Friday, December 28, 2012
Monday, December 3, 2012
It began as an experiment and ended as a conviction. I wanted to know if a simple daily ritual could create real and lasting transformation. I wanted to know if willfully choosing and shaping my thoughts could change my attitude. I wanted to know if emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being was simply a matter of pointing my attention in the right direction. The answers? Yes, yes and yes.
Last January I began keeping a gratitude journal.
The idea is not new. In ancient times wise people understood the unbreakable link between thought and action. It’s obvious that every action begins as a thought, but what is less clear is how actions shape consciousness. Buddha taught that we become what we think about. The Bhagavad Gita says that we become what we love. Aristotle taught that repeated actions become habits and habits construct character. We become what we do.
I wanted to test these ancient claims in as simple a fashion as possible. I wanted to know if a simple daily ritual could really make a difference. I wanted to know if gratitude was the key that would unlock the door to a happier, more joyful, more positive, more compassionate and more creative life. All I needed was willingness, a pencil, a blank book and a little discipline.
At first I was skeptical. Like most people, my default, baseline state of mind was restless anxiety, worry, craving and dissatisfaction. No matter how hard I slaved on my to-do lists, they were never completed. There was always something broken that needed fixing, a problem unsolved or a need unmet. Like a constant, steady background hum, dissatisfaction was a continual presence, punctuated briefly by fleeting moments of joy and well-being.
This was no way to live. I was ready to try something different, even if it sounded a little weird.
Last January 1st I began. I wrote two sentences in my blank book that began with the words, “I’m grateful for…” The pattern was set. Every morning this year without fail, I dutifully performed my ritual.
It wasn’t always easy. In fact, there were many mornings when I struggled to come up with something new. Did I always feel grateful? No. But that didn’t matter. I was determined to earnestly complete my daily task. Often I would write the words, “I’m grateful for…”, then sit back and wait for something to occur to me, casting the searchlight of awareness across the furthest reaches of my life. But it was usually something right in front of me that caught my mind’s eye and made it to the page – the soft breathing of my thirteen year old dog Boone asleep at my feet, or the half moon descending through the pines in the pale morning sky.
Already in my second month I began to notice a shift. Having to come up with new gratitude material every morning changed the way I looked at my day. Knowing that every dawn brought a writing assignment, I paid more attention to the bounty of my life. I began to awaken to the abundance – the generosity of my colleagues, the warmth of my marriage, the joy of my work, the love of my family, the acceptance of my friends, the fleeting beauty of the world.
I should have known this would happen. The same thing happens when I keep a travel journal – I begin to look at the journey through the eyes of a writer, selecting, storing and framing the events of the day and getting them ready for the next morning’s writing session. And when I travel with a camera around my neck, I’m constantly checking the angle of the light and scanning for the next shot. A gratitude journal is no different.
Then the second shift happened. What you think about expands. By simply looking for gratitude, I found it. And the more I found, the more I felt – the consciousness of gratitude began to be a state of mind, a starting point that had little to do with what was going on around me. Gratitude became the lens through which I saw the world.
This was a surprise. I had always thought gratitude was an end-point, a sense of well-being experienced at the end of a process of acquisition. What if the consciousness of gratitude is a starting point, a freely chosen state of mind unhinged from the ego’s incessant demands and default dissatisfaction?
More research was required. I kept journaling.
As the months rolled on I began to look forward to my morning ritual. It was getting easier. I began to notice that instead of skittering across the surface of my mind the daily ritual of gratitude had worn a groove, a groove I found myself falling into more often than not. Being grateful began to feel normal. I was constructing a new default baseline one journal entry at a time. Aristotle was right. We become what we do.
The more time I spent in gratitude, the more I realized how little I understood about gratitude. There was still more to discover. But I was willing to learn.
It turns out that gratitude is not just one thing, it’s many things. It’s a doorway to a whole new a way of being in the world. Maybe the simplest way to say it is this: gratitude is freedom. When you train yourself into the consciousness of gratitude, you are set free from the relentless craving and fear of the ego mind. Most unexamined consciousness, what Buddha called conditioned thinking, is simply the endless repetition of two fundamental energies, craving and aversion. There’s one list of all the things we want, and another list of all the things we don’t want. Life as it is normally lived is little more than the laborious maintenance of these two lists. But when we shift into gratitude, we realize that we have everything we need and there is nothing to fear.
