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Japanese Pilgrimage leading up to Earth Day, 2012

April 24, 2012

I returned earlier this week from the heart of rural, traditional Japan where I completed a 1,000-year old, 1,000-kilometer pilgrimage. When I started planning this circular pilgrimage of 88 temples in 2001, I had no idea it would take me so long to complete it –but I am so happy I did.

Coincidentally or not, 2012 is the hundredth anniversary of the gift of cherry trees from Japan to America, whose blossoms grace our capital every spring, and the first anniversary of the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima and Operation Tomodachi (Friendship) in which the US Armed Forces, for once, came to the rescue of the local population and the tattered remains of our national image.

This month brings us the global celebration of Earth Day, which is observed in more than 175 countries. In 1969, the first Proclamation of Earth Day was in San Francisco, the city of San Francis, the patron saint of ecology. The next year saw the first observation of Earth Day in San Francisco and other cities with the advent of spring in the northern hemisphere. While on the pilgrim’s path in Japan, I reflected on the importance of reverence for nature, the need to spend time in nature, and the fact we are part of nature.

We were brought up to think of nature as something we need to tame and exploit. As we are a part of this earth, we have come to realize over time that the only home we have is this one small planet. It does not need us, but we certainly need it and to take good care of it, one another, and ourselves. Step by step, I explored in my mind how we can make every day Earth day by reusing, reducing, recycling, rethinking, and reimagining… after all, good planets are hard to find.

I walked along the sacred path in silent meditation from Temples 66 to 88 on the island of Shikoku, taking photographs and making sound recordings, soaking up the beautiful landscape around me, and enjoying time alone with no connection with or reminder of the outside world (be it cell phone, music player, or computing device). I was traveling light, unwired, footloose and fancy free.

I lived in the moment, day by day. I was only concerned with getting from A to B, whatever delights I might or might not experience along the way, and the ever-changing weather. Every morning I got up at 6am, breakfasted, repacked my backpack, and determined where I was going to sleep that day. I would then ask my hostess to call my next port of call to secure lodging for that night. Typically, breakfast and dinner were served in my places of accommodation, so all I had to worry about was where to get my lunch and snacks.

There was something delightful about carrying everything I needed on my back, putting one foot in front of the other, and stopping whenever I wanted to. I walked slowly enough to be aware of the quiet but audible, the vague but visible subtleties of every day existence of each locale, stopping to reflect, to photograph, to record, or to simply be.

This was the fourth and final part of the pilgrimage. “Shi” as in Shikoku means four in Japanese as the island is made up of four provinces, so early on I decided to walk each province in a different season and year. After many years of research and planning, I was finally able to start this adventure in 2009. The experience of planning, experiencing and completing the circle was all well-worth doing – it was rewarding to dream big and live large.

In this age of the Superman Syndrome, where speed is valued over depth, noise over silence, and surface over substance, it is essential for Americans to slow down, disconnect with all things digital and social media, and reconnect with self and nature. Anything that leads to and is conducive to reflection, meditation, journaling, prayer, et cetera, such as a pilgrimage, a retreat, a quiet moment, become ever more important.

To walk along the path of eternity, to listen to the voices of the past, to enjoy the camaraderie of fellow pilgrims, to bask in the sun of tranquility deep in the countryside, and to simply be, is to be present to grace. To plan big and enjoy small things, to experience the kindness of strangers, to be open to what is and what might be, to follow in the footsteps of millions before and millions to come, unites us in the experience of what it is to be human: being alone but part of something much bigger. Time to get moving and be moved… the path is waiting but time waits for no one… not even Mother Nature.

PS Lyrics for the Earth Day Anthem set to Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” below:

Joyful joyful we adore our Earth in all its wonderment
Simple gifts of nature that all join into a paradise
Now we must resolve to protect her
Show her our love through out all time
With our gentle hand and touch
We make our home a newborn world
Now we must resolve to protect her
Show her our love through out all time
With our gentle hand and touch
We make our home a newborn world


“The Art of Happiness: A handbook for living” – A book review

December 10, 2011

“The Art of Happiness: A handbook for living” – A book review

The Dalai Lama (TDL) and American psychiatrist Howard Cutler wrote this book in 1998. It consists of five parts: The Purpose of Life, Human Warmth and Compassion, Transforming Suffering, Overcoming Obstacles, and Closing Reflections on Living a Spiritual Life.

