Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Physician, Heal Thyself

Everyone in the healing professions understands this strange paradox – that they don’t heal their patients. No matter how clever, committed, or well-trained, doctors, nurses, and therapists cannot impose healing from the outside. At their best, they simply co-create the conditions within which our mind-body system can best restore itself to wholeness. We are largely self-regulating systems, in a million ways continually seeking to reset and restore the optimal conditions of our natural design. The only thing healers can do is remove the impediments to this innate process.
            When you cut your finger oozing blood flushes out foreign bodies. As it contacts the air blood begins to coagulate, forming a scab and sealing the wound. White blood cells rush to the area to fight infection. Around the wound blood vessels swell bringing an abundance of oxygen which accelerates healing. Red blood cells help form collagen, a tough connective substance your body uses to build new tissue. As the wound heals beneath the surface, the skin begins to close over the opening. Eventually, it’s as if the cut never happened – we are wholly restored.
And not one single aspect of this complex process is accomplished intentionally.
You do not have to will yourself to heal – it happens without your knowledge or consent. The body restores itself to wholeness. In this sense, we are all physicians.
This same principle is at work in our efforts to heal one another’s broken hearts. When we get the horrible phone call – one of our friends has suffered a sudden and shocking loss – we rush to their side. On the drive over we struggle to find the right words. But how can words buoy us over the depths of our grief? They cannot. Instead, we wander together through the labyrinth of despair and somehow keep breathing. By our presence alone, and through the space we hold together, healing begins to arise.
In Judaism this core principle is formalized in the ritual known as “sitting shiva.” For observant Jews, this shiva (seven) day mourning period ritualizes and facilitates the natural healing that slowly arises after the death of a loved one. For seven days the bereaved stay home and sit in low chairs as close to the ground as possible, signifying the wisdom of coming out of lofty abstraction and settling down into the stability of immediacy. A torn black ribbon is worn, symbolizing the impermanence of forms. All of the mirrors in the home are covered, to shift us away from self-centeredness and toward universal, sacred consciousness. You allow the quiet to envelope you. You let people come and take care of you. Simply being together in the stillness, in a period of focused presence and contemplation, you leave space – space through which the soul’s own healing power can rise up the way ground water seeps into a meadow. Soon, the flowers of our lives will once again bloom.
A century ago missionaries in Africa were on a three-day trek with a group of local tribesmen. On the second day the tribesmen stopped in the early afternoon and began setting up camp.
“Why are we stopping?” asked the missionaries. “It’s still early and everyone appears well.”
“Yes,” replied the tribesman, “but we covered so much ground yesterday, we must rest to allow our souls to catch up with our bodies.”
In our increasingly fast-paced and fragmented lives, it’s more important than ever to create rituals in our lives that, in the words of the tribesmen, allow our souls to catch up with our bodies. Practicing conscious stillness whether in formal meditation or in more spontaneous acts allows our natural restorative processes to convey their many blessings. Maybe healing, health, wealth, and wellness are not achieved as much as they are allowed.
It is not our cleverness or ambition that draws infinite richness into our lives – it is our willingness to leave gaps in our busyness through which it may enter. In this way, we heal ourselves.

 [This piece originally appeared in my A to Zen column in the January/February 2018 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.] 

