Tuesday, December 31, 2013

There are things more important in life than meetings

Definitions are not enough

The meeting had ground to a halt yet again on the subject of which compound would offer least electrical resistance. The deep-hued rings under the scientists’ eyes reflected the long hours they had spent in pursuit of the enigma of super-conductivity, which had been the focus of their research over the past few months.Professor Wilkins, a scientist greatly renowned for his ruthless investigative methods into the secrets of physical chemistry, said, “I’m sure if we were able to increase the amount of bismuth in the oxide compound we would get closer to the desired results. Just imagine what zero electrical resistance would bring us - super-fast chips, super-cheap electro-magnets… The possibilities are endless.” His face took on a far-away look as he thought about all the ways in which their research, if it succeeded, could transform so many areas of everyday life.“I personally am inclined toward the strontium. In any case, how far have we reached?” his colleague, Dr Smith, interrupted.The professor, pulled out of his reverie, smiled. “We have gotten within 23 degrees of absolute freezing and . . .”Suddenly, the door to the meeting room swung open as one of the lab assistants burst through, a cordless phone in hand. “Professor, there’s a call for you.”Professor Wilkins couldn’t hide his irritation. “Didn’t I tell you not to disturb us!”“It’s urgent, sir. It’s your wife.”Gruffly, the professor picked up the phone. “How many times have I told you not to call me here? What is it?”“Something terrible has happened,” his wife sobbed. “Our Johnny has been knocked down by a car in front of the house. I’ve laid him on the sofa and called an ambulance but I can’t feel his pulse.”He went pale. “I’ll be right there.” The phone slipped from his hand as he looked over at his team.“What’s the matter?” asked Dr Smith. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.  Professor? Professor?”The professor grasped the edge of the table and stumbled out of the room without even picking up his papers . . .

Interpreting the tale

While research into the laws of physics has led to a deeper understanding and harnessing of matter and energy, our lives and deeper hopes move at a different pace to our intellectual activity.From time to time we are jolted by events that defy our intellectual capacity. When the unpredictable occurs, we require something beyond mere definition. We need inner power.Meditation helps us to retain balance in the face of the unexpected. In one moment we can be totally focused on and efficient in our professional capacities and, in the next, able to stay calm and concerned as we deal with whatever personal difficulties arise. The more able we are to focus and concentrate, the more able we are to avoid useless speculation and maintain enough patience to await the facts.

This is a short story I wrote in an anthology called 'Tales for Better Living'

Thursday, December 26, 2013

How to stay happy no matter what happens

Think of the last time you became upset about something trivial. You locked yourself out of your house and battered your fist vainly on the door. They announced that your plane would be delayed for three hours due to a mechanical failure and you missed an appointment. You changed to a shorter queue in the supermarket and the person at the cash register in front of you decided to pay his gas, electricity and water bills. The traffic was bad so you decided to take your favorite shortcut, only to find it much worse than the road you had been on. Our lives are populated by many such unforeseen events that come as challenges to sense of well being. We surrender our happiness to them for nothing. The only return for getting upset is a headache. If this becomes chronic we may possibly be candidates for a shorter life.
Once I was driving in Buenos Aires with a friend. When the traffic lights turned green, the car stalled and I took a few seconds to sort it out. Suddenly, I heard a taxi driver flying past on my right shouting the word 'mongólico' at me. He actually wasted his fury because, as I was still learning Spanish, I didn't understand the expression. My friend told me that he had just called me an imbecile. Later on, I made a quick calculation. If he was able to gain five seconds at every traffic light, at the end of the day, he would have earned around 10 minutes of 'extra' time. In my mind I created a caricature of a an anger-fed traffic-light terror shouting 'mongólico' to everyone who dared to impede his progress. Driving six days a week for 30 years and tearing off at every traffic light comes to about 2 months extra time! But how much shorter would his life be living in such a permanent state of anxiety?
Recently in a talk in Orlando I asked the audience if their lives were comfortable. On the highway from Tampa, I had seen an immense RV towing both a golf cart and a car - a perfect combination for the itinerant comfort-lover. The great majority said yes. Then I asked them if they were happy, no matter what happened. They said that they could remain more or less happy only until the next test came along like the ones above - a lost key, a delayed plane, a slow queue or a clogged up shortcut. These are only trivial tests. Imagine how we lose it when the tests are really important like our house burning down or a loved one diagnosed with malignant cancer. The fact is we need a bigger stock of understanding and spiritual power to get us through the chaos of each day.

The secrets that I have learned 

mainly through my connection to the teachings of the Brahma Kumaris, that have helped me over the years to deal with situations and remain happy:

1) Be a detached observer

This means to keep a broad view of whatever is going on. All events are part of an incredibly vast play, with scenes and scenery. Every single person has a role to play. I just have to concentrate on my role and play it to the best of my ability. Everyone is under the influence of their own past and present circumstances. People just really want to be happy and avoid sorrow if possible. They want to understand things and be understood. They want to love and to be loved. That's it. Let the show go on.

2) Happiness is in giving

The flow of happiness is one way, from the inside out. In a sense I cannot take happiness from others or things. I can only really give it. It's the sort of thing that in giving it actually increases. Therefore, I have to learn to activate it and find something or someone to direct it towards.

3) The other half of me is myself

The endless search for fulfilment through material objects and relationships comes to an end when we realise that we will never find ourselves in other people or in physical things. Someone else, no matter how great they are, or how poetic I am, can't jump into my soul and transform my feelings. Things and people can inspire me but what and how I feel, depends on me. Matter of course is something that satisfies the physical senses, but it cannot fit in the soul. The very search for fulfillment starts with an inner voice crying to be found. The famous other half of the orange is me!