This book is an attempt to summarize the Mahayana Buddhist approach to achieving happiness and compassion in ways that make these qualities accessible to a largely secular, Western audience. Dr. Cutler interviewed TDL over many months about his modern interpretations of this Mahayana approach. Howard Cutler simultaneously provides a Western framework for readers so we can grasp its teachings without too much knowledge of ancient Buddhist precepts and TDL’s interpretations. However, TDL is a savvy observer of most things Western, and comes close to bridging the gap between the two worlds with the exception of the lived experience of marriage and sexual relations. Dr. Cutler knows more than the average American as he studied Tibetan medicine. The book clearly forms many strong parallels between Tibetan Buddhist practice and wisdom, and Western scientific, medical, and psychotherapeutic findings around living the compassionate life.

According to TDL, the purpose of life is happiness. The big question is how to achieve it? It is not easy but possible. TDL’s basic beliefs are: the fundamental gentleness and goodness of all people; the value of compassion, kindness, and a sense of commonality among all beings, which is based on sound reasoning and direct experience, and being optimistic and realistic. He says whether we are religious or not, we all seek something better in life, which is happiness. This is based on training the “mind” in the Tibetan sense: intellect and feeling, heart and mind. This results in inner discipline and then a transformation of attitude, outlook, and approach to living.

TDL is asked what leads to happiness and to suffering? He recommends eliminating the factors that lead to suffering, and cultivating those that lead to happiness as our days are numbered. Happy people are more social, flexible, creative, and tolerant of life’s ups and downs, which can lead to openness, a willingness to reach out and help others.

Happiness is determined by more the state of one’s mind than external events. Feelings of contentment are strongly influenced by our tendency to compare. Our mental outlook is supreme in determining whether we live a happy life or not. Happiness is not simple, as it has many levels.

Peace of mind is rooted in affection and compassion, which in turn creates a high level of sensitivity and feeling. How does one achieve inner contentment? We have two choices: we can try to obtain everything we want, which is rarely possible at best, or, to want and appreciate what we have–also known as “enoughness.”

Another internal source of happiness, closely linked to a sense of contentment, is a sense of self-worth. This can be derived from relating to fellow humans as we are one, and that bond can become a source of consolation in the event that we lose everything.

The highest form of happiness is when we reach the stage of Liberation, at which there is no more suffering. That’s genuine, lasting happiness, which relates more to the mind and heart. Epicurus acknowledged the importance of common sense and moderation, recognizing over-indulgence can lead to pain, even disaster.

Once our basic needs are met, the message is clear: We have a mind, which is all we need to achieve complete happiness. The first step is learning; studying how to use our mind to seek happiness. We need to clearly identify different mental states and make a distinction as to whether they lead to happiness or not. Negative states of mind, such as hatred, jealousy, and anger, are harmful as they destroy our mental happiness. If we maintain a feeling of compassion, then something opens our inner door to communicating much more easily with others, and that feeling creates openness. We will find all humans are just like us, so we will be able to relate to them more easily and create a spirit of friendship. With that, there is more transparency; less fear, self-doubt and insecurity; and in turn, more trustworthiness.

Emotions are either positive or negative, and they can be categorized on the basis of whether they lead to ultimate happiness. Achieving genuine happiness requires a transformation in our outlook, our way of thinking. This is not simple and requires many different approaches. Change takes time. No matter what is our pursuit, it is all made easier through relentless training and practice; through this we can change and transform ourselves. Our brains are endlessly adaptable.

Education is important, as knowledge does not come naturally. We have to go through systematic training. Although human nature is basically compassionate and gentle, we must also develop a deep appreciation of that, and change how we perceive ourselves through understanding and learning. All this will impact how we interact with others and conduct daily life. The most important use of education and knowledge is to help us appreciate the importance of engaging our minds in more wholesome actions and with greater mental discipline. The proper use of our education is to create changes from within to develop a good heart.

We are made to seek happiness–love, affection, closeness and compassion are important to us. The underlying nature of humans is gentleness, not aggression. Compassion and affection is indispensable to daily life, which begins at birth with mother and child, as they are calming and good for our well being. Negative feelings of fear, frustration, agitation, and anger are mostly bad for our health. Conflicts are a result of human intellect, not human nature. Intelligence needs to be balanced with compassion; otherwise it can be destructive and disastrous.

