Saturday, March 28, 2020

Finding a place

“People look for retreats for themselves, in the country,
by the coast, or in the hills…There is nowhere that a
person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free
retreat than in his own mind…So constantly give
yourself this retreat, and renew yourself…”
- Marcus Aurelius - Meditations

The room was dark and quiet, so still, I could hear the beating of my heart – air moved in and out of my lungs in concert, creating a kind of rhythmic harmony. Had it been my first visit, it might have been unnerving – the first time it was – but after so many years, it was a place of comfort.

It took a little time to adjust but as my irises widened, the familiar colorless furnishings began to take shape. It has always been this way. I suppose were there more light I would have been able to distinguish the colors, but in fact, I never had. It didn’t matter.

I looked at the large chest with a glass front. The familiar bowl of grain and walking stick within. Ancient and antique they were, yet timeless. The lid of the chest had intricately carved figures. Even in the darkness, they were beautiful and compelling. God, I love this place.

Having entered through the curtained door, I moved to the comfortable chair on one side of a table in front of the chest. Taking a seat and closing my eyes, I listened to the continued pump and bellow of my heart and lungs. The listening room…the sanctuary…the place where I submit and find solace.

Finding it took help…
When I separated from the U.S. Army in 1971, I moved to Toronto, Canada, the city of my birth. Civilian life seemed alien and disconnected, after three years of the military structure.

Drifting in a sea of low-level angst, I applied to the Canadian Department of Transport to be an air traffic controller, my military job. The process would take a couple of months, so between wandering the streets of Toronto and playing basketball at the city YMCA, my days were reasonably empty — heart unsettled.

One afternoon, at a small bookstore in the Yorkville area of the city, a book caught my eye. Psycho-Cybernetics: A New Way to GET MORE LIVING OUT OF LIFE. The author, a plastic surgeon by the name of Maxwell Maltz.

“Get more living out of life,’ eh? Other than the military, I had spent twenty-four years with no intentional drive whatsoever. Maybe this would help ‘…slip a rudder under the ship.’

A new thing…
Maltz discovered over his years of practice that changing people's appearance often did not change their self-perception. Making them look better did not always make them feel better about themselves. My introspective engines were relatively idle in those years, so I didn't understand much of that.

What did catch my attention, however, was a process of mental visualization Maltz described. This was something about which I knew nothing. He suggested one might create progressively quieting exercises to bring internal peace.

With time on my hands and more than a little unsettled, I dug in. Following Maltz’s instructions, I closed my eyes and tried to visualize a journey.

This wasn’t an experiment reflected in Robert Frost’s words of the “…yellow wood…” It was not just a road "…less traveled…" it was, in fact, a road never traveled! In the beginning, there was not much there. But in the end, I discovered that creating deliberate mental images would make “…all the difference.” It was a start – probing that road would take time.

The first meaningful adventure was bumpy. Sitting on the floor in my room, eyes closed, I journeyed through the home of my youth in Euclid, Ohio. Entering the house and passing into the living room, it was up a two-landing flight of stairs to a narrow hallway to the second floor.  From there, through a door, another flight of stairs to a dimly lit attic where I had spent hours investigating boxes and suitcases in the musty smell in this dimly lit and mysterious place.
 Just getting to the attic undistracted took several tries.

Eventually, I modified the attic space into a large room with a comfortable, easy chair and a bay window overlooking the northern end of Lake Joseph in Muskoka, Ontario. The view, from the edge of a two-hundred-foot cliff, stretched across open water and rugged shoreline. The sky was blue with tufted clouds drifting over the crystal-clear water. I sat in that chair, feet up, absorbing all that I could see.

The more the practice, the greater the detail. As time passed, I could feel the strokes of gentle winds against my cheeks…even the subtle scent of the pine forest so much a part of my youth and early adulthood. I no longer needed to move through the house but could enter directly into the attic. It was refreshing…an epiphany…a revelation!

You teach, you learn…
In the 1980s, while teaching at a small university in Missouri, a colleague and I formed a small  health and wellness consulting group – group, meaning two of us.

One of our offerings, thanks to Max, was a series of twenty to thirty-minute, guided imagery, relaxation audiotapes. Up to this time, I only knew my attic.

Necessity is the mother of invention! To make a series of tapes, there needed to be more stories. I 'found them' in the attic in that easy chair. As narratives emerged, I sketched them out, then put them on tape. They were recorded in a darkened studio, eyes closed. As the tracks were laid down, I immersed myself in the mental imagery I was describing.

