What a Difference a Smile Makes

This summer has been a rough one for a lot of people. From terrorism at home and abroad, to violence by and against police officers, to a never-ending presidential campaign that will undoubtedly leave millions of Americans feeling alienated by the result, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the suffering, frustration, and hopelessness. So what can any of us do about it? Here’s one idea:

My friend Teri and I were talking recently about how being bombarded with bad news on a near daily basis was wearing us down. We noted that the easiest thing to do would be to stop paying attention to the news and remain blissfully ignorant, but we both understand that’s not the solution. Instead, Teri has decided to do something brilliantly simple to bring some balance into her life—she’s smiling more.

smile

The idea came to her after a friend described a profound experience she recently had with a stranger. The friend said she was driving when she passed an African American man who was walking on the sidewalk. It was a really hot day and he was sweating profusely so she felt compelled to pull over and ask him if he needed a ride. He was confused by the offer but happily accepted. They got to talking and he said he was surprised because in his experience, young white women driving around by themselves don’t normally stop to ask if a black man needs help. She soon found out that the man was walking to the hospital to meet his recently born godson. When she arrived at the hospital, he relayed how
appreciative he was of her kind act because it just meant a lot to him to be acknowledged. She responded by giving the man a hug.

The story moved Teri to tears and got her thinking about what she could do to simply acknowledge the many strangers she crosses paths with on a daily basis. So she decided that the next time she passed someone while walking down the street, she’d push herself out of her comfort zone by making eye contact and smiling. The first time she tried it, an older woman stopped in her tracks, thanked her and complimented Teri on how nice she looked. The brief interaction made Teri’s day and she decided to pay it forward later on when she walked past a well-dressed man, smiled and complimented him on how nice he looked. He was as appreciative of the comment as Teri had been earlier. And just like that, Teri had interacted on a lasting and profound level with two complete strangers simply by smiling and acknowledging that they exist.

My conversation with Teri made me realize that hopelessness is a chosen perspective. When we allow the troubles of the world to weigh us down, we become blind to the real, everyday opportunities we have to actually make a difference in someone’s life. Wouldn’t it be something if the key to solving the world’s problems was as simple as a smile? I think Teri might be on to something.

Originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Utne Reader

Photo courtesy Juozas Salna, licensed under Creative Commons.

No Photos Necessary

It’s amazing how certain memories from childhood can stick with you and continue to shape your adult life. I’m still learning from a memory I have of a particular moment during a high school history class trip to Washington, D.C. and other sites related to the Civil War.

On a cloudy and chilly morning, we were walking around Gettysburg National Battlefield near the intersection of two stone walls called The Angle that was the site of the Confederacy’s last gasp in the fierce and bloody three-day battle. Aware of the historical significance of the site, I thought a photograph was in order, so I took a seat on the wall. As I sat there waiting for a friend to snap the photo, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up and the emotional weight of the place bear down on me. It’s the closest experience I’ve had to paranormal, but it wasn’t scary. Rather, I found it fascinating that a physical place was capable of conveying so much emotional energy, and the experience sparked a love for history and mystery that I still enjoy today.

This past September, I had the opportunity to revisit Gettysburg for the first time since that pivotal moment in my life nearly 20 years ago. The weather was similarly chilly and dismal as I walked through the battlefield toward The Angle. My plan was to walk back to the old stone wall and see if I would feel what I felt that first time.

As I walked along the wall and looked up at a particularly poignant old tree that sits at the heart of The Angle, I contemplated that previous moment and began to feel in tune with the vibrations of that place once again. But this time, as I pulled out my phone to take a photo of the tree, I felt the goosebumps disappear. I soon realized that my effort to preserve a profound moment was precisely what caused me to lose one.

The experience made me wonder how many profound moments I’ve missed whenever I’ve stopped to record them with a photo, video, or social media post. I do these things because I think they’ll help me remember the moment, but I’ve discovered that what makes those moments special to me can’t be preserved through physical or digital artifacts.

I know that many people like documenting special moments with photos and videos and I appreciate why that’s valuable to them. But, speaking for myself, I’ve realized that I glean the most from a special moment when I focus on contemplation rather than collection. I see now that contemplation slows me down and helps the important aspects of an experience reach and nourish me—something that can only happen when I put my phone away and let my heart and mind occupy the moment so fully that I’m able to receive whatever the moment is trying to teach me.