4) I am responsible

I am responsible for my spiritual and emotional state. There are present and past influences of course, but I cannot say, "I am like this because of someone els or because I was ill-treated 20 years ago." Life is full of situations and tests, but unless I assume responsibility for my state of mind and spirit, I will always be at the mercy of them.

5) Sense stimulation is not happiness

The world provides an endless supply of sense stimulation. Tossed between movies, mp3s, video games and deliberating enticing advertisements, I can unthinkingly relinquish the simple things that surround me and be thrust into a world that is someone else's creation. I forget to be the author of my own.
No matter how beautiful the scene, how melodious the music or how tasty  the food, my sense organs are not the deeper me nor do they feed the deepest of all desires - to understand life and my real role in it.

6) Don't create and sustain unreal expectations

Just as I have my limitations, everyone else also has. It is unreal to expect someone to be constantly loveful, respectful and honest with me, when I am often not able to do this for myself. I cannot use someone else's respect to compensate for my own lack of self-respect. If I feel someone has betrayed me it's because I betrayed myself first. It's like betting on a horse-race. My horse didn't win. I just tear up the ticket and carry on.

7) Happiness has the same size as my potential for good

All of us has a vocation for serving others. If I can the world of needs and the needy beyond my own ego, I can begin the work of liberating what is potentially good in me from the prison of my ignorance. Being truly generous and gracious with others, no matter how they behave, is the beginning of being able to help them. Helping others to be happier than they have been able to, is the greatest charity. My potential for serving others and my possible happiness, have the same size.

8) Learn to be present

Happiness can only be experienced in the present. I can remember that I was happy yesterday, but I can't re-experience it now. If I am always looking backwards trying to extract happiness from the past or looking forward th the happiness that I may have this evening, or on the weekend, or when I am on vacation, the present opportunities slip away. If I go for a walk, let me appreciate the sky, the trees and the day. If I  am with other people, let me appreciate them as they are. Let me savor the food, enjoy the music, feel the breeze without depending on them. I will many new reasons to be happy in the simple things.

9) Meditate daily to increase the stock of understanding and spiritual power

Unhappiness is all about a lack of spiritual power. If I spend more money than I earn over a long period of time, I can become bankrupt. If I go on spending more spiritual power than I can replenish daily, then I become spiritually bankrupt. The trick therefore is to build up stock through the daily practice of meditation. If I can meditate well for 20-30 minutes first thing in the morning, for 2-3 minutes now and then during the day and another 20-30 minutes in the evening, my stock of spiritual power should be enough to get me through most situations. This power tends to accumulate as I learn to think better. When major hurdles appear there should be enough to pass over them also.
See the post on meditation practice on this same blog (Think less, think better - Learn to meditate).

Monday, December 9, 2013

The poetry of transformation (1)

I walked alone, marooned by thoughts, problems of straw clinging to me.
Hands clenched, the greater destination impeded.
I throw myself into the fire of love and see that only the straws are
The shell of stains melts and reveals the untouched self.
What is the sacrifice, if only the useless burns?
And its flames illuminate a straight path to wholeness.
What loss is there?
If my fortune ignites again
And its light breaks the power of ancient shadows enshrined on the altar of a blind mind.
In the mirror of knowledge, only truth is reflected worthily
Only the one who is free of burden has the lightness to see himself.

From my book in Portuguese: Reflexões para uma vida plena 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Think less, think better (3) - Understand the essence of things

There was a phase in my life that I worked as a perfumist. I learned that, just as flowers have a tiny percentage of essential oil, situations also have a small part of importance and a great amount of unnecessary details.
In the old days, in the south of France where lavender is cultivated, the local people would set up a distilling unit alongside the field of flowers and they make a simple distillation there itself. (These days the process is mechanized). The proportion of essential oil in lavender is about 0.05%, that is, 5 kilos of oil can be extracted from each ton of petals. Whoever has seen a ton of petals knows that would fill up a huge hall. It would be absurd for them to take cartloads of petals back to the town to extract the oil there. Since it is a quite stable substance, it was distilled in the field and refined later. The chaff was then used to fertilize future plantations. In the same way, instead of carrying forward the bulky chaff of insignificant details from the diverse situations that I pass through in life, I should learn to identify and retain the 0.05% of their meaningful essence. It's much lighter and easier to use!
Many times, that which is really important escapes me because I insist on carrying in mind the trivialities of the non-important. If I just check the last ten times that I became annoyed I will see that the agente provocateur was some trifling detail. Rage always tends to exaggerate.
There are three main effects in the person that has head full of chaff:
·      mental and intellectual overload
·      personal fragmentation
·      inner sense of weakness or lethargy
I should deeply understand these three thieves that strip me of my quality as a human being.
Continuing on with this perfumery analogy there is a situation of jasmine. The jasmine flower is very delicate and its esters are quite volatile. Its essence cannot be distilled at the side of the fields. Hand picked jasmine flowers are placed in special solvents which allow the so-called jasmine absolute to precipitate out. The solvents are then evaporated off. A more costly method called enfleurage is used in France. the petals are placed in a frame frame smeared with fat to absorb the odor of fresh jasmine flowers. The fat is then processed to obtain the jasmine absolute. In either case the price of a kilo of jasmine absolute, depending on the quality, can be up to US$5000. The characteristic aroma of jasmine is due to an ester called benzyl acetate, which makes up 65% of the oil. Benzyl acetate costs only a 2-3 dollars a kilo. Have a guess which one they use for cheap perfumes and incense!