These stories were not just for people using them to relax, but new journeys for me to explore in my own experiences. The attic never slipped away, but there was a richness in the emerging storylines.

It’s personal…
This blog began at the deepest part of my quieting process. It is intimate…sacred. I don't talk much about this and have only, on rare occasions, shared it.

Usually, I can enter directly into the chamber. But there are occasions when my mind is too cluttered to step from the maddening crowd directly into the quiet place. Sometimes, I need to take a long way home.

Be still…
Close my eyes...breathe in...breathe out...breathe in…breath out…

It begins.

It is a brightly lit day. I'm in the midst of a carnival, a tumultuous sea of humanity, people talking, laughing, eating, drinking and bumping into one another. They are irritating.

At the edge of the crowd is a wall, consisting of fifteen-foot sections of white cloth attached to ten-foot-high pillars, masking what is inside. Following the wall, pushing my way through the crowds, I round a corner to find an entrance.

Just inside the entryway, several men are cooking for the food stalls on the outside. They talk as they work, but it is noticeably quieter than outside. Looking past them, is an open area, at the end of which lies a building.

Taking off my shoes, and moving toward the enclosure, the men’s voices drifting away, a calm begins taking hold. The grass is soft and cool. Half-way to the structure is a small pool of clear water. Pausing to rinse my face, hands, and feet, I breathe deeply feeling a growing sense of gratitude with each breath.

Approaching the structure, a man stands at the door and welcomes me in. The room, or better said chamber, is lit by a large candlestick to my left. A subtle odor of incense hanging in the air - it is comforting. The walls and ceiling are covered with textured cloth. A closer look shows they are embroidered with intricate images of ethereal creatures.

There is another man standing against the wall across from the entrance. Smiling, he pulls back a covering to reveal a second room gesturing for me to enter.

This is the darkest and quietest place of all. Often when I take the seat at the table, I am visited by people I have known and loved. We seldom speak, but the communication is so intimate, it is beyond my ability to describe. Other times, it is a solitary experience with just the breath and beating of my heart.

It not clear how it happens, but it is always clear when it is time to leave. As I slowly retrace my steps my mind feels so clear, not even the bustling crowds are bothersome.

The end is the beginning…
The off-chance discovery of Maltz’s book in that small bookstore in Yorkville, so many years ago, changed my life. It provided a platform of self-discovery that by now has blossomed in ways I would never have imagined.

It seemed that at a time in our history when so much is unknown, accompanied by rising fear, that Marcus Aurelius’ words about retreating to one’s own mind are timeless and relevant.

- ted

Monday, February 24, 2020

We don't always need to know...

"In the darkness, we hide, fearing the light, and 
yet it is the light that frees our soul..."
- Anonymous

"Hi, I'm Bill. I'm an alcoholic and co-dependent." The group with knowing smiles, replied in unison, “Hi Bill.”

The beginning...
My friend Gail invited me to a weekend retreat at the Redemptorist Renewal Center, on one-hundred twenty-acres  at Picture Rocks on the edge of the Saguaro (Swar-ō) National Park West. The property is filled with hiking trails and ancient petroglyphs of the Hohokam Indians. While the facility is run under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church, it is open to many groups and individuals seeking daily and/or multi-day retreats.

The program, Gail said, would be led by her friend and Buddhist guru, Jim. Naturally, I thought this was going to be a Buddhist retreat where I would have the opportunity to listen to and learn from people who practice this form of spiritual awareness.  My exposure to Buddism has come from taking classes through Great Courses (https://www.thegreatcourses), reading a book or two, and occasional early morning coffee with Gail.

The day could not have been better. Driving into the foothills of the Tucson Mountains, the air was sunny and crisp, the sky blue and clear as a bell. We arrived early and had a few moments to get oriented. Gail had been to one or two of these annual retreats before. It was all new to me and I was excited.

The meeting room was bright from the daylight streaming through large windows and overhead lighting. There were eight portable, white tables, each with four chairs. Gail and I sat right up front.

Jim, as it turned out was a gregarious outgoing man with an energetic ‘leaning in’ personality. Gail made the introductions. He had a way of welcoming that was enthusiastic and yet not intrusive.

Let's get going...
The program start - 7:30 am. We were given a twenty-six-page booklet titled: Welcome to “There’s a spiritual answer to all your problems,” retreat. Waiting for everyone to show up, I thumbed through the manual.