When we combine a warm heart with education and knowledge, we can learn to develop respect for other’s rights and views. If human conflicts are created by human intelligence, it can also be used to resolve these conflicts. When intelligence and goodness are combined, all actions become constructive–we can learn to respect other’s views and rights. This can lead to a reconciliatory spirit that can be used to overcome aggression and resolve conflicts.

Leading scientists state we do not have an inherited tendency towards violence, as it is not part of human nature. The inclination to bond closely with others and to act for the welfare of all was developed long ago when we needed to become a part of a group in order to survive. This need is with us to this day. These scientists also discovered those who lack close ties tend to suffer from poor health, deep unhappiness and more stress. Reaching out to help others may be as basic to our nature as communicating.

One simple truth is woven through the discussions in this book: The purpose of our life is happiness. When life gets overwhelming, it is important to step back and remind ourselves of our overall purpose in life–what will make us truly happy in life. This can put our life into proper perspective and clears the way as to which direction to take. The cultivation of happiness in a systematic manner can profoundly transform the rest of our lives.

As life is short and unpredictable, it is crucial that we use our time wisely. We are alive with hope, even without a guarantee of our future. TDL believes the best use of our time is this: Serve other beings; if not, at least do no harm. That is the whole basis of his philosophy. He asks: What is truly valuable in life, and what gives meaning to our lives? We should set our priorities on the basis of the answers to those two questions.

The purpose of our life needs to be positive by developing fundamental positive human qualities–warmth, kindness, compassion. Then our life becomes meaningful and more powerful–happier. The art of happiness has many parts. It begins with developing an understanding of the best sources of happiness and creating our life priorities based on cultivation of those sources. It encompasses inner discipline, the gradual process of rooting out destructive mental states and replacing them with positive, constructive ones, such as kindness, tolerance and forgiveness. The final steps can lead to a full and satisfying life in spirituality.

TDL believes it is critical to appreciate our potential and recognize the importance of inner transformation. This is best accomplished through a process of mental development–a spiritual dimension in our life. There are two types of spirituality: Religious beliefs and mental development, which can be used 24 hours a day.

True spirituality is a mental attitude that we can practice at any time or place. We ground this practice by investigating the fundamental nature of reality and by contemplating impermanence, suffering, and the value of altruism and compassion.

TDL says this is basic spirituality, which is even more important than religion as we are all members of the human family, and we all need these basic spiritual values, everyday.

As The Spirit Moves

December 7, 2011

As The Spirit Moves

Drifting off the eastern coast of the Japanese mainland, the island of Shikoku is only sixty miles from the screaming skyscrapers of Osaka, but in all other ways, it’s a universe apart. Dense forest blankets the island’s mountains, shadowing tiled-roofed farmhouses and terraced rice paddies. Groves of citrus spill down steep hillsides. In weather-battered fishing villages clinging to the coast, old men continue to eke out an exacting existence from the depths.

Most visitors to Shikoku are pilgrims who come to experience the eighty-eight-temple circuit founded in the 800’s by Kobo Daishi, who brought Esoteric Buddhism from China to Japan. Pilgrims circle the one-thousand-mile course in hope of gaining inner peace and karmic merit. Few are religious; many are on a quest. Some leave their jobs and families to complete the two-month pilgrimage; others take a few days each year covering as much distance as possible stolen away from careers and commitments. This is Japan’s most famous pilgrimage, drawing seekers, young but mostly old, for over a thousand years.

The kindness and generosity of the local people is touching and always a delight. They’ve been supporting pilgrims for centuries as a way of earning karmic kudos. The pilgrims are everywhere, carrying wooden walking sticks, and dressed in traditional white clothing and sloping straw hats. I walk with those who are fleet of foot but pilgrims nowadays tour mostly by bus, and are often found posing for group photographs. In ancient temples along the path, their chanting blends with the scent of burning incense and drifts by on the breeze. What have they left behind them, I wonder, and what are they searching for?

Days alone leave me time for thinking. Realizations dawn slowly, the results of hours of uninterrupted walking meditation. While never a disciple, I, too, am searching. However, it’s not karma I hope to gain. Through my travels in old Japan, I’m searching for new horizons and challenges–both artistically and soulfully–in order to test my spirit. I want to rediscover myself: My boundaries, my strengths, and my weaknesses. It’s not the succeeding lifetimes that concern me; I want to fully experience the present and to discover new vistas, not only around me and thru my viewfinder, but within me as well.