Then comes an even deeper shift.
By reducing our anxiety about what we have not yet received or achieved, we tap into a richer and more vibrant creativity, a state of being that anxiety and fear cuts out. When you experientially know that you live in an infinitely abundant universe, and that you receive everything you need, you soften, you open, you see, you hear and you feel more. And because your hands are no longer clenched in a death-grip on the things you mistakenly call “yours,” you are open and available to receive the next gifts the universe is trying to give you. Your intentions will more readily become your creations as you move out of the consciousness of scarcity and into the consciousness of gratitude and allowance. You will struggle less and co-create more.
Who knew that just a few minutes of writing in the morning could have such a profound impact? And if I fall out of the groove of gratitude, I have in my hand a whole book, a year’s worth of tangible evidence that I really am awash in abundance. But the real proof is within me.
As the New Year begins, we have an opportunity. It isn’t hard to change. All it takes is willingness, a pencil, a blank book and a little discipline. What will you be doing in the early morning hours of January 1st? Will 2013 be a year of craving and fear or a year of living gratefully?
Wednesday, November 7, 2012
In his new autobiography, Neil Young comes clean. Because of his recent brain surgery, and under the advice of his physicians, he quit smoking marijuana. He put down the pipe in January 2011 and hasn’t smoked since. Not bad for a guy who’s been stoned since the sixties. Inspired by his adult daughter’s journey into sobriety, he also gave up alcohol. Any good child of the sixties is naturally drawn to experimenting with altered states of consciousness. And when you’ve been stoned and drunk for forty years, sobriety is the new high.
At first he worried, will I be able to write songs? Will I still want to make music? But the dam soon broke – he returned to his craft with renewed zeal and ferocity recording two albums in a row with his long time and distortion drenched rock band Crazy Horse. The first was a collection of folk standards called Americana. The second, released on October 30, is the first ever collection of originals by the clean and sober songwriter. Psychedelic Pill put his worries to rest. Neil Young’s star has never shined brighter.
I quit drinking eleven years ago, and put down the pipe many years before that. The pursuit of music was so deeply interwoven with those two activities, I too wondered if I would ever again write and perform music with the same conviction and abandon. My fears were mislaid. In fact, the opposite occurred. When I came out of the fog, I began to write much better songs. And I became clearer about how to record and perform those songs more effectively. My entire recording career as a solo artist and the success I enjoyed with my band The Coyote Problem, including all the San Diego Music Awards, happened after I got clean. It’s like I awakened from a dream, walked outside, and found the courage to take my place in the sun. The stoned and drunk me was always too tentative, too wracked with self-doubt, too stuck in my own head to dare to live out loud. I sometimes wonder how many opportunities I let slip by just so I could stay hidden.
Marijuana and alcohol are tricky. One is legal and one is not. Anyone can see the indefensible absurdity of drug and alcohol laws. It makes no sense that alcohol is legal, widely available and socially sanctioned while marijuana is not. It’s perfectly respectable to drink three glasses of wine as your eyes glaze over and your cheeks turn red. Police officers, judges, governors, mothers and priests do it all the time. But smoke one puff of a plant you grew in your own backyard and you’re a criminal. None of it makes any sense.
Yet marijuana use is not without its personal costs. It may not be as benign as its advocates proclaim.
Last year one of my students came to see me in my office. She was a brilliant, articulate, well read and thoughtful young woman. I wasn’t sure what she’d come to discuss. After fidgeting and staring at the floor for a long, uncomfortable silence she said, “I have a drug problem.”
Then it all spilled out.
The drug was marijuana. Not only was she a daily smoker, she stayed stoned from the moment she awoke in the morning till the moment she went to bed. There was never one single moment of one single day when she wasn’t stoned. As she told me her story, one word kept cycling around in my mind. More than anything else she seemed brokenhearted.
She wasn’t interested in counseling or therapy. As a college professor I had all those resources at my fingertips, and was ready with phone numbers. She shook her head. She only had one question. “What should I do?”
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think I want to quit,” she said, “but I can’t keep going like this.”
And that was the crux. Her restlessness, her anger, her dissatisfaction, her discomfort were powerful messages in and of themselves. Sometimes suffering is a gift. It’s o.k. if you don’t know what to do next, I told her. Sometimes it’s enough to know that you can’t stay here.