The first page was an agenda for the day. The opening session, breakfast, first a group session then a small group discussion. This format would be repeated three times in the course of the day. A lunch break separated the morning from the afternoon.  

The pamphlet was full of uplifting and spiritual content, ending with ‘Namaste,’ the Hindu salutation of oneness – “My soul honors your soul.”

Pretty standard fare, I assumed. This was going to be an interesting and fun day.

Wait! What?
You know how cognitive dissonance works. You have an idea that guides what you hear and see. It becomes discordant when you realize what you thought you were hearing turns out to be something entirely different, and you resist the change!

As the early stages of the day began to unfold I realized this was NOT a Buddhist retreat, but rather an annual spiritual retreat for people who were working to overcome addiction in their lives. Jim was a Buddhist, as Gail had told me but because both he and she were Buddhists, I made the mental leap that this is what the retreat would be about. As it turned out, she was not there because of addiction issues, but rather to support Jim. She had just thought this was something I would enjoy.

Jim was leading an addiction retreat!

Once I had recalibrated the purpose of the day, I wondered: What the heck have I gotten into?!

After the opening group session, where we worked through parts of the printed material, we broke into small groups to discuss low self-esteem, validation, and addiction. My anxiety growing by the millisecond. 

As my group entered a small carpeted library with cushioned chairs, my mind was racing. To say I was uncomfortable would be a significant understatement. I was a long way from home with no transportation and this was the last place I wanted to be!

The person on my right began and we would move counter-clockwise. "Hi, I'm Bill. I'm an alcoholic and co-dependant."

"Hi, Bill," the group replied. Bill hadn't had a drink in several years and credited Alcohol Anonymous for his sobriety. He was still in a co-dependent relationship that was unhealthy but was working on it through Co-Dependency Anonymous (CODA). Once he had talked for a few minutes, the person on his right spoke.

“Hi, I’m John. I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been sober for ten years.” “Hi, John,” we all replied.

And so it went from person to person in this small group - men and women. As the torch was passed around the circle, I was touched by their openness, vulnerability, and recognition that without help, they might not be alive. They appeared to find comfort in the battles they had fought, murmuring in agreement with things that resonated with them. While each of the stories was different – most were heart-wrenching – there was a commonality of the struggle.

You're up, man...
 “Hi, I’m Ted,” I said with some noticeable hesitance. “I’m here as a guest. I thought this was going to be a Buddhist retreat.”

The group chuckled as they said, “Hi, Ted.” There was an acceptance I wasn’t expecting and in an instant, I can't explain, I felt welcome.

I shared that I had lived in a spiritual community for three decades where I found solace and stability. A place where I had studied the Judeo-Christian scriptures and, with the guidance of elders, was acquired tools to help sort my life. I said I wouldn't be confessing anything concerning my past because it was over and revisiting it carried no profit. The group understood. There was no pressure. Their acceptance…my relief…a nice combination!

Time was up, and we headed back to the large group where we worked through more of the manual. As the day progressed, we broke again into more small groups (different people each time). The first topic was relationships and codependency, the latter group, authentic self and life purpose.

By the second and third small sessions, I felt relaxed, looking forward to hearing and learning from the other participants.

As quickly as it started, it was over…
The day wrapped with a group discussion in the main conference room. The tables were gone, replaced by a large circle of chairs. It was time for a post-mortem of things learned from the day. Each person spoke as we went around the circle. I would never have imagined I could feel at ease in a setting like this, particularly with people I didn't know. I had done a number of group encounters in the past. They were always intrusive and stressful. This was different.

After several folks had spoken, it was my turn. “Hi, I’m Ted.”

“Hi, Ted,” the group responded.

I shared I had been profoundly touched during the retreat. It was awe-inspiring to see these people’s guilelessness, their willingness to expose personal fragility, their gratitude for having found a place where they felt safe and unafraid. I was struck by the shared joy they found in the commonality of their daily battles. I expressed gratitude for the privilege of having shared this unexpected day and more so for being so openly accepted. It was a tender moment for all.

It's always the ending...
The day was unexpectedly enlightening. It was a day where I gained a deeper appreciation for the journey with which we all struggle and the many who quietly work to help others, for no other reason than, ‘just because.’ I was further struck by the depths of despair from which so many of these folk had come.

