthal, on her blog—http://analyfe.com/2011/11/16/enjoy-every-sandwich-living-each-day-as-if-it-were-your-last/

From the publisher’s website (http://www.randomhouse.com/book/215689/enjoy-every-sandwich-by-lee-lipsenthal)—

This book is a culmination of what I’ve learned. I hope it will open the door for you to embrace your humanity, accept uncertainty, and live a life of gratitude. —from Enjoy Every Sandwich

As medical director of the famed Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Lee Lipsenthal helped thousands of patients struggling with disease to overcome their fears of pain and death and to embrace a more joyful way of living. In his own life, happily married and the proud father of two remarkable children, Lee was similarly committed to living his life fully and gratefully each day.

The power of those beliefs was tested in July 2009, when Lee was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. As Lee and his wife, Kathy, navigated his diagnosis, illness, and treatment, he discovered that he did not fear death, and that even as he was facing his own mortality, he felt more fully alive than ever before. In the bestselling tradition of Tuesdays with Morrie, told with humor and heart, and deeply inspiring, Enjoy Every Sandwich distills everything Lee learned about how we find meaning, purpose, and peace in our lives.

I wrote the following as a response on Erin’s blog—

Sounds like a very interesting book, Erin!  Right up my alley. 

The Dalai Lama wrote that he begins each day meditating on impermanence and our interconnectedness.  Covey discusses that “beginning with the end in mind” is one of the key seven habits of effective people because it helps us cut to the chase (and cut through our own bs) and start organizing our lives around what’s truly important and what’s ultimately going to matter to us.  Steve Jobs said in a 2005 commencement speech: “When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’  It made an impression on me.  So ever since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.  Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

To me it’s clear that the first key to living a more meaningful and eyes-wide-open life is facing our own mortality instead of denying it.  Which is no easy feat—we live in a death-deny culture teaming with all sorts of diversions to distract us and anesthetize us to our own and others’ mortality. 

The second key to living a more meaningful and examined life is moving past merely intellectualizing the knowledge of our own and others’ mortality and instead allowing ourselves to feel this always-possible future reality viscerally, emotionally, no (or at least little) differently than if we were in a doctor’s office and being told we (or a loved one) had cancer.  Which also is no easy feat!

Tomorrow I am going to the dermatologist’s office to have a mole on my forehead biopsied.  It may turn out to be nothing.  Or it may turn out to be something and my life will move in a dramatically different direction after tomorrow.

So, a personal question Erin, what did the book mean to you?  How did it change your life or give you pause to reconsider certain things you may or may not be doing now?

As for my own answer to your query—is today a good day to die?—I’ll let you know after tomorrow when it may be no mere intellectual exercise.

Namaste and thanks,

John

Ps. These are links to two of my blogs where I share some of my own (and others’) reflection on death and dying and living with passion and meaning.

https://fullcatastropheliving.wordpress.com/

http://aweektolive.wordpress.com/

The Last Taboo—Thinking Honestly and Deeply About Oneself and One’s Life


We arrive here with few clues as to where we came from, and even fewer clues as to where we’re headed.  Our time here on earth is but a fleeting tiny little stopover; the only certainty before us is death.   Whether we claim to be religious or nonreligious matters little.  I think what matters more, much much more, is the extent to which we have reflected on our lives and acted upon the fruits of those reflections with sincerity, commitment and courage.

Dealing directly with philosophic and religious issues of death and dying and the meaning of life brings us face to face with what may be the last and greatest taboo of American life.  These subjects are seldom the topic of conversation at the typical American dinner party, or even in intimate discussions among friends, where people are much more likely to focus on work, family problems, the economic and political issues of the day.  Discussions about moral and spiritual questions are seldom encouraged; and if you do bring them up, you run the risk of offending your host or putting off people.

This aversion to spiritual and existential matters makes sense.  We want answers, not problems; and we certainly do not want uncertainties.  And I think we realize—even if perhaps only subconsciously—that when dealing honestly with spiritual and moral questions we are dealing in mysteries, the insolubility of which we find deeply discomforting and unsettling.

And much of what we call daily American life is about this discomfort and the manifold ways we seek to deny or avoid it—a problem that is further magnified by the many subtle and not so subtle ways that our capitalistic advertising-driven society discourages reflection in order to promote impulsivity and spending and encourage consumption.   As Roy Walsh, a psychiatry professor in San Francisco, put it—

“[Y]ou can see that basically our lives are, to a large extent, spent in avoiding confrontation with ourselves. And then you can begin to make sense of the enormous amount of our culture’s daily activities that attempt to distract us from ourselves, from deep reflection, from deep thinking, from existential confrontation. There’s a wonderful phrase by the philosopher Kierkegaard, ‘tranquilization by the trivial.’ And I think our culture has mastered this better than any culture in history, simply because we have the wealth and means to do so.”

(Abridged and adapted from Phillip L. Berman, “The Search For Meaning,” pp. 5-6)