Archive for September, 2010

The presence of . . . data analysis?

September 30, 2010

It is Saturday evening and January is visiting. She is now in the third grade and packs a book with her wherever she goes.

We sit down to dinner and ask her: “So, January, how are things in the third grade?”

“Great,” she says.

“Are you learning a lot?”

She nods vigorously because her mouth is full of chicken.

“What are you learning right now?

January swallows and says, “Data analysis.”

The fork with my food on it stops halfway to my mouth. Data analysis?

“Data analysis?” I say out loud. But you are only in the third grade! (I say this only to myself.)

“Yes.”

I am still disbelieving so I say, “What kind of data analysis?”

I get the perfunctory 8-year-old eye roll which tells me I must be a real dummy but January is too polite to say so.

“You know, Grandma. It is where you take numbers and put them on a chart or a graph to tell you what the numbers mean.”

Oh.

But you are only in the third grade, I scream inside my head. When I was in the third grade, we had just finished addition and subtraction and were beginning to learn multiplication and division. Then I remembered that last year, in the second grade, January was already learning how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions (something I still occasionally have to look up the rules for . . . especially that dividing thing). I don’t think I even heard the word “data” much less connected with “analysis” until I was in high school.

While my befuddled brain is still trying to reconcile this information, January says, “And I’m taking keyboarding, too.”

Keyboarding? Now, I know I am ancient. Keyboarding (aka typing) was definitely a high school subject.

The accelerated life skills programming going on becomes clear. Our lives are evolving faster than our skill sets can keep up with them and January is riding that wave of evolutionary learning. She is not in an advanced or gifted class. She is in a standard third-grade public school class, but she already uses a computer regularly and, like most children I know, can figure out any remote control device.

She was born into the mainstream of a technological society and her brain has the capacity to absorb data and transform it into life skills that meet the demands of that society. Someone is looking into the future and asking the question, “What will we need to learn now so that we will be ready?”

While I make every effort to live in the present, humans are gifted with foresight, and we should all be asking ourselves that question: what is it that I need to learn now to meet the demands of my life tomorrow?

©Barbara L. Kass

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The presence of choice

September 23, 2010

I didn’t have any other choice.

I have heard this reasoning from lots of people to validate the decisions they’ve made. I’ve used it myself.

People’s lives are largely based on the choices they have made throughout their lifetimes. The circumstances they find themselves in are often the result of decisions they have made. If they enjoy their circumstances and love the lives they have, and if they keep using the same choice and decision-making process they have always used, they will probably find themselves in similar circumstances most of their lives. Even if some disaster out of their control sweeps their lives out from under them, if that person’s way of being is to be happy and enjoy life, that person will find a way to make their lives happy and enjoyable once again.

The same holds true for people who are not enjoying their lives, who are unhappy in their circumstances. Even if someone comes along and plucks them out of their miserable state, if the person rescued does not change their way of being in the world, they will eventually find themselves back in a similar miserable situation.

The kind of choice-making I am talking about is reserved for those who have free will and the capacity to enact the changes that they seek. There are those who are exempt, like infants and babies. But as soon as children develop awareness of self, they start making decisions. And we learn a lot of our decision-making behavior from the adults around us.

As children witness other adults’ decision-making behavior, I am not sure how much choice they have about adopting those behaviors. In survival mode, we all rely on what we know works because we witness it. Even if it other people’s behaviors do not work and their lives are miserable, if we have not witnessed a different behavior to model, we will rely upon what we know.

Until we wake up.

Once we grow and differentiate from others, we all have the capacity to change our way of being in the world and change the way we make decisions. We have the capacity to discover what is the best choice we could make given the kind of life we want to have.

As my friend, Laurie at Speaking from the Heart, would say: “Whatever you are not changing, you are choosing.”

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass

homeless presence

September 21, 2010

“Sha’up.”

She says this several times, to other children, to adults to might stop to talk with her.

“Sha’up.”

She is all of two years old. I know this because I have overheard the conversation her mother is having with one of the staff of the homeless shelter. I am at this homeless shelter as a part of my service learning commitment for my degree in pastoral counseling and spiritual care at Loyola University.

Service learning is not just volunteering to “do good” for others so that we feel good about ourselves. Service learning is just that: learning about service to others. These families who are homeless are going to teach me an awful lot over the next 10 to 12 weeks about my limits and boundaries, my capacities and abilities.

Meanwhile, I am listening to this child and realizing that she says “Sha’up” when anyone begins telling her something she does not want to hear or if she wants to be talking.

Shut up.

This is a homeless shelter for families. It is just a temporary place with a strictly ruled game-plan to get these people self-sufficient and into housing of their own. This two-year-old little darling of a girl who has learned to say “shut up” hasn’t a clue that there might be a different way to live. It is the hope of the staff who work at the shelter that she will learn.