A particularly poignant part of her story was the fact that her mother, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, has a medical marijuana card and smokes to dull the edge of her chronic pain. It’s easy to see that marijuana is a remarkably effective medicine for certain chronic conditions and used judiciously it can be a highly beneficial component of palliative care. But every medicine is also a poison. Her family home was filled with clouds of marijuana smoke. For everyone in the house, including her two younger siblings, marijuana consumption was as commonplace as breathing air. How was she going to find the courage to put down the pipe under these conditions? It’s easy to support medical marijuana in principle, but our passionate public discourse on the issue rarely considers the long shadow cast by these clouds of smoke.
We talked for a while and looked at it from every angle. I didn’t preach or tell her what to do. It was enough to simply be present with her confusion and frustration. The only suggestion I offered was experimenting with a temporary hiatus. Why not stop for a week or two, just to see what happens – just to see who you are without it. Marijuana powerfully and effectively shifts one’s emotional and conceptual frameworks. It might be instructive to see what the options are. It might be helpful to see what it feels like to not be stoned.
When she left I felt frustrated and a little worried. I wished I could have been more helpful. But the best we can do for each other is bear witness. I cannot choose for her. Her authentic freedom is a Holy Grail only she can find.
She said she would try to quit for a while just to see how it felt.
The next time I saw her she was stoned.
It’s funny. When you first begin drinking and smoking, you do it because it lifts you over your adolescent awkwardness. It helps you overcome fear and sets you free to connect with others. It softens the pain and clears out the clutter so you can more immediately experience beauty and joy. Then it turns around. As the consumption becomes habitual, it begins to have the opposite effect. The life of the addict and alcoholic is a life of increasing isolation and disconnection. You get stuck in your own little world. Things lose their luster and turn dull. It just stops working. You feel anything but free. And a small voice inside of you starts asking for something more.
Drugs and alcohol are neither good nor evil. I seriously doubt the criminal justice system has any significant role to play, apart from the obviously sensible prohibitions against driving under the influence. What we put in our bodies is by its very nature a very personal and private decision. Each of us must bear the burden of our own choices, and take responsibility for crafting our own best lives. That some are more competent in this task than others is clear. But we must never dogmatize about how others are to live their lives. It is hard enough to live our own. Human beings have sought out consciousness altering substances since the beginning of time and no set of laws or social conventions is going to change that. But the deeper and more pressing question remains. What role do these substances have in a fully realized, vibrant and joyful life? There’s only one person who knows the answer to that question.
Saturday, November 3, 2012
This obituary originally appeared in the Ventura County Star on Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Hilbert Bolland (February 19, 1922 – October 26, 2012)
Hilbert Bolland of Ventura, California died peacefully on October 26, 2012 at the age of ninety. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, November 10 at 11:00 a.m. at Unity Church of Ventura, 740 E. Main St., Ventura, California. He is survived by his brother and sister-in-law Hans and Ida Bolland, his wife of sixty six years Amy Bolland, their three sons and daughters-in-law Eric and Patty Bolland, John and Lourana Bolland and Peter and Lori Bolland, along with eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Named after his grandfather, Hilbert Bolland was born on February 19, 1922 on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. His father had taken a position as a school teacher with the government of the Dutch East Indies. His oldest sister was born in Holland, but Hilbert and the rest of his siblings were born there, growing up in the shadows of volcanoes, running barefoot through rainforests full of elephants, tigers and orangutan.
After Hilbert graduated from high school at the age of seventeen in 1939, the family took the long sea voyage back home to Holland as they had done every six years for their father’s customary six month leave of absence. As they sailed away, they didn’t know they would never see their tropical home again. A few weeks after their arrival in Holland, Germany invaded Poland. Soon after, England and France declared war on Germany. The nightmare of WWII would engulf everyone’s lives. The peaceful islands of Indonesia became a distant memory.
Life became even more challenging in May, 1940 when the Germans invaded Holland. The next five years of Nazi occupation brought horror that would haunt Hilbert the rest of his life. But it was also a time of tremendous personal and professional growth. Despite the challenges of wartime occupation, Hilbert completed three years of typographical school setting the stage for his lifetime profession in printing.
In 1943, as life in Holland grew increasingly dire, Hilbert was taken by the Nazis to Germany to work as a slave laborer in a print shop. Despite the unimaginable terror of war, Hilbert often spoke of the kindness he received at the hands of the everyday Germans who lived and worked alongside him. It deeply shaped him to realize that even in the midst of chaos and madness there was a spiritual core of goodness in everyone.
