Saturday, June 1, 2013

Learning Selflessness

                Selflessness is one of our favorite qualities in other people; but we so seldom see the importance of being selfless ourselves. This is a sad thing. Selflessness does not need to mean foolishness – we can be selfless and still not allow others to take advantage of us. When we learn to be selfless we will not only attract people to us, but we will discover a freedom that we could not obtain living our lives from an ego-centric viewpoint. We learn the absolute unimportance of the material. We learn the intricate nature of our fellow human beings; what “makes them tick”. We learn that, though we are unique, important and deserve respect, we are also very small in the grand scheme of earthly existence.
                Today I would like to point out some of the characteristics of selflessness and explain to you why I think selflessness is so important. First, a selfless person learns to love without condition. This doesn’t mean that we have to love everyone in the same way that we love our significant other, or our children, or our mother. By unconditional love, I mean we must not love someone for a specific reason: “I love Johnny because he gives me pretty presents.” Or “I love Amy because she always helps me do the dishes.” If Johnny loses his job or Amy becomes a double-amputee and they can no longer buy you presents and help you do the dishes, you find yourself pushing them out of your life. This is not the nature of real love. In fact, there are many things that we call “love” in the English language that are not true love. We can say things like “I LOVE cheeseburgers!” and no one will think twice about this statement; but the truth is you probably just really like to eat cheeseburgers. If you loved them, after all, you would have an emotional attachment and eating them would be unthinkable.  If you do have an emotional attachment to cheeseburgers, please seek help from a qualified health-care professional.
                Real Love means that we give of ourselves without expecting anything in return. So, rather than “loving” someone because they do something beneficial for us, we take joy in creating happiness for them. We see a need and fill it because we desire happiness for others. We buy pretty presents for Johnny, or do dishes for Amy, not because we gain anything on a personal level, but because we wish for Johnny and Amy to be happy.
                Second, a selfless person learns to love life. In this case, by love, I mean a deep respect. We honor other people and other living things first by respecting their right to be alive and to function according to their nature; then by showing them the kindness that we hope others would show to us, our family members, or our pets. This is acted out when we hold the door open for a stranger, pass a burger and fries to a homeless guy, let another car into our lane, or carry the neighbor’s cat back home instead of spraying him with the water hose. This sort of demonstration of respect can have a lasting effect on someone, especially on children, who are often not shown a great deal of respect.
                Finally, a selfless person will learn to recognize the unimportance of the material. They are willing to give of their material possessions to those who are in need because they understand that they are replaceable. One winter my grandmother drove past a woman selling flowers on the road-side, she was holding a small baby close to her under a thin shawl, trying to keep her warm. My grandmother stopped her car, pulled out a much-loved blanket and gave it to the woman. Though this blanket had special meaning to my grandmother – it was a souvenir from one of the last trips she had taken with my grandfather before his death – she knew how badly this woman and, more importantly, her baby, needed this blanket. After all, it was only a blanket to my grandmother. For this woman, it meant warmth, and possibly protection against illness or death for her baby. My grandmother never saw the woman again, gained nothing from the interaction and probably doesn’t even remember it. This is the nature of selflessness – to do good simply for love of life; respect of life.
                Through selfless actions we learn to free ourselves from our self. We learn to see through the eyes of others by learning to understand their needs and by listening to their stories. We learn that, while our stories are unique, they are not more meaningful than the stories of others.
                There is so much emphasis placed on the self now days. We don’t have enough “Me Time”.  If mothers/wives don’t take care of themselves how can they ever take care of someone else? “Be sure to make time for yourself” is heard over and over again, day after day, from the most respected doctors and newspersons and nearly every type of celebrity. On an online forum I read a post from a woman who felt inadequate because she couldn’t understand why it was she couldn’t find enough time for herself when women a hundred years ago didn’t ever seem to need time for themselves. She recalled how her grandmother spent her entire day working – household chores, gardening, taking care of her grandchildren and so on. The reason that these women did not seem to lose control when they didn’t get their hour of “Me Time” at the end of the day was that they were taught selflessness.
                A hundred years ago, or even less, Mom and Dad were our reference for morality – meaning, we learned our morality from our parents, family and possibly our church. Now, there is such an influx of media, streaming into our lives everywhere we go (even TVs at fast-food restaurants) that it has become the new standard for our moral beliefs (and I could write for hours about that). When we here TV personalities like Dr. Oz or Oprah tell us that we need to be sure to make time for ourselves we think we need to. Great-grandma would have taught us that there are more important things in this life than ourselves and shown us that we can gain at least as much happiness by serving others as we can gain in serving ourselves.
                I happen to believe in reincarnation. I believe that each lifetime we live is meant to teach us something. Even many religions that do not believe in reincarnation, believe that we are sent to Earth to learn a lesson. I believe that there is a specific reason we are living the life we live and that reason is that there is something specific that we are meant to learn in this lifetime. Someone who is a drug-addict living on the street in this lifetime, might come back in another lifetime as the Pope. Does this mean we should dress the drug-addict in robes and kiss his feet? Absolutely not. But, it does mean that we should offer him as much dignity and respect as we can without allowing him to infringe on our own rights in this lifetime. We should not offer him our money, or invite him into our home, but we also should not spit on him as we pass him on the street.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What We Can Learn from Lent

