“We are being trained to commodify our own impulses so that everything can be translated into a purchase.”
[preface: Full disclosure, I am a member of the REI coop. I’ve participated in Spartan races, and I’ve planned trips around athletic “adventures.” Yes, I am part of the problem. This blog post is directed to me, too.]
One source of consist restorative energy I’ve found has been nature. Even during my very limited days during recovery I would sit and watch the wind blow through the branches of trees through the window for 30 to 45 minutes and enjoy it like a movie. Better still was enjoying a meal and an audiobook outside. Usually breakfast but sometimes lunch as well. We have a covered, screened deck and it makes sitting and eating outside easy and enjoyable. I still do these activities, although the summer heat has made meals on the deck a bit less pleasurable but it’s worth it.
Taking a walk around the neighborhood or walking with my brother on the Swamp Rabbit Trail downtown have been restorative activities that take me away from screens and insert me back into life itself.
Nature is divine. Not in the sense that nature is magic. And not in a way that implies pantheism (God is nature). Rather, nature is divine in a panentheism way (the belief that God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it).
[Preface: I try to update this blog every Thursday morning or at the least by Thursday PM. I had family in town this week, which was great, but also pushed out this post a bit. It also took longer because it required a good bit of re-reading.]
“Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace. Where there is hatred…let me sow love, Where there is injury…pardon, Where there is doubt…faith, Where this is despair…hope, Where there is darkness…light, Where there is sadness…joy.”
Saint Francis of Assisi, plaque found in the lobby of Saint Francis Downtown hospital
“Blessed is he who expectedth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.”
“What you’re looking for is what you’re looking with.”
St. Francis of Assisi
My subject for this post is Saint Francis of Assisi. The hospital I was in is named “Saint Francis Downtown”, the hospital I got my alarming CT scan at is named “Saint Francis Eastside.” It’s all part of the Bon Secours (french for Good Heart) hospital system here in Upstate, South Carolina. It’s a Catholic health institution and it’s very common for me to overhear a Psalm or quick devotion read aloud over the PA system when I am in one of their facilities for an appointment or treatment. I thought it would be annoying but, surprisingly, it hasn’t been.
The only thing I knew about Saint Francis before this year was that he was the Dr. Doolittle of Catholic saints and that, for some reason, my class watched a 1961 live-action biography movie of him in 6th grade and we all laughed at his naked backside when he stepped out into nature sans clothes.
This year (before my hospitalization) I began to listen to podcasts with Fr. Richard Rohr as a guest. He is a Franciscan Friar in the Order of Friars Minor (OFM, Ordo Fratrum Minorum, or “Lesser Brothers”). I did not expect to be drawn to the teachings of an older, aged, Catholic leader but his emphasis on love over dogma immediately had me drawn to what he was saying and writing. In one of the podcasts he’s featured on, he mentioned that before he was even allowed to open the Bible for study he had to endure four years of philosophy teachings to ensure that he would be ready to read scriptures contextually. I could go on and on about him, and his books, but I also became very drawn to the namesake of his Order, Saint Francis, this lover of nature, champion of grace, and mercy.
Once I got back from the hospital I started my mornings by preparing a breakfast of a plate full of fruit and would eat it outside, one blueberry at a time, under our covered patio, while listening to the biography of Saint Francis of Assisi by G.K. Chesterton.
This blog is titled Enlightenment At Gunpoint: A Blog about Living in the Moment. This phrase, living in the moment, is commonly used interchangeably with phrases like living in the present, or being present, or mindfulness, or intentional living. What I want to focus on for this post is the present, which I think is so valuable I will rename this blog to Enlightenment At Gunpoint: A Blog about Living In the Present.
