Educating the Heart

Many people today are thinking and writing about the way technology is changing our brain. At the same time, there is an explosion of research about the brain itself. One of the things that is becoming clear and clearer, at least for me, as I attempt to follow the understanding about the brain research that is coming out, is how connected the brain is to the heart. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, for example, explains the interaction between the heart and brain, and how emotions create hormones that effect our body’s well- being. When people learn to regulate their stress hormones, says Davidson, they experience better physical health, and have less working memory performance problems. Learning calm yourself, can help you improve your emotional well-being and cognition. The Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education is one place that is working toward “integration of the mind, body, and spirit.” Their motto is “Educate the Heart”.  People can learn to embody and practice social and emotional skills to help make the world a more compassionate place, as well as one that is fair or that runs efficiently.

One of the books I’m currently reading, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, the Conflict Between Word and Image, by Leonard Shlain, explores the thought-provoking theory that the written alphabet dramatically changed the brain, and that as written literacy increased, so did people’s intolerance for those different from themselves. Laws and civic institutions can benefit us in many ways, but as Shlain describes, they can also “become the instrument of tyranny.” Writing is a wonderful thing. It allows us to carry knowledge from one generation to the next, it gives us the opportunity to explore our thoughts, and express our imagination.  On the other hand, Shlain describes the enormous value of the irrational, “Archaic people considered irrationality coequal with reason…Laughter is irrational. Faith is irrational. Watching a sunset is an irrational act. There is no demonstrable “purpose” involved. The appreciation  of both art and beauty are irrational: logic cannot completely explain why a work of art is compelling; the experience is essentially ineffable…All acts of altruism are inherently irrational. Yet who among us would want to eliminate…(these) from our lives? Like irrationality itself, they contribute to the sumptuous, verrigated texture of the human condition.”

I would say that there is a kind of rationality to altruistic acts in that they bind our hearts to others and create a sense of belonging and community, nevertheless, I believe Shlain has a point. Not everything in our life has to be measured in rational terms, and in fact, those things most meaningful to us in our lives–our relationships to others–are not something we want to go around measuring constantly. It could kill the relationship.

Yesterday, as I was walking across the street, I looked up into the sky and noticed there were what appeared to be thousands of dragonflies swarming the air. Above them enormous clouds billowed up in an Everest height. Dark underneath and whiter on top, the clouds opened in the center into wide vistas and canyons of space. Birds–kites, pigeons, crows, swirled in the sea of sky. The world seemed to be virtually swimming in tremendous pool of energy and life. This kind of experience is rare and raw beauty, given as a gift–unmeasurable, and nearly indescribable. I had merely to look up and absorb it, as it lifted me out of myself into a moment of awe, connecting me with the vastness of the universe. Author, Fredrich Beuchner, tells how “ . . some moment happens in your life that you say yes right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen, laughing with somebody till the tears run down your cheeks, waking up to the first snow, being in bed with somebody you love… whether you thank God for such a moment or thank your lucky stars, it is a moment that is trying to open up your whole life. If you turn your back on such a moment and hurry along to business as usual, it may lose you the ball game. If you throw your arms around such a moment and hug it like crazy, it may save your soul.”

Moments of awe make me feel alive. Everything contains wonder, can become mysterious again–bigger, unknowable, if we have eyes to see it, if we allow ourselves to enter that place of being in our minds? The wide sky and swirling birds, your child sleeping in the room next door, your parents’ love touching you now–reaching from all the way back through the years of your childhood, your breath rhythmically persisting without ever having to be directed– all of these, and a thousand other experiences are examples tinged with wonder where we can allow ourselves to let go into an awareness of life’s great gift.

Encounters with death, too, can be moments to bring us back into an awareness of wonder. Steve Jobs explains in this short video, that knowing he was going to die was the best tool he encountered to enable him to realize what is truly important in life. “All external expectations–pride, fear of embarrassment and failure fall away in the face of death. There is no reason not to follow your heart,” says Jobs.

