Everyday kindness is the true antidote to senseless violence

My thoughts after the terrible Boston Bombings on Marathon Day, 2013.

There are many disheartening news, heart-wrenching stories about civilians getting killed, attacks on innocent people, senseless aggression.  The world, as seen through the lenses of what the news portrays, looks bleak.   Our sense of security proves to be just a creation in our head, quite illusory, and although we must do what we can through legislation to reduce violence and senseless killings, the more powerful antidote to this is to bring out of everyone what truly makes humanity special, our sense of love and compassion for each other.  There is true goodness in everyone, but it needs to be nurtured through our everyday interactions, and this is something that we each are responsible for.  Bullying, racism, discrimination, hatred… are actions that will make all of us weaker.  Were we to teach everyone to be kind and compassionate, rather than strive to follow a creed and seek power & influence, we would not need legislation to protect ourselves from each other.

We often think that parents are the ones responsible for educating their children and teaching them all these good values.  But, as part of society and a community, we are all somehow responsible for the impact we have in each other’s lives, be it through direct interaction or through ignoring what’s wrong. With over 7 billion people in this world, there will always be conflict, good & evil will always coexist, but as we allow for the good in people, the compassion, to flourish and continue spreading through small everyday actions, evil will remain controlled, and we will continue to live and make the most of this world.

Nothing can be taken for granted, so we should strive to make the most out of every single day we are gifted.  The following quote by the Dalai Lama gives me strength in weeks like this one, and reminds me that by doing good for others not only do I help improve the world, but I also do good to my own soul.

“Today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”
– H.H. The 14th Dahlai Lama

Impermanence, change, losses

Impermanence is, to me, what makes life thrilling and worth living.  Knowing that things constantly change means that there is a possibility that today will be a great day filled with wonder and great surprises.  And since things will change no matter what, we might as well use this to create opportunities for a brighter future and to improve everyone’s lives.  Impermanence is a great thing.  But, it is this impermanence that also brings ‘losses’ into our lives as it makes way for new things, and coping with these losses is perhaps the most difficult thing for me to do. 

There is a big part of me that is driven to understand the what, the how, the why and then to try to control it, try to make everything predictable, manageable, manipulable.  The engineer and consultant in me just wants to be able to design a future, cut out the painful parts, sprinkle in a little bit of more happiness each day, put it to production (an optimized production, of course) and then see it flawlessly come to life.  Yet life has a funny way of reminding me constantly that things will continue to change whether I like it or not, and that I should not think of the future as something known or predictable.  
The main problem I have is losing a strong connection with someone.  My feelings towards people change as our relationship evolves, or dissolves, without any conscious effort on my behalf.  Similarly, people’s opinions about me, and their feelings toward me, will inevitably change over time, for the better or worse.  Trying to somehow predict how someone will feel about me, or overly trying to make them think about me or feel about me in a certain way will only result in pain and a quicker deterioration in our relationship.
As people move on with their lives, either physically or emotionally, I must adjust to accept the reality of the moment.  I shall always cherish the bond we have or used to share and take this new reality as a potentially temporary situation that will in the future reverse.  Distance and time help clear up our thoughts and bring to life the true feelings we have, sometimes even bringing people back to your life with an even stronger connection.  But if that’s not the case, and the change is permanent, I must accept that new reality and be grateful for the great memories of what used to be.  

I must focus on the present moment and what life is bringing to it right now, and make the best of it.  I need to leave the things that are out of my control at ease, let them get sorted out, and trust that anything that is missing to complete a chapter in my life story will come at just the appropriate time and place.  I should now focus my attention on cultivating what is appropriate at this time.  One step at a time. 

Madness: When Starvation Isn’t Reason Enough to Give

I have been listening to the audiobook Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea for the past week or so.  North Korea has been to me, as to probably most of you, an intriguing black hole that is somehow inhabited.  What goes on in there I could only speculate, as many others, so I sought for insight through this book.  I did not know what I was enlisting for when I started.  As it turns out, the book itself highlight to me issues that are not only unique to North Korea, but to most countries.  I can only speak from my perspective of how I see things as someone living in the US, but what I have observed is what I write about below.

Just as in different parts of North Korea, we live in a world with a huge discrepancy in resources available to one country vs. others.  Just take a moment to appreciate what is happening at a global scale.  While in the United States and other developed countries we are focusing a great deal of effort into determining what the solution to an obesity crisis would be, there are still countries in which coming across a plate of food is a miracle, a rarity not to be afforded by many.  We’ve all heard about this.  Someone, at some point or another, has told each of us about the starving children and families, the communities plagued by insects and sickness they can’t control or fight, the mothers exposed to dangerous bacteria and germs due to a lack of access to clean water.  We have heard these things, yet we are relatively unmoved.  We look the other way and think that someone else, someone out there in the world, will think about such issues.  That somehow, rather than getting involved and contributing to the solution, we should just stay at home, watch the big game on TV, or simply have a nice night of prayer and calmness.  And while we do all of this, there’s a young child who’s hunger is tearing him appart with pain and suffering, and who’s mother is too weak to even fathom venturing into the wild and trying to find grass to feed anyone.  And even if the mother is able to go and find something “edible”, it would rarely reach the 500 calories a person is estimated to requires per day to survive.  I say survive, because with 500 calories in a day we would not be able to exert our bodies to any extent without fainting.