In the same way, many situations look true but in fact they aren't. The pure essence has been substituted by something false. That's why we really need to work on our power of discernment so that after the situations have come and gone, I remain only with that which is true and neither chaff or falsehood weighs me down.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Think less, think better (2) - Sleep and think better = less tiredness

A survey conducted by the respected polling institute IBOPE, released on the 12/11/2013, revealed that 98% of Brazilians feel somewhat or very tired, mentally and physically. They interviewed 1,499 people, including men and women, from 18-65 years, living in Brazilian cities. For 70% of the respondents, the fast pace of everyday life and stress are the main reasons for this. I must admit that I have observed this same phenomena in many other countries.
Almost forty years ago, I learned something that brought a fundamental shift in my life. I realised that quality sleep is much more important than quantity. I trained myself to sleep 5 or 6 hours instead of 8, while actually feeling better. Since that time I have gained more than 3 years that I would otherwise have spent sleeping. I have used that extra time to do many constructive things such as writing this blog! I further understood that the quality of thoughts was the main source of tiredness,  that if I could think less and better, I would actually have more energy.
For example, I can work solidly for 12 hours joyfully putting the finishing touches to some creative physical work and not become as worn out as when I'm worried or moping around. I have definitely experienced that through the practice of meditation, I can diminish and even eliminate the wasteful thinking that induces fatigue.
As part of my own personal discipline, I started to get up very early to meditate and take benefit from what is called 'amrit vela' - the 'hours of nectar' in India. This is from 4am to 6am. At that time there is maximum silence in most places in the world. Before getting involved in the world of action, I set my inner state and affirm my intrinsic value. The following is the sort of determination I create in myself: "Whatever happens during the myriad events of the day, I will retain my equanimity. No one and nothing will take away what I am. I am basically a being of peace, love and contentment. People will be as they are.  I cannot change them. Situations will come as they come. I will not try to control them. Rather I will control my inner state and through that, influence them positively. Obstacles are opportunities to learn". By consciously practising this I discovered that I could pass through the scenes and scenery, observing when i had to and participating when I had to. I could separate the essential from the useless and thereby reduce the quantity of thoughts. The thing is not to develop methods of rest, but to learn how not to get so tired.
(Next blog: Think less, think better (Part 3))

Thursday, October 17, 2013

No one and nothing can take away our real value

Over the years, I must have talked to hundreds of people who wanted guidance to help them face some personal problem. In one way or another, we always ended up talking about self-respect. Especially in those cases where the person was feeling disheartened or incapable in the face of an obstacle, there always seemed an inability to recognize and sustain the sense of self-value.
Soon after launching the book, 'Human Values in the Workplace' I was invited to give a talk about it in the Brazilian Central Bank. As it was going to be televised to its units throughout the country, I went there the day before to make sure everything was fine. As I walked into the building in Brasilia, some attractive posters caught my attention. They had launched a campaign for people to treat banknotes with greater care. They informed me that they could save up to 15 million dollars a year if people didn't mishandle printed money. This gave me an idea about what I could do in my talk. That night I made a color photocopy of a 100 real note (about US$50).
The next day, after 20 minutes into the talk I pulled the note out of my pocket and said that I was feeling generous and would give it to anyone who raised their hand. About eight people put up their hands. Very ceremoniously I screwed it up and asked them if they still wanted it. They said of course they would. One of the organizers gave me a frantic look as if to say - What are you doing? What about the campaign? I indicated to her not to worry.
I then threw it onto the floor and stomped on it. Asked if they still wanted it, the people replied they did. Finally I picked it up and tore it in half. In the astonished silence, I offered both pieces to the first taker. As a staffer he joked, “I guess I could change it at the Central Bank”. There was a even greater amazement (and relief) when I announced that it was a fake note. With a glanced I calmed down the anxious organizer. I explained that I would never do such a thing with with a real note. I did it to show the foundation of self-respect and thereby, values-based behavior. In a way, we are like a note of real money. It doesn’t matter what the world does to us. It can screw us up. It can stomp on us. It can even tear us in half. Even so, our intrinsic value does not change.
Self-respect is about knowing and holding on to our own value. There are aspects of our foundational consciousness that do not change with the circumstances. It’s like a spiritual DNA. Even though we fluctuate with the changing scenes around us, certain deep qualities such as love, peace, happiness and truth are our internal ballast. They are part of us. No one and nothing can take them away. We lose them basically because we forget who we really are. When that happens, we also forget what is truly ours.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Think less, think better (1) - Learn to meditate