Dragonflies in many parts of the world are considered a symbol of change whose source is based in a deeper understanding and insight of life that comes from looking beyond the surface. All those dragonflies with their eyes that see 360 degrees swirling beneath the open window of sky, maybe it’s the universe’s way of saying, “Open your heart. Walk out a bit further into the unknown, the irrational, and dare to learn more of what it is you are here on earth for. Buechner in Now and Then, a Memoir of Vocation, says, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” This week, I want to consciously take moments in my day to look for wonder, and to open my heart to the world.


Beginnings and Endings

Beginnings are connected to endings, and endings to beginnings. Every time something is born, something else passes away. This past weekend, my husband Michael, and I spent our time moving to a new apartment. Our move was only one floor above, not a very big move, still it seems new and different. Since the move was so close-by, I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought about the move being much of a change other than wondering how we were going to manage to find the time to pack and then unpack with so little time left in India before we would be leaving for the summer. Nevertheless, as the opportunity to move opened and I carried box after box up the stairs, I found myself repeatedly thinking about how this phase of my life was ending–my time in the apartment with its idiosyncrasies of the toilet pipes that run and then stop running on their own, the particular scent of the rooms, the tree leaves grown thick over the window–all that was over!

One phase of my life was complete but another had begun. Sunday night we went to dinner with our friend Kamal, and her family, in celebration of her acceptance into the teaching program at a university in Calgary. To become a teacher is Kamal’s dream, and she is entering a new phase of her life as she sets off for college in a city and country unfamiliar to her now. It’s all so very exciting, but at the same time, a bit scary because of its unfamiliarity.

Since I’ve moved many times in my life, I’ve often wondered what it is like for people who stay in one location their whole lives, or for those who have rarely moved. What is it like to grow deep roots in one place? How might it change the way you see the world? Imagine having friends who have known you your whole life, who have seen you grow and change, who have watched as you developed new skills, and who were there to encourage you along the way! You would have friends you share a long history with, who know you well enough that you could sit with them in silent communion. That would be a rare gift. You would also know a landscape intimately–its myriad shades of sunlight and shadow. A good steward of the land, you would have taken care of it through all forms of weather and seasons. The land itself would your trusted friend.

That is one version of what it could be like to stay in one place your whole life. My life has not followed this path, though. Instead, I have repeatedly stepped into the unknown or semi-known. Doing this gets more challenging as you grow older and feel greater pressure to save up financial resources for the years when you will not work and yet need to go on paying for your living expenses. Adventures involve the unpredictable and the unexpected, and moving into unknown territory often is not easy, as you never feel fully settled in any one place. On the other hand, the advantage of moving frequently is that it has served as a bell that reminds me to repeatedly come back to the idea of how precious the time is in each place I live in or travel to. Often, I only have a brief time to be with old friends from my hometown each summer, or just a hand full of days with family members every few years, so those days and whatever they contain are dear.

Quite a number of years ago now I read Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines, a book that helped me see the value of life of a migratory life in a new way. Chatwin explains, “As a general rule of biology, migratory species are less ‘aggressive’ than sedentary ones.

There is one obvious reason why this should be so. The migration itself, like the pilgrimage, is the hard journey: a ‘leveller’ on which the ‘fit’ survive and stragglers fall by the wayside.”

Chatwin says our “real home is not a house, but the Road, and that life itself is a journey to be walked on foot.” This is a terrific promotion of the value of walking, and the view of life one gains through the pace a journey takes when on foot. I’m intrigued, though, by the notion of life itself being a pilgrimage, a hard journey.  If we can recognize that those walking beside us as fellow travelers, young, old, rich, poor, of different religions and different cultures, we can learn from each other and can better understand how to find our way.

Our “way” has something to do with understanding how these mundane things of our lives, like packing up our house and moving, or walking to work or standing in line at the cafeteria, are what life is. The every day events and conversations and how we carry them out, are what make the fabric of our lives. In the commonplace of our lives lies the journey itself. It is a pilgrimage where the inner journey meets the outer that occurs whether we leave home or stay in the same place our entire lives. One reason I continue to pick the transitory life is that it forces me to continue to think about the place where the inner and outer journeys meet and to make myself take note of how I am walking.