We observe this tragedy, or learn about it, and we move on.  We hear the statistics about the millions without food and we turn away.  We think that given the massive scale of the situation, there is nothing we can do to solve the entire problem.  And instead of contributing a little bit to the solution by contributing to feed 10 starving people, we decide that it’s better to look away and focus our attention on something else.  And that is where we need to stop and reflect.  This is when I want to give a shout out to everyone.  Because I can’t understand at what point we decided that it is OK to forget about human beings that are dying for no good reason, while we instead argue about whether I should pay an extra $10 in taxes or whether you are wrong for not believing that a particular religion is correct.  We create these “pressing matters”  in our heads of things we deeply care about, these games with society that we play each day of arguing and thinking we are better than others given our amazing reasoning skills and arguments, yet the humane part of us is buried deeper and deeper within us and we fail to see how much is not only hurting others, but ourselves.

I would argue that most of us are adjusting to an age of so much change and a hectic pace that we fail to take enough time to sit and reflect.  To realize that in our rush to do things, in our rush to accomplish what we think we should be accomplishing, we are missing the point of life, the point of being alive.  We want to have a life with purpose, yet we fail to see that if we can simply help one human being in need to survive and move on with their lives, that by itself is more admirable than sitting at home mindlessly watching a TV show of no real importance or contribution.  Isn’t that purpose enough for your life?  The notion of a superhero that can single-handedly bring a solution to the world problems has infested our minds and we need to let it go.  We need to realize that the outcome of anything in this world is only going to be the sum of the parts, the cumulative actions by all beings, and all we can do is to contribute in our own little way to make sure that our little contribution is adding to the improvement of the world, not simply keeping in neutral or take away from it.  We can continue to strive for more, but can’t overlook the importance of working harmoniously with others and make our contribution, as small as it may be, to fix the problem.

Although the book Nothing to Envy first spoke to me about an intriguing political system in North Korea, what the book truly highlighted to me is the madness of the world.  While some starve, the world I have observed is one in which we think that accumulating material items or focusing on ourselves will yield happiness.  Time is slowly proving to us that this is not true, we are growing wealthier, but not happier.  We are growing wealthier and, in general, getting stressed, overweight, rushing through life and never stopping to be in the moment and actually appreciate what is going on.  From what I understand, the people of North Korea need help, lots of help.  And they are not alone.  We may be limited in the aid we are able to give to North Korea given the tight control the government has, but that’s only assuming that things remain as they currently are.  There are always solutions, we just need to find them and contribute our own little piece.  And even if North Korea remains the way it currently is, what can we do to help the rest of the world in need?  We don’t need to deprive ourselves of all things to give it to others, that’s not what I’m suggesting, but let’s at least think about these problems and contribute our 2 cents to the solution of it.  That is how the world will become a better place.  When we share love, compassion, and our wealth, the need for division and war starts fading away and we end up with a happier world with less undue suffering.

It’s your turn to be that "someone" who makes a difference

Longing for something causes no harm, but the inability to turn that desire into action harms many.  When you come up with something you most definitely want to pursue, you may be at a loss at first, it may seem impossible.  However, seek to understand what you need to achieve this goal.  Do you need a mentor?  Do you need to gain a new set of skills?  Do you need to first learn about a new industry? If you think “someone else would have done it” or could do it better, you need to stop and realize that “someone else” is too busy minding their own business, and it is your turn to be that person that makes a difference in some area.  So find that drive and get moving.

Problems are only daunting when you don’t know what’s the next actionable item that will get you closer to your goal.  As such, always think, what is the very next step I need to take to get one step closer to my goal?  Once you have that figured out, just go ahead and take that one step.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
– Lao Tzu

Once the journey is over, you’ll look back and be glad you took that first single step, then the second, and the third.  But if you never take the first step, you’ll always wonder “what could have been if?”

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment,
but not seeking, not expecting,
is present, and can welcome all things.

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching


charity:water fundraising; Vipassana Meditation this holiday

Dear friends,

This holiday season I will be doing something very different (other than spending Christmas Day in Alabama.)  I will be (voluntarily) going to a 10-day Silent Meditation Course starting this Wednesday, Dec 28th. I will be there until January 8th, and of course I won’t be reachable during this entire time (no reading/writing/talking/etc. while I’m there).  If you’re curious, here’s a link with more information about the course.http://www.dhamma.org/en/code.shtml

Also, as a reminder, there is just about a billion people without access to clean water on this world. I am trying to raise just enough money to give access to clean water for just 15 of those people for 20 years. At $20 per peson, that’s only $300. Any donation is very appreciated! The link takes you to the donation page which has a truly great video we should all watch explaining “why water?” Watch it just for your own info, even if you can’t contribute at the moment! http://mycharitywater.org/p/campaign/?campaign_id=21927

Thank you and Happy Holidays to all!

