A Fork in the Road

unnamedI am, and I suspect many of you are as well, at a crossroads. This intersection though is ever present—where past meets future at the juncture of now. It happens every minute and in the broader sweep of decades and generations. Technology is a wondrous marker of these transitions that has us contemplate: “Do I keep my cassette tapes when I no longer have (access to) a tape recorder?” or even more revealing, “Do I leave stored those LP records when phonographs are only to be found in museums? Future generations will be asking the same question about our current technology soon to be relics—boxed DVD’s without players and laptops in a Smithsonian exhibit?


In spiritual terms there is the past that is the grounding of our learning and the future which is the flight of our yearning.* It all though gets enacted in this moment—a billion brain cells encoding, firing and messaging across trillions of synapses. The word that comes to mind is SLAVERY.


Fisherman use nets to haul their catch, bloggers, such as myself, fish the net (not be confused with the shady practice of phishing) to haul in their catch of the stories of the day. While I often set sail on my net fishing expeditions to the blowing winds of a google search, the first surfing I do is MSN (loaded as an APP on my soon to be obsolete laptop), a cannery of news stories culled from the seven seas.


The catch of the day (early morning of March 25) is a lead AP investigative report with the headline: “Are slaves catching the fish you buy?” in which I learned how little I know about the supply chains of fish that we eat—a supply chain that includes imprisoned ship workers on trawlers netting tons of fish in the seas surrounding Indonesia. These workers are caught in the snares of a slave industry that starts with the lure of a paying job. The AP report highlights though a crucial point: Consumers who buy the fish that has passed through a multitude of links in a chain are complicit, though unknowingly, of the links that chain those men aboard the shipping vessels they thought were their ticket to earning a wage.


A few stories later on MSN is more horrifying news from Nigeria—a story of slaughter and kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian women and their children by Boko Haram. Human trafficking takes all forms. This desecration occurs in the name of religion. To see how we are complicit in this tragedy, we need to admit to a far more subtle chain of links; our part in the enslavement and trafficking of these captive women and children.


At a conference late last year at the Vatican on Ending Modern Slavery, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we must first, “find the time to take care of ourselves, and to take care of the present moment. By doing so, we can find some relative peace in our body and mind to continue our work. We need to recognize and embrace our own suffering, our anger, fear, and despair so that the energy of compassion can be maintained in our hearts. When we have more clarity in our mind, we will have compassion not only for the victims, but for the traffickers themselves. When we see that the traffickers have suffered, we can help them wake up and stop what they are doing. Our compassion can help transform them into friends and allies of our cause. In order to sustain our work of compassion, we all need a spiritual community to support us and protect us – a real community, where there is true brotherhood and sisterhood, compassion and understanding. The roots of modern slavery run deep, and the causes and conditions, the networks and structures supporting it are complex. That is why we need to build a community that can continue this work to protect human life.”


I would add that we need to see the links in the chain of events—the roots that run deep either as the end consumers, who can claim they, along with all those in the distribution chain, are unknowing. We also need to acknowledge and reject beliefs and ideas that promote the networks and structures of fundamentalist religion—lest we be unknowing and unwitting accomplices. Liberating ourselves from negativity is also apropos—as we can get caught in an enslavement of thoughts that may depress us about a humanity that we are connected with and complicit in.


This past Monday I popped in a cassette tape in my car on the way to work. Yes, I said cassette tape, as I still had an unopened boxed set of recordings of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings. Likely they are available on CD but the 1999 Toyota Camry I drive is a hybrid–it has a tape deck and a CD driver. So as I am driving down First Avenue I am listening to his words, “what is healing that is available in the present moment—we can heal ourselves and heal the world, so driving is also a practice. You drive and don’t forget the present moment, you can practice breathing in and breathing out and smiling and be with whatever is there in the present moment.” As I approached the light, which was red, I heard the next few words, “We may get irritated because of the red light, but in this practice the red light become a bell of mindfulness, you breathe in and breathe out, breathing in I calm myself, breathing out I smile. And you go back to the present moment, and the red light become a friend, a bell of mindfulness, something unpleasant become something pleasant. We have the habit energy of wanting to arrive, that is why we want to go as quickly as possible, but according to this practice we arrive at every moment—life can only be found in the present moment.”




*We teach in a class about the upcoming holiday of Passover that the distinction between Chometz-leavened products which we remove and Matzah-unleavened “bread” which one eats at this time–is an intentional shift to be present now and relinquish the hold of the past on us—to free ourselves from preoccupation or procrastination and from identities that no longer serve us and, by doing so, liberate ourselves into the present moment.


This Moment

150311074903-patrick-pichette-google-retire-780x439Perhaps you noticed. My weekly blog is now once every other week. A student this week provided her class with a wonderful image of what it means to be in the flow of life: Imagine a raft (the simpler the better) on a river. If the raft is imbalanced it will take on water, perhaps even sink. The context of our discussion was “being present” and the weighing down of one side or another of the raft would symbolize an inability to stay in the flow of the present—the weight of preoccupation with the past or the future.


Teaching what it means to be present, to be in the moment is both a challenge and a pleasure. Clever students realize the now is illusive. When? The moment has already passed. So what does it mean to “be here now” (another student passed around his worn out purple covered Be Here Now book by Ram Das this week—I was holding an original copy in my hands and contemplating the paradox of the now).