The ancient spirit of Shikoku is the answer I seek. Amidst early-morning climbs up steep ravines past waterfalls, and sun-filled, late-afternoon strolls along winding paths through rice paddies, I find my stride and my camera is always by my side. Although I unplug from all things digital to reconnect with nature and myself, I digitally record my experiences as I am moved.

As I perambulate along the path to nowhere, my walking meditation, my moving trance, my spiritual radar pings places filled with possibility, a hint of the world beyond, a place that is neither here nor there, known by the Celts as ‘thin places’ where the veil between the two is thin. I sense a stirring of the soul, a quiet voice from deep down that suggests to me. It’s an invitation to slow down even more, to embody this spiritual stirring, to follow my insight to a special place, and to open my eyes wide. I stop and listen to my soul speak out: “Be aware!” I wake up to possibility–I see the spiritscape before me, sacred space, honoring all those who have gone before me and all those who have yet to come in the circle of life, through the seasons, in search of something deeply meaningful.

I focus through unfocus, much like Zen meditation. I dial in different levels of abstraction through my camera lens to see if I can see what my spirit sees. Sometimes I can see with my eyes and viewfinder what my insight sees, sometimes not. My insight, artistry and experienced eyes help me capture for a split second the scene before me and in me. I end up with a photograph, a digital file, millions of pixels, and infinity. By making the invisible visible and the intangible tangible, I create mandalas for mankind and worlds of serenity for womankind. I paint with my camera to create spiritscapes, as in Japan the spirit world is never far away in the Floating World.

One morning late in my pilgrimage, I slip outside my inn to watch the sun rise. Sitting on the roof, I look up past the mountains cloaked in mist and across the ocean toward the country that is my home. Soon I’ll return home to my family and friends. My worldview will have changed, and I’ll not go on making art or sense as before.

Shikoku has left me with a clarity of vision and a sense of self that I hadn’t known before. I’m a bridge connecting two worlds–one, the world of my birth, and another, more ancient world I’ve sought to understand and come to love. I may always feel this tension, this fear of losing what I was, but I’m compensated by learning other ways of being and seeing. I’ll never fit completely in either world, but I’ve the gift of being able to connect the two and find part of myself in each.

The sun begins to cut through the mist and glints off the tops of glistening peaks. As the early morning sunlight warms me, I realize what I’d thought as an adventure was really a search. The Japanese dawn begins to break in all its fiery brilliance, and I realize I, too, have been on a pilgrimage to my past as well as in the present and, like the pilgrims of Shikoku; I’ve found a hint of the peace and insight I’ve been looking for.

Second Act Organizing Principles

November 8, 2011

Second Act Organizing Principles

We recognize the universal longing for belonging, belovedness and meaning.

First, rough draft:

Co-Equals: We are all equal and we are inclusive. We welcome everyone who wants to join/in. We are respectful of others and ourselves.

Community: We honor the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. We are not alone–without each other we are nothing. We are born connected and resolve to reconnect. We work together to overcome isolation and build community.

Communication: We speak truthfully and from the heart. We practice active and attentive listening.

Communion: We eat together. We prefer potlucks where all contribute and share. We recognize the need for simple rituals and spirituality.

Circle: We gather in circles as they represent unity and wholeness–a safe space for all to share everything.

Collaboration: We work together to create meaningful growth experiences such as gatherings, retreats and pilgrimages.

Compassion: We care for one and another, and we are sensitive to each other’s wishes and needs.

Celebration: We celebrate the gift of life and togetherness in communion.

Conviviality: Alcoholic spirits are not needed. Our high spirits suffice. Even as we gather to talk about serious issues, we enjoy each other’s company. Fun and laughter are always important.

Clarity: By exploring the meaning of life and community, we work hard to make things clearer for others and ourselves.

Comfort: We go out of our way to make our gatherings a safe and comfortable place for people from all walks of life, both introverts and extroverts, of all colors and creeds.

Creativity: We recognize the value and importance of all forms of creativity, including the arts, living artfully and aging gracefully.

Change: We seek to become the change we wish to see in the world.

Charge: We strive to be accessible and affordable for all. We do not charge fees nor do we accept financial contributions.

Questions: We honor questions over answers, asking over answering.