10-day Silent Meditation Retreat (Vipassana Meditation)

How would you feel about having the opportunity to completely disconnect from the world as we know it for 10 days?  No e-mails, no news, no TV, no talking.  In fact, not even text messaging for that matter.  Imagine just giving yourself the opportunity to completely let go of the daily routine and the expectations you have for each day and simply meditate and be.  This has been an intriguing idea to me for years now, since a friend first mentioned it to me, and I am finally going on a 10-day meditation retreat to experience just that.

The Vipassana meditation center in Shelbourne, MA is 10 days free from noise.  No news bombarding your conscience.  No reading, no writing, no talking, maybe some snoring as that’s hard to control.

Be Busy, But Only With Purpose

There is a lot going on in our days, and we tend to put so much pressure in being better, doing things better, making a big difference, and more. This is something I often do, and then when all is said and done and I go to bed at night, oftentimes there is uneasiness. And then I go back to the fundamentals… I ask myself a few questions, which sometimes are harder to answer than others:

  1. Is what I’m doing something that makes me happy?
  2. Do the things that keep me “busy” matter to me?
  3. Am I making progress in the areas I care for?
  4. Will I be able to make better contributions to society through what I am doing or the skills I’m learning?

Sometimes the answer for some of these questions is… “uhmmm… maybe?” and that can be acceptable, but at least asking myself these questions helps me evaluate the true meaning of what is keeping me busy. Sometimes I am busy and flustered by things, and at the end of the day I realize… none of the things that kept me so busy truly mattered or made a different in my life, my happiness level.

“Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing”
Lao Tzu

Simply be present – it’s harder than we may think

After having a religious crisis sometime in my teenage years, I abandoned many aspects of my spiritual life.  I would want to keep everything logical, I wanted to know the truth about things and did not want to hear any ambiguous or “fluffy” answers.  Additionally, if I was right about something, I was self-righteous about it and could sometimes be slightly very obnoxious, too.

Obnoxious little Omar realized over time that one of his biggest mistakes was to ever think he was in possession of the absolute truth – that he could declare certain religious beliefs to be unimportant or silly, and those who refuted it as wrong or just trying to cling to unjustified beliefs.  Over time it became very clear that every opinion possessed by a single person was based on that person’s unique life to date, and that the fact that some followed Jesus’ teachings while others took comfort in following Buddha’s made no difference whatsoever as to the quality of thinking and the integrity these people had.  Similarly, I was no better or worse off than others simply because I was going through a religious meltdown and did not follow anyone’s teachings. I was simply letting life teach me new lessons as I went through my days.

Over the past year I have been spending more time simply sitting and trying to be present.  This is one of those silly things you get to do when you have nothing else better to do — or so I once thought.  I realize now that even though meditation, being ‘in the moment,’ and paying attention to my breathing were activities I used to only engage in every once in a while when I had plenty of time at my disposal, they have become much more important activities for me over time.  I now seek the nourishment that meditation provides.  I look for the joy of being fully in the moment appreciating my breath and the sounds around me.  I find it shocking at times to observe that the world around me that I may sometimes block out or ignore can feel so alive once I let go of the incessant chatter in my head and choose to simply be present, right here and right now.  A great way to reset during a boring meeting, or at a time in which you feel anger boiling up inside, is to simply take a few deep breaths and observe those breaths and nothing else for a few seconds.

We live in a world that is constantly changing, and we seek to achieve more and more, but we go around trying to do that without truly paying attention to what is happening in the moment.  We strive for a better tomorrow, yet in constantly doing so we miss the days that are passing by.  We fail to appreciate that today we are better off than we were yesterday and we should be happy and grateful about it.  We forget that sometimes is time to reset, take a breath and simply be — be in the moment and not thinking about what will happen next or what happened yesterday.  Just appreciate this very moment we call present.  One of the most ironic things I’ve seen is that we spend weeks planning a great event, looking forward to it and how wonderful it will be, but when we are in the midst of the actual event our thoughts are elsewhere – wondering when the next great event will take place, or worrying about how much better dressed others are.  Let’s not lose sight of our present — at the end of our lives we realize it is all we ever had and will ever have.

According to meditators and scientist, a simple 20-30 minutes in the morning is all we need to make a big difference in our lives by learning to be present and mindful.  That’s less than 2% of our day for us to sit, feel our breathing, let go of all thinking, and that way reset and keep going with our lives feeling more nourished and alive than ever before.  The peaceful feeling I have after simply taking out that time in the mornings is good enough to convince me to wake up earlier, stop the urge to start doing, and simply sit.

“Don’t just do something, sit there!”