It is not for me to question why any of these families became homeless, but I want to hear their stories. How I respond to this environment and the people who live here is going to introduce me to my prejudices, my projections, my illusions, and my realities . . . but only if I pay close attention and am willing to learn.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass

A changing presence

September 18, 2010

How God Changes Your Brain has made it to my list of favorite spiritual reads. It is not like most other spiritual books I have read. This one has some nifty scientific stuff in it like references, an index, and everything.

It even has atheists. Although atheists don’t believe in the traditional God of the Bible, they, too, perform meditative and contemplative exercises, and their brains show the same improved activity as those who do believe in God.

Occasionally dry and a bit high level, the authors talk about the brain and how it generally likes to run things. The limbic system (nothing to do with limbo games or that special place in hell where virtuous pagans reside for eternity after they die but both words have their root in the Latin word limbus meaning border or edge) in our brain is a major center for emotion formation and processing, for learning, and for memory. The limbic system likes stability. It likes for things to stay the same. It is probably the reason why the brain dislikes the presence of change.

On page 175 of How God Changes Your Brain, the authors talk about “the belligerent brain” and why it is difficult for us to change our habits and ways even when we want to, even when our thoughts and behaviors don’t serve us well. They state (and I believe them) that our brain gets nervous when we try to change something about ourselves that kept us alive and at least got us to this point in our lives. As near as the brain can tell, whatever methods we are using work well so why change anything?

What’s a presence to do when it wants to change? It is difficult to argue with the limbic system given that the brain is pretty much in charge of everything . . . just try getting along for a few minutes without one. The brain rules with complete autonomy.

Here is why I like this book: the authors offer practical methods that anyone (even atheists) can implement to work with the reluctant brain. Underlying the methods is the need for a conscious commitment to change (those of us in psyche world like to use the word “intent”) and making only small changes each day, along with social support, optimism, and faith. Faith can mean faith that a higher power will support us, but it can also mean that we have faith in ourselves to persevere.

The methods are a set of 12 meditations and relaxation exercises. They are commonly known. To implement them without freaking out your brain and engaging resistance, you need to spend a few minutes each day engaged in one of them. Regularly. Every day. You sit with your nervous brain, allow your limbic system to wring its little brainy wrinkles, and you do what you know you need to do anyway. What you will discover is that your old habits and ways of being will still be there for you to rely on (which reassures your brain), but also you will have the choice of a different behavior available because you have activated a different part of your brain.

At the end of the meditation or exercise, your presence is changed in some tiny, yet significant way. You have more presence available to both you and your brain, and your limbic system will engage to support that change because it is now the you that it recognizes. You are changed, but now you are more of who you truly are.

And your brain will love you for it.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass

the presence of forgiveness

September 16, 2010

What is the color of forgiveness? How big is it? What scent does it carry? If forgiveness walked up to me and smacked me in the head, would I even recognize it?

In all my explorations of personal growth and desire to connect with divine grace and eternity, forgiveness has been an elusive concept defined for me through the perceptions of others.

This word and its watery definition has caused me all sorts of problems and been the root of justified abuse. The religion in which I was raised insisted that we forgive others for their transgression, but often people used it as a rationalization to cause further hurt; in their minds, they could do whatever they wanted because “God would forgive them.” I came to believe that forgiveness is nothing more than a cheap way out for people who don’t want to change or be held accountable for their behavior.

I don’t see any need to “forgive” someone of their human nature. I have hurt others out of my ignorance and stupidity, and have said I was sorry, made amends, and worked to not harm another. However, I know I continue to say or do things that, when viewed by another’s perception, are harmful to them or others. (Anytime I see a cheap, useless trinket that has a tag that reads “Made in Japan” or “Made in China” or “Made in Taiwan” I feel a twinge of remorse that someone has to make such things to be able to exist and I am actually torn between buying it so that person would continue to have a job or not buying it because it serves no purpose and simply perpetuates the problem.)

I would prefer to accept us for all our humanness. But I don’t forgive anyone who purposefully harms another with knowledge and intent — that, for me, is enabling them to continue that behavior. My forgiveness in those cases consists of removing my presence from theirs. I do not have to let those people back into my life. I love me too much.

Forgiveness means to let myself off the hook of being responsible for anybody else’s behavior. My eternal presence nudges me to “let it go, let the incident go, let go your feelings to blame yourself or to seek revenge. We’ve other things to move on to.”

But I come to find that I do not have an honest, working mechanism of forgiveness for myself. I don’t know what forgiveness sounds like, looks like, or feels like. I know what it does not feel like. I still walk through life with ancient strings tied to my emotions over incidents long past and feel the same sorrow, emptiness, hurt, and pain as if the incident had only occurred yesterday. I continue to hurt myself through my memories.

