Edward Abbey on Balance

June 25th, 2008 by cgergen

In response to the blog below, a good friend just sent the following quote from the environmental rabble-rouser Edward Abbey.  Something we would be well served to remember in our busy lives…

“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.” [from a speech that Ed Abbey first gave to environmentalists in Missoula, Montana in 1978, and in Colorado which was published in High Country News in the 1970s or early 1980s under the title “Joy, Shipmates, Joy.”] 

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A Dilemma for Our Time

June 24th, 2008 by gvanourek

My reading of Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, happened to coincide with the birth of my daughter Anya.  The timing was propitious.  What better time to contemplate life’s meaning and mystery than during the emergence of new life, a moment of indescribable wonder and awe? 

I found A New Earth to be a thoughtful synthesis of spiritual, religious, and philosophical teachings from the ages—from Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Taoism to transcendentalism and existentialism, even drawing upon psychology and science.  The book is one part spiritual manifesto and one part social commentary (though much better at the former), touching on not only God and immortality but also childhood, parenthood, television, the media, the environment, emotion, addiction, and more.  Tolle takes us on an expansive journey with the ancients and the moderns, from Lao Tzu, Siddhartha, and the Oracle of Delphi to Milan Kundera, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking. 

He explains that the central problem of our existence is the human ego.  Of course, this claim is not new.  According to Tolle, we fritter away far too much of our lives on superficial matters and concerns (looks, possessions, wealth, status), falling unknowingly into traps set by our ego.  Essentially, we lose ourselves in our mind—in the world of things, thoughts, and forms.  We play a role in work and life whose drama is all about feeding the insatiable needs of that ego, inflating itself at the detriment of others.  He writes, “The ego creates separation, and separation causes suffering,” essentially creating a “background of unhappiness in our lives.”  This has become the primary source of individual and collective dysfunction in the world, from individuals to nation-states and civilizations.  The essential problem is that the ego takes us away from Being, from being present in the endless moment of life in an enlightened state of consciousness.

For Tolle, spiritual transformation is not some distant abstraction requiring decades of worship or piety.  Rather, it is readily accessible to all who are willing to quiet the incessant stream of thinking and worry, who learn to be still and present in the moment—and open to the unfolding of Being.  I find in this a deep and abiding humility—the universal yearning to be connected to the universe, surely a calling higher than our wish to feel important or to be viewed as extraordinary.

Part of the wisdom here is the simplicity of intentionality: Am I doing what I am doing now for its own sake, or am I actually feeding my ego?  [Tolle writes, “You are present when what you are doing is not primarily a means to an end (money, prestige, wanting) but fulfilling in itself, when there is joy and aliveness in what you do.”]

This book raises a central, vexing dilemma for our time: how to reconcile the modern world we live in with all its complexities and demands with the timeless spiritual realm?  Indeed, how to live?  Tolle writes that “spiritual truth is diametrically opposed to the values of our contemporary culture and the way it conditions people to behave…. The collective disease of humanity is that people are so engrossed in what happens, so hypnotized by the world of fluctuating forms, so absorbed in the content of their lives, they have forgotten the essence, that which is beyond content, beyond form, beyond thought.  They are so consumed by time that they have forgotten eternity, which is their origin, their home, their destiny.”

He goes on: “Make sure your vision or goal is not an inflated image of yourself and therefore a concealed form of ego, such as wanting to become a movie star, a famous writer, or a wealthy entrepreneur.  Also make sure your goal is not focused on having this or that, such as a mansion by the sea, your own company, or ten million dollars in the bank…. Instead… see yourself inspiring countless people with your work and enriching their lives.  Feel how that activity enriches or deepens not only your life but that of countless others.”

It is evident that we have largely embraced the material realm of time, stress, pressure, ego, worry, and hyper-activity to the profound detriment of our spiritual health.  But the spiritual message of “making peace with the present moment,” of “not minding what happens,” and of nonresistance, nonjudgment, and nonattachment does elicit moral and practical dilemmas when we consider the problem of injustice, suffering, and evil in this world.  Tolle does talk about “right action” aligned with the universe’s deeper truths, but is the approach too passive?  Does it ask for too much acceptance?  How to account for the fact that great and good deeds have been accomplished through striving, through righteous indignation that takes suffering and injustice head on?  Is making peace with the present moment enough, or is there more to our inner transformation?