Gifts: We are all gifted, and we all have something to offer. Our gifts take many forms, both obvious and obscure. We treasure our own and each other’s gifts.

Flexibility: We are a lean and keen learning organization. We are open to suggestion and are always eager to embrace positive changes, such as new meeting places, topics and formats.

Service: We believe in the importance of giving to and caring of others, as we are all one. We are here to help one and another. We strive to promote social justice. Giving is the gift that keeps on giving

Gratitude: We are grateful for the opportunity to be together and to count our blessings.

Intentional: We come together to make the world and ourselves a better, happier place. We support one another not only as we are but also as we wish to be. We focus on “human becomings” over human beings or doings.

Empowerment: We encourage participation on all levels and give voice to all from the full spectrum of the human race. We emphasize the power and importance of possibility and positivity. We all have power individually and collectively to make a lasting difference, starting today.

Participation: We value involvement, regularity and punctuality as they both lead to deeper connection and value for all.

Planning: We believe in the importance of planning and structure, as well as the need for flexibility and openness to change.

Reach: We aspire to spread the principles of Second Act locally, regionally, nationally and internationally: compassionate community without walls or borders. We act as a social incubator to help others form new groups and subgroups of belonging

Stories: Our stories are each other’s medicine.

Time: We are not in a hurry but we have no time to waste.

Responsibility and Accountability: We take responsibility for ourselves and we hold one and another accountable for our promises.

Charter of Compassionate Community

November 8, 2011

Charter of Compassionate Community

In order to be able to build community for midlifers, and transform society, and ourselves we must go:

1.    From me to we;

2.    From the personal to the universal; (including as many possible perspectives)

3.    From the psychological and sociological to the spiritual;

4.    From self-care to service to others;

5.    From answering questions to asking the right questions;

6.    From focusing on problems to possibility;

7.    From law and oversight to social fabric and chosen accountability;

8.    From the corporation and systems to associational life;

9.    From fear, fault, and self-interest to gifts, generosity, and abundance;

10.    From blind greed to deep gratitude;

11.    From mean to meaningful;

12.    And from denial to acceptance of loss, limitation, and death.

Do what you love, and love who you do it with.

February 27, 2011

From Me to We, Better Together:
Successfully navigating the middle passage.

WELCOME TO SECOND ACT, the place to plan your future, imagine your new career, find your next adventure, and people to share the journey with. Our mantra: “Everyone deserves the chance to chase new dreams.” Your first 40 or so years may have been successful. Your next 40 can be even better.

This community is especially geared toward “Baby Bloomers” and Gen Xers. The Bloomers started exceeding expectations the moment they were born, and Gen Xers joined them. Second Act is all about helping them continue to surprise the world–and themselves–with their talent, passion and potential. These are the generations that are eagerly ditching the midlife crisis in favor of a midlife opportunity.

REINVENTION, NOT RETIREMENT I’m excited to be the organizer of Second Act, which is an exploration of the limitless potential of men and women less interested in retirement than in reinvention. My own views about the possibilities of a Second Act were inspired by my journey and that of countless others.

I only discovered my Second Act a few years ago, and I’m so happy I did. However, it was a remarkably lonely process, and it would have been so much richer if I had a community of peers to share it with.

Two years ago, my eyes were truly opened while working on a book project about the need for and the endless possibilities that come with a Second Act. By interviewing hundreds of middle aged people, I heard amazing stories and met remarkable people.

BOLD BEFORE OLD For example, in the summer of 2008, the sports network naysayers shook their heads in disbelief when Dara Torres came out of retirement to qualify for the U.S. Olympic swim team at age 41, two years after having her first child. Torres, of course, answered the doubters when she brought home three silver medals from Beijing.

I watched the cynical pre-Olympics coverage of Torres with dismay and wondered: When did our youth-obsessed culture collectively decide that our expectation for greatness fade by 40? Or 50? Or even 80? Second Act is here to say it does not.

Second Act is here to share a wealth of opportunity to meet liked minded people, and be inspired by happy, successful “Second Acters,” ordinary people who reinvent themselves in extraordinary ways and show the rest of us how to do it, too.

Yes, we’re all growing older. Our goal for Second Act is to inspire you to keep growing and going strong at every age.

I hope you’ll join us often, and I invite you to share your ideas, inspirations, and your own Second Act stories with us.

Thank you.