As we grow up we learn to speak, to count, to read and to write. A lot of trial and error and most of us get along reasonably. But no one ever taught us how to think - how to create the right type of thoughts and avoid useless, unproductive and even negative ones. Thinking just seems to happen as an endless stream. Whatever appears in the mind takes us with it, produces feelings and moods and may even distance us from reality.
Recently I was giving a talk to the executives of a regional airport authority in Brazil, all a little stressed out due to getting the airports ready for the 2014 World Cup. I asked the participants how would it be if they ran their airports in the same way they ran their minds. Everyone laughed, but it was a serious question. During the rush hours, the main domestic airport in Sao Paulo can reach a peak of a plane landing or taking off every two minutes. The mind is like an airport. Thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations and inspirations land and take off with an even faster speed. 
I made a quick calculation. If there are 1,440 minutes in a day, and to make it easy, we spend 440 those sleeping, that leaves 1,000 of wakefulness. If there is some mental activity even every two seconds this adds up to 30,000 'flights' a day. These fragments of consciousness swirl around in an often meaningless way, hampering our clarity and concentration. Bits and pieces of our thinking reduce our determination and productivity. In the same way that an airport has to have an air traffic controller to sequence the flights and avoid accidents, we need to learn how to think in a more ordered way. Raja Yoga meditation is a great way to do exactly this.
Using thoughts and not denying them or trying to go beyond them, we can literally train ourselves to think less, think better and achieve more. It's a step-by-step process:
1) Create an aim for your meditation. Think what you want to experience, for example, peace, love or spiritual power. Write down a few ideas connected with the experience that you want to have. These ideas will become the 'field of contemplation' in your meditation.
2) Become a detached observer. Look at the stream of thoughts like a passenger in a train looking at the scenes passing by the window. Don't try to fight the thoughts. Just look at them and remember that you are their creator. No one else has come into your head and is creating your thoughts. You are. If you try to stop thinking something it will get stronger. So, just let it come and go. Put your attention on the seat of consciousness, where you are actually thinking. Visualize a subtle seat behind the eyes, in the middle of the forehead and sit your thinking there.
3) Remember your aim. Let's say you had decided to experience your own spiritual power. Look at the ideas that you had written down. What is spiritual power connected with? Can my thoughts reach the Source of spiritual power? What does it feel like to recharge the inner batteries? If you were more powerful internally, how would you look like with relation to your work, relationships and the tasks that you have to do? In this way you create a 'field of contemplation' in which you begin to slow down your thinking and become more focused.
4) Gradually one of the ideas seems to become more important. If you had to become the essence of the aim of spiritual power, which of the thoughts that you are thinking is most connected with that? Focus on that one thought.
5) See yourself as a tiny point of conscious energy and gradually become the embodiment of the experience that this focused thought implies. As you go deeper into the experience you actually stop thinking. You are no longer intellectualising about what's happening. Stay there for some time, and gradually come back to the wariness of your surroundings.
If you can do this type of mental exercise on a regular basis you will definitely learn to think less, think better and achieve more with less effort.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The art of conversation

How many times are we able to have the conversation we really want to have -one that can clear all of the debris of misunderstanding and set the way to a clear future? To converse means to see something together with someone. If I see things very differently from them, communication can break down completely. Communicare in Latin literally means to share what is common. The art of meaningful conversation is based on being able to establish a common ground with the person I talk to, irrespective of his or her age, cultural, social or educational background. If I can't or don't make this effort, there is a real danger of the conversation becoming two monologues. This is especially important when the outcome is crucial or the topic difficult.
Over the years I have had the great fortune to visit almost 100 countries covering many cultures and traditions. I can definitely say that the differences between us are quite superficial. We have much more in common with each other then we imagine.
I have asked the question, 'what is important in a good relationship between two human beings?' to the most diverse audiences - scientists in Greece, saleswomen in Argentina, indigenous villagers in Bolivia, workers in India, monks in Korea. Invariably, they all replied what you, the reader, are probably thinking at the moment - respect, trust, honesty, empathy and so on. Mothers love and suffer with their children anywhere, in pretty much the same way. Taxi-drivers in Sydney, Istanbul or Madrid get angry the same way and probably for the same reasons. The words may be different but the gestures are the same. Both the president and the receptionist working in the same company want to be happy if they can, want to love and be loved if possible and seek to understand and be understood. After all, they are both human beings before they are the roles they play.
Underneath the skin colors, creeds, languages and preferences, we value and aspire in a similar way. I just have to stand back and see the common ground where I can meet others as they are without prejudice. Failing to do this leads to misunderstanding and conflict.
I especially have to understand that the image of the other person I carry in my mind is probably not them at all. I talk to 'my' them and they talk to 'their' me. And neither of us really converse with the real self behind the images. 
How many times can my vision see behind a mind that is different from mine, an intellect that works at another level, and a set of personality traits that have little to do with mine? How many times does the soul connect with the soul so that real common understanding can be shared? This is the challenge.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Choose to live