Friday, December 1, 2017

The New Hedonism

Like anyone else, I’ve spent a lot of time chasing pleasure. Whether it was food or other substances, I’ve done my share. And then some. And like anyone else, it’s often bitten me in the ass. The very thing I thought would do me good turned around and did me bad. Turns out, managing pleasure is not so easy.
It feels good to feel good. Naturally, we want more of it. Even a single celled organism swims toward the food and away from the pain. Freud called this universal dynamic the “pleasure principle.” Bentham and Mill called it the “principle of utility” and built an entire ethical system around it known as utilitarianism. And two ancient Greek philosophers, Aristippus and Epicurus, asserted that pleasure was the highest good, and that we were morally obligated to pursue it. The Greek word for pleasure is “hedone.” Their philosophy is called hedonism.
            Hedonism asserts that pleasure not only feels good, it is good. But Aristippus and Epicurus disagreed on the exact nature of pleasure. For Aristippus, all pleasures were equal, and no meaningful distinctions could be made between higher and lower pleasures. When you and I use the word “hedonism,” this is the version of hedonism we usually mean – pleasure for pleasure’s sake, the more the better, the sooner the better, and consequences be damned.
For Epicurus, on the other hand, a more refined definition of pleasure comes into view. In Epicureanism, an important distinction is made between higher pleasures and lower pleasures. Lower pleasures engage the senses. Higher pleasures engage the mind and the soul. For Aristippus the pleasure derived from scratching a mosquito bite is morally equivalent to the pleasure derived from reading literature or writing music. Epicurus disagrees. For him, higher pleasures are of a much higher quality than lower pleasures, and are therefore preferable, even if in lesser amount or mixed with pain. Aristippus focuses on quantity, Epicurus on quality. Quantity or quality – what matters most to you?
            For Epicurus and his followers (known as Epicureans), the best life was a simple life of friendship, healthy living, and peace of mind. A good night’s sleep, a clear-headed morning, lucid thoughts, a keen sense of presence, and rich conversation offer deeper pleasure than the wildest evening of excess and revelry. Debauchery and conspicuous consumption, the hallmark of Aristippus’s form of hedonism, have no place in the Epicurean worldview for one simple reason – they do not in fact lead to more pleasure, but less. Sickness, dissipation, strained relationships, and that empty feeling that you’re wasting your life – these hardly qualify as “pleasure” let alone happiness. The well-lived life, Epicurus argued, was a source of deep satisfaction. In simple terms, less is more – restraint of appetite leads to a profusion of happiness. The mechanics of pleasure are more subtle and nuanced than we first imagined.
            Another important consideration in pleasure management is the element of time. How good are you at trading small, short-term pleasure for larger long-term pleasures? The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham called this consideration propinquity – nearness in time. For example, spending your entire paycheck as soon as you get it on fleeting entertainment vs. setting aside 10% of it for larger, more significant purchases in the future, like your next car or a trip to Paris. Either way it’s self-centered hedonism, yet clearly, one is more effective at maximizing pleasure than the other. If you’re really serious about pleasure, you learn how to wait.
            There’s a reason I quit drinking and drugging. There’s a reason I go to bed early and get up early. There’s a reason I read difficult books. There’s a reason I regularly exercise, meditate, and do yoga. There’s a reason I keep my desk neat and clean. There’s a reason I eat healthy, delicious, fresh, and wholesome food in moderate portions. There’s a reason I push myself to do challenging things that stretch me out of my comfort zone. The reason is pleasure. I do all of these things because they greatly increase my happiness. This is the New Hedonism.
            What used to be fun is no longer fun for me. The calculations have deepened and shifted. It’s still all about maximizing pleasure, but my definition of pleasure has changed. What used to be boring and dull is now exciting and bright. A walk through the neighborhood is a thrill. Waking up healthy and alive is a magnificent gift. Being of service is deeply gratifying. The simple grace of living in this miraculous mind-body, in relationship with all of these other innumerable mind-bodies around me, on such a beautiful planet, in this magnificent cosmos, is an inexhaustible stream of joy. By letting go, one by one, of the practices, thought patterns, and habits that no longer served my highest good, I grew simpler and simpler until the essential happiness dormant within each of us began to arise. It’s a process, not a destination. I don’t think I’ll ever be done growing and letting go. But with the loving support of the other awakening people around me, everyday becomes an opportunity to see just how much deeper, how much truer, how much more pleasurable life can become.
            What will the New Hedonism mean for you? What shape will it take?
            What practices, thought patterns, and habits no longer serve your highest good?
            What might a wiser calculation of short term vs. long term pleasure yield?
            What will a clear headed assessment of every source of so-called pleasure show? In the accounting of our own sacred wellness, only the most courageous self-examination will do.
            Without moralizing, without self-loathing, and without reference to any authorities other than your own instinctive good sense, what would careful and loving introspection reveal?
            Let pragmatism be your guide. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, let it go. One by one examine every behavior, every habit, every practice, and every thought-pattern and apply this simple test – does this behavior, habit, practice, or thought-pattern enhance my deep and overall happiness, or does it diminish it? Only you know. And again, without even the slightest appeal to religious authorities, cultural norms, or the opinions of others, ask yourself one simple question – is this enhancing my life or hampering it? Find a healthy balance between willingness to take direction and fierce independence.
            As Socrates reminded us, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Without this sort of hard-headed scrutiny, our tendency is to just keep going on and on in the same stultifying patterns. Like sleep-walkers, we shuffle along chasing the same prizes that again and again have led to little more than disappointment and disillusionment. You deserve better. Your soul is asking for more. It’s time to move out of the darkness and into the light.
            As this year comes to a close, re-examine your relationship with pleasure. We love pleasure, and rightly so. All organisms do. Pleasure is good. Pleasure is one of the greatest joys of life. But what kind of pleasure? Only wisdom knows.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Winter is Coming