When the war ended in 1945 Hilbert returned to Holland. Soon, in September 1946, he and his young sweetheart Amy Van Niel were married in the Rosicrucian Temple in Haarlem, Amy’s hometown. Unaccustomed to the cold northern climate after a long childhood in the tropics and eager for an adventure in the new world, Hilbert convinced Amy to leave war-torn Europe. The newlyweds sailed for America in 1950 with their two year old son Eric and another one on the way. Their second son John was born in their new home town of West Paterson, New Jersey. Hilbert found work doing what he loved as a typesetter at the New York Daily News. Eight years later their third son Peter was born.
In 1962 Hilbert and Amy bought a trailer and a Chevy station wagon and moved their young family across the country to California. They were aiming for the San Francisco Bay area, but after a swing through Los Angeles they stopped in Ventura, a quiet town just south of Santa Barbara. Pulling over to rest at Plaza Park downtown, Amy noticed the newspaper building right across the street – the Ventura Star-Free Press (now known as the Ventura County Star). “Why don’t you walk over and see if they need a typesetter,” she said. Hilbert came back a half hour later. “I start on Monday.”
Soon they bought a house on Clemson Street. Hilbert planted two palm trees in the front yard to remind him of his childhood home in Indonesia. He lived in that house nearly fifty years – most of his life.
Hilbert was a peaceful, contemplative and spiritual man with an ear for music, an eye for beauty and a deep love of the natural world. He took great pleasure in being a family man and was steadfast and constant in his love for Amy and the three boys. He greatly enjoyed his daily cup of tea with Amy every afternoon, as well as the nightly ritual of gathering the family around the dinner table for the evening meal. Hilbert also took the family on countless camping trips and day trips exploring the America he had loved since he was a little boy in Indonesia where he had seen his first travelogues about the far-off mysterious land of grand canyons and sky high mountains. His lifelong love of film led him to shoot and edit hundreds of hours of home movies. He also wrote long letters home to his loved ones in Holland and enjoyed gardening and the quiet life.
Hilbert and Amy greatly enjoyed their decades of service as volunteers at the Ventura County Fair and took particular pleasure in their roles as docents at the Dudley House Historical Museum. A lifelong learner and a natural born teacher, Hilbert often spoke to civic groups about the experiences he recounts in his self-published autobiography The Nightingale Sings Forever. Hilbert loved Ventura very much, and gave so much back to the city he called home.
We are honored to call him our husband, our brother, our father, our grandfather, our great-grandfather and our friend. We will carry with us his quiet, endless love throughout the rest of the days of our lives.
The Bolland family would like to extend a special and heartfelt thank you to the entire staff of Glenwood Care Center where Hilbert was lovingly cared for during his lengthy stay, and the Rose Room Hospice staff for their compassionate end of life care during his final months. We are deeply and eternally grateful for their constancy and kindness.
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
A circle has no beginning and no end. It is ceaseless motion, an endless orbit around the still-point of the center. As the earth spins around the sun and shifts on its axis, shadows lengthen and the halcyon glow of summer grows dim. One by one the seasons take their turn, bringing us here again to the season of surrender. All the hallmarks of fall are upon us – school, football, and the turning of the leaves. With the certainty of death, things that once seemed so invincible – bright fields of ripening corn, hot July sun, the flush of summer love – fade away and lose their luster. It is time to settle down into the wisdom of fall.
Let go. “All forms arise and all forms fade,” taught the Buddha. Embracing the inherent impermanence of forms is the work of all who would be wise. Autumn wastes no time on subtlety, loosening the dry leaves from the trees with callous abandon, tossing them to the street where they flow in long rivers of red, gold and amber, clattering like bones, gathering in eddies against walls where they slowly turn to dust and slip back into the soil. We see the sky anew through the bare branches and feel in our gut its infinite reach. We come to know that in our lives too everything we have built, cultivated, nurtured and grown will come to an end and be taken from us – a slow fade followed by a sudden gust. Renunciation or letting go is the hardest lesson to learn. We understand it intellectually, but to actually do it? Nothing requires more courage. But in the low light of autumn, we see from a fresh angle the inevitability of change and loss, and we choose to say yes.