A New Earth makes the case that joy comes not from what we do but from a state of being.  While there is great wisdom in that, I wonder if the truth isn’t closer to a dynamic and mysterious dance between doing and being, where the two harmoniously infuse each other with both joy and meaning.




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18 Minutes

June 18th, 2008 by cgergen

18 minutes to give the talk of your life.  Go.  This is the challenge that speakers at the annual TED conference take on.  But these aren’t just your average speakers.  These are some of the most creative, path-breaking, life entrepreneurs on the planet ranging from Jane Goodall  to Bono to Stephen Hawking .  Started in 1984, the TED conference aspired to bring together leading thinkers from the three worlds of technology, entertainment, and design.  Today, the annual gathering attracts over 1,000 attendees to Long Beach, California who sign up well over a year in advance.  The format is relatively simple: over four days 50 people are invited to give their 18 minute talk.  


At TED’s main website one can check out over 200 of these talks under the theme of “ideas worth spreading.”  There are dozens worth watching but among my favorites are Amy Tan’s reflection on creativity and the powerful personal journey of Bill Strickland  rising up from inner-city Pittsburgh to create the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, one of the most successful and innovativejob placement programs in the country.  A reader of our blog also alerted us to Jill Taylor’s fascinating story.  A brain scientist who had a front row audience to her own stroke, Taylor lived to tell about it and is now driving her work in highly creative directions due to the enhanced activity of her right brain.


Let us know which ones are your favorites.  The only caution is that this is an addictive resource.  Though it may just be the inspiration to craft your own 18 minute story…

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June 13th, 2008 by cgergen

Almost five years ago, my wife and I “eloped” with ninety of our closest friends and family to a small island off the NE coast of Puerto Rico named Vieques.  It was a wonderful celebration of life and love as we said our vows beneath a pair of palm trees overlooking the crashing waves.


As life has charged ahead with the arrival two children (our daughter Maya is three and our son Liam was born just four months ago), a move to Seattle and back to DC, and new professional adventures – Vieques began to seem like a brilliant dream.  Until last week…


In the midst of a family vacation to Puerto Rico, my wife and I slipped away to Vieques with both children.   We were nervous to return.  What if things were different?  What if the reality spoiled the magic of our memories?  Ultimately, though, this is a special place that we didn’t want to recede further into history.  Rather it is a place we want to stay connected to, to share with our children, and, Inshallah, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


The ferry ride across from Fajardo was not an auspicious beginning.  The seas were rough and soon our daughter experienced her first bout of sea-sickness.  When we disembarked into the heat and dust of the island’s main town, Isabella Segunda, with two unhappy children we wondered what in the world we were thinking.  But then the memories started kicking in – there was the place we had first met Father Tomas, a Panamanian Priest committed to social justice who had married us.  There was the place we got our wedding certificate.  This tucked away island that had seemed so far away seemed to be welcoming us home again.


Within an hour of arriving, we were bouncing along familiar roads in a beat up rental jeep – delighting Maya with close encounters with the island’s ubiquitous stray horses who graze along the side of the roads.   Neeeeeeeeeighhhh she shouted into the air happily as we skirted on by.  Lunch was at Banana’s an old favorite watering hole overlooking the sea and we wandered down to say hello to a fellow who got us flowers for our wedding – and sold an ice cream to Maya.  Old friendships and new connections. 


We eventually made our way to the Inn on the Blue Horizon – the site of our wedding.  The ownership has changed but when we explained our visit, they welcomed us with open arms.   Maya ran ahead – running through the open-aired restaurant and bar, doing a quick tour of the dance floor where the island’s only band had us twirling until the wee hours, and then down the path towards the ocean where my radiant bride had walked arm and arm with her Dad.


The two palm trees beneath which we had exchanged home-made vows had now spawned their own children – two small palms dancing side by side in the breeze.  As my wife and I stood hand in hand (Maya now climbing down a dangerous cliff towards the water and Liam sweating in his carrier), it felt like we were where we needed to be.  Life has moved on – fast and furious.  But we remain rooted to the important things.  And by reconnecting to the past we were helping to renew for the future where the priorities are clear and the beauty of the world is in abundance.


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