Recently, I was invited to the town of Santa Maria, in southern Brazil, by a group of concerned citizens and public officials to talk to them about the time we are living in. It was the place where 250 young people lost their lives in a fire at a nightclub in January, 2013.
It's very hard to forget the scenes of horror that were all over the press at the time, especially for families who lost loved ones. We know that life is hard, that tragedies happen - some preventable and others not. Buildings fall, ships sink, earthquakes and tsunamis destroy. In this case, it was a series of human errors, both before the event, as well as on the day of the disaster. The list of errors that contributed is long:
  • There was overcrowding that night.
  • The singer held up a flare on the stage.
  • The sparks hit the foam roof and started the fire.
  • The fire extinguisher at the side of the stage didn’t work.
  • The exits were too small to let so many people out.
  • Etc. etc.
As always, when such human disasters happen, we are left holding the pieces of a sad reality and the memories of what could have been. Despite the suffering, life goes on. Nevertheless, we owe it to those who perished – to extract the right lessons, both technical and human. We punish those who need to be punished. We mourn the lives lost. However, the greatest tribute to the beings who left their bodies in the fire is to learn all the lessons we can, to prevent similar disasters in the future. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee it will be so.
As always in such situations, we fall over ourselves looking for solutions. We follow Emerson’s phrase above to the letter. In this case, across the country, local governments mobilized to review permits for nightclubs and other indoor environments and to increase security. But hindsight and its lessons only serve us if they form the basis of a new and more comprehensive foresight, based on more solid choices. No point in getting into unreal verb tense - "if we only had or had not done something, we could have done such-and-such." It happened. Let’s move forward, but with more awareness.
In the lecture, I remembered the beginning of the classic by Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, about the time of the French Revolution in which London and Paris were contrasted:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…"
This phrase shows the choices we have in all ages, and more especially this present one.
It is crucial to learn to identify the lifestyle choices that we have between the best and worst and to develop the power to discern which is the basis of making the right choices. Inner power comes from the practice of meditation and personal reflection, which help us to have less and better thoughts.
Someone who tries to see the world only through the eye of their own selfish interests, ends up seeing the world not as it is, but as the ego says it is. If we open our perspective , we naturally see more. If we see more, we understand more and choose better.
In a year like the one we have had until now, I can’t think of a greater gift for anyone of any age than to have the power of discernment. We are bombarded 24 hours a day with verbal, visual and written information. A human being who lives in a big city today learns more in one day than someone at the time of the French Revolution learned in his whole life. There is a continuous buffet of offerings for our senses. With so many varieties of products, services, courses and forms of entertainment it is hard to know what we want and to navigate well in a changing sea of ​​truths and falsehoods.
The power to discern is the ability to see the difference between two or more objects or situations. It is an important compass in these troubled times. It becomes one of the most powerful weapons for success, not only in our personal lives, but also in our professional ones.
Finally, if we have the power to discern, we can choose how, where and with whom we celebrate life.
Sydney Carton, the hero of 'A Tale of Two Cities', having traded places with a friend to die at the guillotine, says just before the axe falls: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” 
Until the last minute, we choose our way.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The real basis of happiness

He looked admiringly at his newly acquired collection of bossa-nova CD’s. Somehow, the rhythm and unusual chords that characterize this form of popular Brazilian music had grown on him since his visit to Rio last year. He took out the Tom Jobim CD and put it on.
On his way to the veranda, he picked up his favourite, pineapple juice, crushed ice and mint, and moved out through the glass doors. For the hundredth time since he had bought the place, he drank in the sight. At 1000 meters, he was surrounded by sub-tropical rainforests. A string of deep-blue lagoons stretched out below him, some of them opening into the turquoise sea that was only five kilometres away. The sun was throwing a magical play of light on the whole magical scene.
“Your lasagne is ready, honey,” his wife called from the dining area. He had married her just a year ago. Though it was his third marriage, it seemed that finally he had found someone who he could share his life with. She made great lasagne.
“Bring it out. I see table is already set.”
“Coming up,” she said as she came rushing through with the steaming porcelain dish. She was flushed and that made her look even prettier. Maybe it was the pride in having made a great dish.
“Smells delicious. I'm feeling starved. Something about this mountain air makes me ravenous.”
A few minutes later, he was just about to put the first forkful of cheese, tomatoes and pasta into his mouth when the phone rang. Annoyed, he put down his fork and said, “I’ll get it. How come every time I sit down to eat the damn phone rings.”
He rushed to the phone. From the veranda, his wife could see him nodding and exclaiming.
When he came back in he was a white as a sheet. “What happened?” she asked. “You’ll feel better after you eat.”
He stumbled over the words. “I've lost my appetite. That was Mum’s doctor. The tests have just come back to him. She has a tumour in the liver. Malignant. It doesn't look good.”

Comment:  We set up our castles of illusion on the unrealistic premise that nothing can ever happen to tear them down. Sometimes, just bad news can make us oblivious to the favourites of our sense organs. We don’t hear the music, smell the air, see the sights or even taste the food. We are not aware even of the company around us. Something happens that we can’t understand. It doesn’t fit into our ideal world.

Real happiness isn’t based on the things around us but our understanding of them.

Short story from the book,"Reflexões para uma vida plena" by Ken O'Donnell , Editora Integrare, São Paulo (link)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Ego's ugly side

It’s 12:45pm. You only have another 15 minutes for lunch and then back to the office. You had to stop by at the supermarket to get a couple of items for the night's special celebration. The queue is long, even for those with 10 packages or less. You jump to a shorter line and for some reason it stops. You see the queue you just left is starting to move faster. Meanwhile, the guy in your line at the cash register starts to question the price of something. After a few minutes, it is sorted out and then he decides to put credit on his mobile. Another few minutes pass due to an error with his number. By now, you start to fume and make nasty comments to the person behind you. No result. You turn up the volume of your voice so that the girl at the cash register hears. Maybe you hope to make her feel guilty and get things moving. As you come closer, you see that the guy has a guide dog on a chain waiting patiently on the other side. You feel embarrassed and look for somewhere to hide.
Congratulations, your ego has just raised its ugliest side. You in fact, are the blind one.
From both Latin and Greek the word 'ego' just means 'I'. Even though the concept has been used by Freud as the mediator between instinctual urges (id) and reality, the more common use refers to a sense of self-identity or self-importance. Usually it is associated with arrogance or selfishness. The problem is not the ego itself, but how it is used. After all, 'I' am just 'I'. 'I' am not anyone else. 'I' can be the best or worst me. It all depends on how I see myself in relation to others and events. 
In the above example, because of the rush, the person in the story can only see his own needs and is totally unaware of the needs of the blind man in the queue. This myopic self sees the world as a function of itself. This limited ego is a sun and other people and things revolve around it. 
Through meditation practice and an understanding of some basic rules of the game of life, I can start to associate with a greater sense of self. I am a spiritual being. As such, I am a child of the source; we call God, Allah, Jehovah, Shiva or whatever.  I have a wider and deeper vision of the world. I see others in their own right and not as a function of my needs or desires. I see how the past impacts on the present in any scene and its future consequences. By being broader and deeper in my approach, I am emotionally more stable. Spiritual effort therefore is not to annul the ego but to really elevate the sense of self and see things as they are and not as I am. 
In the Jewish tradition, this ugly side of the ego is described as a giant standing at the crossroads threatening people with a huge axe. The impatient ones run from it or do what it wants. The observant ones notice that the giant doesn't have any feet and remain unconcerned with its threats.
Let's do a re-run of the previous scene:
It’s 12:45pm. You only have another 15 minutes for lunch and then back to the office. You had to stop by at the supermarket to get a couple of items for the night's special celebration. The queue is long even for those with 10 packages or less. You notice that the people in your queue really have very few items. You wait patiently your turn and things start to move. As you come closer to the cash register, you notice a guy with a guide dog trying to sort out the cost of something. You subtly empathize with him. It's your turn and you pay for your items. You still have 5 minutes to get back to your office around the corner. You feel good. Mission achieved.     