Truth be told, I still enjoy looking at that photo of a gangly 17-year-old me huddled on the old stone wall, but not because it helps me recall a formative moment from my youth. I keep it because it’s a reminder that I never needed it in the first place.

Originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Utne Reader

A Time for Being Sick

Part of my morning routine includes reading a chapter or two of the Tao Te Ching—the ancient book of Taoist wisdom attributed to the mythical Chinese sage Lao-tzu. I particularly like Stephen Mitchell’s modern translation from 1998 and find something in it to meditate on nearly every day.

5443584614_a340a53e72_o

Recently, the following lines from Chapter 29 came in handy when I caught a particularly nasty virus:

There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted;

A stupid source of pride for me has always been defiance in the face of illness; to keep working and pushing myself as if I’m healthy. If I feel like I’m getting sick, I’ll prepare for it by taking extra work home just in case I’m not able to make it into the office the next day, and then work just as hard from home when I should be resting. This time was different, though.

In the past, the “wasted” time of a day spent in bed would have gnawed at me as I’d think about all of the work left undone. But this time, the lines from Chapter 29 came to mind, specifically: “a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted.” One of the many benefits I’ve gained from studying the Tao Te Ching is a profound respect for the polarity of this existence. In order to truly appreciate being healthy, I recognize that I must also know what it means to be sick. And allowing myself to be sick involves accepting that it will take time for the illness to run its course and for my body to return to health. Even though I didn’t turn on my laptop, I don’t remember ever having a more productive sick day. My job that day was simply to be sick and I did it well.

Along with giving my body and mind an overdue day of rest, I caught a glimpse of something else that day: contentment. While ambition and desire can be great motivators for success, I’ve found they are also the sources of disappointment and dissatisfaction when we fail to balance them. They train us to view every moment as an opportunity for advancement, but chide us when we hesitate or fall short. They keep our eyes on the future at the expense of appreciating the here and now. When you’re always thinking about what’s next, contentment becomes an illusion that’s just around the corner instead of a reality that’s right in front of your face.

It seems strange to find contentment in being sick, but that’s what happened when I switched off my ambition and desire for a bit. For me, it’s just another example of what’s possible when I slow down and allow myself to experience the present moment. Being sick obviously isn’t as fun as being healthy, but it’s still a reminder that I’m alive.

Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Utne Reader.

Meditating on a More Meaningful Life

How daily breathing awareness is changing my life

The ability to multitask is considered an asset in the workplace. I’ve often found myself drafting an email, reading incoming messages, editing an article, and browsing art for a layout, all seemingly at once. I thought this meant I was pretty close to being as efficient and productive as possible; imagine my surprise when meditation showed me otherwise.

I’ve been meditating every morning since December. My guide is a new book by Buddhist writer Lodro Rinzler titled Sit Like a Buddha, and it’s the most accessible beginner’s guide to meditation I’ve read. Rinzler focuses on the calm-abiding meditation called shamatha; which, as he describes it, “wakes you up to what is going on in this very moment, through training in paying attention to something that embodies this moment: the breath.”

After about three weeks of 10-minute meditation every morning, I started to feel calmer and less anxious over the course of the day, which motivated me to keep doing it. I’ve since upped those 10 minutes to 15 minutes per session, and have noticed that I’ve become a better listener in conversations, more focused when reading, and far less prone to general distraction. In fact, I’m getting more done now at work than I ever did with my old approach of multitasking. If an email needs to be written I set my focus on that alone and if something distracts me, I’m quicker to recognize the distraction, which brings me back to the moment. Sooner than I know it, a concise and coherent email has been sent and I’m on to the next task. I still have as much to do every day, but I’m no longer frantically bouncing back and forth between a growing list of half-finished tasks that eventually overwhelm me. Instead, I’m fully engaged in the moment, rather than multitasking it away—an awareness that is starting to shape my life outside of the office, too.

Before beginning the shamatha practice, Rinzler asks the reader to establish a specific intent for why they want to start meditating. Mine was “to become more connected to myself, others, and the universe.” I considered less ambitious intents such as relaxation or stress-relief, but something about the notion of connection resonated with me. I realize now that the source of that particular intent was my intuition—a voice that I could barely hear anymore over the cacophony of distraction that comes with living in the 21st century. With meditation, I’ve been able to quiet the peripheral noise and listen to the voice in my head again; the voice I know I can trust to distinguish the decisions that shape a truly meaningful life from the ones that inevitably leave me feeling empty and aimless.