My eternal presence does not urge me to pray for anyone to change their energy to what I think it should be. People are entitled to have the energy they have chosen. What I am hearing from my presence is that I need to view life from another person’s perspective and know that I can never really, truly perceive their experience accurately. I can only glimpse a fragment of how I might be and act given that person’s circumstances and beliefs. That is full of guesswork and projection. From my limited human point of view, I must find the God struggling to become within them.

And then I will be able to see the God struggling to become in me.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass

the presence of memory

September 14, 2010

The past occasionally creeps up on me like a spider stalking its prey. I can feel it coming but because I am entangled in the web that is my life, I am helpless. I surrender to my helplessness, bracing myself for the inevitable wondering if the past will devour me whole or wrap me up like a cocoon to snack on at a later time.

My history is always with me. Mostly, it remains hidden behind the piles of other, more recent memories. I have selective recollection for the most part, but when I am on a quest to heal my present self, inevitably a forgotten memory slips past my selectivity. These are short memories, snapshots that crystallize a significant point in my life so I can see how I was made and who I was at that time.

One poignant example comes from my first year in school. I have a sister who is one year older than I am. She was in the second grade. We had bicycles to ride to school, but on the way home one day, the chain to my bike broke, so I could not ride it. I had to walk, but I was not sure I knew the way by myself. I asked my sister if she would walk with me, but she said no and pedaled off.

I walked whatever distance it was alone and very sad. My sister had abandoned me. Obviously, I found my way home. I do not remember my mother’s response. I think my father was in Korea at the time. In the big scheme of things, this was a very small matter and one that I survived just fine.

As our lives evolved, it would turn out that I learned to be as totally self-reliant as I could be, even to the point of isolating myself to prove that I did not need anyone because other people are unreliable. I struggled through co-dependency issues with my mother, finding out in the end that the only kind of relationship she can have with others is that of co-dependency.

This particular incident is an example of the theme of abandonment in my childhood. I am not special, by the way, we all have abandonment issues because at some point somebody we depended upon left us to take care of matters on our own. That is the nature of life. I waver between feeling sorry for my little self while at the same time finding it remarkable that I could take care of myself in a very adult way. When I wonder what I came to this existence to learn, incidents like this stand out for me. If I take ultimate responsibility for my existence, then I absolutely must ask myself: What is valuable about the incident that I need to learn?

On the heels of my life lessons comes wisdom, and then I must untangle myself from that web and let it go. Constantly poking and biting at my sister and my mother through my memory does not serve me well. That particular spider will have to find other prey.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass

the presence of 9/11

September 11, 2010

I’ve learned that when a piece of writing stirs me, I need to pay attention. The September 2010 issue of Science of Mind has a number of interesting articles, all of which simultaneously call to me. The one that jumps out at me today is prelude to a disagreement – not an outright argument because I don’t have the luxury of a live opponent – but rather an observation. I disagree with a statement made in one article is about a book ‒ From Cancer to Power ‒ written by its author.

For anyone who is dealing with cancer, the book sounds like it has some excellent guidance, except for one little bit of advice: the formula the author suggests for taking responsibility: E + R = O. This stands for Event plus Response equals Outcome. The author indicates that we are not always in control of what happens to us but because we are in control of how we respond, we can “therefore, control the outcome.”

What a pile of doo-doo.

I am thinking about the people who died on September 11, 2001. Many of them responded brilliantly and survived. Many of them responded brilliantly and did not survive. If survival was the desired outcome (and I am just assuming that it was), then a whole bunch of people did not respond the “right” way. I am not sure what the “right” way would have been for the people on the floors above the impact of the airplanes as there was no possible way to escape except to grow wings and fly. They were helpless, deeply submerged in a disaster that could not be undone.

Ditto for the people who were on the airplanes.

This simplistic solution for controlling our destinies has me a bit aggravated. I have not read the book, but I am hoping . . . a lot . . . that the author went on to define what she means by outcome. The implication of E + R = O is that if we respond in just the right way to each event, then we can control what happens next. That absolutely is not true and it sets people up for self-recrimination and blame when the outcome is not the one they had aimed for. That this idea is planted in a book whose audience is people dealing with cancer scares me. The author battled cancer and survived, but her methods were just that: her methods. They worked for her. They may or may not work for other people. None of us can ever know what life is like inside another person’s experience.

Control is an illusion. The only outcome we can truly control through our response is how we behave.

the presence of emptiness

September 9, 2010

I know the title to this piece sounds like an oxymoron – if something is empty (if there is nothing) how can there be presence? Emptiness has a true presence – it is a vacancy ready for occupation. Emptiness fills the spot in a person’s absence. In letting go of the past, emptiness is what comes when the feeling that used to be present is gone. Emptiness is having a wordless place within the desire to write and express. Emptiness is looking for the person that I used to be and finding she no longer exists. My past selves are but a memory to me.