Our culture has a love/hate relationship with living in the present. In someways it embraces it, studies it, and encourages more of it. In other ways, it is actively undermining it nearly everywhere we look. My last entry talked about LEGOs and jigsaw puzzles and how those activities force you to live in the present. We do have an aspect of our culture that spreads being present propaganda: Go outside. Take a walk. Stop and smell the roses. Even with crowds of other people, our society loves moments of living in the present. I think it’s why, as Americans, we love sports so much. When that football player is twisting his body to make that incredible catch he is living in the present and nowhere else. It’s why we love movies. Two hours to stop thinking about anything except entertainment? Sure! But this infatuation with the present stops at greeting-card level introspection. We all have the wonder-destroyer (a phrase lifted from spiritual writer Rob Bell) always in our pockets– vibrating, giving us notifications, and demanding we scroll some more, even in the midst of an good meal with family or close friends. Now it seems every restaurant has multiple TVs mounted up, one found in every ceiling corner. Unless the restaurant is a sports bar, it should not have TVs in it. It takes us out of the present. It takes us away from our families we are dining with and the food we should be enjoying.
When I was in the hospital, one of the items I asked Paige to grab during an errand run was a LEGO set. Any set. It didn’t matter. The idea was focusing on a task and working to put something together and feel a sense of completion when it was all done.
She came back with a Star Wars set and I overestimated how much flat surface real estate I would have in a hospital room. I didn’t end up doing the set until I returned home but the upside was that my daughter and son helped me piece it all together.
Someone asked me why, as an adult, I was so into LEGOs. It’s therapy for me. How many projects can we undertake and then completely finish with something fun to see, hold, and touch in 2-4 hours? (Depends on the LEGO set, of course. Mina and I worked on the Parisian Cafe during nights for a couple of weeks before it was finished.)
I am so excited to be sharing this with you all. I’ve been sitting on this book for a while, just waiting for this post to gleefully shout from the mountain tops about how wonderful it is.
Today I’m writing about the book Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey. I took this book in through audio-book form, read by the author. It’s a short audiobook (a little over 4 hours) and A.J. Jacobs’s voice is very…distinct. Please keep in mind, I wouldn’t be writing about it if I didn’t love it.
Some background. A.J. Jacobs gets his book premises from wild ideas. He’s the guy that wrote The Year of Living Biblically (which I think had to have helped inspire A Year of Biblical Womanhood by the late Rachel Held Evans) in which he tries to follow every law in the Bible for a year in order to experience something profoundly spiritual. (He focuses deeply on Old Testament law and, spoiler alert, his profound spiritual experience ends up being a 10 second out-of-body experience during a dance with his toddler daughter. Well…what can you say? Mysticism is weird.) So, now back in his daily life, over dinner he says a form of grace and says thank you for the food they are about to consume. He thanks the farmers and all of the people who worked hard to make and provide their food. His young son points out, “Dad. They can’t hear you. Why don’t you say thank you to them so they can hear it?” Boom. Book idea.
As promised, here is the Will video. As far as sentimentality goes, this one ramps it up. To begin with, it’s a long song so there are more pictures. But overall it’s more brutal and unrelenting.
Credit to Phosphorescent’s Beautiful Boy from his C’est La Viealbum. By the way, Phosphorescent is an “Athens, GA’s-own” musician and this entire album is great; I strongly recommend it. Thank you to my church friend who introduced me to Phosphorescent while chatting over coffee sometime last year— this friend is my connection to new music and I’d be forever lost in a 90s music echo loop without him. Again, thank you to my friend who finally won the Apple versus PC debate— it only took a brain tumor for me to get over myself. Thanks also to my friend the excellent audio-visual engineer who also serves as my instant self-esteem booster whether I ask for it or not.
This was a project I had the idea for a while back, before the brain surgery, before the cancer diagnosis. I really wanted to make a music video featuring my kids. One for each kid that I really connected with and had a message I would want to say to them. The brain surgery and cancer diagnosis made the need for this project very urgent. I’ve been working on this since I got back from the hospital. There are two videos. One for Mina and one for Will. Next week will be Will’s.
Credit to Ben Fold’s Gracie from his Songs for Silverman album. Thank you to my friend who finally won the Apple versus PC debate after I realized iMovie was what stuff like this was made for. I bought a MacBook Pro and made these little videos. It was not difficult and I look forward to making more. Thanks also to my friend who is an excellent audio-visual engineer and helped me determine ideal timing and zooming and all of those things that a rookie like me has no clue about.
About a month before I was hospitalized, I was running up a mountain in 34 degree weather on a Saturday morning. 3.5 miles up and 3.5 miles down. I was not concerned about my finishing time— only finishing (Which I did. My time, if you’re curious, was 2 hours and 45 minutes.) In November of 2018, I completed my second Spartan Sprint race with my college friend Thomas. I liked challenging myself physically even though I had to work hard to be average. (I think it’s important for everyone to find something like this. It makes us grow, and humbles us at the same time.) I was mapping out the year in terms of training and when I could do Spartan Super and Beast races in order to make the list of Trifecta (completing all three Spartan races) in 2019, before I turned 40.
Then I had brain surgery. All of that disappeared in a series of 6 days. After the surgery I still wanted some activity. I could walk around the hospital floor for 1 or 2 laps, but that was all. I starting searching for “seated Tai Chi” videos on youtube. I quickly found David-Dorian Ross and starting practicing Tai Chi right there in my hospital bed. It felt liberating. There is also a certain dovetailing of Tai Chi into the deep meditation practices I was developing. Somehow this was all coming together.
Tai Chi Qigong is a slow moving art form of body movement and breathing. It focuses on the concept of “qi” (pronounced “chi”), the idea of an “animating power that permeates the universe and all living things.” (I understand this is a big buy. Either buy-in or move on.) There is emphasis on the breath (which I feel is critical) and slow movement. During my recovery I’ve been forced to do things slow. I keep finding more and more value in this. And now this form of light exercise celebrates slow movement. There is an ineffable grace to the unison of the breathing and movement through the Tai Chi forms. I have found great value in two particular seated Tai Chi videos (see Resources at the bottom). I have also started some standing Tai Chi but am going very slowly. This is a daily practice for me unless doctor appointments don’t allow me the time necessary.
I experimented with some videos outside of David-Dorian Ross but Paige will tell you how upset I was when some of these videos didn’t even mention breathing. Breathing is so important! If you have any interest in Tai Chi I heavily suggest you start by looking up some David-Dorian Ross videos on youtube and subscribe to his channel.
There is another development happening with Tai Chi that appeals to me. David-Dorian Ross was inactive for a period of months. He had a tumor in his lower jaw / neck that was removed. It sounded like this was a time of serious introspection for him. It was amazing to me hearing this after my brain tumor and surgery. But he has been working behind the scenes on a big development in Tai Chi. He has been working with the US Department of Veterans Affairs to find a way to provide free Tai Chi to veterans. Part of this is making sure that Tai Chi teachers received appropriate compensation for their teachings. The details are still developing but I think it’s all very exciting. And who knows? I could be a Tai Chi teacher in the near future.
I’ve been shocked that there is not a daily Tai Chi resource available. I am exploring the possibility of using Twitch (the video game streaming service) to live stream Tai Chi lessons or seated Tai Chi lesson daily. I’ll keep you updated on this. I want to share this with as many people as I can since it has helped me so much.
Lastly, I’d like to share this Tai Chi poem by the Chinese poet, Li Bai. I’ve tried to find the source for this but can’t. If anyone knows the title of the poem, or where it’s from please let me know (formatting is my own attempt at reproduction, apologies for any discrepancies with the original poem). David-Dorian Ross shares this poem in his introduction to the Daily Practice video series.
I take my body and breath, And I go to play beneath the trees and the mountains. We are always three, Counting the sky and my friend the nurturing Earth Happily, the sky does not judge me, And the Earth gives me lessons.
After class, students and teachers go their separate ways, But this sadness I do not know, When I go home, The Earth goes with me, And the sky follows me.
https://taijifit.net David-Dorian Ross’s Tai Chi page (includes information about the development of the Tai Chi for Veterans program)
T’ai Chi Daily Practice, 8-episode video series with David-Dorian Ross and Daisy Lee Garripoli. This took me a while to find. It’s the only “daily” Tai Chi video series I’ve been able to find and liked. So far it’s been a good foundation.
https://www.joshwaitzkin.com/josh Chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin (who the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer was based on) and his transition to mastering and competing in Tai Chi Chuan (a martial art form of Tai Chi). His book, The Art of Learning, is incredible and a great read even if you have little interest in Tai Chi. Buy it and devour it.
I want to talk about living in Deep Time. This is a term Richard Rohr uses a few times in his book Falling Upward. The idea of Deep Time is experiencing “the past, present, and future all at once.” It is the opposite of living in small time. As human beings living in the time we do, I would estimate that most of us look maybe 4-8 years into the future (possibly to do with election cycles?) and those of us that look back, look to a past that may or may not have existed 20-30 years ago.
But living in Deep Time encourages us to look out, at the very least, to the next generation and ideally much further than that. It also moves us to live in the exact present moment but to also live the past and future at the same time. It’s a paradox, yes, but learning (or unlearning) to be comfortable, even revel in, paradox is a crucial step toward finding our True Self (Rohr), Self 2 (Gallwey, more on this later), or enlightenment. I’m thinking about the time when I’m with my children and even when I’m very frustrated with them. I try to pause and consider this moment in the perspective of Deep Time. It’s difficult. I want to be present with them, but I also want to experience this time in the context of everything that has come before and everything that will come after. Sometimes taking a deep breath and taking a mental picture is all we can do before moving on to the next order of business in the nightly bedtime routine. Deep Time brings me peace in the face of possible health setbacks and challenges. “All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.” (Bonus points to anyone that can source that quote without google.)
One of my favorite loving-kindness meditations is:
May you be loved, May you be safe, May you be healthy, May you have peace.
I direct this meditation to Paige, Mina, and Will. I picture them in Deep Time. Part of it is a future I can only imagine, and part of it is a past that includes time before they were even born. This really helps my meditations feel like they are truly connecting to something.
“In deep time, everybody matters and has his or her influence, and is even somehow ‘present’ and not just past.”
Hello. Welcome to my blog, Enlightenment at Gunpoint. I should note that the name, Enlightenment at Gunpoint, comes from a chapter title found in a book by Richard Rohr (The Immortal Diamond), which is a fantastic read.
This name stuck out to me during my recent journey. It was the perfect encapsulation of not just what I am going through during my journey, but also what I would want for other people (well, I don’t want you to have to do anything at gunpoint, but the sense of urgency it conveys is critical). This blog will be about living in the moment. “Now”-ness, “oneness”, “mindfulness” “being present” will all be phrases that will be used over and over again. My experience has taught me how crucial this is, and I want everyone to be able to experience the joy of living a present, intentional life.
This blog is not my about journey through illness. For the narrative of my journey, from my brain tumor to my cancer diagnosis, please click on the “My Journey” tab. I am in humbled at your interest in my story and I am eager to share it, especially if it helps other people. I promise to keep this tab updated with results from my tests and various treatments. However, for my own well-being I would like this blog to focus more in my interests at the moment. Hopefully those will resonate with others and help people as well- sick or healthy.
To invoke a cliche, if this helps just one other person, then it’s worth it. My neurosurgeon invoked the same cliche to me in a follow-up appointment after my successful brain surgery and removal of the tumor.
So far, I am a survivor. Survival is good but to quote Richard Rohr:
“Merely to survive and preserve our life is a low-level instinct that we share with good little lizards, but it is not heroism in any classic sense. We were meant to thrive and not just survive. We are glad when someone survives, and that surely took some courage and effort. But what are you going to do with your now resurrected life? That is the heroic question.”