If you don’t believe that 10 minutes of daily breathing awareness can lead to those kinds of realizations, all I can say is give it a shot; they just may become the most important 10 minutes you spend every day.

Originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Utne Reader

Photo courtesy Sebastian Wiertz, licensed under Creative Commons.

Finding the Value in Ritual and Ceremony

The beauty and benefit of ritual and ceremony when separated from dogma

I have a new favorite perk that was recently installed in our breakroom: an ice cream vending machine. It doesn’t get much better than $1 for a Klondike bar whenever I feel like one.

Partly for the sake of my waistline, I’ve been reintroducing myself to ritual and ceremony. In this case, I’ve decided to reserve the Klondike bar for my personal celebration when we wrap up production of an issue. As I write this, I’m looking forward to the moment when this issue is sent to the printer and I’m able to sit quietly in my office for 10 minutes and enjoy the Klondike.

Going forward, I’m sure I’ll find it tempting to have an ice cream bar between deadlines, but I know that I’ll appreciate my ice cream bar a lot more if I maintain its special place in my life. It sounds silly, but it’s a simple way to make something I enjoy more meaningful.

I became reacquainted with ritual and ceremony in October 2014 when my wife and I spent a week in Spain. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey outside of Barcelona. We went in the evening specifically for Vespers, which features Gregorian chant by the Benedictine monks who live there. It’d been a while since I’d spent time in a church, and watching the evening prayer service unfold reminded me of what I missed most about the faith of my youth: the familiarity and comfort of the liturgy, the feeling of singing in unison, and the opportunity for contemplation that being in a church provided. Above all, I remembered how those aspects of ritual and ceremony were essential in preparing my mind and body for the spiritual experience I was there to have. They served to establish my intent, clear my mind of distraction, and help me remain in the moment.

Feeling goosebumps as the monks chanted, I realized that while I’ve discarded the rigid dogmatism of my childhood faith, there’s still value to glean from applying certain aspects of ritual and ceremony to my life again. Though my definition of “God” couldn’t be much more different than the one I used growing up, my desire for a spiritual encounter with the divine is stronger than ever. When I take a walk in the woods, play music, paint a picture, dream, meditate, or float in a sensory deprivation tank, I know I’m seeking a connection with the divine. Each of those activities involves a specific, yet routine preparation that I’ve chosen to redefine as ritual. Some are as simple as changing into painting clothes or taking a shower, but no matter how banal they might be, I still find them to be effective invocations when I choose to see them that way.

For me, that’s part of the beauty of ritual and ceremony when separated from dogma; the only rules are my own.

Originally published in the Winter 2014 issue of Utne Reader.

Photo courtesy Keith Roper, licensed under Creative Commons.

Everything in Moderation, Especially Facebook

Ensuring that a technology designed to bring us closer together doesn’t make us strangers to each other

Several months ago, I shared my dismay at no longer being able to sit and do nothing due to a smartphone dependency. It’s been four months since that realization, and I’m happy to report that I’m finding it much easier to disconnect from the phone and plug in to the real world around me.

This recently became apparent when my wife and I spent a week in Spain. Unable to use the dataplans on our iPhones seemed at first to be an inconvenience, but quickly revealed itself to be a blessing. Our idle time waiting for the Metro or relaxing on a park bench was spent daydreaming and people-watching rather than Facebook surfing. It’s entirely possible that some of our best memories from the trip wouldn’t exist had we been able to distract ourselves with the digital universe.

For my wife, the experience really hit home. In the month since we’ve been back she’s had little desire to log into Facebook. While I’ve noticed that she still pops in occasionally, she barely scrolls through her feed before quickly losing interest. A week away not only helped her realize how much of a daily distraction it had become, but also how unfulfilling a connection it is for keeping in touch with people.

She’s aware, though, that her decision to cut Facebook out of her life may come with a cost: knowing what’s going in the lives of friends and family. While most Facebook posts simply document everyday details or massage someone’s ego, the ease with which one can share exciting news, wedding engagements, birth announcements, or any other milestone through a quick post makes it plain to see that Facebook has become the most efficient way to communicate with all of our loved ones at once. And when distance keeps people from spending real time together, there’s no denying that Facebook is often the next best thing. I’m even aware of real-life friendships that have started as a result of being introduced through Facebook.

But I also sense that for many, Facebook is becoming a substitute for keeping in “real” touch with one another. A good friend of ours recently relayed a surreal experience in which someone they were having a live conversation with referred them to their Facebook page to read the details they didn’t feel like repeating at the time. In this instance, a technology designed to bring us all closer together is actually more effective at making us strangers to each other.