Where there is nothing, though, makes real the possibility of something. As I let go of anything, I become more available to other things in life. If I am not careful in my growing to fill myself with something vibrant, new, and colorful, emptiness will settle its placid self down in my life and occupy any available space. Then, I become vulnerable to the Law of Distraction.

The Law of Distraction is anything that will take my attention away from the fact that I am empty, and, generally, the Law of Distraction is attached to the Path of Least Resistance. Whatever is easily available in my life becomes my focus and distracts me from paying attention to my emptiness. I am still empty, but I have all of these distractions that require my energy, so emptiness sits back in the easy chair, with a beer in one hand and the television remote in the other, and makes itself at home.

At some point, I need to confront emptiness. In paying attention to what I think, do, and feel when I am empty, I come to know my default attitudes and ways of being. Not all of them serve me well but what becomes clear as I watch myself within my emptiness is that each and every one of them is a choice.

I appreciate all of them, especially the ones I am letting go of. They served a purpose in my life at some point, kept me alive, and got me to where I am today.

And I greet the empty spaces they leave behind with grateful anticipation and wonder at what I can create there now.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass

the presence of wind

September 4, 2010

I had the good fortune to be on a Shamanic journey the weekend after Magic died where I connected with the spirits of nature: fire, wind, water, earth, bugs, and plants. Connection with nature is available all the time and requires only that I focus my attention to use my senses to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste.

Fire is probably the only spirit that one might not want to taste in its burning naked essence, but we taste and ingest fire anytime we have eaten a plant or an animal cooked over an open flame. I doubt that I would ever lick an insect or eat dirt, and I remind myself to admire poison ivy from afar and only taste water that I know well.

The wind is an entirely different matter. Wind is air molecules who have caught the energy of the sun and use it to travel the earth. It is with us all the time. Can you taste the wind? Of course we can. We can measure its strength with our bodies, watch its effects with our eyes, smell its fragrance through our nostrils, and hear its journey as it passes through tree branches and lifts the eaves of our homes. Most of us don’t stick our tongues out to taste it as it passes by, but you might try it sometime.

Because it is always available, I have begun to pay attention to wind while walking. The west wind visited me the other day, bringing with it the promise of autumn. I felt its breath of coolness against my skin even though the temperature of the air was well over 90 degrees. As I inhaled, the air tasted and smelled faintly of dusty leaves and earthy soil. It was easy to see and hear the trees ruffling in the breeze, but that was not all I could hear. Beneath the quiet trembling of tree limbs, the wind offered me a whisper of advice: look to be happy.

I’ve been pondering this advice. It is not so much that the wind advised me to be happy. It clearly said “look” to be happy. If I expect happiness, I will seek it – I will look to find it around me. I can expect that if I desire happiness, I will find and experience happiness within myself. Even if there are some present circumstances in my life that I am not totally happy with, I can look within my being and find much to be happy and joyful about. Being happy is a proactive way of life.

When I quiet the monkey chatter in my head and connect to these ever-present spirits of nature, I realize my more complete oneness. The wind is always inside me filling my lungs, providing my cells with precious molecules of oxygen. My contribution is the carbon dioxide I exhale which the wind then carries to all the plants of the earth. They, in turn, sustain me with their nutrients when I ingest them. The wind even captures the molecules of water on my skin when I sweat and lifts them high into the atmosphere where they become clouds of rainwater. Those molecules carry an essence of me to share with the world.

The next time it rains, I am going to imagine I am being showered with happiness.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass

The presence of memory

September 1, 2010

It has only been two weeks since the Magic cat left and her absence still looms large in my days and nights. That little cat taught me a very significant lesson about being present: I need to pay attention to now because I am creating tomorrow’s memories.

At first, I thought it was an odd way to be present because it presumes there will be a tomorrow when all we really know is that we have the eternal present. There are these past presents, though, that come around to haunt me either with their sorrow or with their joy. With my 20/20 hindsight, I can clearly see and know how I could have been more present, how I could have responded differently.

If I get caught up in the woes of yesterday or the endless search to recreate my pleasures, I will miss the present opportunities. Given the cyclical nature of most people’s behaviors, there will likely be other events for me to practice a new and different response. Each time I practice a different response, I create a new memory that can support me in all my tomorrows. I can capture the essence of joy and imprint its feeling in my cells. The memory of joy helps balance the sorrows and losses that often fill me in the last moments of those I love.

Each present moment is a lesson. The studying and learning of life comes with the reflection of the memory. While we may not always have a choice over the events in our lives, we always have a choice on how we are going to apply the lesson we interpret from those events.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass