Tag Archives: Life

Oratory Glory

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The Nature Cure

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Screen-addicted Americans are more stressed out and distracted than ever. And nope, there’s no app for that. But there is a radically simple remedy: get outside whenever you can. And when you can’t, research has found, just looking at images of nature will help you to perform significantly better on cognitive tests and feel better.

In our December issue, Florence Williams travels to the deep woods of Japan, where researchers are backing up the surprising theory that nature can lower your blood pressure, fight off depression, beat back stress—and even prevent cancer.

The Outside RX: Temper Your Screen Time

What happens to a mind in constant motion? That’s a question we seem intent on answering, one laptop and DVR at a time. In a now famous, years-long study of employees at the Boston Consulting Group, led by Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow, 26 percent of participants admitted to sleeping with their smartphones within reach.

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The Outside RX: Get Dirty

As hunter-gatherers and then settled farmers, humans touched, breathed, swallowed, and co-evolved with a broad range of microbes, says Graham Rook, professor emeritus of medical microbiology at University College London. These bugs—from gut flora and probiotics to bacteria and parasites—came to play an important role in regulating our immune system. They became, Rook says, our “old friends.”

The Outside RX: Go Blue

Greening our lives is a good start, but we need to blue them, too. New research suggests that water may be a key element in the natural world for psychological well-being. When researchers in Exeter, England, showed a group of adults a series of 120 photos of urban and natural scenes both with water (rivers, lakes, oceans) and without, the subjects greatly preferred the images with water, even if those scenes also showed buildings and streets.

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The Outside RX: Train Naked

These days, it’s the rare outdoor athlete who isn’t plugged into something: heart-rate monitor, iPod, power meter, GPS unit…. The assumption is that these gadgets improve our performance or experience or both. But there’s good reason to question that.

The Outside RX: Find Your Rhythm

Human sleep-wake cycles are set mostly by the sun. Light levels filtered through the retina send messages to the pineal gland, which pumps out or dials back on melatonin, the hormone associated with sleep regulation. Without sufficient exposure, melatonin levels are disordered, and our body’s innate rhythms are thrown out of whack.

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The Outside RX: Take Five—Minutes or Days

Five minutes is all that’s required to achieve the minimum effective dose of nature immersion to raise your spirits. So says Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at the University of Essex, who synthesized the results of nearly a dozen studies for a comprehensive 2010 review of nature’s effects on the body.

Free Medicine

In a 2011 study of 128 college runners, researchers found that “surrounding greenness” was an indicator of better athletic performance. Other studies have shown that exercising in nature results in less fatigue, reduced anxiety, less hostility, more positive thoughts, and an overall feeling of invigoration. Read more on how research supports the therapeutic benefits of playing outside.

Outside Magazine / Photo Gallery / Published: October 13, 2015

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In Passing

To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen, who play with their boats at sea – “cruising,” it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about.

“I’ve always wanted to sail to the South Seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of “security.” And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone.

What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense. And we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention from the sheer idiocy of the charade.

The years thunder by. The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.

Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?

Sterling Hayden // excerpt from autobiography Wanderer
[3.26.1916 – 5.23.1986]

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Who is Dependent on Welfare

It is time for a new social contract.

Momma Welfare Roll

Her arms semaphore fat triangles,
Pudgy hands bunched on layered hips
Where bones idle under years of fatback
And lima beans.
Her jowls shiver in accusation
Of crimes clichéd by
Repetition. Her children, strangers
To childhood’s toys, play
Best the games of darkened doorways,
Rooftop tag, and know the slick feel of
Other people’s property.

Too fat to whore,
Too mad to work,
Searches her dreams for the
Lucky sign and walks bare-handed
Into a den of bureaucrats for
Her portion.
‘They don’t give me welfare.
I take it.’

-Maya Angelou

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Tata

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You showed us all.

“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela // 18 July 1918 − 5 December 2013

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Mostly Love, Now

By Joel Lovell

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It’s long past graduation season, but we recently learned that George Saunders delivered the convocation speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013, and George was kind enough to send it our way and allow us to reprint it here. The speech touches on some of the moments in his life and larger themes (in his life and work) that George spoke about in the profile we ran back in January — the need for kindness and all the things working against our actually achieving it, the risk in focusing too much on “success,” the trouble with swimming in a river full of monkey feces.

The entire speech, graduation season or not, is well worth reading, and is included below.

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Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).

And I intend to respect that tradition.

Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?”  And they’ll tell you.  Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked.  Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.

So: What do I regret?  Being poor from time to time?  Not really.  Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?”  (And don’t even ASK what that entails.)  No.  I don’t regret that.  Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked?  And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months?  Not so much.  Do I regret the occasional humiliation?  Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl?  No.  I don’t even regret that.

But here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class.  In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.”  ELLEN was small, shy.  She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore.  When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing).  I could see this hurt her.  I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear.  After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth.  At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.”  And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then – they moved.  That was it.  No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that?  Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it?  Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her.  I never said an unkind word to her.  In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still.  It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope:  Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question:  What’s our problem?  Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian.  These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question:  How might we DO this?  How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.

So let me just say this.  There are ways.  You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter.  Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend;  establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.

One thing in our favor:  some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age.  It might be a simple matter of attrition:  as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really.  We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality.  We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be.  We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now).  Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving.  I think this is true.  The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love.  YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.   If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment.  You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit.  That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today.  One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.

Congratulations, by the way.

When young, we’re anxious – understandably – to find out if we’ve got what it takes.  Can we succeed?  Can we build a viable life for ourselves?  But you – in particular you, of this generation – may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition.  You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can….

And this is actually O.K.  If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers.  We have to do that, to be our best selves.

Still, accomplishment is unreliable.  “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up.  Speed it along.  Start right now.  There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness.  But there’s also a cure.  So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.  Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.  That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been.  Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s.  Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place.  Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been.  I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

Congratulations, Class of 2013.

I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.

 

The New York Times / Magazine / Published: July 31, 2013

 

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Bright Nights, Big Problems

Why we should turn off the lights and appreciate the dark.

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by Paul Bogard

We live immersed in artificial light.

Astronomers rate the darkness of our skies on a scale (the Bortle Scale) of 9 (brightest) to 1 (darkest). Most of us spend our lives in the radiance of levels 5 through 8, only rarely venturing into areas ranked 3 or darker. Because of the rapid growth of light pollution over recent decades, most Americans under 40 have never known real darkness. All over the globe our nights are growing brighter, and almost nowhere are they growing darker.

We are just beginning to learn the true cost of all this light. Studies increasingly link our overuse of light at night with health concerns such as sleep disorders, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Other studies report the damaging ecological consequences, the tremendous waste of energy, and even the decrease in safety and security. But the steady loss of darkness from our lives is not easily quantified, for like the similarly endangered qualities of solitude and quiet, the true value of darkness is often intangible.

Take a brilliantly starry sky. Since the beginning of time, a sky plush with stars was part of the common human experience. Everywhere on Earth, on most nights, our ancestors came face to face with the universe. This experience influenced their religious beliefs, mythologies, art—their very understanding of their place in creation. Today, because of light pollution, two-thirds of those in the United States and western Europe live where they cannot see the Milky Way, and 99 percent of us live under skies polluted by light.

For the tens of millions who live under a night sky showing 25 stars or fewer, it is nearly impossible to imagine a natural sky of some 2,500 individual stars backed by great swathes of uncountable billions. Our night sky continues to shape us, but now it is the absence of the universe around us that influences our religious beliefs, our myths, our impulse to create. We are being shaped by a diminished experience of darkness, and most of us don’t even know what we are missing.

Imagine the world without van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Chopin’s “Nocturnes,” Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Imagine the world without the astral myths of the Greeks and every other ancient and primitive civilization, without countless biblical stories that rely on darkness, without St. John of the Cross’s book Dark Night of the Soul. Imagine the world without the gathered inspiration of countless generations before us looking into the night sky and being filled with wonder, with questions, with desire to know and understand. Most of us have lost this opportunity to be awed at the sight, to feel similarly inspired—to create, to change our lives, to gain a greater understanding of our God.

Our Milky Way galaxy is home to several hundred billion stars, and the universe home to several hundred billion other galaxies. Because of light pollution we no longer have a nightly reminder of how small we are, nor of how large. A sky wiped clear of stars tempts us to inflate our importance, to imagine humanity as the center of all things. Face to face with the endless immensity of the universe, we have the chance to know humility. But we might also realize the true largeness of our living on this beautiful Earth, and realize that we have an enormous responsibility to care, that there is no other place to go, that home is here.

Night’s natural darkness can teach us about metaphorical darkness as well. Ancient cultures included in their hero myths an experience of the dark—the dark wood, the underworld—for to become fully human was to acknowledge darkness as part of life’s journey. It certainly is today—we often live in the darkness of not knowing, unable to see the future, with no crystal ball. Genuine faith isn’t about finding clarity, but rather living with doubt. Those who profess to have no doubt, to have all the answers, to believe theirs is the only truth—they ignore the reality of metaphorical darkness. All life on Earth evolved in both bright days and dark nights, and we need both for optimal health. This is as true for our spirit as for our body.

And what of beauty? “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread,” wrote John Muir, and darkness is rich with this intangible resource. Lighting designers in Paris understand that without darkness, there is no “city of light,” and work constantly to create their city’s atmospheric beauty by subtly mixing artificial light with darkness. And with night’s moonlit geographies, its scents of sage-infused desert rain and autumn fires, its pulsing cricket symphonies punctuated by a loon’s solo call on a northern lake, natural darkness offers endless beauties of its own.

Yet we live immersed in artificial light. Much of this lighting is wholly unnecessary, born of habit and lack of awareness. So let us become aware: Simply by shielding our existing lights we could significantly reduce their negative effects on our body, our mind, our soul. Artificial light at night is a miracle, a wonder, a quality that enriches our lives. But the same has always been true of darkness, and can be again.

National Geographic / Daily News / Environment / Published: July 19, 2013

 

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