               Today is Fat Tuesday, more commonly known by its French name Mardi Gras. It is the last day before Lent – an observance in many Christian denominations in remembrance of the 40 days that Jesus fasted in the desert. If you aren’t Christian, don’t worry, His story is not the most important part of this post. In fact, I’m coming at this from quite the opposite direction. My belief is that we can all learn something from a Lenten “fast”. It doesn’t even have to be something religious or spiritual if you aren’t so inclined. Please read on.

            Mardi Gras is commonly a time of big celebrations. In New Orleans there are weeks of parades and the kind of overindulgence and decadence that most people rarely even dare to dream about on a normal day. In New Orleans, of course, Mardi Gras usually lasts from Epiphany (January 6th) thru Ash Wednesday. For the rest of us it is usually only one day. In either case, it’s a celebration I have had a difficult time coming to terms with. From a Christian perspective, though I am not one, it doesn’t make sense to overindulge oneself before confessing your sins, begging forgiveness and taking a forty day fast to become closer to your deity. However, I have decided over the years to think of it from an American standpoint, and furthermore from a human standpoint. (Mardi Gras has quite a history in America, but that isn’t a story I want to get into here.)

I like to think of it as a time to remind myself why it’s a bad idea to overindulge, and also as one last hurrah before giving up something I have become dependent on and probably shouldn’t have. Naturally, no matter your religious affiliation or lack thereof, you can become closer to your deity/deities, own spirit and even nature herself by learning to live without something that you depend on more than you should. Mardi Gras is sort of like a New Year’s Eve where you celebrate all of the things you are about to say goodbye to in pursuit of a better Self. You begin to find that Self through Lent.

Lent, even for those of us who aren’t Christian, can be a very eye-opening event. Any sort of a fast will teach us about ourselves. Lent is a forty day fast, so we have a lot of time to learn. We rid ourselves of some of the clutter that we invite into our daily lives by writing it off for forty days. Normally this clutter takes up energy and time that could otherwise be diverted to spiritual or intellectual pursuits. Thus, when we choose to give some of this clutter up, we find that we become more grounded spiritually and intellectually. 

This year, for Lent, I’ve decided to give up sweets. Here’s why: food is great, good food is even better, but eating nutritionally void food because it tastes good is an abomination. Occasional indulgence is fine, but eating junk food regularly is disturbing. Why should one person be allowed to overindulge to such an extent while in the few minutes it takes them to eat it, someone else somewhere in the world has died of starvation? It should not be so, but the universe is seldom just. I have found myself guilty of eating junk food, some days almost exclusively, since I became a mother. The temptation to grab whatever quick snack is most readily available before rushing after a busy toddler has proven to be greater than I can handle. This has left me unhealthy and carries feelings of guilt, not to mention a few extra pounds. It also makes me wonder how much I truly know about myself if I am willing to grab junk food rather than make a meal when I feel so strongly about both eating healthily and not overindulging. (I believe that overindulging is a great sin in that excess, in theory, could be shared with someone in need). 

On a more personal level, I believe that I need a good kick-start toward achieving the goals I’ve set for myself in 2013. I have a lot that I want to accomplish this year, and I’m off to a slow start, but it is a start. I think that giving up refined sugars, at least for the most part, will help me to concentrate on my goals. I am also anxious to rid my body of the toxins associated with sugar consumption. Most people do better slowly removing something damning from their diet, I tend to be more successful by eliminating something all at once. I find that this allows me to forget about the thing rather than obsessing on it (am I eating too much of it, not enough of it, can I have more now?). Sort of like dumping a boyfriend all at once, rather than trying to be “just friends”. Who has that ever worked for?