Lori and I have been working with a financial adviser on our retirement plan. We’ve been facing down a whole host of decisions regarding risk assessment, asset management, and prudent reserves. We’re not rich – we both work for the government. We’re about as middle class as they come. And in about ten years we’ll both be leaving our jobs and joining the wonderful tribe of Retired People. We hear they’re nice. We hope we fit in.
            You find yourself pouring over charts indicating that you will be eighty-years-old in 2038 and ninety in 2048, if you make it that long. We set up our plan so that we’ll be stone cold broke by the time we turn 98. If we make it past that we’ll just have to go out and get a part time job. Walmart door greeter or something.
            It’s been a revealing process. You lay yourself bare. Our financial advisor knows more about the details of our private life than all of our friends put together. It doesn’t work if you keep secrets. Think about it. Like the forensic accountants currently dissecting the Trump family’s bowl-of-spaghetti financial entanglements with Russian oligarchs, your financial planner is going to go over every penny of income and expenses with a fine-toothed comb – all your habits, foibles, obsessions, and weaknesses will be dragged out into the light of day. Sometimes when I’m in his office I feel like it would be easier to stand on the conference table and take all of my clothes off.
            One of the surprises about financial planning – it’s a lot like philosophical self-examination. You have to come clean about who you are, what you have, and what you want. You have to clearly articulate your values – what matters most, what matters least, and what doesn’t matter at all. You have to be assertive and direct, but you have to be humble and willing to be led. You have to be very, very clear on what you know and what you don’t know. If you get that wrong, everything goes wrong. When in doubt, which will be most of the time, take the advice.
            Naturally, (and I say naturally because this is the same boat the overwhelming majority of us are in), we haven’t saved enough for retirement. These next ten years are going to be austere as we try to close the gap, or more austere than I’d previously imagined.
            There are two mistakes people commonly make in their retirement thinking, and I was making both of them. One, I assumed that once you retire your expenses go down. Wrong. Most people spend more when they retire than when they’re working. They start traveling more. And of course, later in life, healthcare costs skyrocket. And two, I forgot to account for inflation. Ten, twenty, and thirty years from now, things are going to cost a lot more. Think of how much a gallon of milk, a gallon of gas, or a movie ticket cost thirty years ago – they’ve nearly tripled. This is why your savings will lose 67% of its value over a thirty year span.
            And this is why working with a professional financial planner, preferably a fee-only planner, is so important. A fee-only planner charges you for their services like a dentist, a plumber, or an attorney. All other types of financial planners earn money on commissions from the investments they steer you toward. In other words, you can never be sure that their investment advice is untainted by self-interest. Are they pushing investments that are best for you, or that yield the highest commission for them? Despite their best assurances, you never really know. I’m not saying that commissioned sales people are inherently deceitful – I’m sure they’re mostly wonderful folks – but their business model is ripe for abuse, most of it beneath the surface and hidden from view.
            The other way that estate planning is like philosophy is that you have to face the fact that you are going to fade away and die, and a good financial planner, like a good philosopher, is going to help you do it as consciously, joyfully, honestly, and compassionately as possible. In both endeavors – financial planning and philosophy – the goal is to embody the principle of no-harm: no harm to yourself and no harm to anybody else. Only when you honestly, courageously, and unflinchingly face the fact that you are going to grow old and die can you rightly set your affairs in order to maximize benefit and minimize needless suffering.
            Another benefit of financial planning is the way it challenges and changes your relationship with your stuff. As you grow older you begin jettisoning excess baggage, if only out of kindness for the friends and relatives who are going to have to endure the miserable task of emptying your house or apartment when you’re gone. Show them a little love. Get rid of all the extra crap right now, the stuff you could easily live without. You’ll be shocked by how much bigger your home feels, and how much freer you’ll feel.
            But the biggest benefit of estate planning by far is the way it lifts guilt, shame, and worry off your neck. You no longer have to regard the future as a dark, menacing cloud full of uncertainty and danger. You know that no matter what happens, you’ve seen to it that you will be financially supported throughout. Your affairs are in order. Your investments are safe. Your insurance is sufficient. Your tax strategies are maximized. In the event of your death, your spouse is taken care of. And in the event of both of your deaths, a calm and rational process unfolds for the dispensation of whatever assets remain. You just don’t have to stay awake at night worrying about that stuff anymore. How much is your peace of mind worth?
            And all of this for only a few thousand bucks. It is money well spent. I only wish I’d done it sooner. I feel like grabbing every twenty and thirty-year-old I know and forcing them to make an appointment with my financial planner. But I know I can’t. It’s not my place. But because of the miracle of compound interest, a tiny monthly investment into retirement savings over a forty year span is a gazillion times better than even the most aggressive savings plan begun in one’s forties or fifties.
            With all that being said, it’s never too late to take what you’ve got and make it better. The only thing holding most people back from hiring a fee-only Certified Financial Planner (CFP) is fear and shyness, two things I know a lot about. Thankfully, my life-long philosophical training and hard-won life experience convinces me of one simple, unimpeachable truth – problems don’t get better by ignoring them.
            Facing the fact of one's own impending decline and death, facing the facts of one's own spending habits, and facing the fact that your years of denial and avoidance have yielded little but frustration and anxiety, you finally pick up the phone and start the process. It's going to hurt. But not nearly as much as the alternative. Winter is coming. And even the squirrels know how to hide nuts for later, when all the trees are bare.