Be Grateful. Fall helps us shift away from the agitation of grief and toward the serenity of gratitude. We see how graciously the earth releases its grasp on the forms of summer and allows the withering to begin. We know that we don’t own any of this, all of it is borrowed, and the tighter we cling and grasp, the more painful the separation. Loss is certain. Our only choice is to grasp or release. We set the tone. Will our losses be graceful or wrenching? Instead of clinging and craving, we choose the consciousness of gratitude, the open-hearted joy that we even got to touch any of it, that we had these hands to hold, these eyes to see, this beautiful laughter, that afternoon when we walked on the beach and finally had the chance to say those important things to each other, these sweet late summer peaches, the blue moon of August rising through the pines, all of it a gift, none of it ours to keep. In the face of this great and ongoing loss, the only sane stance is deep and boundless gratitude for the infinite generosity of our lives.
This is beauty too. Beauty isn’t just the flowers of spring or the green fields of summer. This tawny grass and the brown ferns and the bare trees of autumn hold their own beauty – empty, clear, simple, provocative, pure in form and deep as the ocean. Holding the spotted, wrinkled hands of our elders, wiping the drool away from the mouths of the dying, carrying our old dogs that can no longer walk out to the car for that last ride to the vet, the pale distance in the eyes that no longer see us or know our voice, this is beauty too. One of my favorite memories of my father, the last time I saw him at his house, was the day I shaved him out on the patio. He sat quietly in a chair and jutted out his chin as I ran the electric razor over his sunken cheeks and the loose skin of his neck. At 90 he no longer fit the youthful stereotype of beauty. But I saw an amazing man there behind the fog of his Alzheimer’s and the veil of his grizzled face and wrinkled skin. Autumn shows us that there is beauty in every stage of form, from conception to dissolution. Why should one moment be more valuable than any other? Every moment is a window into the infinite, and the infinite is the source of all beauty.
Nothing ends. “There never was a time when you did not exist, nor will there ever be a time when you cease to exist,” said Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. In the perennial philosophy there is a deep and unshakable conviction that while outer forms come and go our essential nature is timeless. As Eckhart Tolle wrote in Stillness Speaks, “Death is not the opposite of life. The opposite of death is birth. Life has no opposite.” And Joseph Campbell asks, “Are we the light bulb? Or are we the light, of which the bulb is a vehicle?” All around us the Grim Reaper takes his harvest, but Life itself is unharmed, and is in fact served by the pruning, just as a rose bush blooms best in spring if last year’s dead wood is removed. Flowers blossom and fade, but the rose goes on.
Returning to our roots. As the brash colors of summer seep from the world leaving a hundred hues of beige and grey, life’s essence slips beneath the surface. Plants and trees withdraw their energy and settle down into their roots. No longer outward turned, we too go within and touch that sacred center from which we and all things come. Tending to the source means leaving aside our busy lives and growing quiet, trusting the world to carry on without us – we won’t be missed as much as our egos think we’ll be. This is the paradox inherent in the deep realization that we are at once nothing and everything. The quiet music of our eternal nature is easily drowned out by the noise of the world. But inward turned, we gradually hear the one song of the universe playing in us, through us, as us. To be liberated and returned to one’s essential nature is the yearning of every soul, and only in the stillness of autumn can we feel in our hearts this ancient longing, and heed its gentle pull. As we learn to be still, we return to our authentic being, what Zen Buddhism calls our Original Self. It is a sacred homecoming of healing and restitution.
The joy of surrendering. Autumn is commonly met with melancholy. This needn’t be. Only from the perspective of spring and summer does autumn seem sad. From the still point at the center of the circle, each season has its place in the great turning, and is in itself a celebration of the whole. Autumn is a time of freedom. It is joyful to be free of the old forms that encased us. It is delightful to walk on unencumbered, beholden only to the yearning in our heart for what’s next. So insidious is the process of attachment that we never realize how heavy our load is until it is taken from us. As the Zen saying goes, “How refreshing, the whinny of a packhorse unburdened of everything.” With open hands and open hearts we walk on, grateful for the blossoming of spring, the bounty of summer, the liberation of fall and the restoration of winter, knowing in our bones that each season is a stage in a great and infinite unfolding. This is the wisdom that each of the seasons gives us. This is the secret for which we have so long toiled. These are the best days of our lives. These are the hours of our amazement. This is the moment of our awakening. We are grateful, and head over heels in love with every drop of rain, every budding branch, every falling leaf and every flake of snow. We stand in the center of it all and say yes.