The latest person to invoke the phrase carpe diem is 52 year-old Patrick Pichette, the CFO of Google who posted his letter of retirement. This is the beauty of the Google age, you can publish your thoughts and anyone in the world can read them—instantaneously. One now seizes the moment by posting, tweeting, instagramming or snap chatting.


Seizing the moment is a phrase worth spending a moment with. To get to its meaning I googled it, which then led me to its origin, a quote from the Greek Ode of Horace:


“Don’t ask (it’s forbidden to know) what end the gods have given me or you. Don’t play with Babylonian numerology either. How much better it is to endure whatever will be! Whether Jupiter has allotted you many more winters or this one, which even now wears out the Tyrrhenian sea on the opposing rocks, is the final one, be wise, be truthful, strain the wine, and scale back your long hopes to a short period. While we speak, envious time will have already fled: seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next day.”


Mr. Pichette, it could be argued, has been seizing the day of nearly 30 years of non-stop work (the last 7 at Google) “a whirlwind of truly amazing experiences, a frenetic pace, always on, even when I was not supposed to be, and I am guilty as charged—I love my job, still do.” So what does Mr. Pichette want to seize now? More time with family. More time with his wife Tamar. As they stood catching their breath at sunrise on the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tamar asked Patrick this past fall: “When is it going to be my time, when is it going to be our time?” The seed was planted, watered with tears of recognition that the frenetic pace of always being at beck and call was a raft that was weighted down with seizing the moment.


We cannot seize the moment. We can though let the moment seize us. The Pichettes can now travel the world and “scale back their long hopes to a short period” because Patrick fully received his wife’s message about the preciousness of time spent together. Time though is not our own—we are flowing in it and we can no more grasp it (or make up for its “loss’) than remain holding the small hand of our child for they will grow or the blush on the cheek of a young romance for we will age.


It is not the miles we travel or the length of our days or what experiences we have seized. It is that moment on the peak, as we catch our breath and feel the warmth and depth of our connection to each other, the gratitude for this moment and the next and the next, if only we allow it to seize us.


The Man Who Mistook His Life for That

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 12.27.38 PMMany students sent me this past week a link to Oliver Sack’s My Own Life, an Op Ed piece in the New York Times.


Dr. Sacks, the eminent neurologist turned author of books on people whose brains and or senses lack what some might call “normalcy” is facing his own death from liver cancer. Dr. Sacks is 81, a prodigious and prolific writer; he takes to pen to deliver his own eulogy of sorts, a reflection on his life while exhorting himself and serving model to others to be as fully present to what is important in life and the awareness of what the present moment offers.


He writes: “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. To the contrary, I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”


Within a few hours, Dr. Sacks’ Op Ed piece generated 808 responses to the editor and a note appeared: Comment section closed. Many of the letters were personal, reflections from students and colleagues, from people who drove Dr. Sacks to and from a lecture and from those who encountered him for a moment at the local pool. I wondered if Dr. Sacks would consider reading them essential or inessential. One responder even suggested to Dr. Sacks: “I hope you don’t waste a minute reading these maudlin comments.”


I decided they were essential reading for me, my way to honor the man, who through his books, inspired me to achieve “new levels of understanding and insight.” So I waded through hundreds of these letters, many are a few words, or one or two lines, others are paragraphs long. They fall into the following categories:


  1. Gratitude and love for Oliver Sacks
  2. Adulation (Dr. Sacks gets called a “mensch” many times and “brilliant” even more; one person named his son Oliver because of his respect for Dr. Sacks)
  3. Personal remembrance from students (you inspired me to be a neurologist) and colleagues
  4. Personal remembrances a moment spent with Dr. Sacks (You have a sweet and gentle stroke, it propels you through the water beautifully. Thank you Dr. Sacks, for a kind comment in a pool, to a stranger; a treasured moment and proof that beauty exists in unexpected places).
  5. Evoked memories of dealing with dying loved ones
  6. Unsolicited medical advice (both traditional and other treatment approaches)
  7. Unsolicited religious /spiritual advice (From accept Jesus to “you live on in your works” to thoughts about the immortality of the soul)
  8. Reflections on Dr. Sack’s message (You brought tears to my eyes and made me want to do something more significant with my life).
  9. One short critique (A good essay until he said an individual cannot be replaced. Wishful thinking).
  10. One long critique (see below)


Death is not an easy topic for many of us and when it gets personal, facing the death of a loved one (including the loved one called “me”) it can get even tougher. Dr. Sacks follows many others in helping us get real about death—“I cannot pretend I am without fear” and he is not creating any false hope for himself —“The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.” What shines through is his “predominant feeling of gratitude” for “I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.”


What was the long critique? It is entitled: “May a dissenting voice speak here?” This responder takes offense at what he sees as Dr. Sack’s “need” to focus on his own “productivity”—the prodigious and prolific writings which have endeared him to so many. Indeed, Dr. Sacks does mention that in the last nine years (a gift after being diagnosed then with an ocular melanoma) he has published five books and that in the remaining time left he wants to be as productive as possible (more books to be finished). This responder though is the “man who mistook his life (Oliver Sacks) for that.” Dr. Sacks does admire (his own) productivity, but it is not just “that”—a resume he leaves behind—it is the caring and love and the kindness that infuses his life, whether that is evidenced in the books he writes or in his poolside chats. These are the footprints in the sand of time that are uniquely his—that indeed cannot be replaced.


Oliver Sacks still has (some) time, but as he is doing now, we all do: we live and we die in each moment and we can find comfort in the lovely awareness that he leaves us with: “When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”




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