The scripture says, "…for when I am weak, then am I strong." (2Co. 12:10). That day, I met warriors who got up every morning doing all they could to reach the night, clean and sober – one day at a time.

On the way home, I thought had I been more inquisitive of Gail, I might not have attended. Of course, I would not have known what I had missed...rather what I had not known.

There were apparently other plans afoot!!

“Hi, I’m Ted…”

Monday, January 20, 2020

Angst and the road to Nogales...

Tomorrow, twenty-five students will arrive for their first class in the study of the human body. The classroom holds twenty-four in a three-tiered configuration. That extra student will not be a problem.

Other than the first semester back in the classroom, more than a year ago, I am as anxious as I have been. Being uneasy is an old friend (friend?) and a hallmark of my life's journey. The new...the unknown is always the same.

I will get up in the morning and head to Mexico. Well, not precisely, Mexico. The class is in Nogales, Arizona, on the US-Mexico border. The facility is in a refurbished grocery store in the parking lot of an old shopping center near the Mexico border.

The rub? For the majority of my students, English is their second language. Anatomy and physiology are challenging in their own right. Adding to the complexity of the course, I have ZERO Spanish stored anywhere in the recesses of my mind!

When accepting this course several months ago, it sounded exciting, as uncertainty always has. That was then. At the moment, the early eagerness has been tempered as an insidious dose of apprehension has crept in.

Getting there from here…
Interstate highway nineteen (I-19) is unique. It is entirely within the State of Arizona. It begins at a junction with I-10 in Tucson. It ends somewhere in the neighborhood of 91m (300 ft) north of the Mexican border in Nogales, Arizona. The drive between Tucson and Nogales is 101km (63 mi), making I-19, the sixth shortest primary Interstate in the contiguous 48 states. Another unique feature is that I-19 is the only interstate highway in the United States where road signs display distances in the metric system.

Too much information?...
I-19’s connection with I-10 provides a critical part of the CANMEX corridor that runs north-south via a circuitous series of highways from Mexico to Alberta, Canada. For the sake of completeness…Mexican Border (Nogales, Arizona) > I-19 Tucson > I-10 to Phoenix > Routes 60 and 93 (I- 11) through Arizona to Nevada > I-515 & 15 to Las Vegas > I-15 through Utah, Idaho, Montana > Alberta.

Getting there from here, part Deux…
In spite of some nervousness on my part, this is an excellent opportunity for any number of reasons. It will provide the chance to break complicated ideas and concepts down to make them more understandable. It will, as always, increase my own comprehension. That is the ongoing journey of the teacher.

There will be a chance to learn a little about the lives of these students. It has been my habit to learn the names of my students as quickly as possible. When they arrive in class, I welcome each of them individually. Names are meaningful icons. When one is called by name, there is a small, almost indiscernible 'sense of belonging.'

During the semester, I will learn a little about each of them. In turn, the students will learn a few things about me. There will be doors yet unopened to our collective minds. An opportunity, not just for academic understanding, but for community building.

This will also be a little more challenging because the course is a hybrid. It means there is one face to face lecture per week with the rest online, leading to more responsibility on the part of the students.

While I prefer more face to face class time, online courses are the direction higher education is going. Nationally, fully online courses have been taught by sixty-four-percent of full-time faculty, and sixty-five-percent of students have taken them. I am on the tail-end of the traditional classroom era. Or from the glass-half-full perspective, on the front end of fully engaged distance education.

As this experience unfolds, it will continue to add to the process of lifetime learning. Teaching, of course, is learning, and not a subtle phenomenon. Every time I engage the material, I have a deeper understanding, wider peripheral vision, and am able to teach it more clearly. Yes, indeed, it is a wonderfully edifying cycle (in opposition to a vicious cycle).

Getting there from here, part Trois…
There is another totally unrelated reason I am looking forward to this experience – road time! The drive to Nogales is an hour and a half from my home. This means I have three-hours alone in the car on each of my teaching days. This further means I’ll have the opportunity to listen to books, or courses, or podcasts or the music I love.

In my early career, I worked thirty-five miles from my home. Over that decade, I devoured untold numbers of books and courses. While driving around Tucson I get short listening segments. This will be the first time in years, I have had an extended mobile classroom.

And so the dance begins once again. Anxious, yes. Excited, yes - the hallmark of my life. 

Tomorrow morning I will arrive at a grocery store in a parking lot in Nogales, Arizona. I will get out of my car, walk to the door and open it…

Who knows?

- ted