This time of year in the world of international schools, the environment I live and work in, many people are moving away, both students and teachers. Thirteen years spent in one place, perhaps, and then that someone is gone. Last weekend, as I sat in the room with a group of friends singing, I was looking at the faces of three people I will not see again here next year, Vicky and Ron and Deanna. They are such a natural part of my world here that it is very difficult to imagine them gone. Even though we speak of it, though we have going away parties, though we talk about their plans, and look forward to them enjoying their new experiments in living, my mind goes on affirming their presence. I suppose that is because they aren’t quite gone yet, and because I know we will still be in communication after they are gone. But as Vicky says, they are “history.” Their influence on my life will no longer be the way it was. Still, the influence of their presence on my life continues. I know I have quoted Buechner several times already on these postings, but Buechner says it well, “When you remember me, it means you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. I means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.”

Good-byes are a kind of death, it is true. There are always too many things going on when they occur, and we are never quite ready for them. But they are also a beginning. The Hindus demonstrate this understanding of the cycle of life and death in their god, Shiva, who is both the creator-destroyer. The Jewish scriptures of Ecclesiastes say, “There is a time and a place for everything under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die.” The Celts in ancient Ireland began their new year in winter. For Christians, Jesus’ death brings life. In the midst of death, life is being born. When you are carrying the weight of boxes up stairs for hours on end, it’s just plain hard. Your feet get tired and your back as well. But that’s the way new things get born– step by step you carry your load to the new location and set it down. Of course, it’s always very nice when someone can help you carry the weight. We are on this road together, we can do that no matter where we are. As fellow pilgrims say on the road to Santiago de Compostela, “Buen camino,” happy travels.


Seeing Wonder

For those living in the US or other places in the world within the temperate zone, it is spring, a time of flowering and vibrant green leaves emerging from winter’s dormancy. For us living here in Delhi, spring happened back in February. The earth now is about as dry and dusty as it will be all  year. Temperatures rise to over 100’s F/4o C, the air fills with a powdery dust so light that it hangs in the air for days without settling. It is the kind of weather that scratches the eyes and lungs and makes you long for the monsoon rains to come.

But the dust and dry air are only one reality. There are other worlds to know, whole worlds inside of this world. We walk by them, unaware, every day. Some people like Louie Schwartzberg, make it their life’s work to help us notice, to really look at the world around us so we can see its wonder.View his TED Talk on the hidden beauty of pollination and you can discover for yourself. Even house flies are beautiful, I realized, as I watched them hovering over flowers here in his film where a hummingbirds pivot through the air chasing an insect, monarchs and bees fill the heavens as if moving inside a surrealist’s dream, and bats plunge their heads into the rich  liquid red center of a flower.

We need people with hearts to see the world with eyes like Mr. Schwartzberg’s to help remind us of what Fredrich Buechner speaks of in Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

The world is full of beauty, even if I feel I can’t see it from my window. Do you, like me,  long to touch wonder? How will I make space in my life to look for beauty, for wonder today? That is a question I am asking myself this morning.


The Other Birthdays

Recently, Adrian Juric of Inner Landscapes hiking retreats, suggested that we celebrate the other birthdays of our lives, not just the one where we entered the world on a particular day. I love that idea. 10 weeks ago I had one of those other birthdays–the day I began to take Sundays off, purposely choosing not to work. It is changing my life. I am growing more aware of the value of limitations, and more aware of how hungry I am for the part of myself where I feel most alive–when I am writing, or creating, when I am walking about,  bicycling out into the world, or when I am swimming. In the world we live in, what we do, how much we do, who we know, where we’ve been–all those external measurements, count. When I write, I go home to myself.  I get to explore the interior world and try and make sense out of the dissonant, the world’s disturbing and beautiful complexity in all its wonder. I get to focus on being. This is central thing that keeps me writing. It is a way to slow down and explore what this life is that I am living, to ask questions of it, to go inside it and poke around, to play. A writing practice can be a way to  make a commitment to ourselves to honor and nurture who we are, what we most value. Fredrich Buechner says, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

Starting this blog is a writing birthday of sorts, but this blog is also a way to invite others along on this journey of writing as a spiritual practice and an exploration of the world. I look forward to the conversation.