In essence, I just have to be the best me I can possibly be.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

You don’t need to be an expert to do something interesting

We live in a world that is over-specialised. Just take a look at the field of health care. There are specialists for every part of the body - eyes, ears, nose, face, bones, blood and so on. In the field of emotions, there are experts on phobias, manias, syndromes, relationships. The list is endless. Law has become so complex that even for simple things we need to consult a lawyer. I remember talking to the president of the Sao Paulo city council when I went to give a talk there a few years ago. He told me that his aim was to reduce the 11,000 municipal laws to 8,000 within a period of two years. Everything in our lives seems to be regulated, but in the chaos of Sao Paulo, things certainly don't seem to work in a regulated manner.
As we become experts on the different fragments of reality, we have probably lost sight of how it all fits together. Furthermore, we have come to rely more and more on those who are just specialists of fragments. In the poem The Rock (1934), T.S. Eliot expresses this very clearly:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; Knowledge of speech, but not of silence; Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word. All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance, All our ignorance brings us nearer to death, But nearness to death no nearer to GOD. Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

In the search for deeper meaning of the pieces of life's jigsaw puzzle, we are mostly intimidated by the way experts are valued in our society. Many believe that they need a diploma and years of experience before they do something important. This may be true in some cases. We certainly need to have studied surgery to perform it. Who would want someone representing them in a tricky legal matter who didn't have the necessary qualifications and experience? However, in terms of living and interacting with the world, the only qualifications we need are to be sensible, curious and determined.
Several years ago, I had an idea to create a DVD with visual meditation commentaries and only music in the background. There would be no words, thus making the project incredibly accessible. No words means no translations. As human beings, the greater part of our communication is connected with feelings and vibrations and the fact that we have common aspirations related to love, peace and happiness. Words are sometimes even superfluous. So I figured that by preparing some simple videos and making them available, people would become interested.
I am not an expert on graphic design or video production. In fact, I would consider myself to be just a dabbler in these areas. Unfazed by my lack of expertise, I prepared a demo and gave it to a friend in India who subsequently posted it on Youtube. Now, a few years later, that simple inspiration has been viewed 3,246,644 times (on the day of posting this blog). If you are interested click on this link.

Really, you don't need to be an expert to do something interesting and for the benefit of others. Also, don´t get lost in the fragments.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Things are only strong when they are used in their context

The squalling winds had settled down to a stiff breeze as the young boy alternately sauntered and skipped across the beach. Suddenly, a strangely shaped object whitened by the action of the elements attracted his attention. As thick as a man’s leg at one end, curved and tapering out almost to a point at the other, it came almost to his shoulder.

Laying it out in front of him with the care of newly born wonder, he picked up a nearby rock and started to pound it to see what it was made from. After fifteen minutes of profuse sweating and little headway its hardness defeated his efforts.
With a gleam of joy in his eyes he came to a definite decision. Picking it up and dragging it through the sand, he hauled it slowly up the rise to his home a few hundred metres away.
There, his father and elder brother were halfway through the building of a new brick fence to replace the wooden one that had been flattened by the worst storm in recent memory. Seeing his young son puffing and dragging a huge curved thing across the grass he cried,
“What do you have there?”
“I don’t know Dad, I found it on the beach. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Taking it in his hands and examining it from different angles his father stated simply,
“It’s part of the backbone of a whale. It must have been washed up on the beach during the storm. Why did you bring it here?
With innocent pride the boy announced his excellent idea,
“I thought you could use it in the fence. It’s so strong.”
“No doubt about its strength, son. Many fishing boats have felt the power behind a whale’s swishing tail. But it would be out of place in the fence. It just wouldn’t fit in with the bricks and mortar. Instead of helping it would probably make the structure weaker.”
Uncomprehending and with a forlorn cast of his head he turned to lug it back to the beach.
“Then you can’t use it?”
“No, son. In spite of its strength, it can only have curiosity value.”
Things really only have power and strength when used in their right context. If I have all the patience in the world, yet the situation requires determined action, my internal structure is weakened and therefore any protection it could have afforded me is lessened.
If I have unabated enthusiasm to act yet the circumstances necessitate perseverance, I’ll not be able to withstand the pressures they bring.