If I can get myself to eat healthier in just 40 days, I will have more energy physically to accomplish my other goals. Also, not obsessing about my sugar intake, or feeling guilty about grabbing another handful of cookies instead of making stir-fry, will free my thoughts. 
Finally, I’d like to invite you to join me in dedicating the next forty days to improving yourself. Forty days isn’t all that long. By Easter, you could be a new you. You never know until you try. Choose something to give up. Anything, really; but especially something that you overindulge in. Do you spend too much time online, obsess on social networking, watch too much TV, eat out too often, snap at strangers, use foul language or profanity, fail to screen yourself when posting on forums, obsess on your partner or not pay attention to them ? ? ? What do you like least about your habits? If you don’t like the idea of giving up an obsession, you might rather give up some of your time to volunteer. Our time can become too precious to us just as anything else can. If you have ever snapped at a child for interrupting you while you read a book or watched TV, you should know how true this is. Choose to volunteer for Lent – if not every day, then once a week through Lent. Or even determine to spend at least 20 minutes of each day helping someone else out. You don’t even have to leave your house, you can find someone online in a forum or on a social networking sight who needs your expertise or comfort.

Keep a journal, too, just for forty days. You don’t have to write much, just enough so that you can reflect on your progress. You’ll want to be able to look back on your efforts and see how you’ve grown.

In Christiandom practitioners are meant to remember their Lenten fast throughout the year and reflect on it so that they can grow closer to God. We can learn from this practice as well. After all, if we do not reflect on our efforts, we really can’t hope to learn anything from them. 
And don't worry, if you are reading this and it is no longer  Fat Tuesday, you can begin a forty day fast anytime of the year, you don't have to follow our calendar. In fact, it's best to do something when you feel the time is right for you to do it, not only when the calendar says to. If you don't think you can manage forty days, you can always cut the time down. Or, if you feel you need  more time, you can dedicate yourself for more than forty days.
Growing with you always,
Madame Laree

Saturday, February 9, 2013

When our Loved Ones Don't Believe in Us

                When someone we don’t know tells us that our goals and dreams are hopeless, it can be easy to discount them. We can still believe in ourselves when every stranger we meet or even our acquaintances have no faith in us. But when our friends and family don’t believe in our abilities, it can be difficult to overcome. In some cases, they may be right. After all, beside ourselves, no one knows us better than our friends and family. Other times we will find they are wrong and we must overcome their disbelief.

When we have loved ones who are against us going after our dream, we have two issues to overcome on our path. First, we must determine who is right: them or us. It is best if we can have an honest discussion with our loved ones about our plans. Even if you only mention your plan in passing, you should listen carefully to what your loved ones are saying to you. Chances are good that they will go a little further than just telling you that you are full of yourself. Generally a negative comment from a loved one will be accompanied by an explanation. 

For example, when you see an airline commercial, you might say to Grandpa, “I’m going to be an airline pilot someday.” Grandpa will probably say something like, “You know Johnny, you can’t really be a pilot. Pilots have to be able to walk.” Then, you can evaluate Grandpa’s comment. “Well, pilots do have to walk, and I am paraplegic. I don’t have any patented ideas for how to create a plane that paraplegics can safely fly. Grandpa is probably right.”

Conversely, you might say to Grandpa, “I want to be a singing waiter.” Grandpa might come back with, “You’ve never sung before in your life.” Well, perhaps you have sung before and you know it. Maybe you even believe you are a good singer. The next step would be to test out your hypothesis. You can sing for friends or in public, go to a karaoke and see how people react. Soon, you might find that Grandpa’s evaluation was wrong and go on to fulfill your dream of bringing food and entertainment simultaneously to the public.

The above are greatly oversimplified examples. But they demonstrate my basic point, which is this: there are times when our family and friends might be right to negatively evaluate our goals, but there are other times when they might be wrong. We have to find a way to determine for ourselves which it is. The reason we have to give their opinion a fighting chance is that we are only setting ourselves up for endless failure, heartache and isolation if we don’t at least openly listen to the people who love us. It is possible that, no matter how much you want to be a singing waiter, or an airline pilot, it just isn’t going to be possible for you. You don’t want to spend years or an entire lifetime fighting for the impossible. Our family and friends usually have a pretty decent understanding of our weaknesses. Furthermore, it is often more difficult for us to accept our own weaknesses than for our loved ones to accept our weaknesses. This sometimes means that they will evaluate us more fairly – with an opinion skewed toward the harshly realistic rather than toward the desirable.  