While this cultural disconnect due to social media isn’t a new development, I appreciate the reminder that it’s happening; my wife’s decision to significantly cut back has led me to be more conscious of the real-life relationships I want to have and the real-life effort that’s required to do so. I think Facebook is great for sharing funny pictures, interesting articles, and inspiring information, but when “liking” someone becomes the prerequisite for knowing what to talk about with that person in real life, we’ve lost the rudder.

For those of us who remember what life was like before the digital age, achieving balance with Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg. As our society becomes even more connected (and dependent) on technology, regular reality checks like the one my wife made will become even more important if we hope to maintain real connections to ourselves, each other, and the natural world we’re apart of. It’s the only way we’ll ensure that technology serves us and not the other way around.

Originally published at Utne Reader.

Photo courtesy Khalid Albaih, licensed under Creative Commons.

The Lost Art of Doing Nothing

What are we missing out on when we use our smart phones to pass idle time?

Recently, while eating lunch by myself at a local diner, I realized something that genuinely bothered me: I’m losing the ability to sit and do nothing. Where I used to be able to sit contently and simply daydream or observe my surroundings, I now feel anxious, restless, and awkward if I’m sitting alone with nothing specific for my hands or brain to do.

It didn’t take me long to figure out why. Looking around at the other solo diners that day, I noticed a common denominator: the smart phone. With sandwiches in one hand and thumbs scrolling through Facebook in the other, we all seemed incapable of disconnecting from our phones, even for a 15-minute lunch. That’s when it dawned on me that it’s entirely possible the most damaging effect of technology’s integration into our daily lives is that it’s replacing something many people have never thought was worth doing—sitting still and simply letting your mind wander.

As soon as I figured out what was going on, I put my phone away. But that’s when the awkwardness set in. If you want to feel out of place in a public setting these days, just start staring off into space or watching people as they walk by. Do it long enough and someone is liable to walk up and ask you if you’re feeling OK. That’s because we’re so accustomed to seeing people tethered to their smart phones—it’s the new normal. If you’re not killing time with your face fused to a screen, then you’re the weird one in the room.

Of course, I’m not the first person to notice how technological connectivity is making it easier to disconnect from ourselves and each other in myriad ways. In 2013, comedian Louis C.K. shared his hatred for cell phones on Conan, and observed how we use technology these days to distract us from thinking about the depressing aspects of life. As he points out, taking on those thoughts head on is the only way to defuse them of their explosive potential.

My concern is similar to his, but with a twist. I worry that the more dependent we become on technology to help us pass idle time, the less likely we’ll be to allow our minds to wander in positive ways. It’s already become commonplace for parents to hand their kids an iPhone when they’re restless in the backseat or complaining of boredom. While I recognize the logic-enhancing and hand/eye coordination benefits of video games in young people, I can’t help but wonder how that constant stimulation is taking away opportunities for them to expand their imaginations, creativity, and overall mindfulness.

I’m noticing it in older generations, too. Just the other day, I witnessed a woman walking outside on a beautiful morning with her head down, reading a Kindle. Meanwhile, the natural beauty of her surroundings was going by unnoticed. While it’s true that she was engaging her imagination through the book, her brain was missing out on a different kind of stimulation—the kind you can only get when you allow yourself to truly appreciate the natural world we’re all apart of. And lest you think stopping to smell the roses or listening to the birds sing isn’t all that important, consider that establishing a true and lasting connection to nature may be only way we’ll be able to shake society’s general apathy toward climate change and make the real changes necessary to curb its impacts.

Which brings me to my favorite argument for why we need to spend more time staring into space rather than into a screen: how else can we encourage the cutting-edge ideas, innovations, and solutions that only seem to pop into one’s mind when it’s disengaged from a specific task and allowed to wander? I recently read Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, which is a fascinating rundown of the work habits of 161 of history’s greatest creative thinkers from Matisse and Mahler to Freud and Einstein. What stood out to me by the end was how many of them took time out of their busy days to take a walk or just sit and seemingly do nothing. Who knows how many world-changing ideas first made themselves apparent during those daily moments of stillness and contemplation? It suggested to me that what we consider “downtime” may actually be the access point to a higher plane of thinking—one that I’m hoping to find my way back into now that I’ve opened my eyes again to the world that exists outside of the phone in my pocket.

Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of Utne Reader.

Photo courtesy Peronimo, licensed under Creative Commons