Meditation helps me to accumulate spiritual powers and virtues so that they are at my disposal when and where I choose to use them.

Short story from the book,"Reflexões para uma vida plena" by Ken O'Donnell , Editora Integrare, São Paulo (link)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The beginning of spirituality is the spirit... obviously

The following phrase from the French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, is a frontal challenge to materialistic thinking:
"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience."
If this is true - that our essential existence is as spirits or souls, then we are eternal, without beginning or end. This leads to a totally unconventional area of exploration. This is far beyond the popular idea that the physical universe came into existence (somehow) and that life appeared on it (somehow) and evolved (somehow) into its present forms. The soul seems to have no place in Darwinian thought. And if we are souls, what is the meaning of taking a body and passing through the human experience, especially considering the possibility of reincarnation? Both experiences have to be relevant - the spiritual and the human. At least we should be open to seeking the meaning to life's greatest puzzle - who am I and what am I doing here?
No one has seen a human soul through the eyes. To prove its existence using physical means and instruments has proved daunting. Very little real information has ever been available let alone proof. I remember reading about experiments in the late 19th century, in which researchers into these matters tried to catch the soul escaping from the body by putting a glass bottle over the forehead. They thought that the spirit was perhaps some gaseous being that could be captured and labeled - herein is the soul of the great so-and-so. The only real proof can only be in the laboratory of our lives.

If the above phrase from Chardin is true, then our deepest identity is as a spirit. Automatically this becomes the beginning, middle and end of spiritual endeavour. ‘End’, because what we call death would be just this spiritual, conscious energy leaving the confines of its physical vehicle, the body. Knowing ourselves deeply also becomes the door to meaningful relationships with others, the Divine and therefore to a life of greater freedom. Yet, it is such a basic and foundational concept that we often forget to preface what we do with this consciousness. One could even say that everything that happens in the world that forms around each one of us is a specific reflex of the extent to which we understand and accept ourselves. Those who come to this understanding get the chance to dive deeply into what moves and shapes reality. They move a few steps up on the ladder of self-progress.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Humility: the other face of self-respect

Being able to mold ourselves in any situation, from an internal state without ego, indicates an inner strength based on understanding and love. In fact, true humility is not possible without spiritual love. The thought ‘I did this. I'm good' can be the door through which many obstacles come. Ego is the seed of obstacles, is to count the virtues of self and the weaknesses of others. The thought 'I am an instrument of good to do good' can close that door forever.
Humility allows the existence of other people in the plenitude of their virtues or the emptiness of their weaknesses, without either jealousy for their strengths or judgement of their weaknesses.
Each individual is unique. The state of humility is shown by a tree with its branches so full of fruit that they almost touch the ground.
Humility does not mean being submissive because of lack of respect for yourself, but it means to be so sure of your own spiritual attainments that it costs nothing to bow. One can still be like a lion yet recognise the value of others and life. It is the other side of the coin of self-respect.
A truly humble person puts out the fire of the anger of others.

From the book ‘Peace Begins with You’ (Portuguese)' by Ken O'Donnell (link

Friday, August 23, 2013

True abundance

From an interview with Ken O'Donnell for the magazine Bons Flúidos, (Brazil) "Follow the Money Trail" F. Wilson D. Weigl / Milton Trajan.

Building a prosperous life is not just balancing earnings and expenses. The abundance of material goods, professional recognition, the control of monthly bills are deeply connected with values ​​such as generosity and detachment.
K: As in a reaction of cause and effect, when we set less selfish goals and direct our talents to providing well-being for others, we attract what is called luck or good fortune. This is nothing but a sign that the universe returns what we do for other human beings.

Does money brings happiness?
K: If this answer were yes, all millionaires would be immensely happy and the poor, who are the majority on the planet, unhappy. Associating money with happiness depends not on how much we have, but on how we use and how we relate to our resources. Of course, a person with modest means will have many concerns, such as paying bills and the schooling of their children, but a rich person needs to protect him/herself  behind walls, and pay for armored cars and  guards. From this point of view, a nomad living in a tent in the desert would be happier.

Purposes attracts wealth?
K: The higher our goals, the more the Universe contributes to our material achievement. Whoever pursues egotistic  goals will hardly get the cooperation of other egos. Rather, when we want to not only improve our financial situation but also that of a lot of other people, it mobilizes more energy for this purpose. For example, when I think about opening a business, beyond yielding money, it can employ other people. When we have a useful purpose that serves the world, the world always find a place for us.

K: Indian children play a cruel joke on mpnkeys. They put a glass with peanuts in front of the monkey. It tries to grab as many peanuts as possible. The poor animal fills its hand, but can’t pull it out of mouth of the glass. In its eagerness to eat the peanuts, and not wanting to drop them, it smashes the glass on the ground and cuts its hand badly. This analogy illustrates our need to monitor ambition to a healthy limit. Do we really need everything that we want? We're not wasting energy chasing after status symbols or something that we don’t lack in the slightest? This should be a constant reflection, otherwise we run the risk of injuring ourselves in our eagerness to get something at any cost, just like the monkey.

Masters or slaves to money?
K: In India there is an expression that shows the relationship between the human and material life: tan, man, dhan. In Hindi,  tan means body, man means mind and dhan, wealth. They are together like a coachman (man), a horse (tan) and cart (dhan). This rhyme teaches that, depending on how we focus our mental and physical energies, we can steer ourselves well on the road of life or, if we put the cart before the horse, be dominated by materialism. Real wealth is self-control.
Just as the driver has to drive the cart, we need to be constantly observant as to how our mind conducts our actions when the goal is of attaining wealth. The danger is to invert tan, man and dhan, when there is a danger of letting greed, attachment and thirst for consuming control our lives.