                There will also be times when our loved ones are wrong to be critical of our goals. When we have carefully considered our odds of success and determined that the risks are worth taking because they have the chance of resulting in the fulfillment of our desires, then it is time to learn how to stand up for ourselves even when our loved ones won’t. This is one of the most difficult things anyone can be asked to do.

                We are accustomed to depending on the opinions of our loved ones. We grow up always turning to our parents, awaiting their approval on every task that we complete. This is the way we learn to evaluate our progress. After all, Mom and Dad successfully made it to adulthood. If they think we are doing things the right way, we know that we will at least be as successful as they are. We learn to depend on those approving looks and the adoring compliments that come with earning the approval of our loved ones. When we dream beyond the ability of our loved ones to see or comprehend our vision, it makes it very difficult for us to continue seeing that vision and believing in it. But when we are right, it is important for us to at least give ourselves a chance to prove everyone wrong for not believing in us. It doesn’t have to mean that we spend our entire lives working toward something that fails time and again. But we do owe it to ourselves to give it at least one shot.

                I am luckier than some. I believe that there is something divine watching over me that desires my success. If nothing else, I believe that the Divine always believes in my abilities, and if I should fail, the Divine will be there to help me pick up the pieces. If you have any sort of spiritual or religious belief system, this can be a great boon to you in times when you are feeling hopeless or lost. If you don’t have, things might be a little harder on you than on the rest of us, but not impossible. If there is absolutely no one, not even someone or something unseen who believes in you, at least you believe in you. There will be times in life that this has to be enough.

We have to give our dreams a fighting chance even with no army behind us to support us when things seem to not go well. We are a lone warrior. We have to pick our own bloodied and beaten body up and keep trudging forward because there is no one beside us to help carry the load. 

                The only chance that we have at being successful is to refuse to give in to our own feelings of dread and despair. It is so tempting at times to give in; to crawl under the covers, close our eyes and hope that in the morning it will have all disappeared. This will not do. In order to be successful we must be able to overcome this temptation. Without the aid and support of loved ones this can be very difficult to do, but it isn’t impossible. 

                I could give you a list now of little activities you could do (“Keep a journal of all your successes!”) to help you keep going, but these sorts of activities only serve as a Band-Aid and once the Band-Aid falls off, the wound is left open again. Instead, I would rather take the opportunity to point out to you that the secret to succeeding is being able to ride through these moments of despair. 

                In surfing there is a maneuver called the “duckdive”. It is one of the most important things a surfer will learn to do. The duckdive goes like this: As a wave is coming at a surfer, the surfer swims hard toward it and pushes their board down into the water. As the wave is about to pass over them, the surfer follows their board into the water, nose first. Then they push the tail of their board under the wave and allow the wave to engulf them. The wave washes over them as they keep pushing their way through and they appear on the other side unharmed. If a surfer doesn’t know how to do this they can easily be washed away or pushed under by a wave. 

                I am of the opinion that a duckdive through our days of despair is a much more valid course than trying to encourage ourselves with a Band-Aid or a crutch. We can head nose first straight in to those desperate days. As a surfer holds tight to their board, we have to hold on to our own belief in ourselves, our stability. We can allow ourselves to feel the despair, to experience the guilt of our apparently imminent failure, maybe even crawl under the covers for one night. Most surfers will tell you, the deeper the duckdive the better. So, the more completely you allow yourself to experience the negative, the easier it will be to come through. But then we must keep pushing forward until we come out the other side of the wave. We cannot stop once we have come under the wave of despair and allow it to wash us off of our course. 

Of course there will be times when we feel like giving up, no matter how much we believe in ourselves. There will be times when we feel like admitting defeat no matter how much progress we’ve made. The important thing is to not fall apart in these moments. If we can make it through the moment, even if we do have to succumb and use a Band-Aid just for a day, we can find a way to keep moving forward.  You’ll be amazed at how much brighter the sun can be when you’ve duckdived all the way through a wave and come out on the other side.

Always yours,
Madame Laree