K: We need to know how to find true balance, a sense of security and sufficiency in ourselves, and not externally. If we place all of our expectations on an achievement or on material goods, or anything outside of our own inner resources, if it fails or runs out, we will lose our structure.
In the dictionary, the meaning of the verb to be attached is to be trapped or stuck to something or someone. But this is fairly futile, especially in today’s world. At this time of such rapid and drastic changes, we need to sustain ourselves on our own inner bases.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Happiness is the best expression of who you really are

To create and maintain a happy disposition, I need to know how to be positive. This doesn't mean walking with my head in the clouds thinking that everything is wonderful. I need to learn to keep equanimity in both good and bad situations. Ugliness doesn't make me ugly nor sorrow makes me sad. Successes don't inflate the ego nor does failure shake me. If it were so, life would continuing swinging between high high and low disappointments.
Transient peaks of joy, paid for by valleys of depression in the existential rollercoaster, only lead to wear and tear. Tiredness, boredom and loneliness are symptoms of an inability to extract happiness from the simple. Dissatisfaction is the fruit of not being able to make the best use of what I already have.
A few tips:
  • Observe your own and others' specialties and encourage them consciously.
  • Enjoy the moments when you're alone to access your own deep inner happiness.
  • Remember that success is a combination of enthusiasm and determination.
  • Don´t try to be someone you are not; be the best you, you can possibly be.
  • If you are fun, everything will also be. Be serious only when you really need to be.
Happiness is not a conquest but the expression of the deeper state of the being itself.

Source: "Reflexões para uma vida plena”, by Ken O’Donnell. Integrare Editora, Sao Paulo.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Links for Ken’s videos in English

Several friends have suggested that I put some links for talks I have given. Though most of the talks I have given are in Portuguese or Spanish, here are some recent ones in English:
1.      Transformational Leadership (Tel Aviv – Israel – 2013)

2.      Productive Leadership (Kobe – Japan – 2013)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Man versus Nature?

São Paulo - one of the biggest cities in the world is surrounded by rainforests!

It also seems incredible that more than eighty years after the implications of quantum physics shattered classical thinking, many still consider the universe of objects and people as a static, linear system made of small discrete blocks that can be observed and thus controlled in a perfectly predictable way. The basic flaw with this old paradigm is in imagining that by comprehending things we can impose order on them. The slightest earth tremor demolishes this illusion.
This type of anthropocentrism is one of the main reasons for our estrangement from Nature as it really is - vibrant, moving, alive and integrating, disintegrating and self-organizing continually. The divorce between the inner nature of the human being and Nature, considerably strengthened over the last three hundred years, has almost succeeded in destroying our planet – almost, but not quite.
An afternoon on a deserted beach, a sunset seen from a majestic mountain, a walk in a deliciously-smelling virgin forest – who has not felt a deep identification with beauty of nature at such times? To the disappointment of the inhabitants of the great metropolitan spreads, the weekend or the vacation finish too quickly and they are thrust back into their work-posts. From the traffic-jams or office windows they wistfully contemplate the Nature that for them only exists far from the noises and smells that surround them. They begin to count the days again until the next opportunity arises for them to ‘get back to the Nature’.
Nature is often seen romantically as a sort of utopia that contrasts with the dystopia of the many urban map-stainers we call cities and their frenzied materialism. The search for Rousseau's "noble savage" who lives harmoniously and selflessly with Nature, inspires environmental fundamentalists even today.
On the other side, the anthropocentric vision that unfortunately still operates, is that humans, being the main components of creation, have the right to explore Nature's resources ad infinitum, that were predestined to them by some divine decree. However, we cannot deny that others species have their place in the scheme of things. There are more microbes in a cubic centimetre of soil than there have been human beings in all of history!
Only recently, we have started to question these two extreme positions to find a point of balance between sustainability and development, which until now have lived in contradiction to each other. Businessmen, political, scientists, NGOs and common citizens ‘try’ to make a bridge between the preservation of the inherent beauty of our planet and the rational use of its resources. But, as some modern wit has said, “trying is often a lazy way of doing nothing".
The main difficulty is that the dialectics for both extremes of our obligations regarding nature are mistaken. It is not man against Nature or that he was always fighting with it and now has to get a new mind-set to 'save' it. Our bodies are made of the same elements – air, water and food supply each molecule. The cities are just Nature transformed – the stones that become cement, the trees that are converted into beams, the ancient forests that end up as petroleum and later as plastic. Therefore, Nature is not something that starts where the cities finish. It is in fact everything we can see, hear and touch.
It is worthwhile to reflect about the implications of quantum physics in our world vision. More than 80 years ago, it abandoned the division between the observer (typically a human being) and the observed (typically inanimate matter). Both form one whole. One influences the another. You could even say that they create each other symbiotically. This does not just refer to matter itself, but what we do with it and each other in the building of a society.
While we continue to see Nature and the problems that we have to solve as something separate from us, a passive subject like an unconscious patient on an operation table, we will not understand the depth of the interconnection and interdependence between us and our planet. It is an ancient marriage. The dance between observer and the observed, implies that the external problems in nature and in society are manifestations of the pollution and confusion that reign within us. They are inseparable.
From the book, O Espírito do líder, Editora Integrare, Sao Paulo, 2008
By Ken O’Donnell